Reflections on Silence

Back from 5 nights away from the family.  In the spirit of mindful awareness, I came to the Mindful Schools annual retreat at the Garrison Institute in the Hudson Valley (across the river from West Point!) with a playful curiosity.  I was interested in the content of the two seminar days, but not totally sure what the first 2 days OF SILENCE really meant and even if I really wanted that.  What I got from the experience was something magnificent.

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The Garrison Institute–where we stayed and learned…surrounded by beautiful hikes, a labrynith made out of bushes, and bamboo groves!

“Welcome to silence”

When I heard those three words, I was scared.  I was walking into the unknown and, as new experiences are, I was feeling uncomfortable, weird, and stressed.  We alternated between sitting guided meditations (focusing on our breath, our bodies, compassion, self-compassion, letting go of thought for 30-45min) and walking meditations (walking back and forth between 20 feet or so for 30-45m in a clip).  I was surprised at how exhausting the sitting and walking was–by afternoon I was tired and by evening I was downright exhausted.  Meals were incredible, vegetarian and healthy–a la the famous Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca.  We made little eye contact with each other and did not even worry about normal social norms like holding doors for eachother.  The experience was designed for each of us to go completely into our own bodies for 2 days without distraction.  Each evening we had a talk about our mindfulness practice.

During the silence I practiced staying in the moment without judgement over and over and over again (read: Intro to Mindfulness).  It was hard.  Our minds have so much practice swinging from thought to thought like a monkey that stilling those thoughts is usually very difficult.   It takes a lot of practice to get good at quieting your mind and it is completely dependent on practice.  You can not read about it and be good at it, much like swimming or riding a bike.  You have to do it. Instead of thinking through every thought or attaching a story to every emotion, I tried to just notice it and let it float on like a leaf on a stream.  It was very comforting to allow myself the space to practice this because so often I can get caught in a story that eventually turns into a rumination, which eventually makes my jaw tight, which eventually gives me headaches, which eventually make me tired or cranky, which eventually make me not very nice to be around.

I found the silence to be:

  • mundane and profound
  • boring and fulfilling
  • painful and peaceful (physically and mentally)
  • …and so much more

The hardest times of the silence were when I was physically uncomfortable which made focusing on breath very difficult.  I also found interesting to note that I really dislike boredom.  I would go up to my room and just hear the call of my book to read, or my body to offer going for a walk in the woods, and especially not surprisingly, my phone to call home and hear the voices of my loved ones.

During silence, I can legitimately say I never tasted food quite like what I ate while my sense of hearing didn’t have as much input.  My grilled cheese that day was a type of magic I will never forget.  As I ate slower than ever before (and everyone else did, too) I got to first notice, then appreciate, than savor every single bite.  It was something I had never experienced before and while some moments went faster than others it gave me a deep sense of gratitude I had never had before for a simple sweet potato let alone a veggie burger, bread, or bean salad.

The Tao Te Ching (ancient Chinese text that is referred to as “The Way”) says “We shape clay into a pot, but is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”  This simple truth is what I got from the silence, the gift of finding space within myself to hold whatever is dearest to my heart.

With humble gratitude and boundless joy,

Emily

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PS. I had nothing to worry about:  The kids and my husband went camping and had an amazing few days without me.

 

10 Thoughts on Bringing Mindfulness Into Your Home

The other night my 6 year-old son was having trouble sleeping.  I got up to his bedroom and he just couldn’t calm himself down.  “Honey, do you want to try some mindfulness?” I asked and waited for him to laugh and say no-way.  But he didn’t.  I had taught him some basic skills (mindfulness of breath) a few weeks earlier and practiced a few times and as soon as I asked, he knew it was just what he needed.  We did a short practice–listening to our singing bowl 3 times and then noticing our breaths go in like we are smelling a flower and our like we are blowing out a candle.  When he calmed down, I simply said “I am going to ring the bell one more time and then I am going to leave the room”.  Then I did.  As I was leaving his room he said “Mom, turn my music on” and then he cut himself off “….no, no, never-mind” and he literally rolled over and went to sleep.

I am not perfect (by far!) and my kids are not saints (also by far!) but this mindfulness stuff is really working for our family.  For one, it has made me more patient and present with my kids and able to modulate my strong emotions better.  For my kids, they have started to really notice their own emotional states more and become more aware of their needs within those high’s and low’s which is an amazing life skill.

Truth be told, very young kids are the experts on mindfulness.  They are the masters of living without judgement or attachment but exposure to culture and unconsciousness teaches kids to care more about doing and achieving than being attuned and grateful of  the present moment.  Adults in their life may want to teach them a different way: the way of mindful awareness. Being on this path with your child, and in alliance with them on their journey through the highs and lows of life, will be a divinely gratifying and nourishing to you as their parent and greatest teacher.  But it is important to go on this journey with intention but also of awareness of these basic tenants so that the pendulum does not end up swinging back into more frustration, anger, or control for you or your child.

1. Start with parent.  The first step to bringing mindfulness into your home is to ask yourself what motivates your interest?  If your authentic answer is to change your child, it will not work.  Mindfulness is a way of paying attention, non-judgmentally, to the current moment and if your child does not want to do that it will not work.   Instead of forcing it on them, invite them to participate with you and be ok with them not being ready to learn it at this point in their life.

 2. Learn basic techniques.  It is important for adults to have a basic understanding of mindfulness before you start sharing it with your child or you are setting yourself up for failure and frustration.  Learn about how to have a mindful body, how to listen mindfully, how to bring your focus back to your breath, and how to integrate heartfeltness into your moment-to-moment interactions.

3. Choose a time of day to insert mindfulness.  Think about your daily routine.  Is there a time of day when behavior is generally good and your kids are ready to listen?  If your answer is like most parents, that may be hard to identify.  Try talking them in the car when everyone is contained.  But again, be mindful of your agenda, and willing to drop it if they are not interested.

4. Give them ownership of their practice and let children lead mindfulness.  Allow them to ring a special bell to practice listening,  cueing you to focus on your breath, or leading you through a body scan.

5. Don’t use it as a consequence.  Being aware of your present moment and your breath is not a punishment–it is the sweetest gift you could give a child.  Don’t allow it to be associated with anything bad or your child will resent it.  That being said, if you want to use it as an intervention for behavior, make sure a practice is established.

6.  Be consistent.  You can not do a mindfulness activity and expect it to be suddenly integrated into your child’s brain.  Like all learning, practice it regularly to strengthen the neural pathways in your child’s brain so that it becomes more and more natural for him to use it.

7.  Institute short moments of awareness many times throughout the day for yourself and invite them to participate.   Simply asking them to “notice how you are feeling” is a good starting point.

8.  Integrate simple rituals. Taking some deep breaths before starting a meal or putting your fork down between bites during a meal is a good way to fold mindfulness into your regular life.   

9.  Let them teach you what they know.  Listen with attunement and presence–exactly how you would want them to listen to you if you were explaining something new to them.  Ask questions and look for answers, together, if your child stumbles over their explanation.

10.  There is no one-sized fits all approach to mindfulness.  Kids of different temperaments, ages, and abilities will need different approaches to learning mindfulness.  Some kids might be interested in learning about the brain, others maybe interested in learning during a peaceful hike, and yet others in totally different ways.  There are so many directions to try.   

We will be sharing more mindfulness resources in the coming weeks so please follow us on FB/IG @NurtureFamilyEducation

© 2017, Nurture: Family Education and Guidance, nurturefamilyeducation.com

Gift Yourself Presence to Your Heartache

I am in Fundamental Political Shock. Shocked, surprised and sad are just the beginning.  Hurt, deceived, angry, and stupid are also some of the feelings.  I want to hug my children and explain to them…explain what?  Today we are just surviving.

The first and last thing I want my kids to learn from today is that when we are on our Anger Mountain* lets start by focusing on being gentle. To ourselves.

The healing and recalibration process begins by starting with our feelings.

But its hard.  On one hand it’s personal.  This was not an affront or attack on our physical body but on our ideas.  But our ideas are just that ideas.  They are not who we are: we are our spirits, our hearts, our souls.  So let’s extend a physical hand and actually share our convictions, dreams, hopes.  Lets accept our vulnerability and be open to the differences percolating out there.  Lets not come up a cognition-driven explanation to satisfy our egos need to understand.  The reality is that people all over the world and our country are really different from us.  That is what we supposedly celebrate. So let’s walk with them. Let’s just be present with them and not try to talk through the differences or even celebrate our similarities-first lets just be.  And find a way to be OK with not doing–pro or against their ideas.

But I also feel stupid because I bought the lie.  I guzzled it up and proselytized it: Media made us believe that it was about a binary option; that this was: bad vs. good, intelligent vs. stupid, morally elite vs. financially elite.  This was never those things and we all drank the media’s kool-aid.

The lesson for our kids is that it is ok to be and not do.  We will do tomorrow. Today we will just be in our feelings.  Feel our feelings.  Accept our humanity.  Adults don’t always have all the answers and we can teach our kids that we do not always use our brains to solve problems. Our hearts come first.  And right now our hearts ache so let’s start there by dwelling in that, allowing the feels, and being gentle to ourselves.

*Anger Mountain is a way I illustrate anger to young children.  Being angry is like hiking a tall mountain–every step towards the top is harder than the last and at the top, you burst with feelings and end up feeling smaller, less empowered, more enraged.  The opposite also exists: Happy Hills.  Happy Hills are also steep, but hopefully more frequent.  And when you get to the top you feel bigger, exuberant, empowered.  So the goal when the child starts to feel Anger Mountain is to help them identify and choose to take other “paths” that can lead them towards a Happy Hill.  The paths don’t have to be positive emotions but rather useful feelings to get through the journey: sadness, fear, helplessness are just some.  It is ok to be in those feelings and need some time to work through them.  And holding hands with the right partner on those other paths always makes them easier to travel.  (And as a sidebar to that; as a parent, I hope to be that partner for my children but it is important to accept if they choose a different journey-worthy person).

What are you feeling?  What are the physical symptoms you feel?

How will you be gentle to yourself today?

 

(c) 2016, Nurture: Family Education and Guidance

Parenting is Not an Instinct

The idea of the ‘maternal instinct’ is old, tired, and culturally irrelevant in this day and age; what ALL parents–mothers and fathers– must start hearing is that parenting is a muscle and a mindset.  Instinct implies either you’ve got it or you don’t.  Parenting is neither of those things.  If you adapt easier to your role as a parent, great.  Good for you.  That’s not typical.  If you feel sometimes inadequate, often stressed, and frequently confused–congratulations, you’re A PARENT.

Undoubtedly there are some natural inclinations that do exist and scientists have proved this time and time again (example: we are biologically programmed to want to snuggle our babies).  But it would be amiss for parents to think that the birth of their first child comes a graduation cap of achievement for themselves.  Birth is just the beginning of the journey and you are never an expert at the beginning of a journey.  Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to be considered an expert.  But the problem lies within the fact that your children are not static beings and their constant development requires constant new skills to train your parenting muscles.  Training your parenting “muscles” takes intentional practice until it becomes muscle memory and you do it automatically with unconscious competence.  Before parents can reach unconscious competence their must be an entire journey of consciousness–raised raw awareness of their own needs and desires.  And truly that journey never ends.

 

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Mindset is another valuable way to look at parenting.  Mindsets are beliefs—beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities. Think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that? Or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life?

People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t… So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.

People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting point. They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things—not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan—without years of passionate practice and learning.

Flex, stretch, grow, and practice practice practice.

Mindset and muscle. Flex, stretch, grow, and practice practice practice. If you are feeling like your kids are not “doing childhood” the way your envisioned it for them, that is OK.  Being conscious, present, and attuning yourself to their needs (as opposed to your  needs or your projections of what you think they need) will allow them to grow into their own authentic self.  Believe in cultivating your own truths and let your child teach you theirs.  Follow their lead, strengthen your skills, and practice your parenting intentionally to feel competent in your journey.

What parenting skill do you need to practice?

(c) 2016, Nurture: Family Education and Guidance

Giving Trust the Conscious Parenting Way

Tonight my husband and I genuinely shocked our 5-year-old son (and ourselves).  He announced he was done eating mid-meal because he was ready for dessert.   He hadn’t touched a bit of his brisket –which he loves — but was excited to eat Nana’s double chocolate layer cake which had been staring him square in the eyes since we arrived yesterday.  We were in the middle of  a proclamation about how he had to eat 4 bites more if he wanted to eat dessert.  This has been the typical pattern for us–ordering x bites more to get x reward–and truly we thought this was out of love and concern.  My kid would have whined, stuffed himself by our conditions to eat more than his body wanted and been unconsciously reminded that he is not trusted to make decisions about his body. Conscious-parenting-fail.

“Conscious Parenting means you spot the gap between the lesson you intend to teach and the lesson your kids are learning. Then you adjust your technique and improve messaging”

Instead, we tried a different approach tonight and adjusted our message: “you are going to get dessert whether or not you eat more dinner, but you do need to be reminded of couple things before you make that decision.  First, besides from dessert, this is the last food you will have until breakfast tomorrow.  We will not entertain whining or begging later if you tell us you are hungry.  And two, you are getting one small serving of dessert so don’t depend on that to fill you up significantly.”

We are desperate for him to learn how to be aware of his body’s hunger (and emotional) signals–so why would we not get be him the chance to practice just that?  Why would we interject our worries about his fullness with a really quite random number of bites?  To satiate his hunger or our fear?  Well we’re human and parenting is a muscle.  Conscious parenting takes intention and practice until it becomes automatic because of the neural pathways (muscle memory) that gets created in the brain.  The fate of the firstborn is that he is our guinea pig–we are learning to step back from our egos’ fears and allow him to unfold with the gift of allowing him practice to learn new skills and that means sometimes learning the hard consequences. It also means that we have to try out new approaches in our parenting and adjust as necessary.

With our egos aside, he ate some more bites of pepper. A couple bites of challah. And then a small piece of cake. He left the table with his dignity intact and with an affirmation of trust from the people who love him most.  It will be a good new year.

1. For more read: http://itsnotaboutnutrition.com/2016/09/20/improve-messaging/

Parenting with Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation

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Behavior.  Ah. There is so much noise out there on the internet about how to get your children to behave better.  The commonly accepted way of getting your children to do something usually comes back to what social scientists refer to as Behaviorism.  Behaviorism means conditioning someone to alter certain behavior patterns in spite of thought or feeling.  There is an entire branch of social science devoted to exactly how this can be done called Applied Behavior Analysis.  It is fascinating because used specifically and scientifically, you actually can get your child–or dog, for that matter–to complete any task you want.  But it is not a perfect answer for parenting a child (with average non-pathological behaviors) for a number of reasons.

A part of behaviorism that parenting literature is ripe with is the idea of positive reinforcement.  A simple explanation is: “Do this and get that“.  This can be very valuable to use as a parent but should not be the model of shaping behavior for one to use in the long-term.  I will explain further but first lets look at how is this different that a bribe.

Bribes are when you give the reward before the behavior is completed.  (ex.  Your child asks for a new toy when you are walking through the store.  You oblige and give them the toy but tell them that you expect they are going to clean their room when you get home).

Positive reinforcement is when you complete the behavior and then get the reward.  (ex. Your child asks for a new toy when you are walking through the store.  You oblige and tell them that AFTER they clean their room, they can have the toy).

Bribes are ineffective because the child has no motivation to complete the desired task because they already have the reward.  Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, gets the behavior completed and is therefore considered effective.

While positive reinforcement does get the behavior completed, the problem lies in giving rewards for completing behavior.  Implicit in positive reinforcement is a power dynamic that tells kids that they are less than the adults.  The problem with having this belief is that you are trying to raise individuals with thoughts, feelings, and hearts and a controlling paradigm does not teach kids to act responsibility, it only elicits compliance. Simply stated by Alfie Kohn in his book “Punished By Rewards” he asks: “Do rewards motivate? Yes, they motivate to get more rewards”.  So yes, you will get the behavior completed, but only because their was a reward.  There have been scientific experiments that actually prove that “children whose parents believe in using rewards to motivate them are LESS COOPERATIVE AND GENEROUS than their peers” (Kohn, p.174)

So what about punishment? How does that fit into this equation?  Punishment reinforces the power dynamic between parent and child to an even greater extent and this can be detrimental to a positive parent-child relationship where your child sees you as someone to be turned to and trusted with the good and the bad that they need help sorting through as they mature.   While a parents ego might feel good for having power, a child will feel unimportant, incompetent, impaired, weak, and unable which are exactly the traits you do not want someone who is learning about how to function as an individual in the world to have.   Your relationship with your baby might be a matter of providing for mostly physiological needs but as children develop they need parents to guide them through the higher level needs as shown below on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

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So the question becomes, if we are not supposed to use rewards to get our children to behave in a certain way, how can we elicit compliance when we want something to get done?  It is time to talk about intrinsic motivation.

“There is a difference between forgiving ourselves an occasional blunder and refusing to admit that certain approaches are blunders” (Kohn, p.233)

Instead of using your power to exert control or manipulation over your child, try tap into their innate desire to solve problems positively.  Think about the content, collaboration, and choice.  Content refers to whether the behavior you are trying to elicit is necessary and developmentally appropriate.  Then, work with your child to collaborate on possible ways to get the behavior done.  This problem-solving technique views the child as a parter who has equal power in coming up with solutions, not merely a droid who will do as we say.  Give your child practice in problem solving and they will learn how to solve problems.  Tell your child what to do all the time and they will always be looking for direction to follow.  And finally, the final part in how to improve our child’s intrinsic motivation will be to give them choice.  Let the kids be a part of choosing how the desired action will be done.  Empowerment for a child does not have to mean disempowerment for a parent–it means you are doing your child (and yourself) a favor to unfold this human into their full potential instead of forcing your will on them.

I encourage you to process this information and come back to me with questions and comments. I am available to meet privately or speak publicly on this topic.   Please contact me for further information.

Sources:

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Print.

Tsabary, Shefali. The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting. New York: Viking, 2016. Print.

(c) 2016, Nurture: Family Education and Guidance