Blog

view:  full / summary

How to Be Mindful With Your Cravings (published on 2/2017)

Posted on February 27, 2017 at 8:05 PM Comments comments (0)

Why it's helpful to listen to your cravings instead of push them away.


When it comes to the universally-not-so-fun experience of craving, it goes something like this: my old job gave me an iPhone to keep me in the loop, which soon led to the intense pleasure of flicking through the app store and downloading my first version of the game “Angry Birds,” which then sparked more cravings of app-related things. My phone and I became fast friends—though I was a jealous, needy friend, and kept my iPhone clamped tight to my hip in a pouch, not unlike an old West gunslinger with his colt revolver. Ask my wife about my compulsive phone-checking at the dinner table and you’ll know a bit about what became my addictive cycle of non-work-related phone-fun (and suffering). Whether it be the mindless nudge toward your phone screen, a thick slice of cake, a cigarette, or various substances, craving is familiar to us all.


Beware the Habit-Forming Brain

 

Researchers like Judson Brewer at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts have studied the cycle of desire. Brewer and his colleagues have shown how addictions operate through a process of conditioning the brain:

 

  • First, we sense objects of desire around us (e.g. TV, food, phones—selfies!, sex, etc.).
  • Second, our brains link these up as either pleasant or unpleasant. We then end up craving the pleasant—even if it’s something like alcohol that, by itself doesn’t at first taste pleasant, we end up craving how it leads to both a pleasurable experience as well as taking away unpleasant things (like sadness or worry).
  • The initial experience of satisfying a craving creates a new memory in the brain. We continue to seek out actions to satisfy the desire and thus an addictive pattern is born.

 

As Brewer points out in his new book, The Craving Mind, we are never in direct contact with the objects of our desires—only with mental representations of them in our minds. And it’s this fact that holds the promise of freedom from the destructive cycle of craving (particularly at the level of life-bleeding addiction). We can’t change the objects that trigger our desire—those cues will continue unabated and unbidden. But we can change how we relate to our mental experiences of them—the word thoughts, mental images, and bodily sensations of desire. “Craving is the link that is targeted here in cutting through the cycle of dependent origination” writes Brewer and colleagues.

 

Brewer’s research suggests that mindfulness is key to cutting the link between conditioned cues of desired objects and the craving that leads to addictive behavior. “Mindfulness functions to decouple pleasant and unpleasant experiences from habitual reactions of craving and aversion by removing the affective bias that fuels such emotional reactivity.”

 

Whereas more traditional or “relapse prevention” approaches to treating addictive craving focus on shifting the environment, problem solving, avoiding addiction cues, and boosting positive feelings, mindfulness offers the possibility of severing the cycle at its source in the brain, and treatment outcome studies in areas such as smoking cessation are increasingly bearing out the promise of this approach.

 

Resilience in the Face of Cravings: Flexibility vs. Forcing the Mind

 

When faced with a day’s activities and situations full of temptations (cake, drink, or something more of the libidinal variety), a torrent of thoughts run through the mind: Here we go again . . . I can’t believe I’m about to go down this road again! . . . Why do I always have to do this . . . It’s the weekend, I deserve to indulge . . . I’ll make it my New Year’s Resolution to stop . . . (Add your own examples, perhaps plus an expletive or two).

 

The pull of cravings (and the disruption this intense desire has on emotional, physical, relational, and perhaps financial well-being) suggests it may be important to get things on a less compulsive, more compassionate, and flexible track. The thoughts and mental images present themselves as real and in need of immediate gratification. “You need this now!” they scream. They often imply an absolute aspect of time with words like “never” and “always.” How effective are you when you get stuck thinking in these ways? Do thoughts infused with these characteristics help or hinder your ability to manage your daily life?

 

An alternative is to build flexibility into how you relate to your own desirous thoughts. Instead of more junk calories, or another fling within a toxic relationship, what you need is a heaping helping of mindful awareness of thinking—of observing your own thoughts without buying into them as absolute truth or trying to force them away.


Try telling yourself not to think about a thick slice of chocolate cake. Do it right now. Don’t let yourself think about it, not even a little bit! Pointless, right? You can’t force thoughts away, particularly ones with the energy and momentum of desire behind them.

 

What’s more helpful is to build your capacity to serve as a witness to your own thoughts. Can you notice yourself thinking right now? Pause and try it. Can you observe your own inner voice? The moment you try to do so, you are mindful of your thoughts, instead of being the thoughts. Typically, when we think about something we crave, that thought feels very close, as if it’s inside us, part of who we are. Mindfulness helps us see the thought as merely a moment of information. It’s just a thought. Just one of the thousands our minds churn out on a daily basis.

 

Mindfulness practice helps us learn to go behind the impulse and watch your own thinking, to notice that thoughts come and go on their own. This sounds simple, yet takes considerable practice. Like bubbles you’ve blown, thoughts are just there. They float around a bit and eventually drift away and pop.


Mindfulness Practice: Witness Your Cravings

 

Many modern cars have a navigation (“nav”) system built into them—devices meant to guide us in unfamiliar territory, and help us anticipate what lies ahead. Much like our always-thinking, and often-craving minds, nav systems are representations of reality—thoughts (including desirous ones) are meant to guide us toward something (or somewhere) we want, but they are NOT the real road itself.

 

With the practice below, you can begin to notice cravings (and mental images and thoughts in general) as mere nudges or cues from your internal nav system. You can learn to consult your nav (because desire isn’t necessarily always bad) when appropriate, and yet keep your focus on the road ahead.

 

When you find yourself lost in a sea of craving, try the following:

 

  1. Find a comfortable stable position, either seated, lying down, or even standing (because craving comes to us in all postures!) and observe the next several breaths.
  2. Bring your attention to the sensation of breathing, noting the rising of the in-breath and falling of the out-breath for a few moments.
  3. Acknowledge to yourself, “I’m having the thought that [insert desirous thought].” This will help you step back and watch the craving. Imagine that it’s the voice coming from your nav system—it’s telling you about a possible craving-related experience ahead. You don’t have to go in that direction though. You can simply note what the nav system of your car is saying and sit back and “watch” (the nav and the road!). This is very different than arguing with the craving, or trying to force it away.
  4. Take another breath and mentally place the thought on the screen (if it’s a mental picture) or imagine it as the voice of the nav system. Vividly imagine the shape, color, size, movement, and sounds of your craving. For a single, full, deep breath, just watch and listen to your craving. No need to debate it. It’s just there. . . . information being delivered to you, not your full reality.
  5. And now ask yourself: What will happen if I keep staring at the screen of my nav as I’m driving my life? How will things pan out? You’ll, of course, wreck the car! Are you willing to merely consult the nav (the cravings-filled thoughts and images—as we’ve discussed, they may actually be useful). Maybe there’s a wake-up call there as to something that would not just bring your pleasure, but might enliven your life, allow you to enjoy the ride?
  6. Are you willing to consider this desire in a balanced way? Is it something that makes sense to move toward, or are you feeling driven by it? Are you willing to not just listen to and watch your nav, but also take in the full truth of what’s happening both inside and outside the car—in the world around you? Are you willing to take it all in and then keep driving in a direction that really matters to? Maybe you’d go in the direction the nav points, and maybe not. You—the fully aware driver—get to decide.

 

The goal with this practice is to shift from a rigid frame of thinking to foster instead a more flexible relationship with your desires. This requires a lot of practice. To be of real benefit, this practice must become a habit. Such a habit will give you a measure of psychological freedom whether it be a mild chocolate impulse or an intense self-destructive urge.

 

References

 

Brewer, Judson et al. (2012). Craving to quit: Psychological models and neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness training as treatment for addictions. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 1-14.

 

Brewer, Judson (2017). The Craving M­­ind. Yale University Press.

 

Harris, Russ (2008). The Happiness Trap. Trumpeter Publishing.

 

Wilson, Kelly & DuFrane, Troy (2012). The wisdom to know the difference: An acceptance and commitment therapy workbook for overcoming substance abuse. Oakland: New Harbinger.



What Your Teen is Really Saying When They're Angry (published 10/2015 on mindful.org)

Posted on January 2, 2017 at 9:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Here are four ways to respond to your teen's anger—and a mindfulness practice to encourage smoother communication.


Your teen is sending you messages with their behavior—especially the most off-putting, anger-laden actions. The key is whether you are willing to respond to the real message behind their behavior. In addition to the general desire for your engaged attention, below is a list of what teens are generally very interested in. When these factors are (from the teen’s perspective) being “denied” them—particularly by you, anger can follow.


Here’s what drives anger for most teens. It wells up when they feel they’re not getting:

 

  • Respect . . . Your teen will flare up during interactions with you because they are assuming you think they don’t deserve this. They believe themselves to be more capable than you (in their perception) will ever admit.

  • Space . . . They want you to give them the physical and emotional room to try things out, explore, and basically have a go at life without your rules, reminders, and your identity. They want their own.

  • Validation . . . You know this better than anyone—teens experience things intensely. Their emotions are strong and often in flux. With all this intensity, and (believe it or not) because your perspective has a great deal of impact on them, they are looking for you to validate them. Or to use a less therapy-thick term, they want to know you understand and accept their feelings as real.

  • Provisions & Peers . . . And you’ve encountered this as well—they want stuff from you. They want access to fun and distraction, and so they want your money. But why? Primarily, so they can spend time with their peers. They want the acceptance and belongingness that only their peers can provide, and trips to the mall and to the ATM are the keys—and they want your car keys as well!

 

I’m sure none of these are a great surprise to you. Perhaps you remember the importance of each of these when you were your child’s age. Regardless, it’s not the mere knowledge of these that will make the difference. It’s your ability to communicate the reality of these meaningful factors to your teen that will largely determine what happens when their anger surfaces. It will do much to connect you to your child, and will also be a fuel for helping your teen improve their behavior and capacity for managing the demands of their daily life.

 

The key is to pause, take a breath, and connect with what’s truly behind your child’s angry actions. You can still set limits on their disrespect or lashing out, but you can also try acknowledging that you understand that something real (for them) is driving how they feel.


Mindfulness Practice: Pause Before You Respond

 

1. Consider a recent stuck communication with your teen—one that seemed to have hit a dead-end.


2. Finish the following sentence: “When it comes to addressing this situation I . . .”


3. To the degree you finished the sentence with anything like “ . . . have thrown up my hands” or “ . . . have tried everything and don’t have a clue what to try next” or “ . . . think it’s really my kid’s fault,” then try the following:


4. Sit with your eyes closed for a moment. Visualize your teen’s appearance and behavior during that angry / communication deadlock situation. Try on the following statements as questions to ask as opposed to your standard rigid mental chatter:

 

  • “What am I willing to give to my teen right now so that they see how much I want to help us out of this situation?”

  • “Whatever I do in the next moment, what’s more important: venting and reacting, or doing and saying what matters most?”

  • “What am I willing to authentically say about what seems to be behind their upset? Am I willing to respond (or “RSVP”;) to what’s real for for them in order for them to be more likely to hear what’s important on my end?

5. In your mind’s eye, imagine what might happen in the next moment of this particular communication breakdown with your teen if you acted from one of these internal questions? Would things be the same rigid and fixed “breakdown as usual” or might there be some room for growth there?

Have Empathy for the "Naughty" Kids (posted on 6/2015 on mindful.org)

Posted on January 2, 2017 at 9:00 PM Comments comments (0)

You know the ones: They punch, kick, swear, and generally give us a hard time. 


Imagine you’re sitting on a bus. You’re lost in thought about some aspect of your daily life—the groceries on your list, whether to book that flight, why your mother is upset with you—anything. Next to you sits a young child who is bald and wearing a bandana. Her skin is blanched, there are rings under her eyes and she is clearly very ill, struggling against cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. She’s holding a book bag decorated with brightly-colored cartoon characters. Stop for a moment, think of this girl, and ask yourself how you feel. Each of us can look at a child suffering through the pains of cancer and its treatment, and the empathy comes easily.


Now, still sitting in your seat on the bus, you turn and see a boy who looks about eleven years old. He has wild-looking red hair and he’s significantly overweight. He’s sitting next to a woman who, by the way he keeps reaching into her purse and grabbing at things, must be his mother. “Stop it, Michael,” she says, her face red with embarrassment as she glances around the bus, then at you. “We’ll be stopping to eat in a minute.” Her voice is strained with urgency, but the boy does not stop grabbing at her purse. “I want some crackers! Where are they? You always have some.” The tug of war between mother and son continues, with everyone else on the bus stiff with anticipation of the inevitable explosion. And it comes as if on cue. “I hate you!” he screams, kicking the pole where an old woman is leaning. “I want another family.” The boy yanks her purse away and throws it down the aisle. The mother’s face slides downward into a familiar expression of defeat. She’s clearly been here with her son many times before. She calmly tells him to go get her purse, keeping her voice low—a practiced strategy for stifling the blaze of his anger. “No! Go get it yourself!” You finally can’t take any more, and you look away out the window. Your bus stop cannot come fast enough. You’re already running late. You close your eyes to escape the scene erupting around you.


Ask yourself how you feel. What do you want to say to this child? To this mother? How much caring do they deserve?


What is the difference between the needs of children like the bandana-wearing kids at a cancer center, and ones with significant emotional problems who throw tantrums and shower disrespect on their parents? I believe the difference exists primarily in perception. Kids fighting cancer are “empathy easy,” whereas the kids I work with as a psychologist—the ones who swear, kick, punch, refuse and fail—are “empathy hard.”


The assumptions we make about “naughty” kids


In the years I’ve spent working with such “naughty” kids, I’ve found myself tempted toward certain assumptions. I’ve caught myself, after watching a particularly dramatic display of child naughtiness during my clinical work—the dropping of “F-bombs” or the erecting of middle fingers in my direction—entertaining words such as “attention-seeking,” “manipulative,” “oppositional,” or perhaps a simple “he or she is being a pain in the ass.” Sometimes I question such responses bubbling up from the depths of my frustration with a particular kid’s behavior. What I realize is that I’m falling prey to universal, yet reversible, limitations of human perception. We are all blocked by our point of view as observers of others’ behavior.


And these same perceptual limitations get in the way of our parenting as well. The “bad” we see in our children’s behavior can sometimes coagulate at the very center of our hearts.


Studies have repeatedly revealed a mental distortion called “correspondence bias,” which is common to everyone when they make judgments about the source of others’ actions. Basically, when looking at others, unless there are clear external, environmental causes leaving the person “blameless” (such as the young child with cancer who did nothing to create her situation), we tend to assume (incorrectly) that people’s behavior is the inevitable result of their own internal traits. The person who cuts us off in traffic is undeniably a “jerk.” The colleague who walks away from our office in a huff has “an attitude problem.” They chose and therefore caused this behavior to result. If we’re watching someone display “bad” behavior, and there is no clear outside explanation, it is tempting for the bystander to say the person’s actions result from some distasteful, personal attributes (for example, laziness). It is easy to see then how our empathy falters. Our caring withers when we (often incorrectly) assume people’s negative experiences were “deserved.” They simply had it coming.


We all are prone to such errors in perception. The essence of correspondence bias is the observer’s incorrect view of the actor’s control over circumstances. In doing so, we ignore the crucial influence of situational forces on behavior. Think of the last time you were late for work or school. How would you feel if everyone who noticed your tardiness assumed you were late as a result of some defect in your character? Welcome to the world of “unruly” and “oppositional” children at the therapeutic school where I work. Say hello to the homeless guy standing in the median of the highway on your way to work. Take a good look at the morbidly obese woman in front of you in the grocery store checkout line who is reaching for that calorie-laden candy bar. And look long and hard at your own children when they’ve done all the things that hit buttons and deflate dreams. These people are all empathy “hard,” but do they really deserve to be? It’s a good opportunity to clean the distortive smudges from our perceptual glasses. As Tara Healey from Harvard Pilgrim writes, “it’s about checking how we’re seeing before we try to change what we’re seeing.”


You’re back on the bus. The girl wearing the bandana is sitting across from you. No mental stretch is necessary to understand the pangs you feel for her when you notice the half moons under her eyes, when you wonder how much longer she’ll be carrying her pink book bag to school. The empathy comes easily and deservedly.


And now, a seat next to you opens up. The mother whose son just pitched her purse down the center aisle comes to sit next to you. She’s looking to get a minute or so of respite. Her son is still grumbling about being hungry at the other end of the bus. “Hate you,” he yells. You hear the mother sigh, watch her grip the purse she’s just recovered from up near the driver’s seat. She fills her lap with the purse. Perhaps she learned long ago to keep that space occupied so little boys with restless, aggressive limbs would not try to sit there.


Instead of allowing your mind to lock in on judgments of “brattiness” and “bad mothering,” you close your eyes and step back in your mind’s eye. You consider the context. You take off your distorting lenses. Inhale, exhale and you find yourself feeling a touch of the weight of this mother’s experience, and you notice a curiosity flickering as to all the things—some controllable, some not—leading this boy to such a stuck place. For a moment, you’ve forgotten how late you are, and you are worrying less about what others might think if you do anything.


“Rough day,” you say to the mother.


A small, appreciative smile cracks her hastily applied makeup.


“You have no idea.”

 

Pause and practice

 

In your next (likely not too distant) moment of parental frustration, go beyond the advice to “count to ten” or “take deep breaths” before responding. For sure, do these things, but do something in addition while you’re counting and breathing—Ask yourself: What might be hiding beneath my child’s “difficult” actions? What might be lying there vulnerable and unattended beneath my own? Ask these the next time you catch yourself in the act of reacting. Tell your reflexive, knee-jerk mind to wait a moment—you’ve got some breathing and inquiring to do.



A Model For Teaching Our Kids Accountability (published on 9/2015 on mindful.org)

Posted on January 2, 2017 at 8:50 PM Comments comments (0)

Sometimes our most formative learning experiences come from what we choose to own up to—and if our parents let us make that choice.


It took Dad hundreds of hours to build it, and only a few seconds for me to bust it. I now live in Boston and, out of what is likely sheer guilt, I’ve yet to visit the real-life version of the USS Constitution that my father crafted into a beautiful replica model when I was a kid. I’ve driven by the museum yard in Charlestown harbor many times, and have never ventured onto the ship (despite the pull of the former history major in me). Guilt festering into shame can do that. Even after more than 35 years.


Shame has a way of rusting things in our family lives. We learn as kids about becoming accountable for ourselves when we hurt or displace others. Parents, in how they handle these crossroad moments when kids are to blame, can help them learn to come clean. For kids, parents can model awareness of what’s actually going on, and keep from either descending into the depths of unnecessary shame, or walking away from responsibility altogether.

 

My Dad spent many evenings sitting at our kitchen table (the one he’d made himself in his woodshop) assembling the hull and decks of his three-foot-long model. No detail was spared—he hand-painted every miniature crew member, strung up a complicated array of string for the ship’s riggings, and carefully placed the dozens of cannons in their individual slots in the hull. There was even the detail of the Captain’s chamber at the back of the boat, with furniture and accoutrement of the ship’s commander painted and mounted in place. I could bend down and imagine the meetings the Captain had there with his officers, the battle plans made and ocean charts consulted. There were likely even disciplinary discussions had there at the desk—much like the one my older brother and I faced when my Dad came home that Saturday.


“I’m heading out for a while,” Dad had said. He didn’t even need to say anything to remind us. It was well-ingrained by this point. We were absolutely forbidden to go into his room to mess with his freshly finished USS Constitution. And my Dad’s car door had barely closed, his car’s engine not yet hot, when I walked into the room to have a look.


Unusual for me to be the intrepid one. That was usually reserved for my Eagle Scout older brother—he was the one who threw a cigar and beer party at our house for all his buddies while my parents were away—the acting out the Mr. Hyde to my passive, quiet, pensive Dr. Jekyll. He three-wheeled his all-terrain bike to the limits of human sanity and safety out in the trails behind our house while I two-wheeled my ten-speed to my friend Neal’s house for cartoons and Dungeons and Dragons fantasy game play.


And yet I was the one who just had to poke at the main mast of Dad’s ship.


“You’re going to bust it,” Todd said as he watched me. “You know, Dad told us to leave it…”


He couldn’t even get his reminder out before I’d done it. I pressed at the mast just a tad too much. The whole thing teetered on its plastic stand and went over the back of the desk there in the bedroom. I expected to see an absolute shipwreck there on their hardwood floor. Instead, it looked pretty much intact lying on its starboard side, just a bit of listing and no real damage—all except for that main mast. The thing had snapped about two-thirds of the way up, dangling in the rigging like a stick caught in a spider’s webbing.


And so did I in those moments of first recognition. I surged with anxiety and my impending view of the childhood gallows that awaited me when Dad returned.


My brother would be there when Dad came back. The one who I shared a bedroom with, the one I warred with endlessly. The one who out-worked me in hauling wood, shoveling snow or anything physical. The one I bested in anything academic.


He would surely rat me out.


He just stood as I fumbled with the mast. He shook his head as I vainly tried to prop the mast back up into place with tape. I hoped my Dad wouldn’t notice—at least for a couple of days. My Dad is an engineer. He lives in physical details. Who was I kidding?


“I only want to ask this once,” Dad said as he stood in front of us in the hallway outside his bedroom. Mind you, my Dad is a large man. He’s not especially tall, but he’s broad-shouldered and has a powerful look to his arms. I’d seen him swing axes and shoot hand-made flintlock rifles with barely a ripple of his frame. And that frame now towered in front of me.


“Who did it?”


Cue the firing squad. There would be no need for a trial. My brotherly eyewitness would give the judge all the evidence he needed.


I stood in paralyzed silence waiting for the axe to fall. My brother waited as well. I expected jubilation, laughter, the applause that said “Ha, ha—the goody-goody is finally getting his.” But it didn’t come.


“Last chance,” Dad said. “Who did—”


“I did,” said my brother, literally stepping forward.


To this day, I’m not absolutely certain why my brother took the hit for me. As an adult, and at the retelling of this family legend for the hundredth time around a holiday dinner table, he still couldn’t fully explain it. He spoke of feeling badly for me. Of being worried for me since I was rarely in my Dad’s crosshairs.


And so he took his punishment without a word. Banished to our bedroom, he was thunderously told that he would be relieved of all outings and friend-shenanigans for an unbelievable, and ultimately, untenable amount of time.


Me? I likely sat more quietly than usual that night as I poked at my dessert, which I could barely choke down due to the guilty nub jutting out into the gap of my throat.


Here’s the thing—I think my parents were also well aware of my sensitivity. My Dad was certainly well-versed in my interest in his precious ship. He’d watched me watching him make the model. What he didn’t know was that it was less the ship that fascinated me—it was the diligent, quiet passion he poured into its creation. A similar passion I find in myself in moments like this as I write.

 

I’m sure Dad knew I was the one who broke his model. He tells me now he doesn’t remember having known at the time. And I’ve told the story too often to know for sure if there was evidence one way or the other. The bottom line for me is that he had the presence of mind to let me come to accountability on my own. He didn’t squeeze it out of me. He (and I’m sure with consultation with Mom) held his tongue and let that guilty nub in my throat grow goiter-like until I could no longer breathe until I gasped out the truth.


I admitted my true guilt and took my own lumps (larger than they would likely have been in the first place if I’d fessed up) for having broken Dad’s ship and broken trust by lying.


My brother stepped forward and, despite our feud (which continued in earnest across the years of our cohabitation), taught about responsibility for others. My Dad stayed in place and, despite his anger and disappointment, held them in check until I could do the internal work of owning things, and thereby taught about accountability for oneself.


There’s patience in these woodworkers, these engineers, that those of us in the helping professions—all of us as parents—can learn from.


The USS Constitution still floats in Boston harbor, and my Dad’s version now sits safely (and out of my reach) in a glass case in Dad’s den in Orlando.


The mast is still a bit bent. Not because Dad couldn’t fix it. I’m betting he leaves it there as a silent, gentle reminder.

 

Pause & Practice

 

Close your eyes and let the mind drift toward something you might choose to fess up to in your role as a parent—that guilty “thing” inside that you avoid shining the light on over in that dark corner. With eyes closed and breathing steady, shine the light on it in your attention. Watch it with open, non-flinching awareness. What is most “alive” as you keep the light on it? What might you do about this now that you’re looking at squarely? Do it if you’re willing.


Take a Mindful Selfie: Self-Compassion for the Modern Age (Published 7/2016 on mindful.org)

Posted on December 29, 2016 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)

When close to three-quarters of us have smartphones, and at least a third of the pictures taken are selfies, here’s how to take a snapshot of self-directed kindness when times are tough.


I certainly mirror the data reported by the Pew Research Center regarding use of mobile technology. I (and likely you) find yourself represented in these statistics:

 

  • 67% of cell owners check their phone for messages and alerts even when the phone is not alerting you.
  • 44% of cell owners sleep with their phone next to the bed so they don’t miss out on the next dollop of dopamine in the brain from receiving the “ding” of a new text or email.
  • 71% of teens use more than one social networking site.

Though I can claim ignorance around things like Instagram or Snapchat, I also find myself among the 50% of the population who have taken a selfie. From that mundane arms-reach shot of you, a friend, and the sunset at the beach, to actor Bradley Cooper’s celebrity-crammed Oscars pic, selfies and the phones we’re addicted to remind us of our fundamental need to connect with one another.


And while selfies can be a way to link us up, we sell ourselves short by focusing on just the skin-deep aspect of things. What if we learned to really take selfies? That’s where mindfulness of yourself comes in—specifically, what is increasingly referred to as “self-compassion” in the mindfulness meditation world.


Cue the clicking of mouses and swiping of fingers across screens to get away from such unsavory topics as the deeper, “real” you—particularly when you’re stressed and suffering in some way. But see if you’re willing to hang in anyway for a minute or two. Self-compassion is far more than chasing rainbows and skipping after unicorns. According to psychologist and researcher Kristin Neff, self-compassion is self-kindness (versus self-judgment), combined with a sense of common humanity (versus being alone with what’s hard) and mindfulness (versus being over-identified with bad feelings).
 

Self-compassion is the picture we should be taking of ourselves and tweeting out to the world. It’s us seeing our pain as part of the larger, universal picture of being human, and seeing ourselves as worthy of kindness and care. And it’s not weak or passive, or narcissistic and self-indulgent. It takes guts to practice, and science shows that it can do much to lower anxiety, stress reactions, depression, and perfectionism. It can open you up to your life whereas your old patterns or reaction and self-judgment close you down.


Here are other reasons for you to practice self-compassion:

  

  • It helps you feel strong and safe enough to lean in toward challenge and pain
  • There are numerous books and programs (see below) that help you learn it (and yes, it’s a skill you can develop)
  • It connects you to yourself and others at the same time
  • It’s cheaper than your phone plan (i.e. it’s free)

More than the time we spend on our phones, we spend far too much time in our heads—in our thoughts—analyzing, judging, belittling, and bemoaning ourselves. You came to mindful.org because you have an interest in mindfulness. Self-compassion is the wide angle lens of mindfulness turned about toward your own suffering. It’s time to have a good look.

Take a Self-Compassion “Selfie”


1. When you are stressed, overwhelmed or upset, take a moment to check in with yourself.


2. Direct your attention to your bodily sensations. Where in your body do you feel this upset? Let yourself feel these sensations just as they are for a few moments.


3. Tell yourself something totally authentic like: “This hurts” or “This sucks.”


4. Remind yourself that you’re not alone. Say something to yourself like: “Other people have dealt with this too” or “Everyone feels pain at some point.”


5. Give yourself a dose of self-care by saying something that fits you and the situation. Something like: “I can choose to let myself off the hook” or “I can ride this out” or “I deserve to take care of myself” or “I’m hanging in.”


The above practice was adapted from Kristin Neff


Do me a favor—do yourself (and the world) one by doing more than just reading this post. Consider putting down your phone and taking a real selfie . ...

 

Resources:

 

Germer, C. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. Guildford Press.


Neff, K. (2015) Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. William Morrow Paperbacks.

What to Do When You're Running Out of Patience (published 10/2015 on mindful.org)

Posted on December 29, 2016 at 3:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Here are suggestions for going beyond a passive view of patience to making it the crucial skill it is—one that you actively build into your daily life.


Since first published in the poem “Piers Plowman” (attributed to William Langland) in the 14th century, we’ve all had it drilled into us since childhood that “patience is a virtue.” What is striking to me about patience is that we’ve at all needed to be “told” of its importance. It’s as though we, especially in modern, Western society, need to be convinced—we need proof that patience figures large in our lives. Patience somehow has accrued a reputation of a “nicety” among positive attributes—a sense of it being desirable, but not crucial to “success” in our Western Times-Square-meets-Wall-Street world. Patience is great, but other qualities that drive it home, seal the deal and score points are preferred.


In a time of trumping rivals and compulsively keeping up with the joneses, to be patient suggests coming in second, or perhaps dead last. Patience is not overt—it does not put a person on display. There’s little in terms of a Tony Robbins-styled inner “power” to it. In a word, patience can seem “weak.”


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines patient as “able to remain calm and not become annoyed when waiting for a long time or when dealing with problems or difficult people.” There isn’t much nuance to this definition. Though it sounds great to “remain calm” (I’m thinking of someone yelling this at people during a stampede into an Apple store for the newest I-ware), and to “not become annoyed” in the face of “problems” or “difficult people,” there’s not much of a sense of what this is internally, let alone how it’s done.


Developing one’s skills for mindfulness IS how you build patience. In my own practice, and for those I work with as a clinician, there are three mindful components to building patience:

 

1. Cultivating acceptancene of what is actually here in the present moment

2. Getting clear around the very real fact that everything changes, and …

3. Not getting stuck on believing that you are separate, an “island unto yourself”


Patience may not be flashy, but it is crucial to well-being and effectiveness. And it’s not something only the Dalai Lama can do (i.e. notions of certain people having the “patience of a saint”. Patience is what modern psychological and brain science would support and it’s what you can do while you’re waiting for the next thing—the end of the meeting, your driveway at the conclusion of a long commute home from work, the salivation and smell of dinner served, the anticipation of a lofty goal’s attainment, and then sleep before dreams of a weekend’s diversions.


When we flare with frustration or anger at others at home (or wherever), or when we shut down and check out with loved ones, it’s because we’re losing touch with the above three aspects of what mindfulness practice teaches. Impatience pulls the rug out from under our best and loving intentions, and seems to especially do so with those who matter to us most.


Here are some suggestions for going beyond a passive view of patience, to making it the crucial skill it is—one that you actively build into your daily life.

 

Pause and Practice:


Do the following to work on building your patience “muscle”:

 

1. Ask yourself: Does your indignation toward another person feel good?

 

Does it make things more do-able and manageable? Does it boost or block up the mind? How might letting it fester and fly out of us negatively impact us and others? Basically, what are the costs of feeding your angry impatience?

 

2. Ask yourself: How might you learn something from this “transgressor”?


Without intending to, how might they be teaching you about the edges, the boundaries of your capacity for patience? You don’t have to like the pain they’ve set in motion for you, but are you willing to be at all grateful for this opportunity to expand your patience and capacity for well-being?

 

3. Make your goal of riding out reactive urges or impulses public to others.

 

Make yourself accountable for practicing patience.

 

4. Stack the deck


Try not to put yourself in situations where you’ll need to resist urges or fight impulses when you’re fatigued and depleted. Rely on rituals and routines for times when you’re likely to be fried and impatient (e.g. bedtime for families with young kids).




Addicted to Your Phone? Try this Practice - Phone in Hand (Published 3/2016 on mindful.org)

Posted on December 29, 2016 at 2:55 PM Comments comments (0)

This mindfulness practice can help transform your relationship to your phone—the very thing that can sometimes pull us toward mindlessness.


I just set my phone down to write this post, but thankfully and notably, it’s well within arm’s reach. As a psychologist, therapist, and parent, I consider the following to be of great concern:


• There is research suggesting that using cell phones for only a half hour a day for ten years doubles one’s risk of brain cancer.


• The soreness in our fingers and wrists from texting too much is so prevalent that the term “text claw” has entered our lexicon.


• “Problematic Internet Use” (PIU) is now considered a behavioral addiction, with almost half (48 %) of participants in one study considered “Internet addicts.”


• In her remarkable book, Reclaiming Conversation (2015), MIT professor Sherry Turkle discusses research pointing to how a quarter of teens in the US are connected to a device within five minutes of waking up each morning, and that most teens send at least one hundred text messages per day.


• Most alarming to me is Turkle’s citing of another scientific finding: That over the past 20 years our society has seen a 40% decline (most of it occurring over the past decade) in indicators of empathy in people, and that researchers are linking this trend with the rise of digital communication technologies.


As we get more connected to our wireless technology, we appear to run the risk of damaging our brains’ wiring, and disconnecting from the face-to-face interaction that our social and psychological systems need. With its emphasis on harnessing attention with intention (i.e. redirecting it on purpose), mindfulness—with all its scientifically-established health and well-being benefits—has the potential to keep us from drifting hopelessly away from one another. Perhaps it can keep us connected, even though we might only be feet away from one another as we tap out texts, emails ,or check up on our “social” life on social media. In addition, it might help us stem the tide of our ever-ebbing attention spans. It’s because of our MTV (for me in the past) and tweet-truncated capacities for focused attention (for the youth I work with as a therapist now), that I’m learning to keep my blog posts brief—particularly this one. I want you to actually read (and apply something to your life) from this.


I’m not saying we should all throw our phones in the trash, or that we should forgo Facebook or terminate our Twitter accounts. The technology may not be “evil” in and of itself. These devices and capabilities do bring incredible benefits and possibilities for sharing information and creating global interaction than ever before. We simply (and yet with great difficulty) need to learn to hold our technology more lightly—with more awareness. As I’ve considered this, I wondered if, in addition to the wealth of traditional mindfulness meditation practices, it might help if there was a practice specific to the phones we can’t seem to live without.


Are we willing to make a mindfulness practice out of the very thing which seems to be pulling us toward dangerous degrees of mindlessness? Pick up your phone and try the following:


Practice: Be Mindful with Your Phone


1. Sit comfortably, in an upright posture, with your phone (yes, I’m assuming you have one—if you’re reading this blog, there’s a very good chance you do!) in the palm of your hand which you can rest gently on your lap. Keep your eyes open for this meditation.


2. Turn your phone on, but do not open any particular app. Just let your thumb hover over top the screen.


3. Take in a full, deep breath into the belly. Let yourself feel the nuances of how the breath enters and leaves the body. For at least a couple of minutes or more, practice mindfulness of the sensations of your breathing. Simply place your attention (even though you’re looking at your phone) on the feeling of your breath coming in and out (without breathing in any particular, controlled way). If your mind drifts away (particularly to any of the things I’ve listed below), just gently bring awareness back to the breath.


4. Notice any of the following, and if they arise, just gently label them as either a want, frustration, restlessness, fatigue, or a sense of doubt and come back to being aware of how your breath feels. See if you can keep your awareness lightly connected to the sensation of the breath, and simultaneously see if you can notice any or all of the following if they happen to show up:


a. Is there any impulse drawing your thumb of finger to open an app, check email, or some other aspect of your phone? Is there a want showing up in you—a sense of being pulled toward something? Get curious as to what this want, this desire, actually is in this moment. What are its components in your mind and bodily sensations? Notice the pull and see if you are willing to just ride the impulse without following it. Is this want actually the driving need it seems to be?


. . . Come back to noticing the breath, and silently ask:


b. Is there something about looking at your phone that stirs frustration, angst or even anger? Are you reminded of someone or something that feels worthy of blame? Are you feeling frustrated over not immediately opening and using your phone? Can you just notice all that’s showing up right now?


. . . Come back again to the sensation of the breath and ask:


c. Is there anything about looking at your phone (and not sending your fingers flying as is your habit) that worries you? Is there an internal itch—a restless, crawling feeling? Label this as “restlessness” and watch the energy as it moves through mind and body. Just let it be. Does it change or stay the same?


. . . And back to the breath yet again and see if:


d. As you hold your phone, do you notice any sagging, depleted, or dull feelings? Is there a fatigue that sets in as you just sit looking at your phone, trying to keep awareness on the sensations of breathing?


. . . And one last time, come back to the sensory details of your breathing. Really look at your phone and wonder:


e. Does looking at this small object cast any doubt on how you manage your daily life, your attention? How does this small, thin rectangle make you feel about yourself, and your sense of control over your life? See if you can just stay with these thoughts and the feeling they’re joined to in the body and let them be. Can you see them as the mere story, the scripted narrative, that they really are?


This practice is about opening up to our experience of how we make use of this piece of powerful technology. Instead of closing down our awareness and letting this device’s screen become a “rabbit hole” that we fall mindlessly into, are we willing to make a habit of seeing the negative states it can draw out of us. Again, smartphones (and the Internet, social media, and other digital technologies) aren’t inherently “bad.” They are, however, dangerously addictive. Sure, guns don’t pull their own triggers, and lines of cocaine don’t march up peoples’ noses unbidden, and yet somehow we typically know it’s not wise to place either in a young child’s unsupervised and unaware hands. Somehow we’re not so careful when it comes to our digital devices.


Consider going beyond any current practice of mindfulness you’ve incorporated into your daily life. Consider making your phone itself a cue for waking up instead of checking out.


And feel free to ask my wife what she thinks of all this – particularly when she’s trying to get me to engage a conversation about household logistics whilst my phone is open and casting its pale, zombified glow onto my face.


References


Aboujaoude, E. (2010). Problematic Internet use: an overview. World Psychiatry, 9(2), 85–90.


Shapira, N. A., Lessig, M. C., Goldsmith, T. D., Szabo, S. T., Lazoritz, M., Gold, M. S. and Stein, D. J. (2003), Problematic internet use: Proposed classification and diagnostic criteria. Depression and Anxiety, 17: 207–216.


Caplan, S.E. (2010). Theory and measurement of generalized problematic Internet use: A two-step approach. Computers and Human Behavior, 26(5): 1089-1097.


Sara H. Konrath, S.H., O’Brien, E.H. and Hsing, C. (2011) Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15: 180.

Mindful Parents Raise Less Stressed-Out Kids (published on 1/2016 on mindful.org)

Posted on December 29, 2016 at 2:15 PM Comments comments (0)

A recent study finds that children of parents who report higher amounts of mindfulness tend to have lower rates of stress.


You really can’t pass any magazine rack today without seeing something about mindfulness. We’re bombarded with messages of its power—that it helps reduce the effects of stress, improves your immune function, and even improves your decision-making skills. While it’s surely not a cure-all, it is overwhelmingly established by controlled scientific studies to be of value in living a healthy, engaged, and less stressful life (1) (2). It’s been shown to subtly, and yet in measurable and meaningful ways, change the structure of the brain (3). And a study published this month in the journal Psychology by Lea Waters of the University of Melbourne, points to the benefits of mindfulness within our families.


Looking at dozens of parent-child pairs in a community sample, Waters’ data pointed to a significant link between kids’ mindfulness and their experience of stress. Higher reports of mindfulness related to fewer report of stress. The more surprising finding was that children whose parents were more mindful were significantly less likely to report being stressed as well. Though further studies are needed to establish a causal link, this study hints at the role that parents’ own cultivation of attention and nonjudgmental awareness can have in reducing distress in their kids. Consider it a mindful “trickle-down” effect.


This data, plus the decades of other research establishing the benefits of mindfulness, suggests that parents should strongly consider adding mindfulness practice to their daily schedules. Yeah right! To many modern, busy parents (the author included), this can seem impossible. Mindfulness seems to require more time than modern life allows. It can feel like too high a bar for the non-Dalai Lamas among us to attain. But let’s be clear…in a sense, you are likely being mindful right now. The act of bringing your attention to bear on the words and ideas presented here, and doing so with an open, curious attitude, makes you a “meditator” in this simple act of reading, whether you happen to be sitting on a meditation cushion or not!


This data, plus the decades of other research establishing the benefits of mindfulness, suggests that parents should strongly consider adding mindfulness practice to their daily schedules. Yeah right! To many modern, busy parents (the author included), this can seem impossible. Mindfulness seems to require more time than modern life allows. It can feel like too high a bar for the non-Dalai Lamas among us to attain. But let’s be clear…in a sense, you are likely being mindful right now. The act of bringing your attention to bear on the words and ideas presented here, and doing so with an open, curious attitude, makes you a “meditator” in this simple act of reading, whether you happen to be sitting on a meditation cushion or not!


Take a moment and ask yourself the following questions about your situation with your child:


• Are you finding yourself frequently “flooded” and overwhelmed by the physical sensations of difficult emotions when trying to manage communication with your child?


• Does the stress of things with him or her build up in your body, wearing you down and sapping your resilience?


• Are you often getting inundated with rapid, distracting thoughts and emotions about your child, the household, and “the future,” and can’t seem to keep yourself centered?


• Are you struggling with the emotional effects of harsh, rigid thinking directed toward either your child or yourself?


• Are you rarely able to say that you are “enjoying” simply being with your child and/or others in the family because you’re often upset over painful things from the past or worries about the future?


• Are you finding yourself gritting your teeth in reaction to your family life, flailing about trying to push away all the upset in one way or another?


Perhaps you answered “yes” to only one of the above. Perhaps you ended up with affirmatives for all six questions? Each is a theme that mindfulness skills can address. Here’s a “key” of these themes, or mindfulness skill targets, so that you can begin to have a sense of where you might need to focus going forward. Upcoming posts will give more ideas for the following:


• Anchoring: getting grounded in your present-moment sense experience.

• Body awareness: soothing the stress that builds up in the body.

• Focus: getting centered when difficult situations are disorganizing and distracting.

• Flexible thinking: creating a more effective, loosened relationship to your own thinking so that it doesn’t bind you up

• Widened perspective: opening up your access to the present and not getting lost in negative tunnel vision based on the pain of the past or anticipations of the future.

• Acceptance: developing the capacity to ride out pain once it’s arrived on the scene.


Research Citations

1. Hofmann, S. G. et al. (2010). The Effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 78, 169–183.

2. Grossman, Paul et al. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57, 35 – 43.

3. Tang Y. Y., Lu Q., Fan M., Yang Y., Posner M. I. (2012). Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 109, 10570–10574.

Parenting While Present (Published 8/2015 on Mindful.org)

Posted on December 23, 2016 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Parenting—it's no walk in the park. But sometimes we find a refreshed sense of purpose and engagement with our children in those mundane, park-walk moments.


It was Veteran’s Day, and I was off from work and home with both of my young children. I did what any sane parent of young kids does when home alone—take them to a park before the parental meltdown begins. As other cabin-feverish parents and their kids milled about, I sat on a see-saw with my four year old daughter across from me, me lightly bouncing us, but my heart not in it.


My five-month-old son, Theo, sat, still strapped into his stroller next to me and watched as I tapped out an email to my co-author on a new book project we’d begun. A book about mindfulness of all things. As my kids watched me quietly, my focus had gone down the two by four inch rabbit hole of my Iphone’s screen.


A tap to my shoulder from behind brought me to attention, and I turned to see an elderly Asian woman smiling at me. She pointed at Theo and made a cradling gesture with her arms. She said something in what sounded like Chinese, though her continued caress of the invisible baby in her arms underscored how she knew I didn’t understand.


I assumed she wanted to hold Theo—he’s just that cute. Surely his charms spanned all cultural barriers. The woman looked so gentle, and she certainly couldn’t outrun me, so sure I thought—“You can hold him for a second,” I said aloud. I took Theo out of his stroller and moved him in her direction. She smiled, and did the cradling motion again. I dangled my son like bartered goods in the air between us, suddenly aware of how I was willing to pawn off my child to a complete stranger in order to end an awkward exchange. But I didn’t need to hand over Theo because that’s not what she wanted. She did the cradling motion again, saying whatever it was in Chinese once more.


And then she pointed at me.


A wave of embarrassed recognition surged through me. The old woman couldn’t speak English and yet she spoke the universal language of true parenting. I’d just been nonverbally dope-slapped to stop mindlessly emailing about mindfulness—some gleaming future prospects—and get present as a dad with my two amazing kids.


I sat Theo on my lap and faced my daughter, Celia. I bounced us in earnest and it wasn’t long before Theo was doing his recently-acquired giggle. All three of us were smiling there in the park.


From this “teaching” episode in the park, a crucial question arose for me in my parenting, and for the work I do as a family psychologist: Here, now . . . or there, then?


The question, if asked with mindfulness, is crucial. It’s a prompt to check out what your mind is doing—am I here, now in the present with what’s happening (inside me, and with my family around me) or am I lost “there and then” in memories and thoughts and therefore missing out? Such an inquiry can wake you up in moments like mine there on the see-saw with my daughter. It can get us in the game with our families and make all the difference.


The answer is certainly there—or more correctly, when. That moment on the see-saw with Theo and Celia and all the smiles will never show up again in exactly the same way. And it would not have come about at all without the elderly maternal mime willing to punch through park protocol and lightly tap me on the shoulder.


How many moments as parents are never realized by us for lack of attention?


Or even if they do arise, how often do our minds cloud over the authentic seeing of our kids with thoughts of past or future?


There’s something always here in my parenting I’ve almost always been missing.


When it comes to my children, I see the restlessness that pops up in me when the moment calls for presence and engagement. It is consistently and reflexively hard for my mind to let go of what might later be. When my daughter was a newborn, I tried getting present by writing short notes about the angst and joy of being a new dad. I called them my “Notes to Celia,” and wrote about 80 pages worth of dipsticks into the parental experience. I intended to keep up the writing of these entries indefinitely. Perhaps they’d be a Bat Mitzvah gift? Or at her college graduation? Maybe handed to her on lovely parchment after a toast at her wedding?


And then these “notes” stopped. I had lost the initial “here – now” focus, and had drifted forward into possibilities. Perhaps I can publish this, I thought. Maybe I can get an agent interested . . . And it was not long before the notes languished as another rusting relic in my junkyard of incomplete book proposals.


The answer has something to do with getting past the past and simultaneously foregoing the future. “It” . . . is . . . here . . . now. Writer sitting with fingers alternatingly attached and unattached to keyboard keys as words form and the thought of smiles on a seesaw ripple across mind’s eye. I pause the writing and look about. I find my daughter’s face over in the kitchen as she plays her very first board game with her older cousins there at the table. A smile lights her face not unlike that day on the seesaw once I’d laid down my phone along with the future. And an old woman’s cross-cultural smiling shines there as well.


Pause & Practice


Claim a moment for yourself here and now, either with a family member or otherwise. What is happening right now in your senses? What will you miss that will never show up at the end of your experience again? Don’t focus only on the big things, the earth-shattering stuff—it could be there in the look of a loved one on a photograph on your desk or dresser. Maybe it’s someone next to you on the bus that if you’d only look up and meet there eyes, something beyond last night’s dreams might begin. Or it’s just a moment of rest in the awareness that’s always there for you to lean back into. Ask this “here, now?” question enough, and you might find yourself more present than I did that day in the park. What emerges from the simple inner act of asking?


Letting the Chips Fall: Control and Letting Go with Your Children (Published 8/2016 on mindful.org)

Posted on December 23, 2016 at 3:50 PM Comments comments (0)

It's natural to have a game plan—maybe even a blueprint—for our children. But when things get tough, can you go loose? It might be the key to accepting everything from a fresh dent in the car door to larger issues that come up.


When I was a kid, one of my favorite game shows was The Price is Right. I liked the game “Plinko”—where contestants earned “plinko chips” by accurately estimating prices of household goods (prominently displayed for the camera and, of course, flanked by beautiful, overly smiling models). At the cue of host Bob Barker, and with chips in hand, contestants climbed the steps leading up behind the “Plinko” wall so that they could release them one at a time, pinball style, down the wall and toward their dreams of “Showcase Showdown” success. Chips bounced about off of pegs placed tightly across the wall, eventually landing in slots at the bottom that were assigned prize dollar amounts. There was no way to know exactly where things would end up. The chip might start on the left, veer toward a thousand bucks, only to end up all the way over to the right in Zilchville. Some contestants seemed like they had a strategy to their plinko-ing, but it was really chaotic and random. Only the Plinko gods, (or maybe some secret magnetic remote in Bob Barker’s pocket), could control the outcome.


This is how much of my clinical work has seemed over the years—like playing Plinko. You start out with a general sense of where you’d like to end up with a client, but somehow, things bounce around, and the actual end point of treatment is in a completely different (and sometimes very surprising) direction. There’s a Plinko quality to parenting as well—we, as parents, set our sights on specific goals and outcomes for our kids, and then…reality says otherwise.


Plinko is great for a game show, but it really has no place as the method for deciding the course of treatment for a client, nor does it make sense as a way for constructing your household or your savings plan for your child’s college education. Besides, at least on The Price is Right, contestants all got parting gifts. All I’m left with at the end of some of my sessions (and parents after a confusing and contorting day of managing their kids) is a throbbing headache. Sound familiar?


My wife and I used to talk on Friday afternoons about our weekend plans. We would each lay out our agendas for all the shopping, errands, household doings, social outings, and work-related tasks we’d tackle and cross off our lists by the dying of the light on Sunday. As many a parent has learned through hard experience, the to-do lists of family weekends must become “tentative” at best. It doesn’t matter how tightly you grip your agenda because when your kid comes down with a stomach bug and throws up all over it, none of it will get done (and your list becomes less of a desired occupant of your wallet or purse).


Parents learn this “looseness” in planning regarding their evenings and weekends, but why is it harder when it comes to the behavior our kids MUST exhibit in public, or what friends they WILL (or WON’T) have, the school they SHOULD attend, or the person they must NEVER marry? In my clinical work I’ve learned to set goals for treatment but to write them out in pencil, a big eraser always sitting within reach. I’m thinking it’s also important for parents to have a similar flexibility in the craning of their necks toward their children’s horizons. You can’t really see that far anyway.


The Coin Metaphor A metaphor I’ve used in session with parents and kids has to do with holding a coin in your hand. “This coin represents that ‘thing’ you want to happen—that thing this is very, very important to you,” I say.


I plop the coin into the palm of their hand. “Grip it very tightly—as tight as you can.” I wait until I can see the whites in their knuckles, suggesting the gripping is sufficiently intense.


“Now, turn your hand over, fingers facing the floor. Imagine releasing your grip on this thing—this thing you want so badly.” I wait for “the look”—the sense from the person that “no, I don’t want to let go of it.”


“Go ahead and turn your hand over,” I say. “Now slowly open your fingers.” I watch as they look at the coin resting there that now means much more than one-tenth of a candy bar. It holds the mass and weight of their most important desires.


“Are you willing to let it just sit there in your open palm? Let it sit without clutching at it as long as it will. Let it sit there despite anything that might happen to bounce it out of your grasp?”


Whether we’re talking about a client’s wants and needs, or those of a parent for their child, the recommendation is the same: to let the goal sit loosely in one’s open palm. If you grip at it, you won’t be able to pick anything else up and you might miss something even more important.


As most of us are well aware at this point, the science is clear that we manage pain better, symptoms of disease abate more readily, anxiety calms and depression eases more when we learn to mindfully watch and allow our moment-to-moment experience. Our pain, symptoms, fears all seem to increase when we grip at them, try to “control” them away. What parent has not felt pain, experienced anguish, gotten a cold due to a compromised immune system, and suffered from the heights of anxiety and the lows of depression in the wake of the comings and goings of their children? The research is clear—we’ll suffer less and have more stable emotional footing for making sound steps forward as parents if we learn to mindfully engage our experience of our children. And yet, it’s so very hard to do.


This post is the first in a series I will write for parents and caregivers of kids on Mindful.org. In this series, I’ll lay out a model for getting past rigid expectations, biased perceptions, and hand-wringing angst in trying to manage things with children—particularly some of their more problem behaviors—the things they absolutely MUST stop doing. I call this model the “PRIZE” model, and in each post, I’ll lay out another letter in the acronym. PRIZE is a series of steps for mindfully, compassionately, and courageously managing communication with kids that helps them not only connect with you, but also helps reign in their own difficulties and reassures them of how you are there to help lead things forward in a positive direction. Our first step in the PRIZE model is “Presence”: fully contacting, allowing, and nonjudgmentally relating to the sensations that show up when we’re managing things with kids (often in the form of intense emotions).


Presence is what you’d expect and are likely practicing to some degree already when it comes to mindfulness—concentration practices where you gently return awareness to a chose object (e.g. your breath) when your thoughts have gone astray. In addition, presence entails a willingness to practice acceptance (NOT resignation) of what’s happening in your experience once it’s here. When a painful emotion is materializing in your bodily sensations, there’s no sense in fighting or controlling it away—you’re much better off noticing it, resting in the sensations, and then watching as they pass, and then nudging yourself in a action direction of importance to you.


Triggered? Remember SNAPP


To get started, I’ll offer the following method for cultivating acceptance of what’s happening inside you whether it be after the sight of a dented car door after your teen had borrowed the family Sedan, or yet another fun, impromptu performance of whining at the dinner table over your decision to serve fish and not pizza. To practice mindful presence in such a moment, try “SNAPPing awake” by doing the following:


Rss_feed