Off Piste - From the mindfulness of babes

Crystal N. Feimster has a live-in Zen master: her four-year-old son Charles, who constantly reminds her of the joys of living in the now

May 13, 2010

For the past 15 years of my life, I have pursued peace of mind through yoga, and more recently have sought to maintain my sanity through a combination of yoga, psychotherapy and meditation. Beginning with my first yoga class, I found the attention to breathing not only calming but also powerful.

Focusing on my breath was not a new exercise. As a runner, I had always been attuned to my breathing patterns, but yoga forced me to pay attention in a new, non-striving and non-judgemental way. Following my breathing during yoga allowed me to stay grounded in the moment. Indeed, through yoga practice I was able to strengthen my powers of observation and awareness.

Yet I was not so successful at making use of my practice outside the walls of the yoga studio. Like many scholars, I have found it difficult to focus on the present moment when I am constantly planning the next lecture, writing the next paper, preparing for the next review and organising the next conference. I was always thinking ahead and planning for tomorrow - it seemed my job and future happiness depended on it.

The birth of my son in 2006, however, changed everything. From the moment I realised I was pregnant, I was overwhelmed with thoughts of the past (my own childhood), as well as my hopes for the future. At the same time, my ability to be aware of the present moment took on a new urgency. I became hyperconscious of my body and the changes that were taking place inside me. I was not only paying attention to my breath, but also to what I ate, how I sat, when my emotions changed and what made the baby move.

I soon realised that my pregnancy and the birth of a child would challenge me to take what I had learned in yoga outside the walls of the studio. More than anything I have done, impending motherhood and the arrival of my son compelled me to integrate the practice of "mindfulness" into my daily life.

Mindfulness, which lies at the heart of Buddhist meditation, means moment-to-moment, non-judgemental awareness. It is cultivated by refining our capacity to pay attention, intentionally, in the present moment, and then sustaining that attention over time - like following your breathing in yoga or your thoughts during meditation. In practical terms, it means becoming more in touch with your life as it is unfolding.

In the months before my son was born, I did everything I could to prepare for parenthood. The first thing was to enrol in an antenatal yoga class, but I knew yoga alone would not suffice.

My husband and I took a range of classes from Childbirth 101 and Breastfeeding Basics to Newborn Essentials and Infant CPR. We read all the recommended books, including What to Expect when You're Expecting and The Happiest Baby on the Block, and took wisdom from Donald Winnicott, Daniel Stern, Dr Spock and William and Martha Sears. We consumed as much as we could about parenthood and newborn babies in the months and weeks before I went into labour. Still it was not enough, at least not for me. I found a therapist to help me confront and deal with my past and eventually took up the practice of meditation in the hope of acquiring more skills to help me stay grounded in the here and now.

I soon learned that no class or book could adequately prepare us for the reality of parenthood: the sleepless nights and inexplicable delights that come from watching a newborn gurgle are not things you can prepare for.

In the first months of parenthood, the learning curve was steep and the demands were constant. The initial challenges of breastfeeding and waking up every two hours to feed a screaming baby or change a wet nappy were taxing both emotionally and physically. Deciphering one cry from another required focus of mind and creative solutions. What soothed my son at 6pm did not necessarily calm him at 3am. Being aware of his particular needs at any given moment was both a guessing game and an intensive study of personality development and newborn emotions.

In many ways it was similar to my first year of graduate school. Instead of staying up into the wee hours of the morning to finish a paper on the politics of Reconstruction, I was up all night nursing a hungry newborn. My preoccupation had little to do with analysing primary documents, but rather my ability to read and make sense of body rashes and bowel movements. By no means was it rocket science, but it was relentless and exhausting mental work.

And there were so many things to learn - from how to swaddle to how to get the baby into a BabyBjorn without dropping him on his head. Despite mountains of stinky nappies and spew-covered clothes, I could not help but find delight in my new role as a parent. With each passing day, our little boy was teaching me to take pleasure in small things, such as a smile, a clean nappy, a soothing lullaby, a deep breath or a quiet moment.

Like most new parents, I wanted to do everything "right" and was convinced that there was so much I needed to learn to avoid making the same mistakes as my parents. I soon discovered, however, that parenting is a dynamic relationship that requires continuous awareness and informed, appreciative action.

Mindful parenting allows both child and parent to learn from one another. In fact, from the moment he was born, my son was teaching me the importance of integrating the practice of mindfulness into my new role as a mother. Despite everything I had learned in baby books, it was he who taught me how to nurse him, how to burp him, how to comfort him and make him happy. But more than parenting skills, he was teaching me to be more present, more tolerant, more generous and more loving in my life.

On a daily basis, he presents me with the daunting task of becoming aware of the moment-to-moment ways in which my actions affect him. His very survival depends on me and he is tuned into my every action and word. He challenges me to be conscious of myself and the home environment I create. He requires that I become acutely aware of his needs in order to provide him with optimal nurturing. Like yoga, psychotherapy and meditation, he has shown me a new way to be with myself and with others.

And, in general, the more my attention and awareness is on the present moment, the more responsive, awake and creative as a person and a mother I can be. Babies love people who are right there in the moment with them. It makes them feel safe, loved and attended to. For that matter, so do partners, loved ones, colleagues: in fact, when I am able to centre my attention in the present moment, even I end up feeling safer, loved and attended to.

I have learned that present-moment awareness in parenting makes it easier to do everything - from feeding the baby and soothing his crying to dealing with in-laws, and it helps me see all the aspects of each situation - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Most of the time we are so involved in teaching our children the basic rules of life - how to share, to say please and thank you, to be gentle, to lift up the toilet seat and wash your hands - that we hardly have a second to think about what we can learn from them.

Children's lives, particularly those of the very young, are made up of moment-to-moment experiences - watching a spider spin its web on the windowsill; creating waves in the bathtub; squishing slippery peas through little fingers. They are not preoccupied with the past or anxiously thinking about the future in the way that adults often are. Their joy, excitement, frustration and sorrow are lived intensely in each moment. Our children are models for us, and have much to teach us about how to live fully in the present. They offer us an unrivalled opportunity to join them in their spontaneous delight at life.

Not so long ago, my son Charles reminded me of the importance of letting go and being present. He was on a playdate with his friend Cai, when her mother asked what she wanted for dinner. She responded enthusiastically: "MACARONI AND CHEESE!" Her mother, conscious of the fact that Charlie has a severe dairy allergy, responded with a resounding "No!"

Cai, however, began chanting, to her mother's horror and Charlie's delight, "Mac and cheese! Mac and cheese! Mac and cheese!" When Charles began chanting along with Cai, she turned to him and asked: "Why are you saying mac and cheese? You cannot eat cheese." Charles responded: "I know, but I want you to have mac and cheese." Together they continued to chant: "Mac and cheese! Mac and cheese!"

My son's ability to be aware and awake to the present moment - a moment that could have provoked thoughts of past anaphylactic reactions to the consumption of dairy, or thoughts about a future in which he may be able to eat mac and cheese - was impressive. He was truly alive and present with Cai and what he was doing. His ability to embrace the moment and not be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future or craving, anger or jealousy in the present was a powerful reminder of the art of mindful living.

Every morning, Charles wakes up and begins the day with the same series of questions: What is today? Is it a school day or a family day? What comes next depends on my answer to his basic questions about time. He does not wake up thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. Still unable to tell time, the day of the week, month or year, he is very much focused on the present. For him, life clearly unfolds in the now.

My husband and I are constantly amazed by his attention to detail and his awareness of new things in whatever situation he is in. That process creates engagement with the present moment and releases a cascade of other benefits.

Noticing new things puts him emphatically in the here and now. Walking to school in the morning, he sees the world with fresh eyes. Charles realises that almost everything is different each time - the pattern of light on the buildings, the faces of the people we pass, even the sensations and feelings he experiences along the way. His noticing imbues each moment with a fresh quality that is contagious.

To embrace mindfulness is to open up to the full range of what happens in life, and parenting is a fantastic arena for doing that kind of spiritual training. It is as much a potential door into enlightenment as anything else. It is interesting to look at my son as a live-in Zen master who can put his finger on places where I am resistant, or thinking narrowly, in ways that no one else can.

I can either lose my mind and my authenticity in the process of reacting to the challenges of parenthood, or use it as the perfect opportunity to grow and nourish my son by attending to what is deepest and best in him and in myself.

Crystal N. Feimster is an assistant professor in the departments of African American Studies and American Studies at Yale University.

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