Monday, October 31, 2016

MAKING WAVES: Mindful Parents, Transformed World

MAKING WAVES: Mindful Parents, Transformed World
By Shana Smith
c. 2016

MY FRIEND ANGEL was a diehard yogi for ten years before she had her first child.  She was accustomed to spending two hours on the mat a day, and had begun working on her teacher certification while subbing at local yoga studios. When she became pregnant, she started a devoted Zen meditation practice, creating the intention of a calm and loving space for her growing child to thrive in.

After her baby son Sage was born, she knew she wanted him to share in the benefits of her practice.  She was very busy as a new mom, but her yoga and meditation had become part of her identity and her vision for making a difference, and she had every intention of incorporating this mission into her role as a mother. Thankfully, there were yoga classes for moms and babies, which she loved.  While her baby stared lovingly into her eyes, she would languish in a downward dog, gazing back down at him lying swaddled on the sticky mat.  While Sage nursed, she would enjoy silent meditation. Together, they shared a daily practice of yoga, meditation, diaper changes, nursing, naps, and play that filled her heart.

Sage got bigger. Angel got busier just tending after him.  When Sage was too big for his carrier and would walk off towards the nearest electrical outlet or other hazard at any given opportunity, she could no longer bring him to the new mom yoga classes. His nursing was now so active that silent meditation was out of the question, and she had to nap when he napped out of sheer sleep deprivation. She would often go for days or even weeks without being able to find time to be on her meditation cushion or yoga mat, but she never forgot about the importance of practice.  So, as her son began to walk and talk, she began looking for programs he could partake in.  She loved doing Baby Yoga with him, and since he liked the fun guided meditation at the end, she decided to start a Toddler Meditation group. 

Several hopeful, kindred moms showed up to give Toddler Meditation a try. They placed their wiggling children on or near their laps and sat in a circle. Angel set a mindfulness bell in the middle of the circle and made silly faces in an attempt to focus the yearlings to pay attention and begin to learn how to meditate, but the whole thing ended up resembling a very noisy, erratic playgroup. The moms repeatedly tried  to quiet everyone down by ringing the mindfulness bell, but the bell ended up being clanged very loudly, over and over again, and one toddler tried to put the bell—small parts and all-- into his mouth. Babies started crying—a lot. Angel watched in disbelief as her Buddha boy started pulling a little girl’s hair with overzealous vigor. She suddenly saw her whole life as it was—time for yoga, meditation, blissful oneness with her child and the world around her—unraveling in one cacophonous afternoon.  And it wasn’t just Angel feeling this way. Everyone was beginning to look frustrated and frazzled until, thankfully, one of the moms started to laugh.  She didn’t just giggle—she belly laughed-- and the release was palpable.  She surrendered. She did her own practice rather than trying to enforce it on the toddlers.  And here’s the amazing part: the toddlers calmed down too.  Smiles replaced screams. The moms sat in presence with their crawling, teething, bouncing, drooling, pooping little beings and learned how to be in the present moment with them. And that’s when Angel had a catharsis: it wasn’t about getting her child to practice.  It was about getting back to her own.

As the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, and a yogic lifestyle become better and better known in mainstream society, teaching children early on about meditation and yoga is something a whole conscious population of moms and dads are incorporating into their parenting MO, right alongside growing gardens, eating “slow” foods, art, creativity, homeschooling or more parent-involved education, lovingkindness, environmental stewardship, animal welfare, compassionate decision making, and a whole host of other wholesome endeavors. Mindful parents and caregivers are critically aware of the need to effect a better generation to turn things around on this one struggling planet.  We have a formidable job: to raise and teach younglings to be equipped with the tools they need to make amends on a planetary scale.  Reversing global warming, improving world relations, saving species from extinction and facilitating evolved human consciousness will all be in their hands. After all, it was previous generations who exacerbated these huge problems, and now legions of western kids today are glued to violent media and hooked on fast foods while the issues begin to approach tipping points.  Moms, dads, teachers, and caregivers alike are looking for solutions, and while panicked school administrators are manically adding  STEM curriculum to preschool classes, replacing cursive with coding and cutting recess and naptime in order to try to keep up with the technological overdrive of the rest of the world, conscious parents and caregivers are manifesting another path: mindfulness.

Many parents are seeing that mindfulness practices have such a nourishing effect that kids do better in STEM, better in coding, and, well, just better (they still need their recess and naptimes, however). Cultivating inner peace, wisdom, lovingkindness, and self-awareness within makes waves that extend far beyond the reaches of our homes and right into our communities and beyond.  Indeed, the Buddha himself described that a direct result of meditation is the attainment of four emotional states--the Brahma Viharas[i]--that are so high that they radiate outward like the ripples of a single pebble making waves across the ocean. 

So it only makes sense to jump on the mindful kids bandwagon, right?  Kids’ yoga classes are popping up in yoga studios and gyms.  Wonderful books have been written about games, lessons, and lesson plans that teach meditation to kids.  Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the first to see, write about, and offer programs on the importance of kids’ mindfulness[ii]. Today teachers from even the more traditional practice of Theravada Buddhism, like the Venerable Dhammajiva[iii] are embracing the idea.  Both lay and monastic practitioners and teachers are clearly seeing that keeping these ancient practices only in the monasteries--and far away from the families--may be missing the whole point. 

There is no doubt that cultivating mindfulness in children is a noble and beneficial cause, beginning to get the attention it merits. But as my friend Angel quickly discovered, we parents are getting lost in the fervor. In fact, if we vest ourselves so fully in their mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, we may sabotage ours simply by the nature of our high-standards, self-sacrificial parenting.  Just as we tend to feed our kids first and be left hungry, leave the house in sweats and smelling of sweat while our kids are dressed and coiffed and bathed in rosewater, care for their every need while our own needs and callings sit in waiting for days, weeks, even years—so goes for a meditation and mindfulness practice. And, contrary to what some people may realize, even the most enlightened yogi/meditator needs to practice every day.  Meditation and mindfulness are daily practices, whether you’ve been doing it for twenty years or two weeks, whether you’ve reached the highest levels of Oneness Consciousness or simply had a fleeting taste of peace of mind. Indeed, in Zen, there would be no difference between any of these states.  There is only this—your practice, as essential to daily life as food, water, and shelter—and as or more essential to the state of this world as any political movement or STEM curriculum is to be able to turn things around.      
A compassionate parent might say: “Since it’s their generation we’re most invested in, I will gladly sacrifice my own practice if I can effect a new generation of mindful children.”  Makes sense, if kids had the same brains as we do.  But they don’t. Very young kids aren’t addled by strategic, manipulative, big-brained thinking like we are. Their phenomenal brains are way too busy experiencing, sensing, and discovering a whole new world for the very first time. To sit them on a cushion and ask them to be quiet for five minutes when they would much rather chase a ladybug around a rock or play with a Beepy Betty doll would only teach them to be pulled away from the present moment, when the present moment is all there is.  From age 0-5, children don’t have big egos. There’s nothing to meditate on, because they are living fully present already—they are already enlightenment embodied. But wait, you say: what about the classic 2-year old mantra known as MINE? Isn’t that about as big as an ego can get? In reality, MINE is a rather obnoxious demonstration of how present very young children truly are. There is no sense of, “well, in the past I’ve enjoyed this toy, and in the future I’m sure I’ll enjoy it too, and my friend Caitlyn may not have ever had the chance to experience the wonders of this Beepy Betty Doll the way I have, and so I would be best served to share it with her.  Besides, sharing is looked upon so highly by all the grown-ups, which means they’ll be so proud of me, and they might give me a shiny sticker, and I like that feeling, so I will share.”  No. It’s just MINE. Mine NOW. No discussion, no analysis, nothing but me and Beepy Betty now. The child and Beepy Betty, ladybug, sippy cup, nursing mama, etc. are completely one with the Universe in each and every moment. From 0-5, there is no better teacher of mindfulness than your child, and as they go through MINE and you begin to teach them, you become their models of lovingkindness as well. Share the doll with your friends. Watch and enjoy the ladybug, but please don’t hurt it. Mindfulness and lovingkindness together, working in harmony, are the essence of this practice, and the dance of pure presence and love between you and your child is a meditation unto itself.

Older kids, pre-teens and teens, on the other hand, certainly struggle with ego, identity, academic and social pressures, and other issues that threaten their peace of mind, as their relationship with the world and their responsibilities become more and more expansive.  But making them sit down to meditate while preaching to them how important it is, like any other task, may not be the direct answer. If meditation becomes a thing they have to do, like chores, tooth brushing, homework or piano practice because it’s “good for them,” then it’s not meditation anymore.  It’s a thing on a list of things that mom or dad wants them to do (insert pre-teen eye roll here). But your presence with them, your ability to give them a focused listening ear, your ability to stay grounded for them, to bathe them in that same lovingkindness they remember from their younger years despite your mind wanting to react to or dismiss their behaviors: there’s the practice for both of you, right there.

It’s mom and dad’s commitment to their own meditation practice that is the root of everything.  To cite the title mantra of Paramahansa Yogananda’s famous chant: “I am the bubble; make me the sea.”[iv] If we remain compartmentalized in our well-meaning brain without regularly dipping into the ocean of a greater consciousness that meditation brings, then we are just putting well-intentioned but minimally effective band-aids on the world.  We become reactive and “gotta do” oriented, versus “gotta be.” When mom and dad meditate as a way of life, then “being” becomes a way of life for the family with little effort.  According to Annabel Fitzsimmons, “The benefits of meditation can touch many areas of your life, helping you decrease stress and anxiety, better manage your emotions, let go of mental distractions, and be more present and attentive with your kids.”[v]

Most moms and dads cite that they’re way too busy to meditate.  From the moment the alarm clock goes off to the point you fall into bed, life is packed.  Making time to meditate seems like a dream, somewhere between lying in a hammock on the beach and buying a sequined party dress.  But Christine Wushke sums it up perfectly in her blog post Meditation for Busy Moms: “As a parent, performing a plethora of duties during the day is inevitable, but struggling with them is optional. The next time you find yourself tracking events through time and mentally checking your to-do list, see if you can enter mindfulness and go to the feeling of busy, rather than the idea of busy.”[vi] She is referring to something often called “witness consciousness”: a shift in your state of being in which you are watching your mind’s endless progression of thoughts, feelings, calculations, and more rather than becoming caught up in them.  Give yourself time on the meditation cushion regularly—even 5 minutes will do, right before you wake up the kids—to practice this subtle but profound shift.  Breathe in and out, noticing the sensations of your breath, and watch your thoughts come and go as you label them “thoughts” and watch them do the cha-cha in your head without acting on them. That’s it. Throughout the day, come back to your breath whenever you remember to: at a stoplight or in the car line, when your phone rings, when a bird flies overhead and captures your attention for a brief but very present and fully aware moment. Don’t chastise yourself if you don’t remember to do it. Just do it when you do remember, in this moment, and then the next. You have infinite moments to work with, after all, and each one is perfect unto itself, just the way it is.

By doing this simple practice as a way of life, you change your relationship with yourself, and hence every other being you come into contact with. Dr. Laura Markham calls this commitment to your own practice “heroic work…if you keep digging for your own emotional generosity, you’ll see your kids begin to soften towards each other.”[vii] You begin to merge into a greater consciousness, aka the “sea” that Yogananda sings so passionately about. And the waves of this consciousness are felt all around you. Your toddler laughs. Your teenager meditates. Or, if they don’t, like when your toddler has a fever or your 8-year old is struggling with a bully or your teen has a crush on a boy named “Skull”--your deeper compassion, presence, deep love and equanimity with things just as they are will have a huge impact on your family, resolution will come without reactivity, and the ripples of this practice will extend far beyond the borders of your home.  

You, mom and dad, are making some serious dharma waves. Experience each moment as you watch with gratitude as the world fully expresses itself around you. Love one another, and as you take in each miraculous breath, deeply love the one who is most important of all to this equation: yourself.

   Reprinted with permission from Holistic Parenting Magazine.             

[vii] Markham, Dr. Laura, c. 2015. Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. Perigee, New York, NY, 324pp.
This article first appeared in Holistic Parenting Magazine, Issue No.17, September/October 2016.

Chopra, Deepak, c. 1997. The Seven Spiritual Laws for Parents. Harmony Books, New York NY, 156pp.
Markham, Dr. Laura, c. 2015. Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. Perigee, New York, NY, 324pp.
Smith, Shana, c. 2016. Meditation for Moms and Dads. ClearSky Publishing, Los Angeles, CA, 147pp.

Shana Smith is a mom, musician, marine biologist, teacher, and writer.  She has just released her first book, Meditation for Moms and Dads: 108 Tips for Mindful Parents and Caregivers. This groundbreaking book boldly claims that a thriving meditation practice is not only possible, but an absolute must for the parent/householder.  It isn't an empty claim.  The author is doing it. Her journey is profound, funny, and fabulous. The entertaining combination of tips, real-parent stories, and poetry demonstrates that parents can squelch the mindset of "I can't" to "I will," to celebrate the opportunity to embrace parenthood and worldly life itself as a vital spiritual practice rather than an impediment to one.

Shana is an avid and longtime practitioner of Zen and meditation, a decades-long yogi, and a much sought-after kirtan wallah, or devotional chanting leader.  For the past twenty years, she has been known to many across the state of Florida and the U.S. as the nationally award-winning (Parent's Choice, iParenting, NAPPA, Just Plain Folks) children’s musical persona “Shana Banana.”  Shana and her family (husband Dan, daughter Grace Ohana, and son Benny Albert) have settled down in Gainesville, Florida to run their meditation- and yoga-based Gainesville Retreat Center, which attracts many renowned teachers and practitioners and offers weekly meditation nights. 

In addition to book and music appearances, homeschooling her two kids, and running the retreat center with her family, Shana is currently working on a series of children's books based on her original musical stories currently available on Shana Banana CD's. She is also writing a tween mystery series developed over the past two years with her kids, and recording a CD of devotional chants from various traditions.   In her free time, she walks in the forest, gardens, cooks, writes poetry, does yoga and meditation, and plays. A lot. 

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