Category Archives: mindfulness

Alone Time

Of all of the proposals I make about how to use your time as a mother, this one is going to sound the most insane and pie-in-the-sky: Get some time alone.

We are going to bend the definition of alone to make it a bit more reasonable.

Being Alone Together

Zander and I went to the park the other day. Quiet and breezy, he crawled around the plaza and explored the world. Grabbing onto the side of the fountain, he tries to pull himself up. He is learning to stand.

For my part, I stretch out on the ground and check on him every few minutes. He’s always in my peripheral vision.

But instead of scrolling through my feed, reading a book, or listening to a podcast, I am just there. Laying. Being alone, with my thoughts. No intrusion of other’s ideas.

We are there for a bit over an hour and then I head home. I feel so at peace when I walk in. I pick up my copy of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. I say thank you for finally making clear to me what’s been missing in my life.

The Importance of Solitude

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Albert Camus, my favorite philosopher, said: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”

Different figures throughout history have boasted the benefits of solitude, from Aristotle to Audrey Hepburn. They may say the practice boosts their creativity or mediates their sanity. East and West both agree that solitude is necessary for a well-lived life.

Modern science is, unsurprisingly, finding that this is the case.

When you spend time alone—not taking in the thoughts of other’s or meeting the expectations of your social group, you get a jumpstart to the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest part of your nervous system. Lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, and more relaxed muscles are all signs that your parasympathetic nervous system has been activated.

You also have time to reflect and flex your insight muscle. Taking yourself out of the social context allows you to see how you are being affected and how you are affecting in a way that you wouldn’t be able to when you’re in the thick of it. When your brain is in input processing mode, whether the input is books, podcasts, or friends, it can’t do the hard work of figuring out who you are and what you’re here for.

Shocking!

In a study done by the University of Virginia, researchers found that a quarter of women and two-thirds of men who were involved in the experiment would rather be subjected to an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.

We are losing our ability to be alone. We haven’t analyzed its value—or maybe, like the participants in the mentioned study, we’re afraid to spend time with our thoughts.

And if we are, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves scattered, stressed, and burnt out.

Fancy Tech

Not being with my phone, I’d heard that. I knew you weren’t supposed to have it on you all of the time. But I forgot that books are another new-fangled technology that intrude sometimes on my solitude. And while I love phones, podcasts, and books, they aren’t as essential to the well-being of a human as blocks of quiet reflection sprinkled throughout the day and week.

Set an example for your children. Spend some time alone. Be bored. Teach them how to sit with boredom by not providing constant entertainment and noise.

While the perfect arrangement may not exist when you’ve got one kid strapped to you or four running around, make true solitude a priority. Go to the park without the phone. Ask the partner for a half an hour walk by yourself on Sunday. Find a way to make radical decompression part of your daily, weekly, or monthly ritual.

How to HEAL (With a Challenge)

Hardwiring Happiness


Hardwiring Happiness is a book about taking your everyday experiences and using them to build inner strengths. When you have certain characteristics like self-compassion and curiosity, you can call upon them during times of frustration and difficulty–but more importantly, they serve you well in everyday moments. Learning to appreciate the small things your partner does, pulling back on an argument with your child, and taking courageous steps towards accomplishing your goals all become easier when you have a wealth of inner resources.

How it Works

If you have a passing familiarity with pop neuroscience, you know the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” Your brain is an association machine and when we make associations, we learn. In his book, Dr. Rick Hanson calls upon you to use the brain’s knack for association to resource yourself–to H.E.A.L. the parts of yourself that are wounded and thrive in your daily life.

Metta meditation asks you to cultivate compassion. You do this by focusing on your heart, repeating the same phrase, and being aware of what compassion feels like in the body. The sustained attention to the emotion helps it grow and fill you up.

Hardwiring Happiness is asking you to apply the same general practice to your other inner strengths.

(In the Alert Authentic Mindful Group on Facebook, we are doing a 21-day challenge inspired by Dr. Rick Hanson’s book. Hardwiring Happiness. Please join us!)

Why You Should Do It

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Dr. Hanson spends the first part of the book going over some of the science and answering the question Why we want to learn the skills he is going to teach us in the second half of the book.

Our brains have a negativity bias. This is in our evolutionary past *not* noticing a pretty flower is okay; *not* noticing a tiger means death. Hardwiring Happiness is not about ignoring tigers. There are and always will be negative things in our lives that we need to pay attention to–and actually, some experiences that feel bad are good for us in the long run.

That does not mean that we should ignore the positive or leave it to our brains to notice it. We want to help our minds pay attention to the lightness and the dark–to quit giving undue attention and power to the negative.

The Human Default

Our world is vastly different today than in our evolutionary past. For our ancestors, serious stress was related to serious stress. Tigers, fear of banishment, and snakes. Sadly, our brains cannot tell the difference between these very real threats to our lives and too much traffic on the highway. We have so many stressors today, including but not limited to the intense and frequent technology stress that we get from renewing our Facebook page. Stress reactions used to be occasional but they are now frequent. Our bodies are now in a constant state of reactivity which is not good for our health, mental or physical.

Responsiveness, as opposed to reactivity, used to be our norm. There weren’t lions around every corner. In social situations, we were less knee-jerk and more of the present and open.

This book will help give you the tools to return to that state or responsiveness by paying attention to the positive around us and turning mental states into neural traits by helping strengthen the bonds between neurons that focus on the beneficial in your daily life.

The Method

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Follow this simple acronym: HEAL

H: Have an experience

E: Enrich

A: Absorb

L: Link

Have an experience: This is the easy part. This month, some experiences will just crop up during the course of your day; some you might have to create for yourself.

Enrich: Think of moments when you naturally feel complete. People often have them on vacation or during the holidays–they look around at their family members and their surroundings and are overwhelmed with gratitude.

You can create this kind of feeling by taking time out of your day to enrich positive experiences. While it may not envelop you in the way it does when it comes naturally, you can make it a much bigger part of your life.

Absorb: This step will often happen at the same time as enrich. As you are making the experience bigger and more embodied, visualize it sinking into you. Maybe you like the idea of gold dust sinking into your center; or maybe you want to picture electricity pulsing in your brain and creating your experience. Whatever it is, try to make the beneficial feeling more apart of you.

Link: One of the reasons that our memories of the past are so bad is because each time we recall them, we can modify them. We can use this little quirk of our brain to heal parts of us that are hard to handle.

When you “link,” you hold the positive experience in the forefront of your mind and call up a negative experience–holding it on the sidelines. Over time, this will gradually make those parts sting less.

HEALing is not about denying the negative in our lives, just paying the beneficial its due. 

(Please join us! We are already on day 4 of our challenge!)

If you have the time, listen to Dr. Rick Hanson go over some of the concepts on his podcast.

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babies are people

Babies Are People

Because they don’t talk. Because we support them. Because they need so much. Because we are all they have.

It is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to remember that our babies are people too. They have their own needs, wants, and struggles.

Difficult Times

My partner experienced this recently when he kindly offered to take our four-month-old son for a while so could relax.

Our four-month-old sleep-regression-and-developmental-leap-having son.

He was not the easiest he has ever been.

My boyfriend remarked in his wisdom that he could see how people sometimes forget that babies are people.

My boyfriend, obviously, is not alone in this. We had spoken about it. I have had that feeling. We all have that feeling.

Little Baby “Thoughts”

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While we’ll never know exactly what babies think—although that’s not quite the right word—I try to put myself in their shoes. I try to think of having a pain and not knowing how to resolve it. I try to think of being alone and not knowing if I’ll ever see anyone again. I try to think of needing help, and the people I care for most withholding.

Of course, my son’s thoughts are nowhere close to this coherent. Babies are people, too, but he has just come out of creature mode. He is just waking up to the world. His emotional system is just coming online, and he can begin to respond with reactions other than fight, flight, freeze or faint.

But even without the cognition, the important thing is there. The feelings are there.

And to me, they sound very difficult and very frustrating.

No Theory of Mind

I try not to go in the other direction, either. There are people who prescribe far more cognitive abilities to children than they have. I probably tend on this side, though I can usually catch myself.

Infants don’t have a theory of mind—they don’t know that you’re making choices and thinking thoughts different and independent from theirs. They don’t understand your motivations.

When my son is uncomfortable or in pain, I sometimes wonder if he is thinking, “Why won’t you just solve this? You’re so big, so strong. You can do so much. Please make this pain stop.”

But he doesn’t think that. He just feels: “I don’t want this!”

As he ages, he may start assigning blame. It will have to do with his temperament, and the sort of culture we set up in our household. Whether he blames me, himself, the world, or realizes that there is no need to sign blame, our ideas and attitudes towards are discomfort are going to have some effect on him.

Being Present

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But for now, my goal is just to remember that he is a person. He is not an inanimate objects that I can force my desires on, and he is not a full grown adult prescribing malintent. He’s neither a manipulative psychopath trying to pull from me every resource that I have nor plant requiring just a bit of water and a touch of sun.

All that I can do is respond consistently to his cues. This doesn’t mean perfectly, and this doesn’t mean immediately. It means recognizing that he is trying to communicate his needs and wants to me and responding to them sensitively.

Sometimes, he will cry while he is in my arms, but if he is with me, he will be fine. And if I can see him and stay with him there without demanding he feel some other way, then I will, too.

 

Expectations

 

Your biggest problem is your expectations.

When you go out and you discover a flat tire on your car so you can’t go to see grandma and AAA won’t make it there for two hours and your husband isn’t answering his phone and the kids are crying, it feels miserable. And it is definitely not your optimal outcome for any particular day, but there is nothing wrong or inherently bad about the situation.

Your husband shouldn’t have had the phone on.

You shouldn’t always have access to help.

Your kids shouldn’t be happy about the situation.

Your tire shouldn’t be full of air.

All of these things can be in any state without anything being wrong, even all at once.

You’ve just drawn a line in the sand about how your day should go, and when it wasn’t that way, you decided that there was something wrong with the world.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

This isn’t about being a boyscout. You’ll be fine if you run out of a good. You can run to the store, call to someone to get it, or order it on Prime if you have a day or two. Some situations are of course far more inconvenient if you don’t have a particular thing on hand—but this isn’t our real problem.

Very few of our real our problems, our big problems, our Pareto principle problems, actually come from whether or not we have immediate access to a piece of fruit or even a diaper. It may suck to clean up poopy pants or a poopy car seat, but it isn’t going to kill you.

What is going to make today worse, and all of your days worse, is if you expect to not have to deal with problems like this, and you end up having to.

The Real Enemy

Expectations are the real enemy.

Not just in every day nuisances like lacking an ingredient you thought you had, but in your relationship with your child.

And your partner.

And yourself.

In believing that you or your son or your daughter or your partner should be something other than they are, you create an unwinnable.

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you lose the chance to the admire the beauty in its swim.

“Age-Appropriate” Expectations

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There was a popular infographic going around talking about the cognitive capacities of children, when it becomes appropriate to expect things from them. I think that the effort of this infographic was noble—reducing the frustration that parents feel with their children when they have unreasonable expectations. But I feel that it also had two implicit messages that I have a harder time supporting:

  1. Expecting it: If you have an idea that someone “should” be able to do something, you will get annoyed with the fact that they aren’t doing it. If it is backed by “science”, the backlash is even worse. Parents feel not only put out by their child’s behavior, but might begin to believe there is something wrong with them.

    Milestone-mania is already rampant, and there is no need to double down on that sneaking sense of paranoia in an attempt to allay anger.

  2. Reducing Agency: One thing that happens when we decide what people “should” and “shouldn’t” be able to do is stop attempting to get them to grasp concepts or build the tools to head in that direction. This is called the tyranny of low expectations. It is essentially writing someone off and letting them pay the consequences.

More useful than developing suitable expectations is having none, but to give your children the support and skills that they need to develop and strengthen their capacities.

It’s not as if, on their fourth birthday, all or even more kids have impulse control. It’s not as if most adults have even worked that muscle particularly hard.

What is happening is a slow progression to have more emotional control—a completely unpredictable path that will move backwards and forwards more time than anyone could possibly count. A path that your child will continue to walk through toddlerhood, teenagerdom, and well into adulthood. Skills and abilities that you thought they had will seemingly fade overnight, and that they should be able to do these things—according to science!–isn’t going to help you or your child get anywhere.

Try This Instead

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Let’s go back to that day in the car.

You have a lot of other options, outside of disappointment. Give yourself five minutes to feel those feelings, then move on.

Check what your options are to carry out your original plan: Consider an Uber, see if grandma can come over, or someone can pick you up.

Or just go inside, tell grandma sorry, and have a different day from the one you were planning.

If you didn’t have that plan, how would the day have gone? How would you feel if those things didn’t happen on a day you didn’t mean for them to happen?

We can’t always have such peace and clarity, but working on lassoing in our expectations bit by bit, we can stop trying to handle disappointment, and instead just go about with our days.

Metta

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Mindfulness meditation is a big focus of this blog because it gives you a lot of benefits that are well-studied.

But mindfulness meditation is not the only kind of meditation available. Today, I want to talk about one of the other types that I find useful.

This meditation is about filling you with loving-kindness. It is called metta. It is a meditation that is used to cultivate compassion. Compassion is a very important part of leadership; it is one of the best way to relate to children—better then empathy. We use compassion so that we can feel for people, instead of feeling with them.

It is one of the easiest meditations to do without being guided.

You can use some variation of these words:

“May I be happy, may I be free. May I be comfortable, and at peace.”

Traditionally, you expand outward from there. To a loved one, you send the thoughts:

“May you be happy, may you be free. May you be comfortable, and at peace.”

I usually just set a ten minute timer, but any meditation app will have loving kindness meditations, and there are tons on Youtube.

Then you move outward from there. To an acquaintance, you say in your head:

“May you be happy, may you be free. May you be comfortable, and at peace.”

You keep expanding your circle outwards, even to those with whom you have conflict. You say:

“May you be happy, may you be free. May you be comfortable, and at peace.”

All the while, you are still practicing mindfulness. How does it feel, in your body, to wish yourself peace? How does it feel to wish your enemy peace?

You can become all-inclusive. Picture the whole world. Everyone you’ve ever loved, hated, or seen; and of course, your self.

“May we be happy, may we be free. May we be comfortable and at peace.”

Metta is most important to me on my hardest days.

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If ever I am having a hard time with my partner, I use metta to make sure I don’t let feelings go sour. Sometimes we can accidentally let occasional thoughts become habitual thought-patterns. This is one way to protect against that.

If ever I am feeling frustrated around my child’s sleep, I use metta to make sure I remember that he isn’t giving me a hard time, he is having a hard time.

Oftentimes, I don’t move past the first one. Loving kindness’ biggest advantage is for my feelings towards myself.

I sometimes feel like a bad mom. And when I do, I skip my mindfulness meditation. I skip most of the metta meditation. I just focus on feeling good towards myself. More than anything, I need to Love Myself Like My Life Depended On It, because if I’m not at my best, I can’t be at my best for my child.

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Practicing radical self-acceptance is tough. It might be tough to accept it is a good idea. You might think that practicing self-acceptance gives you some kind of pass to not improve. But it is the opposite. When you don’t think your self-worth is attached to your performance, you are more likely to identify your faults and try to improve yourself. You aren’t locked in by your self-identification as smart, or strong, or whatever it is that it is a label you feel necessary to uphold. It’s the growth mindset.

Just as for our children, acceptance does not mean accepting all behavior, it means accepting emotions.

Set up a routine for metta. Put it into your rotation, or just call upon it when you need it most.

Bids for Attention

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We took our evening walk at the park next to my house. There had just been a storm, so there were worms all over the ground. They were laying on the walkways, almost all of them dead from being stepped on. There was one survivor.

The boy was about 9 years old. He saw the one worm wiggling there, and it stirred some kind of emotion in him. He did not want to touch the worm, but he absolutely had to save it. He used his hands like two scoops and tried to quickly flick it back into the grass, hoping that the briefer the contact, the more limited was your exposure to worm germs.

It was a sweet. I’m not sure that it was helpful, but it came from a good enough place. After completing his mission, the boy ran up to his family to tell him the story of his heroic effort and success.

First, he tried his older sister. “Sarah,” he said, “I just saved a worm! He was on the street and I got him in the grass.”

She doesn’t even look at him.

He jogs up a bit further to tell his parents. He has added texture to the story in that short time. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I just tried to tell Sarah that there was a worm in the street. He was going to die, and I saved him.”

They don’t even look at him.

I hear him try for a third time. They nod in his direction.

Our paths diverged at this point, but I could see a flash of the future. All four of them get in the minivan. David—I’ve now named him—is trying to get people to acknowledge his story. To listen to a cool thing he accomplished today. Something he maybe was only interested in doing because he wanted his parents to be proud of him.

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He says (again!), ”When we were at the park, I saved a worm! I took my hands and…”

“Enough, David! We’ve heard enough about the worm, okay? Just be quiet!” his Mom snaps.

This is a common story. Parents refuse to acknowledge that their kids are speaking, and then they get annoyed that their children say the same things over and over again.

This is the exact opposite of mindfulness. You are not paying attention to where you are and being with who you’re with. Unsurprisingly, your child is disappointed that his bed for connection is ignored.

With a younger child, this won’t be just repeating the story. It will be ever-escalating attempts to get your attention. A good example of this is babies and breastfeeding. One of the ways you can have a baby that cries less is by acknowledging the early signs of hunger. This includes rooting and sucking on their hands. If you are mindful of these more subtle cues, then your baby will, not cry out of hunger, because you will feed him before he gets too hungry.

If you do not pay attention to the clues baby is sending though, you should not be surprised that after he has asked several times, he feels the need to scream and cry to get what he wants.

What would you do if you asked your partner several times to pass the mustard and he just looked at you, and then looked away? Never passing you the mustard.

Maybe you wouldn’t scream and cry. But what if it was a problem you couldn’t solve yourself? What if you kept asking your partner to help you by putting laundry in the basket instead of on the floor when they get undressed, and they never do it? This might turn into screaming.

When our early attempts at getting understanding and acknowledgment fail, we escalate until we are heard. Not just babies, not just children—all of us!

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Bids for connection are extremely important in maintaining a healthy relationship. It is useful to reflect on this as an important tool not just in romantic relationships, but all of them. This may be a joke, a touch, a story, or any other gesture designed to communicate the desire for connection.

Poor David just wanted someone to look at him and tell him it was a nice thing he did. If they disagreed with him touching the worm, they could have said they appreciate his effort to be a caring person but that there are other considerations. They just have to acknowledge it.

I’m not saying your kid won’t tell you the same story three times. I just mean it won’t be five times. In a row.

If you get down and face them, listen, and acknowledge what they’re saying, you’re less likely to have a situation that is escalated to the point of a tantrum. But you have to truly listen, not just say the words as if you’re listening.

You’ll maybe hear the same story later that night instead of two minutes later. You will be building a stronger relationship with your child because they trust you to respond sensitively to them. You’ll be practicing your mindfulness.

As a parent, it is difficult to acknowledge but important to remember that your kids will grow up and decide whether or not they want to visit you and talk to you regularly. Build a strong, good relationship so that when that time comes, you’re a person whose bids for attention they turn towards.

Who Are You Trying to Raise?

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You are living by certain values regardless of whether or not you know it. You can live by your own or you can live unwittingly at the whims of other people’s. If you are feeling tossed and turned about by different people’s opinions on parenting, it means that you have not clearly laid out what it is that you value.

You have to get clear on your values. Real clear. You have to figure out what you want, exactly, for yourself and your child, and then you can decide who is worth listening to.

If you feel like you have conflicted values because you want a free-spirited child but you also want a child who will, please, just listen, then you are thinking in the wrong terms.

Start thinking about what you want out of a person. You want a pro-social, cooperative person, who is capable of expressing themselves. If you met someone like this, you would not be shocked by their seemingly contradictory traits. Because there is nothing contradictory about them.

In fact, being assertive and being pro-social are linked together, as long as they’re coupled with the ability to read social cues. This is for adults and children.

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Once you understand what it is that you want to encourage in your children—likely, those traits that you value in other people—and realize that there is nothing contradictory about them, it is much easier to come up with methods of discipline and rules for your family. It’s easier to be the parent you want to be because you’re standing on solid ground.

Relationships are what humans are, because it is what we do. More than anything else, more than even tool-makers, we are the relationship-makers.

Together, you and your child are building an image in his mind of what relationships should look like.

How do you want your child to view relationships?

In the future, do you want your child to be baffled by the fact that they don’t win every argument, that their pouting doesn’t get them what they want, that other people’s feelings have to come into the equation? Do you want your child to see relationships as one way streets?

In the future, do you want your child to think that hearing a “no” means that they aren’t loved?

Do you want them to be scared of other people’s emotions?

No.

You want them to consider others. You want them to understand that other people’s emotional experiences are valid—even if they don’t feel the same way, even if they don’t understand it.

That all starts now.

Showing your children your emotions, calmly, and discussing them with them, is showing them that others have feelings that they must consider.

It is showing them that emotions are nothing to be afraid of.

It is modeling emotional regulation for them.

It is allowing them to reflect on how they influence the world.

When you hide your emotions, you are showing your child that they don’t have an effect on the world. That others emotions don’t come into the equation when navigating a situation.

That doesn’t mean you should lose your cool. It only means that from the beginning, you can teach your children that it takes two. It takes two people’s desires and wants and opinions and effort to make a healthful relationship.

Or three people.

Or four.

However big your family is.

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We don’t want our children to be sociopaths. We want them to be loving, caring people who understand that compromise is often necessary and that conflict does not always mean getting our way—even though sometimes, it does!

We want them to understand that other people have different boundaries than they do, and that they must be respectful of them.

Once we get clear on our values—that we want our children to be emotionally healthy and cooperative and that sometimes means not being happy in the moment—it is easy to see how limit setting and emotional validation are not mutually exclusive, but mutually supportive.

Teaching our children these basic values—cooperation and reciprocation—is one of the best gifts we can give them because they’re universally appreciated and useful in every area of life. Teaching our children this important value—that we don’t cave on our boundaries because someone else has big emotions, is a tremendous benefit that will carry them through many difficult times. Be the adult you want them to be.