Mindfulness is A Powerful Tool
Being Attuned to Ourselves
We must learn how to get out of our own emotional reactivity so that we can become attuned to our children. In order to be attuned to them, we first have to cultivate an acute awareness of our own experience. It is amazing to realize that a majority of the time, we are on autopilot; we have very little idea of how we are feeling, what we are thinking or how we are experiencing the world in any given moment. When we are on autopilot, it is like we are being driven, instead of being the driver. We do not have the ability to be truly present with our children and we lose our ability to take control because some automatic state controls us. The automatic state is basically old unconscious habitual patterns of behavior and reactivity that have become deeply engrained in us. Being in a reactive state prevents us from being present to our own experience. If we think about the times that we are triggered into negative states such as anger, frustration, anxiety, confusion or resentment, we realize that we are either obsessing about the past or the future. We are not “in the moment.”
Mindfulness is a technique used to bring ourselves into the present so that we are not on autopilot. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines mindfulness as: “Paying attention on purpose in the present moment as if your life depended on it, non-judgmentally.”(Mindfulness for Beginners- Audio presentation- Sounds True, 2006)
When it comes to divorced co-parenting, there are two very important advantages to cultivating mindfulness:
1. It helps us stay in control of emotions that tend to create trouble for us.
2. It helps us be present with ourselves so that we can be present with our children.
Mindfulness is the deliberate attempt to pay attention to our present moment experience without judgment. It is like we have a very friendly and loving little scientist on our shoulder saying “Hmm, now I am feeling angry, and now I am noticing that I am feeling anxiety in the pit of my stomach.” What we are paying attention to in the moment are the following: feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.
In order to become mindful, the first thing you do is notice that you are not being mindful. When you take notice of that, bring yourself to mindfulness by noticing your breath. Focusing on your breathing brings you solidly into the present moment and has the added benefit of calming you down. Notice yourself breathing in and notice yourself breathing out. Do not try to control your breath, simply notice it. Notice if it is shallow or deep. Notice where your breath goes. Notice it going in through your nose and into your lungs and then perhaps down into your stomach. Next, take notice of how you are feeling in your body. Pay attention to your bodily sensations. Are you tense? Where? Do you feel any pain? Where? What does the pain or tension feel like? Notice how you are feeling emotionally. Are you angry, sad, anxious, resentful? Are your emotions connected to your bodily sensations? Now, notice what kinds of thoughts you are thinking. Watch the thoughts come and go. Notice if you are judging yourself and the feelings and thoughts that you are having. You may want to try labeling the things you notice about your present moment experience. For instance, if you feel angry, you may want to think to yourself: “anger, anger, anger.” Or if your angry thoughts are out of control, you may want to think to yourself: “angry thoughts, angry thoughts.”
When you are attempting to be mindful, you will inevitably drift out of mindfulness. That is natural and normal. When you notice that you are no longer being mindful, simply bring yourself gently back to mindfulness by refocusing on your breath. Non-judgment We tend to harshly judge ourselves a lot. It is actually very difficult to simply observe ourselves without judgment. We think we shouldn’t feel certain ways or do certain things, and then we beat ourselves up for how we feel or what we do. Notice the judgments you make about yourself from a more compassionate point of view. In other words, notice that you are judging yourself, and notice that the part of you that is noticing that fact is not judging. It is important to find a part of yourself that is simply observing and noticing, not judging. That part of you is not reactive, and that is the part you want to learn to step into more and more.
When we are able to notice how we are feeling in the moment, we have more control over whether we are going to act out of that feeling. For instance, if we are aware that we are angry, and noticing our anger, we are probably in control enough to not unthinkingly lash out. This is very different than being consumed by our anger and acting out of it without awareness. When we are in an emotional reaction, the part of our brain that has the ability to reason, be rational and exercise judgment is basically impaired. When we attempt to bring ourselves into mindfulness, we engage those parts of our brain. The more we can be mindful and not act out when we are in a negative emotional state, the more we will be able to exercise good judgment and not behave in a way that we will later regret. It may not be easy, but IT IS possible! Remember that being mindful helps us be attuned to ourselves, and when we are attuned to ourselves we can become attuned to our children. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE CAN DO FOR OUR CHILDREN IS GIVE THEM OUR FULL ATTENTION! Even if the amount of time that we have with them is small, the time that we have with them can be powerful if we are attuned to them. If we waste the time we have with them being mad at our ex, we are doing our children a disservice. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that the time we spend obsessing about our ex is somehow benefitting our children. It isn’t.
Mindfulness is a state of mind that is cultivated in the moment. Mindfulness meditation is a practice that helps us cultivate mindfulness so that we will be more skilled in it during our everyday life. The more skilled we become, the more we will be able to access mindfulness during the difficult moments of our lives. Mindfulness meditation has become accepted in the psychological world as an effective tool for working with many difficult states of mind, including anxiety and depression. The explanation of mindfulness given here is brief, but I strongly encourage you to learn more, and to utilize books and CDs about mindfulness. Especially useful are CDs that include guided meditation. Several have been listed at the end of this chapter.
Being mindful and being attuned to our children takes practice. Let’s be kind to ourselves if we cannot do it all the time, or even as much as we would like. If we can do it a little more than we did it yesterday, that is a great thing! © 2012 Alisa Jaffe Holleron