This is the first part of a two part series.
Mindfulness has become a familiar, if not ubiquitous word in the last few years, and not only in the health and self-help communities. Nowadays, you’re just as likely to hear a Fortune 500 CEO rave about how her morning transcendental meditation session supports her success, as you are to overhear a yogini mention that it’s her daily time on the mat that she credits for her patience with her kids, or how her breath work helps her tolerate an otherwise aggravating boss. Mindfulness has become the ultimate crossover concept, because none of us are immune to its benefits. Especially not our kids. Recent studies have shown that practicing mindful parenting can have some significant positive impacts on your children, suggesting that “encouraging more mindful, responsive parenting—and less harsh punishments or yelling—may indirectly help kids to avoid some of the risks of adolescence, such as depression, anxiety, acting out, and drug use.” (mindful.org) Is it possible, with all our intent focus on everything from getting our kids into the best preschools and extracurriculars and paving their paths to the world’s best universities, to medicating for ADHD and every behavioral challenge under the sun, that the real magic bullet to effective parenting has been right under our nose all along? Is mindful parenting your best bet at setting your child up with their best chance at the successful future he/she deserves?
What Is Mindfulness, Anyway?
Mindfulness, simply put, is the state of being fully attentive and present to the moment. But this is no buzz word. According to The New York Times, “mindfulness” has more exotic origins. In the late 19th century, the heyday of both the British Empire and Victorian Orientalism, a British magistrate in Galle, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), with the formidable name of Thomas William Rhys Davids, found himself charged with adjudicating Buddhist ecclesiastical disputes. He set out to learn Pali, a Middle Indo-Aryan tongue and the liturgical language of Theravada, an early branch of Buddhism. In 1881, he thus pulled out “mindfulness” — a synonym for “attention” from 1530 — as an approximate translation of the Buddhist concept of sati, […] the first of seven factors of enlightenment.
“Mindfulness” finally became an American brand, however, a hundred years later, when the be-here-now, Eastern-inflected explorations of the ’60s came to dovetail with self-improvement regimes. In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist in New England and a longtime meditator in the Zen Buddhist tradition, saw in Rhys Davids’s word a chance to scrub meditation of its religious origins. Kabat-Zinn believed that many of the secular people who could most benefit from meditation were being turned off by the whiffs of reincarnation and other religious esoterica that clung to it. So he devised a new and pleasing definition of “mindfulness,” one that now makes no mention of enlightenment: “The awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
What Value Does Practicing Mindfulness Add to My Life?
Okay, so we know what mindfulness means. Now what? What’s in it for us to take the time out of our busy day to secure some quality moments in quiet silence, on our yoga mat, journaling, breathing, or in meditation? We’ve got playgroups to carpool to, meal planning, school drop-offs, soccer practices, work proposals, bills to pay, and relationships to tend to. Do we really have time to add mindfulness to that list? The good news is, the answer is yes, there are always ways to fit mindfulness into any schedule, and the more we develop the habit of allowing ourselves to be fully present to each moment, the less that mindfulness feels like a task and the more it simply becomes who and how we are. It is innate to us, our natural state of being.
“Small children are naturally mindful, noticing the world around them with great curiosity, fascinated by a leaf or stone they find on the road. We adults are often the ones who are hurrying them along, teaching them that life is all about getting to the next place. So the more we rediscover how to be mindful ourselves, the more we can appreciate and nurture our children’s innate capacity to be present in each moment.”
I often hear adults wish aloud that they could go back to childhood, or their college days, the last time that they can recall having little to no responsibility to anyone or anything beyond their own personal happiness. Remember when you were a small child, and the most important thing in the world was – whatever is happening right now? Whoever you are with right now? That is what we have to gain by unlearning some of the things we’ve learned over the years. I equate these ideas that don’t serve us in life as baggage we’ve accumulated over the years from societal guidelines we’re encouraged to assimilate on our course to adulthood. When was the last time you observed an adult professional, dressed for work in the morning, stop to observe a butterfly meandering by, or a bird’s singing? We’re much too busy checking work emails in-line at Starbucks, rushing to our cars, and getting to the office – focusing on what we’re told we “should” do – to acquire the things we “should” have. The content of our days often becomes endless to-do lists. There is nothing experiential about living a to-do list. And life is about experiencing, about being.
Once we recognize the value in regaining a more balanced perspective in life, often a byproduct of our beginning a mindfulness practice, there are myriad health benefits that will soon follow. Science has shown that mindfulness can lead to:
Decreased stress and psychological distress in adults
Enhanced mental health and functioning
Increased emotion regulation and self-control
“Mindfulness can also help alleviate stress through improving emotion regulation, leading to a better mood and better ability to handle stress (Remmers, Topolinski, & Koole, 2016),” according to positivepsychologyprogram.com, pointing out the significant health benefits of the state of relaxation that can be reached through mindfulness, including:
Higher brain functioning
Increased immune function
Lowered blood pressure
Lowered heart rate
Increased attention and focus
Increased clarity in thinking and perception
Lowered anxiety levels
Experience of being calm and internally still
Experience of feeling connected