Juggling family responsibilities with work is a top cause of stress, as most parents know. Nearly a third of parents surveyed by the American Psychological Association reported feeling under a great deal of stress. And 91 percent of kids say they know their parents are stressed because they experience them yelling, arguing and complaining!
While those results are a few years old, a more recent APA survey tells us what most of us already know: our use of technology is adding more stress into our lives. More than one-third of employed parents say they check work email often or constantly on non-work days. And the vast majority of parents spend a lot of time checking personal email, text messages and social media on their days off.
No wonder more and more people — parents in particular — are turning to mindfulness and meditation to better manage their stress. Yet for every parent who practices, who knows how many more are thinking, “I wish, if I only had the time!” or maybe, “Great, another thing I need to be doing.”
As a mindful parenting educator and parent of two growing boys, I want to do what I can to clear up some myths and misconceptions about mindfulness and meditation.
The word mindfulness is often misused in popular culture, so I think it’s important to understand what it does not mean. Being mindful does not mean that you are calm all the time. It’s just as easy to be aware of your anxiety, anger or fear as it is to be all Zen-like and relaxed.
Don’t get me wrong; I love it when practicing meditation or mindfulness brings me to a state of calm. But I don’t at all expect that to be the case — nor should we expect constant calm and bliss while weaving in and out of family life.
I define mindfulness as simply compassionate, non-judgmental awareness of our inner and outer moment-to-moment experience. As such, mindfulness encompasses all of our experiences — the good and the bad, the anxious moments as well as the calm ones.
Meditation is the formal practice of becoming mindful, such as when we intentionally take time to observe our own thoughts while sitting, walking or paying attention to our breathing. There are countless other ways to practice mindfulness, including practices such as qigong, tai chi, yoga, journaling, painting, mindfulness courses, washing the dishes, and experiencing nature. Whatever works for you is the way to go.
I’ve found that intentionally practicing mindfulness and meditation has been my lifeline to managing my anxiety, cultivating joy, and living with purpose. It’s a two-step process that blends:
- Studying my mind with intention during formal meditation.
- Practicing presence while cultivating compassion and curiosity in my day-to-day life.
Contrary to popular belief, the goal of meditation is not to empty your mind of thoughts. Thinking is part of being human and we should not beat ourselves up or call ourselves bad meditators because we can’t stop thinking. In fact, when we sit in meditation and notice our mind has wandered, this is exactly why we practice. This means we are doing it right!
When you notice your mind is wandering, you learn that you have a choice. You can continue letting your mind do its thing, or you can come back to focusing on your breath or another point of concentration. The more you practice that choice, the more easily you can practice where you focus your attention in your daily existence.
For me, one of my favorite outcomes of practicing mindfulness and meditation is to not take my stressful thoughts so seriously. I certainly still have them; they just don’t run the show. Here’s an example of how this can work for you.
You’re juggling preparing dinner, responding to work calls or emails, trying to get kids to do homework or chores, and trying to catch up on the day with your spouse. One of your children interrupts you (again!) and you lose your temper and yell. Immediately, you think: “I’m a terrible parent. Why did I say that? I shouldn’t have raised my voice or made that assumption or been so impatient.”
Take a breath. Notice those thoughts. Then decide not to buy into them so much. Repeat the next time you lose your cool, and the time after that. See how your awareness starts to shift.
As I have done this, I find I’m kinder to myself, my family and others, all through the radical act of self-discovery.
Like anything else worth learning, mindfulness is a practice — something we choose to spend concentrated effort on until it becomes our new normal. As we awaken to who we are we can live more fully and show up more authentically in every aspect of our lives.
The good news is we don’t have to hide from the messy thoughts, words and moments we encounter as parents. Instead we can learn to embrace them with curiosity, and grow in the process. I’ve found that making this commitment to myself has supported not only me, but also my family, in ways I could never have imagined.
About the Author: Mindful Parenting Educator Michelle Gale, MA, is a former head of learning and leadership development for Twitter who teaches parents to better connect with their kids by first connecting with themselves. She is the author of the new book “Mindful Parenting in a Messy World.” For more information, please visit www.michellegale.com.
Mindful Parenting in a Messy World: Living with Presence and Parenting with Purpose by Michelle Gale is available on Amazon.