How I Try to Meditate While Parenting


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When I was very young, my father introduced me to meditation. A very Zen style of meditation that I enjoyed because I felt cool to do the practice. No, really, I thought it made me a cool kid. Most of the time, I thought of myself as this unpopular guy that everyone must think of as a nerd. When I meditated, I felt like a better version of myself, even though no one had a clue what I was doing.

I thought I had a fantastic ability to clear my mind of all thoughts, and that made me a fantastic meditator. Afterwards, I’d feel a little calmer, but mostly just cool. At least, for a little while, until my nerdiness took over again.

I never really had a practice when I was a child. I’d mostly meditate with my father. Over the years, it’d become this sporadic practice that I’d start for a little while, and then it’d taper off. I’d read all kinds of books on Buddhism, and I’d get all inspired, but then life would just take over. Meditation became something I felt like I didn’t really have time to do.

I got older and in some ways wiser. I realized being a nerd was not a bad thing at all, and being a meditator had nothing to do with being cool. I also realized my ability to make my mind as blank as I could make it wasn’t necessarily a sign of impending enlightenment — and I learned to accept this as progress.

I had this little shift in my thinking when I started to read Thích Nhất Hạnh‘s Peace Is Every Step. To be sure, just about any book by Thích Nhất Hạnh is a worthwhile read, but this one in particular resonated with me. I started to really understand that one didn’t have to sit on a zafu for a while to meditate. You could find a way to meditate wherever you are, no matter what you’re doing. Sitting meditation is absolutely a valuable practice, but it’s not the only way.

“Each time you look at a tangerine, you can see deeply into it. You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine. When you peel it and smell it, it’s wonderful. You can take your time eating a tangerine and be very happy.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh, Peace Is Every Step

I thought this was fantastic and I began to do walking meditation, eating meditation, biking meditation, man-I-have-a-nasty-migraine meditation. I would live in the present moment. I would be here, rooted.

Life, however, always comes back to take over; the novice forgets he has a practice he can do. Somehow, the practice slips the mind, and suddenly a life without meditation becomes so normal that one doesn’t even think about it. In the back of my mind, my meditative muscles lay in wait, ready to be used.

As a parent, I find my time being devoured by all things parenting, that I started to have that feeling again of not having time to meditate. It just didn’t feel possible. Somehow, despite all my past practice and everything I had read, I couldn’t think to meditate in the moment the way I used to do. It was as if being a parent had turned me into someone very forgetful. In fact, both my wife and I feel much more absentminded since becoming parents.

The active practice was dormant, but the truth is, that part of who I am was always present. In the background, in the deep hidden places of my mind, it was still at work. I found myself able to find my own peace much more quickly than I would have once upon a childhood. Little reminders began to pop up of meditation’s value, like a long-lost friend shouting “Hey! Don’t forget me!”

Somewhere along the line, a practice crept back into my life. I’m not doing sitting meditation regularly, though I still have interest in doing that, but I’ve started to intentionally make the mental space in my life to do things with a meditative focus. I use mindfulness to meditate wherever I am when I think to do it. When I wash my dishes, I breath in and out deeply, focusing my attention on the dishes. I study how the water traverses the plate, how the soap suds pop into nonexistence, how the warmth of the water warms my hand, how the scent of lemon from the soap smells invigorating. When thoughts pop in my mind, which they sometimes do, I acknowledge them and let them go. To be honest, I’m still capable of making my mind pretty blank but it’s more important to me to just be mindfully aware of the present moment.

Now, let’s take honesty a step further. This act during parenting? It’s hard! I’m not going to pretend it’s easy for me to meditate while parenting. Go back to the title and look at what it says. There’s a key word there: try.

Before you start to quote Yoda, I’d like you to consider the fact that he’s a fictional (although, fantastic) creation of an imaginative mind. There is nothing wrong with trying. Trying is the first step to practicing.

So how do I try to meditate while parenting? I’ll give a few examples, and then perhaps you’ll find your own:

When my kids have something to say to me, I try to be fully present. I don’t always succeed, but I find that if I breathe deeply, watch what they have to say, studying the faces I love, then I’m more in the moment. If it’s something nice, then I can appreciate it even more. If it’s a whine or a complaint, then I’m more likely to have a peaceful response as my first response. (In all honesty, since I am truly a novice, even that peace can be whittled down eventually if we’re in a whining situation.)

When they are playing together, I can sit and watch them mindfully. I notice what they’re doing and every thought I might have will be acknowledged and let go. Even happy thoughts can be let go, because they distract from being present. Think about it: you watch your kids get along, and you think about how great that is, and then suddenly you’re not as present because you’re thinking about that rather than continuing to watch them mindfully. It’s not a bad thing, at all, but it’s not what I am trying to do.

When I feel anger because one of them broke a rule intentionally and repeatedly, I try to call my attention toward that anger long enough to recognize that it’s there and that’s okay, but it’s time to try and let it drift away a bit. I don’t want the anger to be what drives my actions. Anger served its purpose, it doesn’t need to linger. I try to use the common mental imagery of a river flowing by with all my thoughts and emotions in it. Sometimes that helps, sometimes it doesn’t. If I can be mindful about it, I’m more likely to respond how I’d like to respond: firm, but in control, with compassion guiding me.

When I am sitting for two hours on a rock-hard bench while my older son plays roller hockey, I can choose between being bored out of my mind and focused on how the benches are clearly subtle instruments of torture, or I can try to meditate right there by sitting mindfully. Yes, I’d especially love a zafu in those moments for the obvious reasons, but I can choose to put my attention on the game. I can watch the skaters gliding across the rink, the rise and fall of the hockey sticks, the travels of the puck. I can breathe in and out, deeply, not holding onto thoughts about how I’d rather be at home instead of on the bench.

Sometimes I fail. Maybe half the time, which I can absolutely accept. Seeking perfection is not really necessary. If we’re just trying to increase the number of moments where we are meditative in our day, then every little bit helps. I’m not a meditation teacher, so I am not attempting to teach how to practice it. I can say that, in my experience, the integral aspects are to be present, breath deeply, acknowledge thoughts and emotions compassionately, and let them drift away. They’ll come back, I think, because this river I spoke of is more of a circular river. What goes down the river just may reappear somewhere along the line. If you’re lucky, when it comes by again, it’ll be mostly submerged, and not so much of a distraction to you.

I think it’s worthwhile to incorporate meditation in life any way that we can. If it seems impossible to find time to do sitting meditation, then you can find those other moments. Perhaps your meditation practice can be made up of 30-second moments scattered throughout your day. I have no doubt that it will still be beneficial, and I find that the more I personally practice those moments, the more moments like that I have.

As parents, don’t we need such moments?

Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

Mindfulness is often spoken of as the heart of Buddhist meditation. It’s not about Buddhism, but about paying attention. That’s what all meditation is, no matter what tradition or particular technique is used.

Jon Kabat-Zinn


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