Mindful Parenting in a Messy World
I’ve spent more than 20 years as a licensed marriage and family therapist helping scores of parents become better parents and hundreds of people recover from the less-than-optimal parenting they had received.
What a delight to discover Mindful Parenting in a Messy World, Michelle Gale’s deftly delightful exploration of “living with presence and parenting with purpose.” Michelle distills what genuine mindfulness can bring to parenting:
* meet conflict with compassion and curiosity
* react less and connect more
* find more peace within and peace together
* grow your capacities for self-awareness, humor and love
* find ease in the midst of family mayhem
Michelle offers very psychologically savvy tools for using mindfulness to help people become better parents and for parents to use parenting as a catalyst for personal growth, “waking up and growing up.”
May the wisdom of the reflections, quotes, stories and exercises below be useful to you and yours.
I quote Michelle a lot in this newsletter. She is wise, clear, and honestly humble in her observations:
About mindfulness in a messy world:
How do dirty diapers, squabbling siblings, and kids who refuse to go to sleep when we are exhausted enrich us? While many people think of living mindfully as something other than the messiness of daily existence, I’ve come to see that it’s precisely in the messiness that mindfulness is forged. The mess isn’t to be sidestepped or escaped, but to be plunged into with zest. Into the mess, embracing the entirety of it, is the direction of the mindful journey, not detouring around or away from it, as we are so easily drawn to do. Mindfulness isn’t about avoiding life’s chaos, but about learning to embrace the complexity in such a way that we are enriched by it instead of just reacting to it.
What is all this talk about embracing messiness anyway? If there is one thing we can count on it is that things will change and our lives will go sideways when we least expect it. The mess of life will present itself over and over again. We can count on it. What I’ve learned over the years is that it is precisely when things don’t go my way that I have the most lessons to learn. This is the gift the mess gives me. Instead of cringing when life started to go sideways, I begin to get curious and interested, in what life lesson may be awaiting me. This is not a path for the faint of heart. The mess of our lives can seriously suck. However, as it turns out, embracing reality is a much more peaceful way to live.
Whenever I feel upset by something, I know that I’m being set up to grow. When someone says something about me that seems so wrong, or does something really irritating, the challenge is to try and identify with even the one or two percent of what they are saying that’s spot on, so that I have the opportunity to learn from them. If there wasn’t learning to be had, I wouldn’t be reacting. Any level of reactions points to an emotional charge that is worth addressing and exploring.
About Parenting catalyzing personal growth:
The family is an environment that’s ideally tailored towards nurturing emotional development – not just in my children but most especially in myself. Life invites me to grow myself up alongside my growing children. This involves completing the growing up I didn’t do in my own childhood. I was going to say “failed to do,” but it isn’t a failure. It’s just part and parcel of the complex project of being a human being.
Mark Coleman defines mindfulness as a clear present moment awareness of inner and outer experience that nurtures a wise, caring response to live. I love this definition because it oozes empowerment to me. I feel better and stronger when I respond to life circumstance in a wise and caring way. My children have the capacity to awaken me to the fact that I have deeper layers within myself, yet to be uncovered. Mindful awareness help me to discover precisely where and how I have yet to grow day by day. This practice of mindfulness has ultimately become my path to healing.
About parenting with purpose:
If we ignore our deeper being as it repeatedly calls to us, choosing instead to live our life through our children, we do our children a great disservice. Ignoring our own need for a purposeful life, we place a huge burden on our kiddos. They now have to shoulder the responsibility of making us feel fulfilled. Carl Jung once said, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” Just take that in for a moment.
Consequently, they may start living to please us instead of pleasing themselves – or they may rebel. In both cases, they betray their true being. No child can thrive when our hopes and dreams, and our need for acknowledgment, are all caught up completely in their lives rather than our own. Saddled with the need to make us happy, they are no longer free to be true to themselves. We are just as important as our children. Indeed, unless we recognize this and honor it, we are unlikely to be able to show our children their own importance.
[May you enjoy and take to heart these grounded, liberating teachings.]
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
[all quotes from Michelle Gale unless otherwise noted]
Living with Presence
Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t.)
– James Baraz, Awakening Joy for Kids
To experience peace does not mean that our life is always blissful. It means that you are capable of tapping into a blissful state of mind amidst the normal chaos of a hectic life.
– Jill Bolte Taylor
That’s the whole point of living mindfully in a messy world – keep treading water, remember to breathe, and keep our eyes and hearts wide open.
Let everything become our teacher: your body, your attitudes, you mind, your pain, your joy, other people, your mistakes, your failures, your successes, nature – in short, all your moments. If you are cultivating mindfulness in your life, there is not one thing that you do or experience that cannot teach you about yourself by mirroring back to you the reflections of your own mind and body.
– Jon Kabat-Zinn
Messiness is the birthplace of living a mindful life.
It’s important to emphasize that no one escapes life’s messiness altogether. I stress this because I’ve notice how many advocates of mindful parenting (or mindfulness in general) make light about the realities of daily practice. The truth is, it’s really hard to parent and live mindfully. It requires a great deal of energy. Sometimes I’m able to be non-reactive and sometimes I’m not. But over time I slowly became what is often referred to as “conscious” or “mindful.” And really, I should say that I was able to access consciousness or mindfulness once in a while. In practicing coming home to ourselves, again and again, we gain more access to these part of ourselves. What we practice grows.
Kids are just being kids, doing what kids do, learning and growing, trying to find their way in the world. Let’s do our best to normalize what’s normal behavior while doing our own work to understand or triggers. And sometimes all that’s required is for us to let them know we see them and are with them in their struggles. Compassion breeds connection every time.
When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Happiness lies not in finding what is missing, but in finding what is present.
– Tara Brach
So nowadays, when my children say, “You’re not being fair,” in a situation in which I believe I am being fair, I’ve learned to try and not react by defending myself. I’ve discovered that as soon as I begin to defend myself, I’m creating conflict, and potentially starting more drama than is needed. I’m willing to consider the possibility that perhaps I’m not being fair and look more closely at my reaction. The reality is that they are experiencing me as unfair, and that should be enough to stop me in my tracks to at least get curious as to why. I may also stop and reflect on other areas in my life in which it’s possible I’m not being fair. Could anything they are saying be true? Maybe. What part may I be playing thee drama that has taken over this moment? It’s worth the exploration and personally tends to bring me to a more peaceful state of mind.
As we teach ourselves to live in this moment we automatically model this for our children. It won’t be easy with the world and technology demanding our attention at every turn. As we regulate ourselves, they learn to do the same. When we talk through our struggles out loud, we give them permission to struggle themselves. As we openly admire the bright color and sweetness of summer blueberries so too will they notice such simple things. When we begin to see the ordinariness of life as extraordinary, we know we are on to something.
Parenting with Purpose
Parenting is one of the most challenging, demanding, and stressful mobs on the planet. It is also one of the most important, for how it is done influences in great measure the heart and soul of consciousness of the next generation, their experience of meaning and connection, their repertoire of life skills, and their deepest feelings about themselves and their possible place in a rapidly changing world.
– Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Parenting
For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out, and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would looked like complete destruction.
– Cynthia Occelli
Whenever our children trigger our anxiety, they actually do us a favor. No really, stay with me here. They may send us into orbit from time to time, but their tormenting of us is precisely what we need. When I allow myself to learn from my children, they generously guide me towards emotional growth. As I face up to my immature outburst, in inclination to be a neat freak, or my insistence on not being a second late, by calming myself instead of exploding – addressing my children patiently and kindly rather than as a maniac on a mission to get something done – I grow in ways I never could have imagined before becoming a mother.
The words “perfection” and “parenting” honestly shouldn’t even be permitted in the same sentence. Can we all just agree that it’s perfectly fine to be a “good enough” parent? The way we give our children “the greatest gift” of getting ourselves together is to first give ourselves permission to be okay with not having it together in the first place.
When we begin to know ourselves in an open and supportive way, we take the first step to encourage our children to know themselves.
– Dan Siegel
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
Yelling at my children makes me feel like the worst mom on the planet. Energy builds. I snap, raise my voice, and immediately I feel ashamed. Our connection to each other is lost and I pine to find my way back to myself and to them.
That’s why I enlisted my little guy’s help.
At the tender age of four, Tyler had a far greater ability to see when mommy was about to lose her cool. I had asked Tyler if he would let me know whenever he noticed me becoming upset, suggesting he tell me I needed to stop and take a breath. We had made an agreement that whenever he uttered the words “Breathe, Momma” I would immediately stop. There would be no overriding what he was asking, no matter how powerfully the rising tide of emotion (and insanity) rose within me.
Hearing his little voice reminding me to “Breathe, Momma” was precisely what I needed to hear. Dealing with the pressures of a career, while trying to be a sane parent and living wife, I frequently found myself feeling frazzled and his little voice helped every time.
This simple practice of getting Tyler to help me check in with myself became a powerful tool for change. By stopping me in my tracks before I raised my voice, Tyler enable me to begin to notice what was happening inside me that triggered my outbursts. I found myself floored early on in our little experiment as to how many times he noticed me getting agitated long before I caught on to it. I will say that seeking Tyler’s input turned out to be one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done. He helped me begin to learn the power of awareness. Instead of feeling forever horrible about needing to apologize over and over again, I took the step of accepting myself that day as someone who yelled sometimes. In this acceptance of reality, real change began.
* * * *
Newsflash. Change is more challenging when we are down on who we are. Self-loathing breeds despair, not hope – that’s a recipe for a worsening situation, not transformation.
That’s why all the books, all the talks, all the online courses didn’t help…until I was willing to look square in the mirror and accept – no, embrace – the person looking back. Welcome to reality and all the messiness that comes with it!
If I spend too much time feeling guilty, wallowing in denial, or deflecting my inner anger onto those around me, then frustration, a sense of hopelessness, and anger surfaced. Not the best way to cultivate a happy family. I’ve learned that each time I’m struggling in life, one of my most basic human needs is not being met, and along with it, some really big feelings appear.
It’s really no different from when my youngest acts up or my teen acts out. In every case, some need isn’t being met. Maybe I’m not hearing what’s truly important to them, or perhaps I’m just not listening. What if their best friend is mad at them and they are experiencing loneliness or abandonment that day? Struggling with these needs and feelings comes out in rotten behavior. But it’s never the behavior that’s the issue, always the feeling behind it – the unmet need. As I learned to become aware of these feelings and needs, healing began. It sounds counterintuitive, but surrendering to these big feelings and needs while accepting them just as they are in that moment was my key to shifting everything.
For me, acceptance meant that whenever I yelled, I did my best to pause and take a breath as soon as possible while also getting a grip on my tendency to feel awful about myself.
I practiced not thinking of myself as a “bad mother.” I accepted that my explosive emotions were often just trapped energy, the leftovers of ways I had learned to protect myself as a child. My behavior had nothing to do with being bad, and everything to do with patterns of self-defense established long ago at a time when they were absolutely necessary.
Having said this, I don’t wish to imply that I let myself off the hook when my energy manifested itself in bad behavior. Accepting myself, including my crummy behavior, meant that these things were no longer moral issues. They were simply matters of practicality, involving nothing more than learning to use the energy more productively now that I’m no longer a child. It’s a learning we all have to go through, and practicing mindfulness and meditation can really support this process.
Instead of being down on myself, I began to see myself as a work in progress. I began to find that yummy inner peace that can seem so elusive.
* * * * *
For many years I experienced myself as a total fraud meditation practitioner because I had not yet been away on extended retreats. But that turned out to be total crazy talk by me! I came to regular practice as a parent, and us parents know darn well that we need to get things done creatively. Always. I pieced together my mindfulness and meditation practices over the years in any way I could. This made me a hero, not a fraud!
I decided I needed to bring my meditation cushion into the boys’ room and sit until they fell asleep. When I approached my boys with this idea, they wanted to give it a try. We negotiated an agreement that, as long as this remained a quiet time for all of us, I would engage in my meditation practice while they went to sleep. So each night we would have our cuddle time, our ritual time, and then I would plop myself on my cushion as they fell into their sleep. Like magic, we all got what we needed. I like to think my children have been at the center of how I find time to practice, rather than being between me and my practice.
* * * * *
We need provocations in our life because they are important keys to finding precious moments of inner peace. What? I can welcome my stress? Yes! It always points me to where I need to focus within myself or within my life.
So, to cultivate more awareness, I started observing myself with curiosity, especially in response to the people around me and the many situations in which I found myself from day-today. As observing myself in this way became a habit, I gradually found myself spotting these kinds of reactions coming on before I was overcome with emotion. Early on, when any reaction began, and I became aware of being drawn into it, I wasn’t able to nip it in the bud right away. I would feel myself being triggered, but I couldn’t’ quite head it off.
Then, gradually, very gradually, came the time that, without anybody’s help, I grew able to short-circuit the chain reaction that usually led to an unwelcome reaction. I wasn’t able to do it perfectly, but with practice, I increasingly realized I was about to get frustrated, paused, took a deep breath, and calmed myself way, way down. Once a reaction has been stopped in its tracks, I have an opportunity to catch a different train of thought and avoid the train wreck.
As I continued to become aware of the energy that’s been tangled up inside me, emotions such as anger, jealousy, or sadness are seen simply as information, rather that something “bad.” Instead of trying to rid myself of the emotion, I begin to use the information it contains as a means of discovering those aspects of myself that are seeking to be recognized.
Over time, I realized I could utilize my stress as a means of uncovering the information I needed to tap into to enable me to live a more joyful, peaceful, and productive life. What? I can welcome my stress? Yes! It always point me to where I need to focus within myself or within my life.
* * * * *
One of the keys I’ve found to living a fulfilling life is to know where I end and others begin. It’s magical, learning to be close to others, yet be entirely my own person. In psychological terms, it’s called differentiation and it’s one of the developmental milestones which leads to a healthy emotional life.
When we are secure individuals we avoid twisting ourselves into someone we’re not. We don’t need to distance ourselves from others in order to feel “safe.” We can stand up for ourselves calmly, unapologetically, unreservedly, all the while remaining closely connected. Does this sound dreamy or what?
Since the art of being true to myself wasn’t taught in school, it had to be learned the messy way – the school of daily life where I had the opportunity to learn about myself more and more each day. It’s the essence of what a mindful life journey is all about.
My intention is always to maintain an even keel emotionally, even if an emotional storm is raging around me. When I’m knocked off center as easily as the wind blows my days don’t run so smoothly. I know I’m standing strong within myself when I no longer say things like, “You’re making me angry” or the dreaded “How could you do this to me?” I am in charge of my responses to people and situations. I’m not particularly interested in being an emotional puppet, dancing to another’s whims.
* * * * *
Especially today, when we live in such an interconnected world and it’s easy for someone to send an email or text asking for something, we can quickly become overloaded. I found that if I want to succeed in my career while caring for my family and myself, it simply wasn’t possible to spend a large chunk of time during the week saying yes to others’ needs.
When you say yes to someone else, you are saying no to yourself.
– Paulo Coelho
It isn’t easy to just say “no.” Our ability to do so when it’s needed depends on our fierce clarity about what really matters to us. Where is our energy best invested?
I love to-do lists so my tasks stay on paper and out of my head where they will likely spin uncontrollably. In the last few years I started highlighting my top three to-do list times. These highlighted items are the things that will best serve my work and purpose in the world. Simple reflecting on what these times will be each day or week helps me focus on what really matters.
A statement of purpose can become a North Star to help guide us in the many choices we are faced with every day. [Mine:] “I am committed to raising consciousness in myself and the world, through my practice, my community, and my work.” in order to best integrate this statement into my life I created a screensaver for my computer, attached it to my bathroom mirror, and put up sticky notes all around so I made sure I bumped into it regularly. I consult my statement before saying “yes” to anything, asking myself, does my involvement in the activity I’m being invited to participate in honor my statement of purpose? If it doesn’t, I say “no.”
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Exploring Your Triggers
Do you know what, from my vantage point, the hardest part of parenting is? The real challenge for me of being a parent isn’t dealing with the naughty or inconvenient things my children sometimes do or say. The truly difficult aspect of being an effective parent is to get myself under control. And there’s no better place to learn this discipline than in the chaos and confusion of everyday family life. This is good news because we all have plenty of messiness to work with!
Exercise: Sit down with a journal or piece of paper and write out what triggers you most in the course of a day. Think about the morning, afternoon, and evening. Consider the home environment as well as the outside world. Which people seem to trigger an unwelcome response? What is it that they do? We can’t change or make shifts in our lives without awareness of where we struggle. Make this list without beating yourself up over any of it. Think it all through in a matter of fact way as if you were a researcher collecting data. Don’t take it personally, just get to know it.
Choose one of your triggers and spend the next week observing yourself. During this time, you are not trying to change anything about your behavior. Simply get curious. Pause when you notice your trigger. Make note of your current situation, any emotions that are present, body sensations, or thoughts you are having. You can journal right away if that is available to you, otherwise journal each evening. It is often the case that simply bringing awareness to a difficulty in our life can shift it, but sometimes we need outside help with a coach, therapist, or dear friend. [and that’s perfectly okay!]
Gifting Our Children with Our Presence
For me, good listening and practicing presence go hand-in-hand. The focus is on allowing someone to really be heard. I was in the kitchen cooking one evening, and my son Brody who was about five years old at the time was trying to get me to listen to something he wanted to share. I kept saying, “uh huh,” kind of paying attention but not really. You know how we do that? When he kept coming at me again and again try to share what he wanted to say, I began feeling annoyed and this became my alarm system to pay closer attention. As my annoyance increased and I gave a little space for curiosity, I realized that I hadn’t given him my real attention. I wasn’t listening, and he was less than satisfied with my lame response.
I stopped what I was doing in the kitchen, got down to his level, looked into his eyes, and listened as he shared with me what he needed to say about the tower that he built in his room and what superhero lived there. When he had been met and heard, off he went happy as pie. All that was needed was a few moments of my true presence. What a huge lesson for me.
How often do we only give our loved one a sliver of our attention, which simply isn’t fulfilling for them? If we can learn to stop and really be with them for a moment, hearing what they are trying to tell us, it takes not only less time but also less energy. And the other person isn’t suspended in a dance of hopelessly trying to get our attention. All they need is for us to attend to them deeply for a moment. Try it next time your child is talking to you and you catch yourself looking down at your phone nodding your head saying “uh huh.” Sound the alarm!
Respect – a Key Element of Successful Parenting
To suck it up and get curious in response to a disrespectful teen requires letting the hurt we feel roll right off us when they roll their eyes. Does this sound like letting them get away with stuff? Does it seem we’re taking the easy route instead of administering what’s commonly referred to as “tough love.” I don’t believe so.
Instead of – for the umpteenth unsuccessful time – making an issue of something like eye-rolling or the way our teen talks to us, the way forward I have found most helpful is to tune into the message being conveyed through such behavior. Our teen is telling us something extremely important. The reasons they are doing it in such an ugly way is that it’s the only way they know how to get our attention. Can we be open to the idea that they escalate things because we haven’t been listening?
The first step I take to amending a situation that’s fractured like this is to resist raising my voice or getting angry. Not only do I not raise my voice, even if they are being unkind to me, but in that moment, I don’t even correct them. When I’m growled at, I simply try to bite my tongue until the energy shifts and he can hear what I’m saying. This might be one of the most difficult things to do as a parent. What if we stopped taking our children’s anger so personally. I blow it plenty of times with the whole non-reactivity thing, but we are going for good enough here!
In the silence that arises when I don’t react, I’m able to listen for what the issue really is. What have I been missing? What have I been imposing from my agenda that they now feel a need to reject so adamantly. My job is to learn how I many have been violating their soul’s purpose with my own needs or desires for things to be a certain way. He is his own person now and I need to get out of his way while simultaneously loving him like crazy.
Exercise: For the next few days, listen to your teen or child without the plan or desire to respond. Just listen. Notice if, as they are speaking, you are already planning on what you are going to say next. As soon as you notice yourself do this, bring yourself mindfully back and attune with them again, listening even more deeply to whatever it is they are sharing with you. What have you been missing?
Practicing Mindfulness as a Family
Let me tell you, being conscious of the little, everyday things really makes a difference. I’m talking about things as simple as taking time to play with our pets, enjoying the flowers in the garden, spying the hummingbird, tasting a ripe tomato, and watching the popcorn pop from the machine.
Taking time to relish these ordinary things brings unique and unexpected quality to our lives. When we take time to notice, we discover that infinite pleasure lies all around us. As we learn to appreciate the ordinary, we no longer need to continually seek the extraordinary. Life itself becomes extraordinary This is what it means to be spiritual in my little world.
When we are all at the dinner table together we have a tradition of holding hands and sharing something for which we are grateful, even if it’s only one word. Then we pass a hand squeeze around the table. It’s an opportunity to pause, sense each other’s presence, express gratitude, and listen to each other. Sometimes the kids are super goofy about it and so we just have a giggle and move on. Other times we find a moment of unique family resonance and relish in that for as long as it last.
One day I moved my bell from my altar upstairs down into the kitchen, placing it in the middle of the room. We made a family agreement that anyone could ring the bell at any time, but only once. When the bell rings, we all pause for a moment and take a breath until the sound dies away. It’s been a nice way to build a pause into our day when needed.
The bell serves a surprising second purpose. Although my husband and I annoy the heck out of each other at times. We don’t generally get into a heated argument, and very rarely in front of the boys. They may hear us disagree at moments, but rarely do they hear us argue. One evening, my husband and I began to get into a somewhat “aggravated” discussion in the kitchen. Our youngest son, Brody, who was five at the time, marched into the kitchen and rang the bell, looking us square in the face as he did. We stopped, took a breath, and let go of whatever we ere becoming heated about. I realized the sound of the bell had become a way for Brody to let us know when he wasn’t comfortable with how we were interacting. Though at his age he found it difficult to express his exact concern, we all understood the message of the bell. Stop. Pause. It gave him some control, and it brought us back into a state of awareness. Pure magic.
Dealing with Difficult Issues with Awareness and Love
The idea of family meetings is nothing new. We sit in a circle and use some kind of “taking stick” which means only the person holding the stick is permitted to talk – no interrupting. The talking stick is a way of alerting us to the need for each of us to give our full attention to whoever is speaking, shelving for the moment whether we agree or disagree with their viewpoint. It’s become clear in my own family that being able to express ourselves without judgement, and to know we are heard, is crucial for a healthy life together as a family.
We found that, once we got into a rhythm of meeting, the boys began asking for a council meeting whenever they needed to share something. Such meetings are especially helpful for letting family members get to know each other better, while they also help increase a person’s attention span. Children also begin to understand the family story. We cover issues such as the family’s values, how we push each other’s buttons, and how to negotiate for what we want.
Sometimes we do something as simple as all responding to a few questions that help each of us get to know each other better. We each respond to questions like: What quality do you like most about your best friend? If you could do anything you wanted today, what would it be? Where would you most like to travel and why? What are you ost afraid of? How can you tell when you are really happy?
Mindful Parenting in a Messy World: Living with Presence and Parenting with Purpose by Michelle Gale. Motivational Press, 2017.
www.michellegale.com for the free “A Busy Parents Guide to Practicing Mindfulness”
Michelle generously points the reader in the direction of resources that support mindful parenting:
Mindfulness Fundamentals, a 6-week online course offered by Mindful Schools
Meditation Made Simple through www.Headspace.com
www.courageworks.com for Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting”
www.thework.com for Byron Katie’s process of mindful inquiry
https://www.cnvc.org for The Center for Non-Violent Communication programs for self-awareness and emotional intelligence