Ever heard of this thing called Mindfulness? Yes, of course you have! Every blog from here to Africa will hold some piece of advice on what it is, how we find it, and the heavenly peaceful harmony it brings to our families. If you are supremely confused by all the information you have read, please do not be alarmed. I’m trained in the thing and I STILL find it confusing to explain to others! All of the info here is applicable to we parents, and also to our kids. The main thing to adjust when you start practicing, is to remember that the younger your child, the more concrete their thinking. This may mean you use more simple examples and practical tasks when teaching mindfulness to the little people in your life.
What is Mindfulness and how can it help me?
Most of us expect life to throw us some curve balls (or 2 or 3!), but often we then go on to tell ourselves that if these curve balls cause us to feel distress, there must be something VERY wrong with us that needs to be fixed – and FAST!
From a mindfulness perspective, this thinking is unhelpful. Instead, mindfulness gives us the mental space to experience the joy, sadness, anger, and pain of life, but not jump to the automatic thought that these emotions are good, or bad, or to be avoided. Mindfulness practices suggest that each of these feelings and thoughts will pass if we allow ourselves some time and practical thinking. The steps we can use to cultivate Mindfulness (from a psychological perspective) are:
1) Be present in your moment and notice your thoughts, feelings and environment (this takes us adults a lot of practice)
2) Notice what we feel or think without judgement (this takes us adults even more practice)
3) Observe that even the most intense emotions and thoughts will pass (yep you guessed it, practice practice practice)
A key aim in mindfulness practice is to be open to an experience (or a thought or a feeling), but without judgement. Suspending judgment is what we do when we avoid labelling. An easy example is the observation “that is a red dress.” You have noticed it is a dress and that the colour of the dress, is red. Both of these ideas could be seen, pretty much, as facts. Passing judgement, however, would be something like “that is a beautiful red dress.” Now you have not only noticed the facts, you have interpreted them as being pleasant. This is a judgement. Judgements are highly subjective and chances are, even if you think the red dress is beautiful, it is just as possible that I will think the red dress is horrible.
I have not yet found a way to develop each of these skills in one easy to swallow hit, but if you try the exercises below, you will be well on the way to developing a Mindfulness based perspective.
Step one – Be Present And Notice
For younger children, try the Torchlight exercise. You can say something like “Look how clever our mind is. Its like a torch light that shines wherever we point it so we can see the thing it lights up clearly.
Our torch is a bright white light that we can switch on whenever we choose to. Have you been camping with your family and turned your torch on at night while you are snuggled up in your sleeping bag? The torch will light up whatever object you shine it on. We can do the same thing with our thoughts. We can turn our attention, just like a torchlight, on to whatever object we choose. Or sometimes, we can turn our attention, just like a torchlight, onto something we are feeling or something we are thinking. Wherever we turn our torchlight of attention, we are able to notice all sorts of things about that situation, thing, or feeling.
Adults too can benefit from this exercise as it shows us how we can choose where our attention focusses.
Step two – Notice without Judgement
For both adults and children, we can develop an ability to suspend judgement by doing an exercise like the Body Scan. You say something like “Gently breath in and out, noticing how your body feels. Notice any sense of touch or pressure where it makes contact with the seat/floor. When you’re ready (no rush), shine your torchlight of attention to……” and move your attention to whatever part of the body you want to investigate. You might choose to do a systematic body scan beginning at the head or feet. Or, you might choose to explore sensations randomly.
Another way of noticing without judgement is to use an object as a point of focus. For example a flower, a plant, play dough, slime, kinetic sand, a famous artwork etc. We can ask ourselves to list 5 describing words that come to mind in relation to the object. When working with children, we hint beforehand that this task is a bit of a trick. By doing this we can discuss their lists and they aren’t surprised to find out just how many of their words are personal judgements, versus descriptive observations.
When the exercise is finished, and it appears that there is an experiential understanding of the difference between judging and noting, then this concept can be expanded upon and can be taken to situations which can impact mood. For example, going to a bowling alley for a friend’s party may sound like fun for one child, or may sound fear provoking for another who may lack confidence in trying new things. In the longer term, when we can see how different situations can impact us in different ways, we can work towards experiencing a feeling in the moment, and suspending judgement of that feeling as either “good” or “bad”.
A fantastic exercise to try is mindful eating. Choose a grape, strawberry or gummi bear as the object of focus. This activity will work for all ages. Our aim is to raise awareness of each micro-step in eating. You can spend time focussing on colour, shape, density, texture, smell and visual characteristics – and all before we even think about popping it into our mouth! Each grape or gummy bear should take 3-4 minutes of careful, non-judgemental observation.
Step three – Watch intense emotions pass
A great activity for children is to make paper boats from squares of coloured paper. Allow time to focus on the activity of constructing the boat. Once made, spend 3-5 minutes lying down with the boat on their belly button. Ask the children to breath slowly and deeply, their breath will be the rolling ocean upon which the paper boat floats. They can make the ocean choppy and rough, or smooth and gentle. Aim for deep deliberate breathing. Remind them that if they start to think about other things, that is a-ok, then remind them to return their focus to making the boat float on the ocean.
For adults, there is no need for the boat, but the focus would be upon observing the breath and what it feels like to breath. Every time your mind wanders away to things (as the mind will often and naturally do), say to yourself “I noticed I’m thinking of… [e.g. what to buy at Coles]. At this moment though, I choose to return my mind to my breathing.”
There is one final point worthy of note. Please please please do not expect that once you and your little person understands these ideas, that all of a sudden they will come naturally and the household will be calm and centred. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mindfulness requires thoughtful repetition and practice. Think about the idea that the brain is designed for efficiency, and so we tend to replicate thoughts and behaviours that come easily to us. Mindfulness is the exact opposite of this, so you will feel your brain fight your attempts to slow down and observe. With daily practice, our brains start to feel the benefit so don’t give up.