I have been blessed with a flourishing mindfulness practice for many years. As a therapist providing mindfulness-based treatment, I was constantly reminded of how to access mindful presence, and prompted to walk my talk by doing so. It has served me well. Though mindfulness is explicitly not about seeking a certain state of mind, its practice creates a sense of ease and self-compassionate acceptance. Naturally, I entered into parenting with every intention to parent mindfully. Never has mindfulness been more important, and never has it been more of a challenge.
Mindfulness is the art of paying attention in the present moment without judgment. It offers us “a clear awareness of one’s inner and outer worlds, including thoughts, emotions, sensations, actions, or surroundings as they exist at any given moment” (Brown p213). By simply noticing what is, and being with it, we move out of the constant story telling and judging that defines typical thinking. Thoughts are just thoughts, we do not have to get caught up in believing them. Emotions are just emotions, if we observe them with compassion, they will pass. The point is not to feel “good” all of the time, but to be real with ourselves about what we are feeling. The outcome is greater presence – consciously choosing to be in this moment, rather than missing it as we focus on the future or the past. And greater acceptance – of circumstances beyond our control, and most importantly, of ourselves and our loved ones.
There is a growing body of evidence supporting the physical and emotional benefits of mindfulness, including an increasing array of neurological studies. For example, one study put people through an 8-week mindfulness training course. “Brain images revealed increases in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus – an area of the brain involved in learning, memory, and emotional control” in the meditation group versus the control group (NIH). In another study, those who scored themselves high on mindfulness scales were less reactive to pictures of threatening emotional stimuli. Their prefrontal cortex was more active, while the amygdala was less so: they were using the cortex to label the stimulus (“this is a picture of a car crash”), which helped to regulate the emotional reactivity of the amygdala (Brown p220). Many other studies have shown mindfulness to assist with repairing negative emotional states, increasing connection in relationships, and enabling more flexible, adaptive action – all through the process of integration.
Dan Siegel describes integration as “the linkage of differentiated elements” in which both the the differences and the connection are honored, like when a chorus sings in harmony. Neurologically, integration occurs when we are able to link our emotional, cognitive and sensory processing, along with our physiological regulation, so that the infinitely complex parts of the brain are dancing together as a well-functioning whole. Separate areas of the brain perform their different functions, while long axon fibers link them together. Certain regions play primary roles in integrating brain activity, with “particularly extensive input and output pathways linking widely distributed areas of the brain.” Among them are the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex mentioned above (Siegel, Developing p19). When we are mindful, we subjectively experience this integration as a clear and compassionate awareness of our thoughts and feelings, “the observing self (being) open and receptive to the experiencing self” (Siegel, Developing p 45).
Fortunately, one does not have to climb a mountain and learn to meditate to practice mindfulness. The best way to access mindful presence in daily life is by taking deep breaths. Breathing allows us to use the rhythms of our bodies to regulate, while pausing to notice what we are thinking and feeling in the moment. Do we want to be thinking in this way? Or can we choose to shift where we focus our attention? If the emotions feel overwhelming, we can ground ourselves by bringing our attention to the bottoms of our feet or to our navel as we breathe. Or, we can choose to pay attention to neutral or positive things around us, like the sound of a bird chirping, or the smile of our child. If nothing else, we can use the space of a breath to notice that we are currently not being mindful. This awareness alone goes a long way.
Which is great to know, because it is extraordinarily challenging to remain mindfully present while parenting. To begin with, our children elicit our most hard-to-integrate emotions. We are so attached to the outcome of their experience, that it is very easy to get caught up in fear about the future, guilt about the past, or anger in the present. And they trigger emotional reactions to our own childhoods, which are very difficult to manage because they are intense, deep, and often unconscious. In addition, the very routines that are so precious to our developing children, the “small repeated exchanges that take place between parent and child (that) form the basis for the most fundamental lessons of emotional life” (Kabat-Zinn p67), can easily feel like rote, dull repetition to the adult mind. Without something novel to catch our interest, the mind wanders.
For example, Dani got her 4-month shots the other day. Knowing that she may be particularly sensitive afterwards, I came home determined to stay mindfully present with her all day, to prioritize tuning into her needs even more consciously than I normally do. At one point, she seemed to need a little independent play time, so I took the moment to look something up for a friend. Instead, I happened to open the book to the chapter on daycare, and quickly found myself lost in my fear-based thoughts about sending Dani into the care of someone else. She began to fuss, but I could not pull myself out of this runaway thought train. There I was, loosing a precious opportunity to nurture my child right here and now, because I was thinking about being unable to nurture her in the future. I told myself I would change her diaper, then recommit to being present. No luck. I had to recognize and recommit multiple times, finally deciding to let myself play the entire story out in my head so that I could then put it aside and turn my attention fully to my baby. I mindfully chose not to be mindful until I was ready, and sometimes that is the best we can do.
To be clear, mindful presence does not mean we are constantly focused on our children all day long, as “continual intensity of a parent’s focus on his child can be experienced as intrusive by the child” (Siegel, Parenting p66). Dani really did need that time for independent play. The trick is to be aware enough of our own thoughts and feelings that we are able to be fully available to our children when they do need us again. The reality is, none of us will accomplish this perfectly even most of the time. We live life by habit, and mindfulness requires energy and conscious choice. But it is an excellent intention to set, and to keep re-setting.
For when we are mindfully present, we cultivate the secure attachment that allows our children to thrive. Dan Siegel describes the remarkable similarity, from a neurological perspective, between mindfulness and healthy attachment. When we are mindful, we offer ourselves nonjudgmental attention in the present moment. When we are optimizing attachment, we offer this same nonjudgmental attentive presence to our children. “Attachment relationships that promote well-being involve interpersonal communication that honors the unique, differentiated qualities of each person, while also promoting the partners’ linkages through compassionate, empathetic communication.” Linkage with differentiation – attachment requires an interpersonal integration that is remarkably similar to the integration that occurs within ourselves when we are mindful (Siegel, Developing p45). And it is hypothesized that this interpersonal integration actually “stimulates the growth of integrative fibers in the brain” (Siegel, Developing p19), shaping the structure of the developing mind so that the child can maximize their own integrative abilities, enabling life long self-regulation and emotional wellness.
Parental mindfulness promotes secure attachment, and securely attached children are more able to be mindful. The incredibly empowering corollary to this, is that mindfulness has the potential to heal disrupted attachment. When held by the compassionate awareness of a mindful parent, a child can take in the good, bad and even ugly of daily experience, and integrate it through the whole of their developing brain in a way that promotes wellness. When we turn our mindful awareness upon ourselves, we offer ourselves the same opportunity. With practice, we can use mindful compassion to soothe childhood wounds, by essentially relating to ourselves the same way our parents would have, had they been able to be mindfully present with us at the time. By doing so, we make ourselves more available for our own children when they need us, thus strengthening their attachment relationship, and breaking the chains of inter-generational trauma.
Here is an example of the dance between mindfulness and attachment in a very typical, non-traumatic set of interactions: A couple of weeks ago, Dani went through a very fussy few days. As her fussiness dragged on, I became less able to be mindfully present as I fell further into my own emotionally distorted interpretations. I experienced frustration that my typically good-natured child was so difficult to soothe. I felt guilt, with its accompanying past-oriented thinking – was she reacting to the stress my partner and I had been experiencing in our relationship? And I felt fear, along with its future-oriented thinking – was something going wrong for her developmentally?
It turns out the answer was both stress and development related, but not in the distorted ways I had been imagining. Dani was beginning to teethe. I was so caught up in my own stories that it took an observant friend to point this out. Once I was aware of the cause, I was able to silence my reactive mind and get fully present with her again. When I held her to comfort her, my non-verbal cues communicated genuine compassion, instead of the stress and frustration I had been displaying before. The shift in Dani’s behavior was nearly instantaneous – suddenly, she was far more easily soothed, my mindful presence enabling her to integrate the pain of teething in a healthier way.
Parenting presents some of the biggest challenges to mindfulness that we will ever encounter, but it also provides some of the greatest opportunities. For no one is better than a child at demonstrating the rewards and wonders of mindful presence, if only we pause and watch. As Jon Kabot- Zinn says: “Children embody what is best in life. They live in the present moment. They are part of its exquisite bloom. They are pure potentiality, embodying vitality, emergence, renewal and hope. They are purely what they are. And they share that vital nature with us and call it out of us as well, if we can listen carefully to the calling” (Kabat-Zinn p90).
Brown, Kirk W, R. Ryan and D. Creswell. “Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects.” Psychological Inquiry: 2007. 18(4) p 211-237.
Kabat-Zinn Myla and Jon. Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. Hyperion: New York, NY. 1997.
NIH – National Institute of Health. (January 30, 2011) Mindfulness Meditation is Associated with Structural Changes in the Brain. National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. Retrieved December 16, 2014 from www.nccam.nih.gov.
Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press: New York, NY. 2012.
Siegel, Daniel J. and Mary Hartzell. Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. Penguin, New York, NY. 2014.