It’s not perfect… it is as it is ….and within that are some really great moments!

moreton island

I was really lucky recently to be able to go camping on Moreton Island, QLD with my partner and four kids for 8 nights with just the basics (e.g. cold showers)…. and it really felt like a retreat from the world as we slept, snorkelled, kayaked, ate and slept some more!

But as the layers fell and we slowed down… and we focussed more on being and less on doing I noticed that even then….even when things were really peaceful and less stressful, my mind would STILL be classifying each moment as ‘like that’ or ‘don’t like that’ and I would be disappointed that this holiday wasn’t PERFECT!

It was almost as if by slowing down I became more aware of my mind’s ‘chatter’ and I was amazed that even when on a tropical island there was still potential to be unhappy… e.g. ‘it’s too hot’, ‘it’s raining’, ‘there’s mossies’, ‘I wish we had fresh fruit’ ‘the kids are fighting again’ etc. It didn’t seem to matter how relaxed we were I was still finding things I wanted to avoid or crave.    I would dwell on memories of  past holidays and wish that this one would have that same or even better moment of happiness, connectedness or relaxation…  I was spending a lot of my holiday in the past or the future and not in the present!

This got me thinking about the Buddhist principle that aversion & craving cause our suffering/distress.   As humans we tend to classify moments as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and crave more of the pleasant and try to avoid the unpleasant.  Maybe this is human nature and it may even be an important survival strategy?    But if we are to be content with the present moment we need to observe our judgements and not get too caught up in them.   E.g. ‘I’m having the thought that it would be really nice to have air conditioning/ a more comfortable mattress /  a hot shower right now’ and let that thought drift by and remain in the present moment…

As I noticed these thoughts and became less caught up in them I was able to be more and more immersed in the present and less and less bothered by the  ‘unpleasant’ features of camping.   Each time I noticed them I would think ‘This isn’t perfect, it is as it is, and within that are some really great moments!’ and somehow this helped – in fact it is still helping me to adapt to life back in the real world!

I hope you all had a good start to the New Year with some time to reflect and be mindful 🙂

The Big Squeeze – between reality & our aspirations / expectations…

expectations 2

I’ve just read Pema Chodron’s book ‘Start Where You Are: How To Accept Yourself & Others’, a really comforting book to read!

Pema Chodron's book

One concept that I loved and applies to my life right now is the ‘Big Squeeze’ the idea that for all of us there is a conflict between our current reality and our aspirations & expectations.  On one hand we need to learn to accept where we are at right now, to live in the moment and be grateful for life as it is, on the other hand we still need to aspire to new and better ways of living our lives and often it is in a crisis that we most feel the Big Squeeze….we know where we need to go but our reality presents something different entirely!

To me this sums up my experience of parenting!!  From pregnancy there were hopes & aspirations re: birth, sleep, breastfeeding, and time and again reality was different!  Some things I needed to accept I could not change, (e.g my house would forever more be messy!) some things like my temper and explosive anger I had to aspire to change but I also had to cope with the roller coaster ride of reality; sometimes improving and sometimes regressing as I went along…

Then there were/are the aspirations and expectations for our own children…..that they would be well-behaved at their Granny’s house or at the shops, that they would eat all healthy food placed before them, that they would willingly keep the house tidy, that they would like school and like doing what I like doing…..all of these things present an opportunity for the Big Squeeze – my well-intentioned aspirations and the reality….and each time it is a difficult task to accept reality but also to choose what I will continue to aspire to, and what expectations were too high in the first place!!!

Then the next area of life that has the Big Squeeze is the area of work / life balance.  I’ve just started a new job and I had great aspirations to build and maintain a healthy, creative, mindful, loving life balance (FINALLY!)….and the reality was on top of the exhaustion of learning the ropes my whole family got sick and it is taking awhile to recover, everyone is in a grumpy mood, the reality couldn’t be further from my hopes…..I don’t want to give up hope for a work/life balance but I also need to accept where we are at right now, it just takes the pressure off and makes life a lot easier, one step at a time….  And if I never reach that glorious balance….then I need to find a way of relishing the chaos of family life as it happens, as it unfolds!

I could go on, another big squeeze is in our adult relationships, the reality is often far from how we would like them to be, with our parents, siblings, partner….. and somehow in those still moments when you can accept where the relationship is at right now, and still hold hope for where you would like the relationship to be there is a nice warm peaceful feeling…..it’s just hard to maintain in everyday life!!!

I’m sure I’ll think of many other Big Squeeze moments, can you think of one that you are experiencing in your life?

Pema Chodron quote 3

Social Approval…..can we be mindful of this need?

limbic system 2

As I have recently moved states, moved towns, changed jobs…I’ve been thinking a lot about something that Russ Harris (The Happiness Trap / Act Mindfully) talks about….

If you have studied mindfulness then you will probably be aware of the latest brain research that shows that our emotional brain (amygdala / limbic system) sends out alarm signals when we perceive a threat to our safety….and we immediately go into a healthy flight, fight or freeze response to stay safe.  Often however in our modern world that alarm can go into overdrive and be triggered by very small events (e.g. our child’s tantrums, can’t find our keys, being put on hold for 40 minutes etc) and we can be on high alert constantly, experiencing chronic stress, even though our safety is not threatened. Thankfully research now proves that the ancient art of mindfulness can help to calm down our alarm centre….by breathing immediately and over time.

What I found fascinating and have been thinking about a lot recently is Russ Harris’s comment that because we are essentially ‘herd’ animals we can also feel the same sense of alarm when it feels like our ability to belong to a group is threatened….that we biologically once had a need for social acceptance to survive and we still have this!

So this explains that a lot of the tension in my neck and shoulders and high adrenalin is not from a perceived threat to my safety but a fear about whether I will fit in or not, about what to say and how to say it, about whether I will be liked by enough people to feel accepted…..and comfortable in this new community.  Awareness of this hasn’t really helped to ease the tension, but it has helped to understand it and to know that when I’m feeling particularly nervous/worried I can breathe mindfully to calm down that alarm centre… and hopefully reduce the stress a bit?

This then gives me great insight into how it is for kids and teenagers, that it is a ‘survival drive’ to fit in at all costs….that is why they are so desperate to have the latest gadget, to be on social media….to them it feels like a need and they are so upset when us as parents don’t give them what they ‘need’.   I’m still not sure how to negotiate this one…..but if awareness is 50% of the journey then at least I’m on my way to knowing what to do!!!  Perhaps a starter point is to talk to our kids & teens as to what is really a need and what is a want in today’s world?

Conflicting desires for our children…and being mindful of them…

Following on from my last blog I’ve been thinking a lot about the conflicting desires we have for our children… I was particularly fascinated with a comment made on the ‘Life at 9’ series on ABC iview about the fact that we want our children to be persistent… But we also want our children to be flexible, too much of one and too little of the other is not healthy. Too true! As an adult I am still uncertain when to persist and when to let go or try another angle!

So what are some other conflicting desires for our children? Here’s some I can think of…
Independence vs keeping them safe & protected
Socialising and achieving in the outside world vs having quiet time at home/ with the family
Learning to deal with conflict, work as a team and negotiate vs peace and no fights at home, ever!
Protecting our kids from disappointment and the realities of life vs learning how to deal with strong emotions and growing resilience
Exposing our kids to many different activities, especially those we like! vs allowing them to follow their own passions / talents
Wanting our kids to be confident in all settings vs allowing them to be introverted / shy / nervous
Wanting kids to develop their own sense of self vs wanting them to do it our way/ follow our rules!!

Mmm I’m sure there are many others… No wonder this parenting game can feel like challenging tightrope walking!

Mindfulness & Children

My Favourite way of explaining the brain to children but also to parents! Thank you Dan Siegel!

Mostly I am so flat out with life and trying to be more mindful myself that I must admit I don’t do enough teaching of mindfulness to my 4 children….not as much as I would like to anyway!   Jon Kabat Zinn in his book ‘Parenting Mindfully’ believes it is enough for children to see their parent become more mindful – here’s hoping…

There have been a few easy strategies though that have really worked….and writing this blog renews my motivation to keep going!

1. The Mindful Minute: When we have just walked up to the top of a beautiful lookout as I am trying to appreciate the view often there will be a moan, whinge, tease  or complaint!   Asking everyone just for 1 minute of silence to see how many things they can hear or see or how many shades of green or blue can they see, gives me one minute to appreciate the view, at least two kids will get into it and find new things they weren’t aware of and whoever was in a bad mood gets a minute to calm down…..there’s always a shift in the atmosphere — we seem to all feel better for it afterwards, even if  there was rolling of eyes at the start!

2. Cultivating Gratitude: At the start of some meals just asking everyone to pause and talk about where the food came from, who cooked it, shopped for it, grew it, transported it OR to ask that everyone eats there first mouthful mindfully OR go around the table and say one thing you are grateful for….again there might be some reluctant participants but there is always a softening of the mood around the table, a re-connecting and the meal is more enjoyable!!

3. In times of pain or distress: helping children to focus on a different body part e.g. can you feel your toes, wiggle your toes, I’m going to squeeze your fingers….can be easier than asking them to breathe….I found this also eased my own distress and then I could begin to breathe deeper and model that for them.   There are also some beautiful visualisation meditations for children that I used for helping kids to go to sleep and if they are familiar with them then they can be perfect for using when your child is sick or in pain

4. Mindful Massage:  When my kids were young a friend recommended buying massage tools and encouraging your kids to ‘drive’ them over your back!  Another Mum used to lie on the floor and encourage her boys to drive their matchbox cars over her back!!   My kids still LOVE a massage and love giving one to….and BOTH can be very mindful – as the giver or the receiver…it’s a great way to reconnect without words!

5. Mindful Hug: Hugging until relaxed….hugging a loved one just a little bit longer & being really mindful about it- you can feel the tension drop away!

6. The BIG ONE- Dealing with BIG EMOTIONS!:  I have found this the hardest – but also the most essential.  For me the biggest thing to learn (&still learning as we enter the teen years) is how to sit with your child’s BIG emotions and not try to fix them or dismiss or minimise them but validate the emotions and importantly name them.   Then we needed to cultivate in our house the idea of ‘positive timeout’ (you can read more about it on http://www.positivediscipline.com ) where you are not ‘punished’ or sent away for feeling ANGER & FRUSTRATION but instead shown how to find ways to calm yourself down BEFORE communicating about the problem!   We still have a long way to go in our house with this one – when the anger & frustration is directed at me I find it VERY hard not to buy into it…..but I felt like we got somewhere when my eldest at 13 said ‘Mum I’ve learnt that the best thing to do when I’m feeling angry is to go for a bike ride, then I feel better’   It has really helped to talk to my children about how the emotional brain works (fight, flight or freeze response & the brain in the hand model – see the youtube clip above by Dan Siegel) and how we can calm it down but I haven’t done it for awhile so this is inspiring me to bring it up again as it is such an important part of life….if only I had learnt how to handle emotion when I was a child / teen rather than as a new Mum at 27!!!!

It is great writing this as it gives me heart that perhaps I have introduced more mindfulness into our house than I first thought and also it’s strengthened my commitment to persist!  My favourite books on the subject are Dan Siegel ‘ The Whole Brain Child’ http://www.drdansiegel.com/ and Goldie Hawn ’10 Mindful Minutes’.   The best program within schools that I can find is MINDUP  http://thehawnfoundation.org/mindup/ – Goldie Hawn is the passionate founder and they have just had a series of workshops in Australia.  How amazing would that be if in every school, in every class, kids were being taught 10 minutes of mindfulness!!!  The results they have got so far in the states seem amazing!!