But in parenting, even what we thought and did yesterday that “worked out well” is not necessarily going to help today. We have to stay very much in the present moment to sense what might be required. And when our own inner resources are depleted, we have to have effective and healthy ways to replenish them, to restore ourselves, without it being at the expense of our children.
Becoming a parent may happen on purpose or by accident, but however it comes about, parenting itself is a calling. It calls us to recreate our world every day, to meet it freshly in every moment. Such a calling is, in actuality, nothing les than a rigorous spiritual discipline – a quest to realize our truest, deepest nature as human beings. The very fact that we are parents continually asks us to find and express what is most nourishing, most loving, most wise and caring in ourselves, to be – as much as we can – our best selves.
As with any spiritual discipline, the call to parent mindfully is filled with enormous promise and potential. At the same time, it challenges us to do the inner work on ourselves so we can be fully adequate to the task, so we can be fully engaged in this hero’s journey, this quest of a lifetime that is a human life lived.
We may have no sense of how much parenting augurs a totally new set of demands and changes in our lives, requiring us to give up so much that is familiar and to take on so much that is unfamiliar. Perhaps this is just as well, since ultimately each child is unique and each situation different. We have to rely on our hearts, our deepest human instincts, and the things we carry from our own childhood, both positive and negative, to encounter the unknown territory of having and raising children.
While it received its most elaborate articulation in the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is an important part of all cultures and is truly universal, since it is simply about cultivating the capacity we all have as human beings for awareness, clarity, and compassion. There are many different ways to do this work of cultivation. There is no one right way, just as there is no one right way to parent.
Mindful parenting involves keeping in mind what is truly important as we go about the activities of daily living with our children. Much of the time, we may find we need to remind ourselves of what that is or even admit that we may have no idea at the moment, for the thread of meaning and direction in our lives is easily lost. But even in our most trying, sometimes horrible moments as parents, we can deliberately step back and begin afresh, asking ourselves as if for the first time and with fresh eyes, “What is truly important here?”
In fact, mindful parenting means seeing if we can remember to bring this kind of attention and openness and wisdom to all our moments with our children. It is a true practice, its own inner discipline, its own form of meditation. And it carries with it profound benefits for both children and parents to be discovered in the practice itself.
Parents have their own needs and desires and lives, just as children do. Yet, too often, in both big and little ways, the needs of the parent in any given moment may be very different from those of the child. These needs, all valid and important, are simply different and are often in conflict. The clash of needs in any given moment may result in a struggle of wills over who is going to get their way, especially if we, the parents, are feeling stressed, overburdened, and exhausted.
Rather than pitting our needs against those of our children, parenting mindfully involves cultivating an awareness in such moments of how our needs are interdependent. Our lives are undeniably connected. Our children’s wellbeing affects ours, and ours affects theirs. If they are not doing well, we suffer, and if we are not doing well, they suffer.
This means that we have to continually work to be aware of our children’s needs as well as our own, emotional as well as physical, and, depending on their ages, to work at negotiations and compromises with them and within ourselves so that everybody gets something of what they need most.
These paragraphs were written by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn in Parenting with Mindful Awareness. Read more in The Mindfulness Revolution: Leading psychologists, scientists, artists, and meditation teachers on the power of mindfulness in daily life. Edited by Barry Boyce and the editors of the Shambala Sun.