The biggest parenting struggles happen for me when I'm trying to control something that I can't control. That's had me reflecting on the tension between control and power lately.
Think about bowling. If you've ever bowled you may know that feeling of wanting to control the ball after you let it go. It's rolling down the floor and maybe you lean or talk to it or will it to go the way you want it to. Have you ever done that? We don't have any power over what happens to the ball after it leaves our hand, but there's an illusion of control.
As parents, the same thing can happen. We want to control what is out of our hands. Consider the struggles that happen in your family, whether you're the parent of an infant or grown ups. Do you ever want them to be happy, tired, or quiet when they aren't? Want them to eat the meal you made and like it when they don't? Want them to make a choice that you believe will be better for them than the one they are making? If so, you know how frustrating this can be!
At the very heart of mindful parenting is the practice of accepting what we can not control. This includes many of our child's behaviors as well as our own feelings and thoughts. Instead of wasting energy trying to control that which is not in our hands, we practice being present and choosing how to respond wisely. Right use of power is something I will write about soon, but let's start now with the first step, releasing the illusion of control. Today, if you start to react to something your child does, consider the question, 'Am I in control of this situation? Has the bowling ball already left my hand?' If so, slow down and be present. What is the wisest response you can make to the situation as it is?
I write and talk and teach a lot about how to help kids with their strong feeling. Of course, helping ourselves with our own strong feelings is important, too!
My best 'low tech' strategy is so ridiculously simple--just wait a while. If I can just do and say nothing about a feeling for a little while, it often passes. Some feelings, of course, need a response and I'm not thinking we just need to let everything go. But lots of my feelings seem so important and even urgent in the moment, and then 20 minutes later they seem kind of ridiculous.
Feelings don't only exist in the emotional realm. They cross right into our bodies, triggering stress hormones and a physical reaction to protect ourselves from perceived danger. When we're upset, we get flooded with chemicals that make us want to DO SOMETHING. A wise person can remember, feelings come and go. Waiting for even a minute can give the feeling time to pass. If you can wait 20-30 minutes, much of the physical response will dissipate and the more sensible 'you' is more likely to be back in charge.
I can get pretty emotional, and it really helps me to remember that feelings will pass just like clouds on a windy day, often without my doing anything.
There's a story (with several, somewhat conflicting versions including in Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart) of a thick and heavy clay statue of the Buddha in a monastery in Thailand. This statue was damaged in a move, opening a crack in the clay and revealing gold underneath. As monks chipped the clay away, they discovered that the statue was actually made of solid gold. Historians believe the Buddha statue was covered with clay to protect it from a military attack many years earlier.
I love this story! It reminds us of something important and true. We are each, at our center, a Buddha, a Christ, a being of great love. We have been covered with layers of mud and plaster, layers that were meant to protect us. There comes a time that those layers begin to fall away. That's a scary and often painful process, but ultimately frees our golden inner nature to shine.
If cracks are appearing in your life, maybe things already didn't seem great and are now kind of falling apart, Look beyond the surface. What is being revealed? Is your own golden Buddha-nature ready to make its appearance?
One of the simplest and most powerful things we can do for children (for anyone) is to listen to their feelings without reacting. It can be so hard to be present for feelings--our own or someone else's. It isn't comfortable. It hurts to see someone upset. It is tempting to respond mentally, trying to rescue, fix, explain, teach, or justify the situation, rather than staying with feelings. But if we can slow down enough to notice our discomfort before acting on it, we can see that fixing it isn't an option. Feelings can't be fixed, they can only be felt.
It is a radical act to be with a feeling rather than trying to fix it, one that goes against our training and against the norms of our culture. It takes courage to try. Once you try, you'll be hooked because it's so powerful.
Try it! When your child gets upset, see if you can listen deeply without doing anything. Say you child gets upset because you say it's time for bed. What if you listen to their upset with no judgment about whether they should feel that way, no logical explanation of why they need to get ready for bed, to argument, discussion, or explanation. Just listen. Maybe nod a bit.
Acknowledge their feeling in your own authentic way, "Wow, the idea of going to bed feels really bad," or "It seems like you're really mad about getting ready for bed," then listen some more.
Mirror back what they're saying if you can, "I get it, you always feel like it's time to get ready for bed just when you get excited about the game you're playing," or "It doesn't seem fair that you have to go to bed when your brother gets to stay up."
Expand on their feelings a bit. "I bet it would feel good if you could just stay up until you FEEL like going to bed!"
Take it slow, they may have a lot of feelings that need to get expressed. Sometimes the issue really is bedtime, sometimes it's stored up feelings from the day or weekend. If you allow the feelings to be expressed, even when they don't come out skillfully or kindly, those feelings will begin to dissolve naturally.
Stay clear, it really is time to get ready for bed, even when your child has big feelings about it. Empathy and caring does not mean we change our mind. We simply allow feelings to be expressed and gently remind our child of the limit. "It's so frustrating sometimes, isn't it, to have to get ready for bed when you want to play? I hear you! And still we need to go upstairs." If you are patient, consistent, and confident, your child will respond (sometimes there are big issues with connection, with timing, with trauma or pain that interfere, but if the relationship is pretty strong your child will respond).
No need to rush, simply stay clear and firm. To get into a power struggle is to lose! Simply restating, "It's time for bed," while staying caring and nurturing about the feelings can allow a lot of feelings to be released with loving support. Bedtime may not happen as quickly as you would like if you approach it this way, but it's probably going to happen more quickly than it would if you argued, pleaded, or threatened, and you will do it with much more dignity.
Give it a try! Please let me know how it goes.
Easter morning is a time of new beginnings, beauty, and the triumphant rising of the Divine. How is the Divine arising in our own regular lives?
Looking at our children today, let's see the Divine in them. There are so many things we could worry about, try to correct, and find exhausting. But let's greet them as our saviors, those who are here to wake us up to the magic and beauty of the world. I don't mean let's insist that they act like the Divine, but let's see it operating in them in the midst of everything that happens.
If your child is here as your savior and teacher, what are they teaching? Get curious. Are they offering you the chance to develop patience?
Steadfastness?To remember how to play? Maybe you're in the midst of hard teachings, learning how to accept what seems unacceptable, letting your heart open to the pain or suffering your kids are experiencing, being present with the loss you experience.
Whatever it is, I wish for you and for me and for the world the courage and openness to discover it, to welcome it, and to allow it to transform us. Happy Easter!
There are aspects of mindfulness that so important that we should really consider them life skills.
The first one I want to share is the practice of being aware of thoughts, feelings, and sensations without reacting to them.
Feelings, thoughts, or sensations are not inherently good or bad, kind or unkind. And we aren't good or bad for having them. We can not control, and are not responsible for, thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We can, with awareness, choose how to respond.
No matter what comes up in us, it is possible to choose from a range of possible responses. For example, when I feel angry, there are many possible responses, both internally and externally. I may have a strong impulse to yell, but it is possible to be very angry and quiet, aware, and open to the feeling. This is a mindful experience of anger.
The practice of mindfulness builds awareness in us, helping us to notice the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that we usually react to unconsciously. We can use mindful practices to pause and notice body sensations, breath, thoughts and feelings, helping us to stay present rather than get hijacked by the experience.
I've been remembering adopting my first cat at the SPCA. To take her home I had to sign a paper saying that I would not let her go outside. I was not comfortable with this, but, having already chosen a sweet little kitten who was not going to survive much longer at the shelter, was not about to leave without her! The shelter volunteer explained the rule to me, saying that cats who go outside don't live as long as indoor cats.
I guiltily signed the paper, knowing that my new cat would go outside. This was years before I had children, but I remember thinking the same thing was probably true about kids. If we never let them outside they might live longer, but who would want that kind of life for them?
As a mom, I've remembered this story, but it isn't as easy for me to let my kids take risks as it was with my cat! Part of me wants them to stay in, to be safe. and to be careful. I want to know where they are and what they're doing. That's attachment. Fear of losing them or having to see them be hurt. Love is allowing them to live, to go outside and brave the sometimes dangerous world of friendships, driving, parties, even homework and school performance.
I know people who monitor every assignment their kids are given, and who use their child's cell phone to trace their movements. I've never gone that far, but do recognize the attachment in me that is similar. The work of parenting is to love them enough to let them grow through real and even hard experience. To be available again and again, supporting them as they integrate their experiences. To trust the life energy/soul presence in them that leads them to experiences they need and want. To know that they will make mistakes, but those mistakes may be the very ones they need to make as they learn to be fully alive and awake.
Lately, I've been quieting the part of myself that tries to tell my kids to 'be safe' and 'be careful' each time they go out. Instead, I'm saying 'have fun,' and 'I love you.'
My life and work are guided by the these core understandings: that all beings (including me!) are capable of transformation and joy, that healthy parenting matters profoundly, and that simple practices can support each of us.