Where You Place Your Attention Becomes Your Experience…

“When mindfulness embraces those we love, they bloom like flowers.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

“Humans love drama. We revel in the excitement of risk and conflict, competition and difficulty. We love to talk about what’s wrong. A time has arrived in human history where we must find that new trajectory that allows us to raise our children in ways that make happiness, confidence, inner peace, cooperation and greatness the exciting measure of our priorities…where these qualities hold more promise and are far more enticing than drama, conflict, competition and difficulty.” – Howard Glasser

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My practice of Hatha Yoga gifted me with the following insight: where you place your attention becomes your experience. My teacher would say it again and again, particularly in ‘challenging’ yoga asanas where most of us choose to perseverate on burning muscles, a feeling of fatigue, the desire to ‘get out’ or move positions (have you noticed how many times someone needs to go to the restroom during the most difficult moments in a practice?). Where you place your attention becomes your experience. Slowly over time I was able to notice all the beautiful things happening, even when I was uncomfortable or tired or about to lose my balance (or fall over for that matter while meeting my physical limits). Instead of focusing on the points of what might be labeled as ‘failure’ I practiced loving the moment: not ignoring the difficulty, but choosing to place my attention on the dimensions of my experience rooted in enjoyment rather than avoidance, frustration or ‘pain.’ My teacher always said “FEEL YOUR EARLOBE OR YOUR PINKY TOE!” – and it was always true. My earlobe or pinky toe were almost always perfectly blissful, quietly enjoying the ride…

I generally pride myself as being someone who takes the spiritual practice of yoga ‘off the mat and into life’ so to speak – which is why I was pleasantly astonished when I encountered a blind spot in my parenting: Where you place your attention becomes your experience, even with your children. For the better part of that past 18  months I have been yanking my attention to all the troubles between my two young boys: the grabbing of toys, the yelling in faces, the too rough wrestling matches, the whining and crying and mitigation of conflicts. I’ve been exhausted. I’ve been strung out. My nervous system has been taxed. I’ve been at a loss, arms thrown up in the air. How to engender peace? How to encourage kindness? Oh, and how to enjoy parenting? How to just maintain a baseline of sanity???

Howard Glasser’s All Children Flourishing fell into my life and like a lightbulb I realized I was digging my own hole into insanity and frustration by (low and behold) placing my attention on negativity in stead of positivity. How on earth could I have missed something so obvious? By placing my attention on the ‘negative’ behaviors in my household over and over again (and coming to expect these behaviors as standard fare) I was not only deepening my own experience of helplessness, sorrow and despair, but also fostering more negativity! As I read the book, I realized that the spiritual teaching of where you place your attention becomes your experience holds true (of course!) in a family system of behaviors, habits and energy exchanges as well.

Glasser’s insight on working with children (called the Nurtured Heart Approach) is straightforward: focus on positivity. It is about the “relentless pursuit and celebration of positivity” where we as parents can purposefully nurture successes and greatness. That is: place our attention over and over again on what our children are doing kindly, generously, carefully, bravely, patiently, thoughtfully and responsibly. Switching my perspective to place my attention over and over again on the smooth moments in the day, the kindness, the respect and the mindfulness is transforming my experience. Just like on the yoga mat: I can choose to focus on what can be identified as ‘problems’ or difficulty, or I can focus on what is naturally beautiful, life-giving, full of love, free of drama. These qualities of experience are ever-present, it is just that the gravitation to drama lures us, often unaware. The magnetism to conflict can be powerful. So how to transform? How to practice peace in my microcosm of life here at home?

First, switch the attention: soften the gaze in order to see the many quiet moments of sibling bonding, the gestures of kindness, the slow unfolding of cooperation and sharing, the shared giggle, the mischievous shared glances of solidarity while playing…And then: put energy there! Notice it outwardly! Help these moments grow by watering the seeds of kindness. The switch in perspective has made all the difference in my mental health – while also (hopefully) engendering more inner wealth and confidence in my children. Glasser’s practice involves not getting drawn into giving our children greater responses or more animation for ‘negative’ behaviors. It is about not rewarding ‘problems’ with our energy, response or relationship. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When mindfulness embraces those we love, they bloom like flowers.” When our own mindfulness practice and attention practice can shower positivity, positive reinforcement and loving words of encouragement on our children, we can play a role in fostering peace (inner and outer). It is a deep seeing, a looking beyond surface drama to the qualities of human greatness that reside in each heart. And, it takes great effort to live from this place. It takes great practice to choose to pay attention to the tender hearts of children (and all of us!) – the hurts that live behind and under the lashing out, the mindlessness, the fighting, the pettiness. 

The shift in attention has not made ‘problems’ or conflict go away. But it has softened my experience and helped me to see my oldest son with more tender, patient eyes. It has allowed me to live in a realm of more balance, where I can reside in greater appreciation for all the ‘basic goodness‘ taking root. Just like in a challenging yoga asana, this moment in life too presents all sides. There is pain, there is frustration, there is the need for balance and inner strength. There are physical and emotional limits confronted. There is connection. There is kindness. Then there is surrendering into what is arising, without discrimination or judgement. There is the unfolding practice of choosing to focus on Love – and choosing to see the background of basic goodness as the ground from which all things emerge.

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That Humbling Line Between Life and Death

My oldest son is slowly phasing out of his daytime nap. For 31/2 years I’ve relied on the daytime nap as a moment to rest and regroup (or clean, launder and generally take care of business!). Even with a second son, I’ve relied on the nap as a period of that which is at least quieter, less juggling, slower. Hence why when today’s nap once again didn’t manifest I needed fresh air and some literal new light on my disgruntled mood. I pulled open the curtains and opened the windows wide (even winter in Colorado still affords warm enough days to do this). The gesture was meant to mark 1.) a letting go of my attachment to “family rest time”/nap and 2.) a letting in of new energy, a shifting meant to help me move onwards in what was feeling like a long, tiring day.

I stepped out of the bedroom after scanning for choking hazards and walked briskly to open the other bedroom window down the hall. Not five seconds could have elapsed before I came back in to find my 3-year-old kneeling, full body, on the slender windowsill, looking pleased as punch, with nothing but a flimsy screen between himself and the potential of falling three stories to the sidewalk below. The moment was like a lightening bolt. In a flash I pull his 30 pounds off the sill and feel tears forming in my eyes as I beg him to never climb on a windowsill again. “But mama, if I fall wouldn’t you be able to catch me?” he says. “Mama, what happened?”

The gravity of the moment is not lost on me. I recognize in an instant that my whole life could have changed with one stride to open another window. Rowan could have fallen to his death. I could have jumped out after him, screaming. In an instant I feel clearly the tenuous line between normalcy and tragedy. A menial walk down the hallway ushers in a reminder of the fragility of human life. “These sorts of things happen all the time,” says my husband forlornly when I tell him. “That is how Eric Clapton’s son died…” he says. We shake our heads and let the reminder of our own absence of immunity settle in. The rest of the day is spent recalling all the stories of random, heart wrenching loss. The list goes on and on in my mind’s eye. How many times I’ve sighed a deep sigh of remorse at what seems like the cruelty of fate – feeling yet far away from tragic events as I live my careful orb. And still, no measure of carefulness, mindfulness, or vigilance can protect us entirely from what are the simple laws of gravity and mechanics. Rowan wanted to “climb something high up” and I wanted to let the glorious outside air in.

So really: what does this all boil down to? The moment was a humbling reminder that even when you are aware of potential risks, you are still not immune to the ever-present potential of loss. Parenting requires a type of vigilance and wakefulness that even precludes a quick exit from the room. How many times have we left our children to quickly do something in the spirit of habit or in the spirit of “getting something done?” Without a second thought we can be off and running, turning our backs for one split second, only to find this momentary spin has revealed our fundamental and profound vulnerability as human beings. We are so resilient and so fragile all at once. We are hard-wired for survival adaptations and so foolish all at once. We can be so mindful or careful and yet still be utterly at the mercy of the forces of life which steer us we know not where, regardless of how hard we try to be in “control.”

A wake-up call unlike no other: to see your child’s life flash before you, to grasp him from the thin line between danger and safety. A reminder that no matter how tired you are and how much you think you need a ‘break,’ the “normal” is actually Bliss. The “normal” is actually what is often unbearably missed after loss. The “ordinary” is a gift greater than we can often tune into, but are ever called to acknowledge. And today, I make a practice of leaning into the gift of this precious, ordinary, mind-boggling Life, remembering that everything can change in a single, fragile heartbeat.

A Feeling, Breathing Relationship to Mystery

As many of you know, I recently participated in a book group exploring themes of ‘conscious parenting.’  What, you might ask, does this mean?  There are so many solutions.  So many methods.  So many paths.  So many books on the subject.  A baseline from which to start: “Children must learn to live from a spiritual point of view…They must learn how to live ecstatically in the feeling of God (Divine Reality).  Children should enjoy a feeling, breathing relationship with the Mystery.” – Adi Da

Below are several insights on my continual path of translating spiritual practice and intention into parenting a toddler. For me, conscious transcends ‘mindful,’ ‘thoughtful,’and ‘well-educated,’ into the realm of questioning how I can raise a being who is attuned to subtlety, interested in spiritual growth, not bound by the ceaseless churnings of ego – and ultimately interested in living a life of service rooted in the experience of love.

As parents we have the opportunity to help cultivate this capacity for a direct feeling-intuition of the Divine Reality under all circumstances.  Whether you believe in a “God” or not, this is not the point.  The point is to raise children who will become happy, sensitive, responsible, sane and caring adults.  The point is to raise children who will not be addicted to suffering and selfishness, instead attracted to embody qualities of integrity and Grace.

The nuggets below were inspired by Adi Da’s books and serve as small portals for me in making daily parenting decisions.

  • Develop a Feeling Sensitivity.  How can I encourage Rowan to feel, full bodily, into his experience?  How can I encourage him to use all of his senses?  How can I bring him into a profound, felt relationship with his surroundings in the midst of so much cultural and literal noise?  How can I encourage a feeling-based experience of reality versus a material based experience?  In nature, we can use all of our senses.  We can touch, smell, listen.  We can talk about emotional states and the subtle nuances of rain, air, clouds, colors, distant sounds.  At 3am when he is awake and doesn’t want to sleep, we can sit quietly on the porch and register together the different texture of night compared to day.  We can say hello to the birds.
  • Develop A Sense of Self that is Greater than the Physical.  How can I help Rowan become responsible for his energy state or emotional state?  How can I teach him self-awareness and also attunement to others?  He is naturally sensitive to a baby’s cries – how can I encourage that sensitivity rather than distracting him from his discomfort?   Early on we often teach our children to look the other way, rather than sitting with them in understanding pain.  When we notice sensitivity, we can create teaching moments.  We can become more sensitive ourselves.
  • Foster Human Intimacy, Intimacy With Nature and Intimacy with Mystery.  Let these priorities serve as ballasts.  Prioritize relating to people and the natural world more so than relating to objects (toys).  Stay in relationship, always.  When reactivity or anxiety emerges, check in on the intimacy thread.  Make meaningful eye contact over and over again…Widen experience to include other species, and eventually a greater mystery of Life.  How can reverence and a sense of the Sacred imbue everything?
  • Learn to Relax Deeply.  We live in a world where nervous systems are taxed and the stressfully vital is revered as ‘normal.’  How can I teach Rowan to self-regulate amidst constant invitations to spin out into a type of cultural mania?  We can take deep breaths together.  We can slow down.  We can slow down again.
  • Feel Your Body!  We start the day saying hello to the body from head to toes.  I massage him.  When he is frantic, I remind him of his feet and belly.  When he is upset, I remind him to breathe.

We can begin by establishing and maintaining a sense of calmness, equanimity and sensitivity.  And, most importantly, we must continually ask ourselves whether we are embodying the lessons we wish to impart.  What does our state convey (more than our words)?  What parents can transcend creates space for children too to transcend.