By Amanda Zaidman of Constructive Parenting
As humans we evolved in a time of scarcity. For most of human history there was never enough to eat, never the promise of a roof over our heads, never the assurance of safety and stability. Fortunately, many of us no longer live with scarcity but the pendulum has swung the way. Now it is almost too easy to get food, clothes and other goods affordably. In fact, it is so easy that many of us have found ourselves surrounded by too much. Our brains haven’t caught on to the fact that resources are no longer scarce and we continue to crave more, more, more.
This plays out in many different ways. We can’t eat just one chip. We start to feel down and we rely on retail therapy for a pick-me-up. We hear about the latest gadget, and instantly thoughts of owning it consume us. We hear about our neighbor’s child playing soccer or competing in gymnastics and we get a pang of guilt that we haven’t signed our child up for that sport yet. The result is regret about expanding waist lines, homes filled with too many things, and a schedule that is so full that we don’t have time to just be together as a family.
I am not preaching from a soapbox. I live with a constant desire to have more, do more, and be more too. But feeling guilty about this desire is not productive. The goal is to acknowledge that this need for more exists so that we can gain the freedom to make different choices. Because what we know about the brain is that when it is constantly overwhelmed by “too much” (food, stuff, activities, choices) we become stressed and the result is that we end up walking around with a very short fuse.
Think about it. When was the last time you lost your temper or completely over reacted, and you surfaced from your anger only to wonder “whoa, what just happened? That’s not me. That’s not who I want to be?” Maybe you cursed at a driver who cut you off as you were hurrying to an appointment in your car. Maybe you completely lost your temper with your spouse or your kids. If you are tired of feeling stressed out as the result of our “too much” life styles it may be time to simplify.
This is where mindfulness comes in. We have all heard this trendy word but what does it really mean and how can it help? Mindfulness is simplifying where we place our attention so that instead of always being distracted by a worry about the future or a concern about the past we make an intention to bring our focus back to the present moment. We are so used to multitasking and we are so addicted to distractions that it is actually really hard to focus on what is going on right here and right now. But when you make the choice to slow down (to literally pause), your brain gets the message that things are safe and the stressful feelings dissolve. The result is that you gain the ability to choose how you want to respond to a situation rather than always having to look back after the fact wondering why you reacted the way you did. There is a famous Viktor Frankl Quote that captures this best, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The following are tips for how mindfulness can help you simplify so you can get back to your best self.
Start with your values
What are the things that are most important to you and your family? Come up with a list of five values or positive traits and write them down. These are the qualities that you want your children to possesses as they become adults. These values can become the backbone for your choice to live mindfully. Believe me, making change is hard and when you feel the pull to give in or give up having a little backbone to lean on is super handy.
Mindful choices in daily life.
Once you have identified your values think about how you can start simplifying your daily life. If gratitude is important to you and you have noticed that lately your children seem entitled, maybe it is time to pare down the number of toys they have. Parents find that when kids are less overwhelmed with so many choices, favorite toys are rediscovered, creativity increases, and play becomes more peaceful between siblings. If the playroom isn’t the only room that has become chaotic with “too much” stuff, consider hiring an organization company to help you create a space that better reflects your values.
Next take a look at your schedule. If every minute of every day is filled with organized activities, it may be time to simplify here as well. As parents we feel pressure to give our children as many opportunities as possible and this may mean lots and lots of lessons. Piano, Spanish, tennis, golf, baseball, gymnastics– you get the point. After a long day in school children need down time for their brains to decompress from the stress of being “on” all day. They need time to play outside, time to build forts in their rooms and time for boredom. Yes, boredom. This gives them the opportunity to be their most creative selves.
If your family is still too busy with activities after school to relax together, why not make family dinners together a priority? This is a mindful choice that we can make as parents that allows us to create meaningful bonds with our children. While you are together you can spend time mindfully eating (pausing to consider where your food came from, how it got to your table, what flavors make up the meal). You can practice mindful listening as each person shares about their day, what they are grateful for, and what they learned from the mistakes they made (mindful listening means giving your full attention to the other person rather than thinking about what clever thing you will say next). When you are done you can mindfully clean up together.
Start a formal mindfulness practice.
If your goal is to truly simplify where you focus your attention so that you can live more fully in the moment, the best way to do this is to start a formal mindfulness practice. If the thought of sitting for 30 minutes in silence seems like it could never work for you, remember to try to set yourself up for success by starting with small manageable steps. Try downloading a mindfulness app like Calm or Headspace and learn to pause and ground yourself by focusing on your breathing. Do three-minute guided meditations for a few days in a row. If you miss a day don’t beat yourself up, just start again. If you want to take it a step further take an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course in your community or online. Remember, the goal of mindfulness meditation is not to sit with an empty mind. Rather it is to notice when you get distracted and gently bring your attention back to the present. Likewise, the goal of living mindfully is not to be a perfect. It is to notice when you are making a choice that is not aligned with your values, to learn from that mistake and then to start again with intention.
For other helpful parenting tips check out Constructive Parenting