Mindfulness: an ancient practice with relevance now appreciated in a modern context, including our parenting. Psychologist Dr Melanie Woodfield takes time to watch the sunset.
There’s a place north of Auckland that has the best sunsets in New Zealand. Every time I’m on holiday there, I’m blown away by the shades of colour and the sheer scale of the nightly show. Funnily enough, the sunsets at home just don’t measure up.
Could it be that sunsets don’t actually differ that much? I suspect so. I suspect that my holiday-self is much more inclined to stop, watch and appreciate the setting sun. And that my home-self is more likely to have her head down in a sink full of dirty lunch boxes, or to briefly notice and then look away, distracted. Yes, you could argue that my holiday-self has fewer jobs to do, and more time to loll about looking at the sky, but there’s more to it than that. The sunset itself is no different – but the level of enjoyment I get is a result of how I experience it. And this is the essence of mindfulness – a practice that’s taken the world by storm.
Mindfulness is about experiencing life fully aware of our present experience – both around us, and inside our minds – rather than mindlessly hurtling through life. It’s about noticing our thoughts. Not getting entangled with them, but allowing them to just be, without judging them or trying to push them away (even if they’re negative). It’s about slowing down and experiencing life fully, for that moment.
When you think about it, anxiety and stress often come from either rehashing what’s already happened, or dreading what hasn’t happened yet. Rather than focussing attention on the present, the mind gets caught up in unpacking how you could have done things differently or how you’re going to struggle to cope with what is to come. Unhappiness can also come from dreaming of a future that’s free from the difficulties you currently face – trawling real estate websites, recruitment pages or dating apps. While it might provide you with temporary and fleeting pleasure, it can bring a real sense of dissatisfaction with your current circumstances.
Now, of course, if your current situation needs to be changed and can be changed, then change it! Practical problem solving is really useful but often the situation can’t easily be fixed. The solution is not in letting your mind drift to how things used to be, or could be in the future. Believe it or not, part of the solution is in focussing your mind on the present. Being mindful of your strengths, values, blessings, skills and your connections to others.
What if I’m not religious?
The concept of mindfulness has been around for centuries and some belief systems (like Buddhism) have mindfulness as one of their core practices. In the early 1990s, mindfulness began to feature more often in mainstream media and scientific journals, after Jon Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a programme designed to help his patients cope with chronic pain, stress and adjusting to illness. This programme focussed on learning skills for reducing stress and improving relaxation skills, rather than a religious practice. As this modern mindfulness movement began to gain momentum, scientists became interested in the potential of the technique in all sorts of areas. These days, the majority of mindfulness techniques are usually perfectly acceptable to most people, regardless of their belief system.
Mindfulness is something you can do formally, perhaps during a daily dedicated period of time. It can also be practised on the go. Doing anything mindfully (whether it’s eating, parenting, walking or sitting) is very simple in theory, but takes a little practice. If you’re mindfully eating, you’re paying deep attention to noticing the colour, flavour, smell and texture of each mouthful. You’re chewing food very slowly. There are no distractions – like television, books or smartphones. If thoughts show up (which they will), you’re just noticing them, without judgement, without engaging with the thoughts, without trying to push them away. For example, thoughts like “this is so hard” might show up, followed by “I shouldn’t find it hard … I bet everyone else can do it … what’s wrong with me?”. Rather than trying to stop these thoughts (impossible!), just notice them as you might notice leaves drifting past you on a slow-moving stream. Don’t feel bad for having them. And don't compare your internal world to others’ external worlds.
If you’re the kind of person who needs a little structure to get started, you could try mindfulness of the breath. Sitting comfortably, perhaps with your eyes closed, take deep slow breaths, noticing the sensation of your lungs slowly filling and emptying, and the air entering your body. Whenever you notice that your attention has drifted, simply bring it gently back to your breath.
Another option could be to pick up one of the many mindfulness colouring books available (and some lovely new colouring pencils, of course, just for Mum!). There’s nothing magic about these books as such, they simply provide an opportunity to focus fully on the present moment – carefully choosing colours, noticing the feeling of holding the pencil, the sounds as the pencil strokes the page, and the sense of satisfaction when a piece of the image is completed. Be sure to draw your attention back if it wanders, otherwise you’ll end up mindlessly doing mindful colouring.
Mindfulness-based interventions have been shown to help everything from stress and anxiety to depression. Mindful eating may help with weight loss. Mindful parenting can help with stress reduction. In some cases, the benefits start after as little as a week’s worth of practice. And because our brain and our body are really closely linked, mindfulness can help with things like psoriasis, high blood pressure and chronic pain.
And mindfulness and happiness go hand in hand. For example, a new purchase often brings happiness, but very quickly the object or item becomes familiar and tends to bring us less happiness (often as we begin to focus on getting something else). The good news is that attention can be deliberately and mindfully focussed on the things you have, to protect and insure the happiness your purchases can bring. For example, research has shown that drivers of big luxury cars are no happier than drivers of smaller older ones, except when they mindfully attend to the things they appreciate about their car – the purring engine, the smell of the leather, or the feel of the heated seats.
Another benefit is that, with time and practice, we get better and better at recognising and identifying our internal processes (like thoughts and feelings), so that we can more easily pick and choose our actions in line with what we value and what really matters to us.
Young children are mindfulness champions. They have an innate capacity to stop and notice small details, and 'ooohh and aaahhh' over everything from a butterfly’s wing to a tiny worm. They stop and appreciate the finer points of small things. In contrast, parents are often rushing and bustling their way through life. Yes, life is busy. Yes, someone needs to get the job done. And yet, there’s likely to be room for a little mindfulness in the midst of the muddle.
Here’s an example. Instead of groaning internally when the wheels of the supermarket trolley click into the travellator and you can’t move forward until you reach the bottom, see this as an opportunity for a mindful moment. Take several slow deep breaths and notice everything that is going on around you. Catch and keep these moments throughout the day. Stop. Notice. Appreciate.
Don’t try to change your life overnight. It’s like diet – big, sudden changes are hard to stick to. Instead, try a short mindfulness practice each day. Pay specific, careful attention to one enjoyable experience each day. This might be reading a book to your child, sitting together at the table, or inhaling their just-washed after-bath scent. When your mind wanders (that’s really normal, especially at first), return your attention to the experience – notice any physical sensations, smells, sounds, feelings and thoughts. It really is as simple as that.
Mindfulness for children
If you’re engaging with the world more mindfully, you’ve already started introducing mindfulness to your child. Children learn a lot by simply observing, so developing our own awareness, compassion, flexible thinking and responsiveness provides a great example.
■ Help very young children to pay close attention by providing a commentary while they play. Descriptive statements like “You’re moving the digger. Now you’re moving the truck” can help kids sustain their attention on a task.
■ Try teaching your child to take 10-15 slow breaths. In through the nose and out through the mouth. Blowing bubbles (using a long, slow breath) can help young children to learn about deep, slow breathing. You could also try placing a soft toy on your child’s tummy so they can see it move with their breathing.
■ You can support your older child to notice what’s happening in their body when they have big feelings, like anger or sadness. Some older children will be able to do this in the midst of the feeling, but many will need to wait until the feeling passes. Then try drawing their attention to various things: “How is your face feeling? It’s hot. What are your hands doing? Shaking a bit. How does your tummy feel? It’s tight. So when anger shows up, you’ve noticed that your body changes.”. The purpose of an exercise like this is to focus awareness on bodily sensations and the link between feelings, the body, and the thoughts we have. And to send the message that the anger makes sense when your child feels things have been unfair (and also that it’s not okay to hurt others with words or our bodies).
■ You could try a body scan with older preschoolers where you systematically move through each part of the body, noticing and paying attention. This can help children feel drowsy at night. There are lots of guided body scans for children available online to get you started.
|Dr Melanie Woodfield is a clinical psychologist who mainly works for a child and adolescent mental health service, doing some teaching and writing on the side. She’s a wife and mum and makes a habit of stopping to smell roses (literally and metaphorically) on a regular basis.|