I’ve been thinking about mindfulness a lot lately.
I always do this time of year.
The High Holidays remind me to slow things down, focus on what really matters, and appreciate all the wonderful blessings and people in my life.
But then life gets busy again really quickly. In no time at all, I’m rushing around. There are not enough hours in the day, and stuff starts to pile up. My kids are crazy busy too, and I feel like all I do is nag them (Do your homework, Go to bed, Stop fighting).
I’m stressed out. I forget I’m supposed to breathe…
Enter Carla Naumburg.
Carla is a clinical social worker who writes the mindful parenting blog for Psychcentral.com. Her work has appeared in academic journals as well as The Huffington Post, Parents.com, The Jewish Daily Forward and The New York Times Motherlode blog, among others. Her first book on mindful parenting will be published next month. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and two daughters.
I met Carla because we both write for Raising Kvell—a blog for those who want to add a Jewish twist to parenting. After reading her post on mindful parenting, I knew I needed to reach out. She’s given me some great advice, and I’m excited to share some of her wisdom with you today.
Have you always incorporated mindfulness into your life? How about meditation? What brought these practices close to you?
I didn’t actually start practicing mindfulness until a couple of years ago, when my daughters were about 3.5 and 2. I found that I was having a hard time staying calm in my daily life with my girls. I was yelling at them when I got frustrated or upset. Even though I knew that yelling was common among folks in my parenting cohort, I wasn’t comfortable with it. I didn’t like how it made me feel (out of control!), I didn’t like how it made my daughters feel (scared and sad), and I definitely didn’t like how it was impacting our relationship. So I started researching different ways to get (and stay) calm, and everything I read pointed to meditation and mindfulness. I decided to give it a shot.
Can you lead a mindful life without meditating? What does mindfulness mean to you?
For me, mindfulness is about choosing to pay attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, with kindness and curiosity, and then choosing my behavior. This sounds simple, and it is, but it’s certainly not easy. My mind is constantly distracted by regrets and concerns about the past, worries and dreams about the future, or just random thoughts that jump into my brain, seemingly from nowhere. Mindfulness is about noticing when I’m completely disconnected from what is happening in my own mind and body and in the space around me and with my children and making the choice to redirect my attention back to the present moment.
I don’t believe that anyone can lead a truly mindful life all the time (except maybe the Dalai Lama??), but I do believe that we can have moments of mindfulness throughout the day. And yes, you can certainly have these moments without meditating, but it’s harder. Meditation is like practice or training for the big game—the more we practice noticing what is happening in our brains and making a choice to let those crazy or angry or scared or frustrated or confused or just plain unhelpful thoughts go and redirect our attention back to our breath (or whatever the focus of our meditation may be), the more likely we’ll be able to stay focused on what really matters (staying calm, taking care of our children, whatever), when we really need to—when our children are freaking out or we’re stuck in a boring game of Candy Land, or whatever it may be.
What is mindful parenting?
Mindful parenting is just about applying the skills of mindfulness to our interactions with our children. It’s about noticing when we’ve been triggered by parenting and we’re suddenly stuck in the past, perhaps in our own childhoods, or when we’ve gotten all worked up or angry or anxious about something that’s happened (real or imagined!) and then deciding to let those thoughts go so we can refocus our attention on the present moment, on what’s actually happening with our children, right here and right now. It’s about approaching the work of parenting with kindness and curiosity and finding ways to treat ourselves and our children with forgiveness and compassion. And perhaps, most importantly, mindful parenting is about realizing that every moment is another opportunity to start again, another opportunity to take a deep breath, find our grounding, and get focused on what really matters, whatever it may be in that moment.
I find it can be frustrating whenever I read articles offering advice on how to cope with an ever more stressful busy family life. Unplugging is not easy. In my home, it’s a constant battle, and it feels like a war I’m waging between my kids and my spouse and their electronics. Can we move the dialogue away from the constant nagging to unplug to something more positive? How can we bring mindfulness to our home and to our families in a more thoughtful and constructive way? How can we be better role models?
I love that your question ended with “How can we be better role models?” because that’s where this work really begins. It can be tempting to try to enforce rules on our children that we don’t necessarily want to follow ourselves, especially when it comes to screen time and smartphones, for example. I always think of a variation of the popular Gandhi quote: “Be the change you want to see in your family.” If you want to create more moments of mindfulness in your home and family, it needs to start with you and your spouse, with your own attitude and behavior. In terms of screen time, rather than constantly battling about electronics, a first step might be for you and your spouse to evaluate your own screen use and see if there are any changes you want to make. From there, I would recommend a family conversation to talk about how things are and how you want them to be, and see what changes your children can suggest. (The changes will be more likely to stick if they help come up with them!).
Can you give me some examples on how to bring mindfulness to younger kids? What about teenagers?
I’m currently writing a book for parents who want to teach mindfulness to their young children, so keep your eye out for it. New Harbinger Press will publish it in the fall of 2015. Here are two quick exercises that might help.
I find that younger kids respond well to concrete activities. Watching the glitter fall in a snow globe or glitter wand is a great place to start; you can talk about how the swirling glitter is like their agitated, worried, or angry thoughts, and as they watch the glitter fall, it’s as if their thoughts are calming or settling.
For teenagers, I recommend journaling or guided meditations on an MP3 player. The guided meditations can get tricky if you’re trying to get your children away from technology, but you can buy an old iPod or other MP3 player without a screen relatively cheaply on eBay and load it with only meditations.
Are there any good books you could recommend if I want to learn more and delve a little deeper?
My favorite book on mindfulness is “Real Happiness” by Sharon Salzberg.
My favorite book on mindful parenting is my own book, “Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters.” Parallax Press will publish it on October 14, and it’s available for pre-order on Amazon.com and other online booksellers right now.
I also really like “Simplicity Parenting” by Kim John Payne. It’s not directly about mindfulness, but everything he writes in that book will definitely support parents who want to slow down and be more connected with their children.
Finally, if you’re looking for a way to integrate mindfulness and Judaism, I recommend “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar” and “Every Day, Holy Day” both by Alan Morinis. Both books are an exploration of ancient Jewish practices that are absolutely in line with mindfulness. (Although they’re not directly about parenting, the advice is certainly relevant.)
How do you incorporate Judaism into your work?
I incorporate Judaism in a few different ways, most of which are small moments in my daily life. My husband and I sing the sh’ma with our daughters each night at bedtime, and I will sing it silently to myself in moments when I need to feel calm and connected. In addition, the shehecheyanu blessing reminds me to feel grateful for each new moment, for each opportunity I have to start again. Our family has Shabbat dinner together each week, which helps us all feel, connected, and grounded.
I love this time of year—New beginnings, starting fresh and new—making amends, a new school year, reconnection and renewal. How can we be mindful all year long? How can we sustain it? What can we take with us??
This is a great question. We often make resolutions during the High Holyday season that are wonderful resonations and very well intentioned, yet we have a hard time sustaining them through the year. One idea is to spend some time during the holidays thinking about how to create the structure and support you will need during the year to sustain a mindfulness practice. Perhaps you can connect with like-minded parents online or in person who you can turn to when you’re feeling lost or disconnected. Perhaps you can sign up for some meditation classes or find a meditation group. Don’t expect to be perfect (or even close), and don’t beat yourself up when you get on track. Just remember that any moment can be a shehecheyanu moment—a new moment of coming back to the present moment, of beginning again.
Thank you Carla!