Mindfulness in its most simple definition is a map for understanding the human experience. The core of the practice has us practicing and resting in presence, allowing us to know what is being known. It is a compassionate, non-judgmental awareness of our inner and outer moment-to-moment experience. No part of our human understanding is left out of the practice. And ultimately, there is no one definition of mindfulness that will ever encompass everything. I use the word mindfulness to refer to any way we direct our attention within ourselves or to the outside world.
We can learn to be mindful in a zillion different ways. Practices like qigong, tai chi, yoga, journaling, painting, chanting, or so many other activities can support us on this path. Whatever works for you is the way to go. I will say that studying my mind with intention during formal meditation while also practicing presence while cultivating compassion and curiosity in my day to day life has been my lifeline to managing my anxiety, cultivating joy, and living with purpose.
I think it’s just as important to talk about what mindfulness is not because the word is starting to be overused in popular culture. Being mindful does not mean that you are calm all the time. You can just as easily be aware of your anxiety, anger, or fear, as you can be all Zen 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.
We practice so that in our day-to-day lives we have more choice as to where we put our attention, and how we show up in the world at any given moment. For me, one of my favorite outcomes of practice is to not take my stressful thoughts so seriously. I certainly still have them; they just don’t run the show. So, when I’m thinking to myself, “Good Lord 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,” I have learned to take a breath, notice those thoughts and decide not to buy into them so heavily. In making this shift I’m kinder to myself and to others 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. And make no mistake about it…living a mindful life is a blessing like no other. As we awaken to who we are we can live more fully and show up more authentically in every aspect of our lives. I have found in my own life that making this commitment to myself has not only supported me, but also my family, in ways I could never have imagined. I have begun to see myself as a work in progress and now often experience that yummy inner peace that can seem so elusive.
Embrace What Is and Go From There
There are still times when I lose it. I snap, speak in a snarky tone, and sometimes raise my voice. I harbor a lot of guilt when this happens. I probably beat myself up over this more than anything else. I think there’s nothing more painful for me than growling at one of my kids, followed by the look in their eyes that shows their sadness, shock, and confusion. Seriously. Ugh.
Yet the truth is that it’s hard to stay calm sometimes. I’ve noticed that I can be so wrapped up in my own stress or issues that I’m not able to be present for what one of my kids need from me. When this happens, I blame them for making me crazy, except that I’m the one who’s responsible. I have a pretty big storyline in my head that says, “You shouldn’t yell at your kids. Yelling is bad.” I do my best not to let that voice shame me too much. Sometimes I raise my voice. That’s the deal. I’m a work in progress. It’s what I do after that matters.
After I raise my voice, I find it helpful to verbalize what might have been going on inside me that led to the yelling. I particularly want my kids, but also my husband, to know what was happening within me. After everyone has calmed down, I sit down with them, and we each describe what was going on for us. “Here’s how I was feeling when I yelled,” I explain. “I was tired, and I was thinking of all the things I have to do for work. You were complaining about not wanting your dinner. Mommy felt a lot of big emotions, and I’m sorry I yelled. I don’t like it when I yell.”
I’ll then usually describe ways I can intercept my yelling, like walking away and taking a few breaths or going outside. Getting some space from my stress almost always gives me a better perspective on things. I get the chance to be with my emotions and understand them better. I’ve found that my boys always appreciate it when I talk through what’s going on inside me. It’s also a way to teach them to be aware of their own internal state. When I let them in on what I’m struggling with emotionally, they know they aren’t alone when they also experience the same emotions.
Of course, it’s always ideal when we don’t lose it at all, isn’t it? Staying peaceful and calm in the midst of an emotional storm is not easy, but it sure does help. And for those times that we lose it or say something we wish we hadn’t, recovery is so important. Being able to say, “I’m sorry,” and being willing to talk through the emotions that were erupting in everyone involved is how we learn and grow together.
Everyday life in a family is fundamentally different from our mental concepts of what should happen on the mindful path. However, it’s when we finally embrace the idea that the entire context of our life exists to support our personal growth that we see real change.
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.” Learn more at michellegale.com