By Deborah Groening-Rother, PsyD
Excerpted from Rick Hanson’s blog, Just One Thing (www.rickhanson.net)
“The benefits from a regular meditation practice include a decrease in the stress-related hormone cortisol, insomnia, autoimmune illnesses, PMS, asthma, emotional distress, anxiety, and panic, as well as an increased immune response, detachment from reactivity, increased self-understanding, and general well being. (HansonR2013).” By meditating, either using a mantra (transcendental) or the breath (mindfulness meditation), you will notice the many thoughts, feelings, wants and desires that enter your mind. Rather than letting them get a hold of you, you will learn to watch them come and go, come and go, like clouds in the sky, without attachment.
How does this apply to parenting, you ask? In our Mindful Parenting Groups we practice these same techniques of mindfulness through mindful observation. By slowing down our interactions with our children and reflecting on their possible meanings before responding reactively, we are actually practicing mindfulness-in-action. I often talk to parents about parenting from “the messy middle,” as I like to call it, which basically means that you both hear your child — allowing her to have her feelings, while not being afraid of her being angry at you for setting limits. This ability to both hear your child’s anger and acknowledge it, while still setting a limit, is similar to the idea that in meditation we acknowledge the thoughts and feelings that inevitably arise, but we just notice them without reacting to them. In mindful parenting, we are training our mind to understand that although our child’s emotions are going to be clearly bothersome to our mind, these emotions do not have to be taken up by our mind — we can both hold our ground while also being compassionate and respectful.
This is fine in theory but much more difficult to practice in the heat of the moment. We can remember to stay calm and stay firm but we may forget to do the first part — to acknowledge our toddler’s big feelings — before setting our limit — simply because our children’s big feelings are so difficult for us to contain, understand and bear within our own minds. For example, if your toddler is hitting you during a time of “big feelings,” it is very hard to keep your wits about you — especially if you’re in a public space or if you are with friends or family who are “observing” your “unusual” parenting approach. This is when a mindfulness meditation practice can really come in handy! Instead of going into an automatic response mode, however, you can remember to slow down, gather yourself up, and then use those skills of narration — acknowledging your child’s feelings first by saying whatever you think might be motivating her behavior (trying to match her affect as best you can), and then, when you do set your limit, your child will be more likely to respond more willingly and favorably because she will have felt heard and
understood. Regular meditation and consistent mindful parenting practices use exactly the same mechanisms.
From the lens of brain science or neuro-anatomy, regular meditation practice has been shown to increase gray matter in the brain consisting of neuronal cell bodies and synapses in the insula — which handles interoception (a sense of your own body) including a sense or self-awareness and empathy for others; in the hippocampus –which supports autobiographical, or emotion-bound personal memories; in the amygdala (the alarm bell of the brain) where we see an increased calming response; and in the prefrontal cortex from which executive functions such as decision-making, self-control, and focused attention emanate.
Meditation lifts mood and trains you to pay attention – it enables you to be able to slow down to what is happening in the moment –which promotes learning. In order to learn one must not be too preoccupied by intrusive thoughts from the past nor worries about the future. Meditation is powerful medicine. Mindfulness, directed at the every day practice of parenting, can also be potent. This is how you can change your brain and your life for the better, creating new, more empowering habits of mind that will get passed on to future generations.
One more thing… In meditation practice, if you tend to feel flooded or overwhelmed when you relax into yourself, just begin for perhaps one minute a day, slowly building inner resources to help you gain inner strength, and over time you can increase the amount of time you can sustain your sitting practice. Just like physical exercise, the more you do it the better you get at it. In mindful parenting, the same rule applies – the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Excerpted from Jon Kabat Zinn, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Well Baby Center ®