This word mindfulness used so much these days that its meaning is often lost or confused. It is something we find ourselves saying in place of other phrases that are more specific like “be careful” or “be thoughtful.” When we hear the word by itself or attached to meditation it can seem esoteric and unattainable, but if you consider the definition of mindfulness, it is simple. I have a favorite from Dr. Amy Salztman, who says, “Mindfulness is paying attention to your life, here and now, with kindness and curiosity.”
It’s not about being calm or careful or getting your mind to stop thinking or experiencing emotion. It’s not about being perfect and well-behaved in every situation. Mindfulness is presence; it’s cultivating an ability to notice our experience without judgment and by doing so we give ourselves the room to choose our responses. It is something EVERY one of us has experienced unintentionally and it’s something EVERY one of us can practice with intention at any given moment. Even kids.
If you don’t believe me ask yourself this: Have you ever had an interaction with your child or loved one where it was all about your experience together? No phone, no distraction just the two of you? Have you ever watched the clouds roll by, looked at the moon, savored a mouthful of something delicious, played a sport and been “in the zone”, taken a deep belly breath when you are feeling a moment of stress to gather your thoughts? If you said “Yes” to any of these, you have already practiced mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation expert Sharon Salzberg says, “Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.” Each moment in our lives presents us with the opportunity to practice mindfulness. Here are a few ways we can “remember to do it.” All of these can be done with kids as well, to help them learn to practice non-judgmental awareness and build their self-care skills in everyday situations.
Reminding yourself to take a deep inhalation and slow exhalation through your nose can not only calm your nervous system, but also give you a moment to stop and notice how you feel and choose how to proceed with kindness and compassion, whether that is toward yourself or others. Try this exercise with your kids, too: place your hands on your belly and inhale to feel it fill with air. Then as you exhale, follow your breath all the way to the end. This lengthening of your exhale not only creates a relaxation response in your body but also puts your mind in one place, allowing you to quiet the chatter or hit pause on your mental to-do list.
Use your Senses
We have so many opportunities to taste, smell, hear, touch, and see. Often, we drink and eat so quickly that we don’t even know what we’ve tasted. We rush through our meals and treat them as just another chore. Try really paying attention to your food. Consider where it came from and the love and care that was put into the preparation. Hold it to your nose and notice what happens in your mouth and belly. Does it have a texture or make a sound as you eat it? Chew or sip slowly before swallowing, again noticing the process. Your meal might take longer but it will be savored and appreciated, and your digestive system will thank you for taking your time. Mindfully eating as a family can create opportunities for conversation with your kids.
Strike a Pose
There are many yoga poses helping with focus and patience that can be done on the spot. Waiting in line is a big part of a busy life. The noise and activity of airports, train stations, and checkout counters can make one feel out of balance. Next time you are in a line, don’t be shy. Try a tree pose. Find a still spot to place your focus and ground yourself. Lift one foot, bend your knee, and place your foot on the standing leg. The tree pose is not only fun and challenging but also takes your mind off the wait. Holding the pose puts you in your body, strengthening your attention “muscle,” and allows you to feel rooted during chaos. Mountain is a great pose for that, too. Feel both feet on the ground and find stillness and breath. When stuck in traffic and feeling that road rage building, try noticing the parts of your body supported by your seat, soften your hands on the wheel, bring your attention to the signals in your body. Just this awareness can shift your focus from “rage” to what is happening in your body and allow you to change your reaction. Trying some of these poses with your kids while waiting in line can rechannel their impatient energy by turning their attention to their bodies. Everyone can enjoy the experience and most likely some giggles.
Studies show that gratitude and compassion practices strengthen the empathy neuropathways in the brain. Finding ways to express gratitude whether it’s a journal, a nightly conversation naming some things for which you are grateful, or even reminding yourself what you have to be thankful for in moments of stress, can physiologically and psychologically change your state of mind. It can be as simple as, “I am grateful I can take this next breath.” Again, you don’t have to work too hard or dig too deep to find things to be thankful for and to alter your perspective.
You can help your kids with this practice, too, at any point during your day. You can make it a dinner or bedtime family ritual where you all share something you are thankful for, or you can ask your kids to share both a high and a low from their day. This helps them learn that even though there was something difficult they may have experienced, there is often something positive as well. Modeling gratitude is the best way to help your children notice what they have and not what they don’t. At first children may focus on material things, but the more you give them examples of the non-material things you are grateful for, the broader their own perspective will be. Perhaps the next time you are stuck in traffic with your kids in the back seat, instead of complaining that you can’t get to your destination fast enough, you might say, “This means we have more time together.” The more you can do this with your kids the more likely they will feel and show gratitude. There are also many wonderful picture books about gratitude that help your kids (and you) celebrate all the wonderful things they have to be thankful for.
Mindfulness is a way of being present and kind to yourself as you move through your busy life. It is a practice, which means sometimes it is easy and sometimes it feels almost impossible. Knowing this, don’t be afraid of mindfulness but rather remember it is something you have already done and can continue to do in the moment. So take a breath, feel your feet and tell yourself, “I’ve got this.”
Related Books from Magination Press
Bee Still: An Invitation to Meditation
Bentley is a lovable, calm honeybee. He lives in a hive in a tall oak tree. One day, the queen told the bees to get busy. This sent them scrambling into a tizzy. But not Bentley. He chose to be patient and wait. He decided to look for a place to meditate. Bee Still is a child-friendly introduction to meditation. Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers with more ideas for introducing meditation into your child’s life.
Mindful Bea and the Worry Tree
Bea is anxiously waiting for her friends to show up for her birthday party. The worries start to grow around her life tree branches. She asks herself questions like, “What if my friends don’t like the games?”
Her stomach flip-flops and she feels shaky. She tries to run away from the thoughts in the worry tree, but it doesn’t work!
Bea uses deep-breathing exercises and visualization techniques to calm herself down.
Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers by Ara Schmitt, PhD, about the ways in which kids can respond to their anxious thoughts.
Bee Calm: The Buzz on Yoga
In this companion book to Bee Still: An Invitation to Meditation, Bentley Bee loves to fly around and visit his friends in the garden. One day, he notices all of them in unusual poses. What could it bee?
Bentley’s friends teach him several beginning yoga poses including Mountain, Chair, Airplane, Cobra, and more. Readers will love to follow Bentley and try the poses themselves as he gets buzzing all about yoga in this kid-friendly introduction.
Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers with suggestions for introducing children to yoga and instructions for the poses in the story.