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Updated with new material — including an all new introduction and expanded practices in the epilogue — Everyday Blessings remains one of the few books on parenting that embraces the emotional, intuitive, and deeply personal experience of being a parent, applying the groundbreaking “mind/body connection” expertise from global mindfulness leader, Jon Kabat-Zinn and his wife, Myla Kabat-Zinn.
Mindfulness is a way of living and there is increasing scientific evidence of its value for optimal health and well-being. A new field in psychology is devoted to mindful parenting, and mindfulness is being increasingly integrated into K-12 education. There has never been a better time for cultivating greater mindfulness in parenting and in family life.
Table of Contents
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Introduction to the Revised Edition
Have you ever weeded a garden? The more you weed, the more weeds you see. One minute, you think you have gotten them all. The next minute there are more. So you have to be very patient and appreciate the process itself, and not just the desired end point. Revising a book on parenting eighteen-plus years after writing it the first time is not dissimilar, and a bit humbling. It was inevitable that our views would change some with the additional years of experience as parents and, now, as grandparents. No matter how clearly we felt we saw things in the past, with the perspective of more time and the continued cultivation of mindfulness, our capacity for seeing and understanding evolved, deepened, and what we were so certain of became more nuanced. This is a never-ending process, which hopefully allows us to continue learning across the life span. Through this lens, we revisited the entire book, preserving the essence of the original edition. We fine-tuned the writing and clarified what we were saying wherever we felt something was unclear, or where we felt a need to illuminate a point or perspective that we hadn't seen before. We reworked the text in both tone and content to reflect the ways in which our views have changed since we first wrote it, and in part, of course, because the world has changed so much as well, for both parents and children.
Indeed, the world children are being born into now is in many ways enormously different from the era in which we were raising our children. For one, our children were born into a solely analog, and therefore slower, world. Now, with the advent of the Internet and wireless connectivity, there is also the digital world and its ever-increasing speed to contend with, an alternate reality that, for all its wonders and uses, easily entrains us into self-distraction and disembodied experience just when we most need to be more present and embodied to face the emotional challenges of parenting and of life and to fully experience the joys as well. Mindfulness is more necessary than ever to navigate this new territory in raising our children and in continuing to grow and lead satisfying lives ourselves. These two life trajectories, nurturing our children and growing ourselves, are intimately intertwined.
Mindfulness as a way of being and as both an informal and a formal meditation practice has moved into the mainstream of society to a degree unimaginable in 1997. There is now a rapidly growing and increasingly robust science of the practice of mindfulness and its effects on our biology, our psychology, and our social interactions. The practice of mindfulness affects our brains and our genes, our capacity for attention, emotion regulation, impulse control, perspective taking, executive functioning in general, and many other important traits that make us who we are, such as our ability to realize our deep connectedness with each other through our innate capacity for attunement, empathy, compassion, and kindness.
Never has the scientific evidence been more compelling that cultivating greater mindfulness can have significant benefits for oneself and for those with whom we share our lives. And never has it been more important for parents to cultivate this capacity we all have for openhearted present-moment awareness, and ultimately for greater wisdom to lead lives of purpose and meaning in ways that are emotionally and socially intelligent.
We hope that this revised edition of Everyday Blessings speaks to you and inspires you to actively cultivate greater mindfulness and heartfulness in your parenting and in your life.
Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
February 22, 2014
The fiercely protective love I feel for my children has propelled me to do the inner work we call mindful parenting. This inner work has yielded unexpected gifts and pleasures. It has helped me to be more present for the day-to-day richness of being a parent. It has also given me a way to see my children more clearly, to see through the veils of my own fears, expectations, and needs, and to see what might be called for in each moment. Bringing mindfulness to my parenting helps me to see myself as well, and gives me a way to work with the difficult moments and the automatic reactions that can arise so easily in me at such times, reactions that can be limiting, harsh, or hurtful to my children's well-being.
Although I have never had a formal meditation practice, I have always needed some time and space for nondoing, for being still, in silence. This was especially hard to find when my children were little. Moments of solitude and inner reflection would come as I lay in bed in the morning, awake but unwilling to move, aware of the images from my dreams, sometimes clear, sometimes elusive, receptive to whatever thoughts visited me in that place somewhere between wakefulness and sleep.
This was my inner, self-nourishing meditation. It brought some balance to my outer meditations—the ongoing, moment-to-moment awareness, the tuning, responding, holding, and letting go that my children needed from me.
Meditative moments have come in many forms—sitting up in the middle of the night nursing my newborn, soaking in the peace and quiet, feeding her as I am being fed by the sweetness of her being; or walking with a crying baby, finding ways to soothe and comfort, chanting, singing, rocking, as I work with my own tiredness; or looking into the face of an unhappy, angry teenager, trying to discern the cause and intuit what might be needed.
Mindfulness is about paying attention, and paying attention takes energy and concentration. Every moment brings something different and may require something different from me. Sometimes I am blessed with understanding. Other times I am at a loss, confused, off balance, not really knowing, but trying to respond instinctively, creatively, to whatever is presented to me. There are deeply satisfying moments of pure bliss, when a child is thriving and glowing with a sense of well-being. There are plenty of difficult, frustrating, painful moments, when nothing I do is right, and I feel completely at a loss. I've found it especially hard to see clearly with older children. The issues are much more complex and the answers rarely simple.
But what I have come to see is that each time I feel I have lost my way as a parent, when I find myself in a dark wood, the ground rough and uneven, the terrain unfamiliar, the air chilled, there is often something to be found in my pocket when I finally find my way back. I have to remember to stop, to breathe, to reach in, and look closely at what it is.
Each difficult moment has the potential to open my eyes and open my heart. Each time I come to understand something about one of my children, I also learn something about myself and the child I once was, and that knowledge can act as a guide for me. When I am able to empathize and feel compassion for a child's pain, when I am more accepting of the contrary, irritating, exasperating behaviors that my children can manifest, try on, experiment with—the healing power of unconditional love heals me as it nourishes them. As they grow, I also grow.
Rather than being a disadvantage, my sensitivity has become an ally. Over the years, I have learned to use my intuition, my senses, my emotional antennae to try to see into the heart of whatever I am faced with. An essential part of this is attempting to see things from my child's point of view. I have found this inner work to be very powerful. When I can choose to be kind instead of cruel, to understand rather than judge, to accept rather than reject, my children, no matter what their ages, are nourished and strengthened.
This kind of parenting is trust building. I work hard to maintain that trust and the underlying feelings of connectedness that have been built over many years of hard emotional and physical work. Moments of carelessness or the unconscious surfacing of old destructive patterns are betrayals of my children's trust, and I have had to consciously work to rebuild and strengthen our relationship after such moments.
Over the years I have tried to bring some awareness to my moment-to-moment experiences as a parent: observing, questioning, looking at what I most value and what I think is most important for my children. Although there are myriad aspects of parenting that are not touched on in this book, it is my hope that in describing this inner process to you, we can evoke the richness of experience and potential for growth and change that reside in mindful parenting.
The Danger and the Promise
The Challenge of Parenting
Parenting is one of the most challenging, demanding, and stressful undertakings on the planet. It is also one of the most important, for how it is approached influences in great measure the heart and soul and consciousness of the next generation, their experience of meaning and connection, their repertoire of life skills, and their deepest feelings about themselves and their possible place in a rapidly changing world. Yet those of us who become parents do so virtually without preparation or training, with little or no guidance or support, and in a world that values producing far more than nurturing, doing far more than being.
When we first wrote this book, in the mid-1990s, there were few if any books addressing the inner experience of parenting. In fact, this book launched the term mindful parenting and even a field of research on that subject. The best parenting manuals of that era served as helpful and authoritative references, giving parents new ways of seeing situations and reassuring us, especially in the early years of child rearing or when facing particular challenges, that there were various ways to handle things and that we were not alone. They also offered an understanding of age-appropriate landmarks of child development and thus helped parents to have more realistic expectations of their children.
But for the most part, they did not address the inner experience of parenting. What are we to do, for instance, with our own mind? How do we avoid getting swallowed up and overwhelmed by our doubts, our insecurities and fears? What about the times when we feel carried away and lose touch with our children and ourselves? Nor did they address the critical importance of being present with and for our children, and how we as parents might develop greater understanding and appreciation for the inner experiences of our children.
To parent consciously requires that we engage in an inner work on ourselves as well as in the outer work of nurturing and caring for our children. The how-to advice that we can draw upon from books to help us with the outer work has to be complemented by an inner authority that we can only cultivate within ourselves through our own experience. Such inner authority only develops when we realize that, in spite of all of the things that happen to us that are outside of our control, through our choices in response to such events and through what we initiate ourselves, we are still, in large measure, "authoring" our own lives. In the process, we find our own ways to be in this world, drawing on what is deepest and best and most creative in us. Realizing this, we may come to see the importance for our children and for ourselves of taking responsibility for the ways in which we live our lives and for the consequences of the choices we make.
Inner authority and authenticity are developed through that inner work. Our authenticity and our wisdom grow when we purposely bring awareness to our own experience as it unfolds. Over time, we can learn to see more deeply into who our children are and what they might need, and take the initiative in finding appropriate ways to nourish them and support their growth and development. We can also learn to interpret their many different, sometimes puzzling signals and to trust our ability to find a way to respond appropriately. Attention, inquiry, and thoughtfulness are essential to this process.
Parenting is above all uniquely personal. Ultimately, it has to come from deep inside ourselves. Someone else's way of doing things may not be appropriate or useful. We each need to find a way that is our own, certainly consulting other perspectives as we go along, but above all, learning to trust our own instincts while continuing to examine and question them.
Still, in parenting, 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 inner resources are depleted, it is helpful to have healthy ways to replenish them and restore ourselves.
Becoming a parent may happen on purpose or by accident, but however it comes about, parenting itself is a calling. It calls us to re-create our world every day, to meet it freshly in every moment. Such a calling is in actuality nothing less than a rigorous spiritual discipline, a quest to realize our truest, deepest nature as human beings. The very fact that we are parents impels us to continually seek and express what is most nurturing, wise, and caring within ourselves, to be, as much as we can be, 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 also challenges us to approach our parenting with consistent intentionality, so that we can be fully engaged in this fundamentally human enterprise, this remarkable and decades-long unfolding passage of life and learning from one generation to the next.
People who choose to become parents take on this hardest of jobs for no salary, often unexpectedly, at a relatively young and inexperienced age, or under conditions of economic strain and insecurity. Typically, the journey of parenting is embarked upon without a clear strategy or overarching view of the terrain, in much the same intuitive and optimistic way we approach many other aspects of life. We learn on the job, as we go. There is, in fact, no other way.
But to begin with, 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. Each child is unique and each situation different. We have to rely on our hearts, our deepest human instincts, and our memories of our own childhoods, both positive and negative, to encounter the unknown territory of having and raising children.
And just as in life itself—faced with a range of familial, social, and cultural pressures to conform to frequently unstated and unconscious norms, and with all the inherent stresses of caring for children—as parents we often find ourselves, in spite of all our best intentions and our deep love for our children, running more or less on automatic pilot and plagued by the vagaries of our minds, which are ordinarily exceedingly reactive and usually caught up in unnoticed but incessant thinking.
To the extent that we are chronically preoccupied and invariably pressed for time, we may be significantly out of touch with the richness of what Thoreau called the "bloom" of the present moment. This moment—any moment, actually—may seem far too ordinary, routine, and fleeting to single out for attention. If we are in fact caught up in such habits of mind, the unexamined automaticity of it all can easily spill over into a similar automaticity as far as our parenting is concerned. We might be assuming that whatever we do will be okay as long as the basic love for our children and desire for their well-being is there. We can rationalize such a view by telling ourselves that children are resilient creatures and that the little things that happen to them may be just that, little things that may have no effect on them at all. Children can take a lot, we tell ourselves. And there is some truth in that.
But, as I (jkz) am reminded time and again as people recount their stories in the Stress Reduction Clinic and in mindfulness workshops and retreats around the country, for many people, childhood was a time of either frank or subtle betrayals, of one or both parents out of control to one degree or another, often raining down various combinations of unpredictable terror, violence, scorn, and meanness on their children, much of it coming out of their own experiences of trauma and neglect and the addictions and deep unhappiness that often follow. Sometimes, in the deepest of ironies, accompanying such terrible betrayals, come protestations of parental love, making the situation even crazier and harder for the children to fathom. For others, there is the pain of having been invisible, unknown, neglected, and unappreciated as children. And there is also the sense that what with the rising stress on virtually all fronts in society and an accelerating sense of time urgency and insufficiency, things are strained to, and often beyond, the breaking point in families and getting worse, not better, generation by generation.
A woman who attended a five-day mindfulness retreat said:
I noticed this week as I was doing the meditation that I feel like I have pieces missing, that there are parts of me that I just can't find when I become still and look underneath the surface of my mind. I'm not sure what it means but it's kind of made me a little bit anxious. Maybe when I start to practice the meditation a little more regularly, maybe I'll find out what is stopping me from being whole. But I really feel holes in my body or in my soul that keep me pushing mountains in front of myself everywhere I go. My husband says: "But why did you do that? There was a big opening here." And I just say: "I don't know, but if there is a way to block it up, I will." I feel a little like a Swiss cheese. I have felt this from when I was small. I had some losses when I was small. I think parts of me were removed and taken from [me by] deaths and [by] other people; my sister died when I was young, and my parents went into a sort of depression, I think until they died. I think parts of me just got taken to feed them. I feel that. I was a very lively, young go-getter when I was young, and I felt parts of me just being taken, and I can't seem to be able to regain those parts now. Why can't I be that way? What happened to me? Parts of me have gotten lost, and when I'm sitting here today, meditating, I realized that I'm looking for those parts and I don't know where they are. I don't know how to become whole until I find those parts that are gone. Now my whole family has died. They've taken all the parts and left, and I'm still here with the Swiss cheese.
A chilling image, that parts of this woman were taken to feed her parents. But this happens, and the consequences to the children reverberate throughout their lives.
What is more, some parents cause deep hurt and harm to their children, as when they beat them to teach them lessons, saying things like "This is for your own good," "This hurts me more than it hurts you," or "I'm only doing this because I love you," often the very words that were said to them as children when they were beaten by their parents, as was shown by the Swiss psychiatrist Alice Miller in her seminal work. In the name of "love," frequently unbridled rage, contempt, hatred, intolerance, neglect, and abuse are inflicted on children from parents who are unaware of or have ceased to care about the full import of their actions. This happens across all social classes in our society.
In our view, an automatic, unexamined, lowest-common-denominator approach to parenting, whether it manifests in overt violence or not, can cause deep and frequently long-lasting harm to children and their developmental trajectories. Unconscious parenting can arrest our own potential to grow as well. From such unconsciousness can come, all too commonly, sadness, missed opportunities, hurt, resentment, blame, restricted and diminished views of self and the world, and ultimately isolation and alienation on all sides.
If we can remain awake to the challenges and the calling of parenthood, this does not have to happen. On the contrary, we can use all the occasions that arise with our children to break down the barriers in our own minds and hearts, to see more clearly into ourselves, and to be more effectively present for them. These opportunities lie at the heart of cultivating greater mindfulness in our parenting.
We live in a culture that does not uniformly value parenting as valid and important work. It is considered perfectly acceptable for people to give one hundred percent to their careers, or to their "relationships," or to their passions, but not to their children.
Society at large and its institutions and values, which both create and reflect the microcosms of our individual minds and values, contribute in major ways to the undermining of parenting. Who are the highest-paid workers in our country? Certainly not day-care workers, or teachers, whose work so much supports the work of parents. Where are the role models, the support networks, the paid parental leave for young parents, the job sharing and part-time jobs for mothers and fathers who want to stay home with their children for more than a few weeks after they are born? Where is the support for parenting classes? By their prevalence, such programs would tell us that healthy parenting is of utmost importance and is valued highly in our society. But their prevalence is depressingly low.
Certainly there are bright spots and reasons for hope. Countless parents across the country see parenting as a sacred trust, and manage to find heartful and creative ways to guide and nurture their children, often in the face of great obstacles and odds. There are imaginative efforts by people all across the country involved in programs that teach parenting skills, communication skills, violence prevention, and stress reduction, and that offer counseling services to parents and families. There are also many groups engaged in community building and political lobbying on behalf of children, such as the Children's Defense Fund. For many years La Leche League International and Attachment Parenting International have given invaluable support to parents for meeting the needs of their children through breast-feeding and other practices that promote secure parent-child attachment. The Searses' The Baby Book has for decades provided practical information and a framework for honoring the needs of infants and babies. A number of books connect mindful awareness and attunement with parenting (see the Suggested Reading at the end of this book). Laura Kastner's Wise-Minded Parenting and Susan Stiffelman's Parenting Without Power Struggles are valuable resources for parents. Dan Hughes's book Attachment-Focused Parenting: Effective Strategies to Care for Children and Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell's book Parenting from the Inside Out connect interpersonal neuroscience, attachment research, and awareness. Nancy Bardacke's book Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond is a ground-breaking work on mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting. New research and new books are coming out on these subjects all the time.
Whatever the era in which we are raising our children, we are always subject to large social, cultural, and economic forces that shape our lives and the lives of our children. Nevertheless, we always have at least some latitude as individuals to make conscious and intentional choices about how we are going to relate to the circumstances and the era in which we find ourselves. To one degree or another, usually far more than we think, we have the potential to inquire deeply about the path we are on and how it reflects what we most care about and long for. We always have the option of bringing greater attention and intentionality to our lives, especially where it concerns our children. Charting such a path for ourselves can be made significantly easier and more robust if we have a larger framework within which we can examine what we are doing and develop insight into what else may be needed—a framework that can help keep us on course, even though things may be constantly changing and our next steps unclear. Mindfulness can provide such a framework.
New and important doors in our own minds can open just by entertaining the possibility that there are alternative ways of perceiving situations and that we may have more options open to us in any moment than we may realize.
Bringing mindfulness to the various aspects of our day as it unfolds may be a practical as well as a profoundly positive alternative to the driven, automatic-pilot mode in which we can function much of the time without even knowing it. This is particularly important for us as parents, as we try to juggle all the competing responsibilities and demands that we carry from day to day while at the same time providing for our children and meeting their unique inner and outer needs in an increasingly stressful and complex world.
What Is Mindful Parenting?
Mindful parenting calls us to wake up to the possibilities, the benefits, and the challenges of parenting with a new awareness and intentionality, not only as if what we did mattered, but also as if our conscious engagement in parenting were virtually the most important thing we could be doing, both for our children and for ourselves.
This book is a series of meditations on various aspects of parenting. It is about recognizing and meeting our children's needs as wisely as possible by cultivating greater familiarity and intimacy with a capacity we already have and therefore don't have to acquire, namely awareness itself. All that is required is to bring this capacity to our moment-to-moment lives. Mindfulness is a synonym for awareness. It also includes different ways to systematically cultivate greater access to our own awareness. When we bring awareness to our parenting through the cultivation of mindfulness as a practice, it can lead to deeper insight into and understanding of our children and ourselves. Mindfulness has the potential to penetrate past surface appearances and behaviors and allow us to see our children more clearly, to look both inwardly and outwardly and act with some degree of wisdom and compassion on the basis of what we see.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2009
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Hachette Books