Ever since I stumbled onto the idea of meditation in a late night Google session almost two years ago, I’ve been reading and listening to meditation teachers, practicing being “mindful” in my daily life, and trying to carve out time each day to quiet my brain.
It is a challenging practice—my mind is nuts—but the more I realize how truly difficult it is to do a simple “pay attention to your breath” meditation, the more I need it. Now that I’ve seen how often my mind wanders away from the present moment and gets caught up in worst-case scenarios and false beliefs and fears, I wish for peace inside my head.
It’s even more critical now, in this time of worldwide unease, to pay attention to things I can do to find calm. I imagine some of you may feel the same.
Here are some nuggets that I am learning:
Just One Thing
For years, I’ve prided myself on being able to multi-task. This meant (I thought) that I was a super-productive person. My to-do lists are long—between work, home, caregiving, and “me” time—so my choices of focus are many. Usually I am tackling several items simultaneously, bouncing from one thing to the next and back.
But now, I’m retraining my mind to be “lazy,” giving myself permission to attend to just one thing at a time. Why I am overworking myself doing multiple things at once? I can just do this now. Just this. And somehow, I’ll find time to get that next thing done.
Even something as simple as doing the dishes—I don’t have to be also writing a grocery list or making mental notes for the upcoming doctor’s appointment or figuring out how to write a social story about proper hand washing—I can just do the dishes, and use that mundane task as a chance to give my brain a rest.
This is especially important as a special needs parent, since my focus is always split. There’s a part of me that is always aware of my son’s needs, and his presence automatically adds a second “task” to anything I’m doing. So, I really need to avoid adding on more layers of multitasking. In fact, I’m finding moments when I can even drop the son-awareness, which is a very new concept for me. I don’t have to be worried or planning for him every second of his day.
I’m Over Over-thinking
That’s the other thing this mindfulness practice has helped me recognize – the amount of time I spend scheming over “what if’s” and plotting “how to’s,” and how counterproductive that habit can be.
Dan Harris (through his meditation teacher, Joseph Goldstein) describes how confronting anxious thoughts with one question can help quiet down those endless worry loops: “Is this useful?” Most of the time, when I find myself re-hashing a past conversation or scripting an upcoming one or fretting over what I will do if x, y or z happens, if I pause to ask “Is this useful?,” the answer is usually “No.” I can only gnaw at an issue so many times before it just becomes a perseveration that actually prohibits me from doing the thing that I’m trying to plan. I can just drop it for now, and deal with it when it comes up. If it ever does.
Right Now, It’s Like This
Here’s another useful phrase I’ve stolen (this one from Jay Michaelson): “Right now, it’s like this.” This is a way of accepting what’s happening in the moment, even if it’s a bad moment, without getting caught up in your emotions or beliefs about what’s going on. This is the attitude that brought me to mindfulness almost two years ago—it reminded me of advice I’d been given for handling my son’s meltdowns in a calm, non-reactive way.
Especially when we’re being tossed between sunny and sullen on a sometimes hourly basis, I’m trying to live “in the moment” without judging the situation as “good” or “bad.” Sometimes this feels like denial—like I’m not allowing myself to honestly react to the awfulness of a bad scene. I’m working on finding other ways, support groups and so on, to process my own stress, but in that moment, my son doesn’t need to feel the weight of my stress on top of his own.
This mantra can help me find the kindness and patience that we both need. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good. “Right now….it’s like this,” and all I can do is breathe.
Respond (not React)
Along with that, I’m learning to put some distance between what’s happening and my gut reaction. If I can approach a situation in a non-judgmental frame of mind, I give myself time to respond with more ease, rather than on reactive impulse.
As in: Wow, my frustrated reaction to him not getting out of bed on time is all wrapped up in anger that he will be late again and fear for his future when I’m not here to help him and shame that I don’t know how to teach him responsibility and guilt that I’m letting others down by us being late and anxiety about changes to my own planned schedule for today.
That’s a lot to dump on a kid who is just waking up. And, it’s not at all helpful in this moment. Meditation and the study of mindfulness is reminding me (on some days) to pause and not allow all that inner turmoil to impact how I speak and act with a young man who has his own anxieties, and who frankly probably needs more sleep.
Relax into the Madness
Many teachers promote the benefits of mindfulness in parenting—for new parents discovering the joyous insanity of baby/toddlerhood and for older parents grappling with the insane joys of adolescence. These insights are helpful for me, too, as the insanity (and joy) continues in this adult-caregiver role.
Meditation teacher Yael Shy talks of accepting the “messy, but often beautiful, reality” of parenting, letting go of the mythologized expectations of parenthood and opening to the shifted priorities that your crazy, wonderful, exasperating yet sweet children bring to your life. Shy asks: “Can you relax into the madness? Can you soften into this bizarre new life?”
Strangely—even with the genuine stressors we are feeling both inside and outside our home at this time—I’m getting better at relaxing into this life. Even in the midst of the chaos. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but in tiny moments.
Some of this relaxing comes from being a “been-there-done-that” parent. I can remind myself that we’ve made it through all the other rough times, and we’ll likely do that again. Somehow.
But I’m learning how to acknowledge the fear and uncertainties that I still have, do the work that’s needed for him and for myself, while also accepting this life as it is. I do not even totally understand this yet—how I can be both aware of high stress and find true moments of ease. This is a daily practice, but I’m starting to see some hope here.
I am far from being able to implement the benefits of meditation in my day for very long, but if nothing else, I’m enjoying the practice.
If you want to check it out, Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier franchise—books, app, newsletter, and podcast—has been really helpful for me as a “newbie” to all this.
And, Ten Percent Happier has just added (and will continue to update) a page of free resources and guided meditations focused on handling stress during this Coronavirus outbreak.