My favourite days are the ones when I’m in charge of getting my daughter ready for school. She’s five and this is her first year at school. I love the mornings with her for a glorious raft of reasons. But there is one reason that has struck me quite powerfully in our change of routine this year.
It is simply this. Children it seems, are instinctively mindful.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (the father of modern western mindfulness) says that Mindfulness means paying attention is a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
From a Psychological perspective, it is seen as the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience … an orientation that is characterised by curiosity, openness and acceptance.
Children are naturally inclined to be present. As I prepare my little girl for the school day, she reminds me of this in so many ways.
Eat slowly. Remember to chew your food.
Meal times with children can be painful. My daughter takes a terribly long time to eat her breakfast. I often find myself getting impatient and telling her to “hurry up”.
Then I remember how often I scoff my meals back, barely tasting them, because I’m in such a rush to get on with doing things.
One of the simplest mindfulness practices we can do is to pay attention to the experience of eating. Sit down. Eat slowly. Chew the food.
Take the time to savour the smell, the taste, the feeling of the food in your stomach.
This connects us to our bodies, enables us to receive feedback when we are feeling satiated and keeps us anchored in the present moment.
Accept it. You just can’t rush some things.
The school bell goes at 9.10am. My daughter gets up around 7.30am and we aim to leave the house by about 8.45am each morning.
All she needs to do is eat her breakfast, clean her teeth and get dressed in her school uniform. In between of course, she mucks about an awful lot – playing, goofing and looking for distractions.
Then there are the delay tactics. “I need to go to the bathroom” is a desperate plea I regularly hear just as we are about to step out the front door.
“You’ve just been!” I say through gritted teeth, but she insists she must go again.
So in we go. Again.
You can’t stop another person from peeing. And you can’t make them poo faster. Its one of those things that is simply beyond our control.
Now you can go and get all frantic and bang your head against the wall. Of course you can. I’ve taken that approach many times.
The alternative, I discovered, was much better.
Just accept it.
Cultivating acceptance of something as it is without overlaying stories, defences or rationale, is a key aspect of mindfulness practice.
Slow down. Notice what’s right in front of you.
We are fortunate to be able to walk to school each day. For an adult the walk is about eight minutes. For little legs it takes about twenty or more.
The pace varies and there are regular stops along the way. Every tree, bush, flower and blade of grass have their own fascination. Even the dead leaves on the floor have a story.
I feel my frustration mount as my daughter stops yet again to carefully examine a dead bug or admire yet another pink flower. “We’ve got to get to school!” I hear myself exclaim in complete and utter exasperation.
Then I remember, yes the bug is intriguing, yes the flower is beautiful. Yes, pause for a moment. Look. Notice. Take the time to really see what’s in front of you.
Children are very good at seeing. They are beautiful little reminders to be present so we can see what’s right in front of us.
You never know what you might notice or how that might change your day, your perspective, even your life.
Meander a little. Linear is boring.
To get to school we turn right out our front gate and walk straight up the hill. It really is that simple. Yet if you traced the path my daughter and I take, it would look like a squiggly, zig-zagging, circuitous, backtracking kind of path.
My usual approach to walking is rather determined. I step quickly. With purpose. After all, I’m going somewhere.
Children on the other hand seem to have a few natural speeds. Flat out running, skipping, hopping, jumping on one leg, or very extremely incredibly painfully slow walking. Whatever their speed, they are enjoying the experience of moving, of being in their bodies and connecting with their surroundings.
It takes concerted effort on my part to switch off my auto-pilot walking pace and step outside my determined mindset so desirous to get somewhere.
In fact, walking at my daughters pace is mentally uncomfortable for me.
But as I notice this tendency of mine, I’m fostering awareness of my doing mode and how dominant my linear left brain can be. From that place of awareness, I can start to flex into my being mode and switch on my right brain a little more.
Smile. Find the fun.
Since having a child I have realised just how serious I can be. The way I walk is rather characteristic of the way I approach many things in my life. I am dominantly left brain and very linear and structured in the way I work.
My tendency is to approach the walk to school as a functional task. A process of getting my daughter from a to b so she can start her school day.
But the walk to school is my favourite part of the day. It has become this because I have chosen to resist the urge to make it purely functional.
It’s an opportunity to be really present. To feel the sun on my face and the air on my skin, to observe the changing seasons, to connect with my daughter.
It’s also a time in my day where I can be childlike and have fun. It’s not uncommon for my daughter and I to be garden fairies flitting our way to school, magically zapping every plant we pass. Yes. Every single one.
And its really good fun.
Listen. Profound insights emerge in mundane moments.
It’s not uncommon for my mind to wander when I walk my daughter to school. I spend a lot of time in my head. It’s one of the reasons why I love practicing yoga and mindfulness so much – it helps me switch off the monkey mind and find some peace and quiet inside.
In spite of my best intentions, my mind still wanders off at times. The problem with this isn’t the wandering per se, rather it’s the fact that when I let my mind wander, when I drop into my head, I’m no longer present with my little girl. I’m no longer listening to her.
One thing that I have discovered about children is that they are not calculated in their communication like adults can be. If they have something important to say, they don’t plan how and when they will deliver the news. They just blurt it out when it comes to mind. This could be on the toilet, just before they go into class, or in between rather banal banter about the weekly visit to the library.
Some of my daughters most important stories have been shared as she’s scooting down the hill after school. They’ve always popped out of nowhere completely un prompted and without warning.
What strikes me most in these moments is the realisation that if I wasn’t paying attention, I would have completely missed her story.
So when I realise my mind has wandered, I remind my self gently to come back to the moment, to listen to my little girl. After all, you never know what sorts of gems will emerge.
Katherine Mair, M.A.D. Creator
For related sources see:
S.R. Bishop, M. Lau, S. Shapiro, L. Carlson, N.D. Anderson, J. Carmody and G Devans, Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition, 2004
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever Your Go, There You Are, 2005