Making sense of heaven and hell in the moment (part I)
This blog has evolved as a series of reflections relating these to my parenting experiences. In particular I have focused on two of John Kabat-Zinn’s attitudinal foundations of mindfulness practice, patience and non-judging as well as an implicit element of non-judging, forgiveness.
Having been a parent for the last 2.5 years, and as a ‘mindfulness trainer’, parenting has been the most challenging arena of practice, and the most rewarding. Hence my provocative title.
This is probably the easiest and best understood aspects of parenthood. As a parent every iota of your patience is stretched to its maximum on a regular basis. When the children are small, sleep deprivation, can add to an experience of quiet desperation. You often feel, or certainly doubt, you have the resources to deal with demands. There is often a perceived gap between the resources we feel we have and the demands of the situation. This is quite a handy definition of stress
You hold out for that time with a friend, a yoga class, that half day retreat a shower by yourself, a meal in peace…. and then your plans are laid to waste by some unexpected parenting crisis. Simple routine activities, you previously took for granted, visiting a shop, leaving the house, making a meal can become a major undertaking.
The mental tension between what is and what is wanted is known as ‘discrepancy monitoring’. This monitoring tendency has prevented me from being present, as part or most of me, wants to be somewhere else. Within my mind, this often manifests as an inner dialogue, with stories along the line of ‘this is crap, I don’t want this’ ‘when is this going to end’ ‘I didn’t realise it would be like this’ ‘it would so much easier if it was like x’. Quite simply, this mental ‘opting out’ has led to dissatisfaction, periods of unhappiness and exacerbated negative stories about my parenting experience.
Fortunately, through mindfulness practice, I have become more adept at identifying the choice to ‘soften into’ my new reality with acceptance and kindness, rather than wanting it to be different.
Lack of patience has also prevented me from “seeing” the beauty within simplicity. Children delight and wonder in simple things, for example putting leaves into manhole cover holes, the excitement of the garbage trucks arrival or a small bird singing in a tree. Small children’s sense of being “in time” is only very basically developed. The tyranny of the past don’t yet burden them. The worries and responsibilities of the future are unformed concepts.
Children can appear blissfully absorbed in play, experiences of bliss often lost as adults. I recall grieving my own loss of childhood innocence and simplicity in early puberty, and I have to make a conscious effort to re-collect that time as an adult. Of course, being a parent enables you to connect more fully with your own childhood and those joyful carefree times.
Meditation and mindfulness practice is a key way we can re-train ourselves to experience states of blissful absorption by focusing on the breath and body, and bring back the wonder within the moment.
Even if you are coping with demands of parenting at any given time, chances are your partner may not be. Left unchecked, unfavourable judgements of your partner’s behaviour or character begin to proliferate and take root in your mind. They take on a ‘reality’ of their own, when ‘in reality’, they are just mental constructions ‘writ in water’ rather than ‘carved in stone’. Left unchecked, bickering becomes part of the relationships new landscape and the relationship can come under strain.
When you are coping well and your partner is not, the focus moves from oneself which can be a relief. However, the focus can move into judgement, a discrepancy monitoring of other, rather than moving into empathy and understanding.
Dependent upon our past conditioning and views, our judgement of our children can be similarly unfavourable. The business of our lives impinges. We have limited resources and busy lives, the very least we want is cooperation! Especially as we are working for their benefit? However your small child is unlikely to understand this…. We have most of the power in this dynamic (however it can feel the opposite is true at times!) and it can be all too easy to scold and prematurely try to instill a sense of what is acceptable in the name of strong parenting. We can also slip into guilt and unhelpful judgment of ourselves, having unconsciously adopted high standards and failing to see our own limitations.
I try to re-collect and am reminded by my partner, that children are thrown into an incredibly complex world. They are forced to make sense of their environment, how the physical universe operates, work what’s ‘right and wrong’, what’s socially acceptable. There is just so much learning. I try to re-collect it isn’t at all easy being a small child. This can be particularly difficult when being told to get out of my own house by a two year old!
Being able to forgive, if not necessarily forget, to put to one side grumbles and irritations of one’s self, one’s partner, your situation, your child is the field of work as a parent. Letting views, hurts and opinions solidify and can poison relationships. If not held in check with awareness, you can quickly become boxed in and feel trapped.
For me, there has been a definite letting go of views about what mindfulness practice ‘ought to be’ in these new challenging conditions. Over time, I realised there was literally nowhere in my parenting life I couldn’t reflect constructively and try to be more present with my immediate experience. Kindness, empathy, patience and watchful awareness of my mental, bodily and emotional states have become pillars of my practice.
I experience parenthood as living ‘in the raw’. On any given day I get blown from joy and love, to sorrow and hatred and back and forth between the two. Sometimes these manifest in quiet inner grumbles and irritations, and sometimes in extremely prominent ways. Making sense of this, and keeping some degree of equanimity, has been the most supremely challenging and rewarding of my life. Thanks for reading.