Mindful mothering

On Wednesday I gave a presentation on Nonviolent Parenting to the Morris County (West) Chapter of the Holistic Moms Network.  I’ve been working on developing this workshop for awhile and was excited to finally take it out for a test drive, and I’m pleased to report that it went great!  We had an open and enthusiastic group of moms who were really receptive and willing to put themselves out there.

One exercise that went particularly well was when I asked each mom to think of her least favorite household chore, preferably a task she does at least once daily.  (Personally, I can’t stand laundry because unless you do it naked, it’s never done!)  For example, one of the moms said that she dislikes emptying the dishwasher.  Then, I asked them to think of a way they could turn that chore into a mindfulness practice and we all brainstormed ideas for turning that into a moment of calm focus.  Some of our ideas were:

  • Take the dishes out early and notice how they are still warm
  • Notice the weight of the different dishes as you take them out and put them away
  • Listen to the sound the dishes make when they clink together, and notice if different dishes make different sounds
  • Look at each dish and notice how it is clean (or not!) before putting it away

What daily drudgery can you transform into a moment of mindfulness?

On compromise

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

As part of my Certificate in Nonviolent Studies, I’ve been studying the conflicts going on in places like Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.  In almost every radio and podcast interview I’ve heard, the following question is asked:

What will it take for the two sides to reach a compromise?

I have studied the Ukraine conflict most closely, so I’ll use that as an example.  Naturally these things are always much more complicated than what you hear on the news, but in a nutshell the problem is this: ethnic Ukranians want to become more closely allied with the EU, while ethnic Russians living in Ukraine want to maintain close ties with the Kremlin.

Within this context, what would a “settlement of differences by mutual concessions” look like?   Either you are of Ukranian heritage or you are ethnically Russian.  Either you are from the city in the west or from the countryside in the east.  Either you think the economic future of Ukraine lies with the EU or you think security will come from Russia.  These things are mutually exclusive and stable.  Concessions may lead to a cease-fire, but they are unlikely to lead to a decrease in hostility.

As long as we frame this issue in such either-or terms, compromise seems impossible.  But maybe it’s all about perspective.  Looked at in a different way, maybe the chasm isn’t quite so wide.

Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing.  All Ukranians, whatever their ethnic heritage, want economic security, freedom and self-determination.  While they may have differing opinions as to how this can best be accomplished, the dispute is in the details.

What is true writ large on the global stage is also true in the microcosm of our personal relationships.  We all want the same thing out of life.  We want to feel cherished, important, worthwhile, safe, happy.

While we may choose to employ vastly different strategies for getting these needs met and we may not understand the choices other people make, we ultimately aren’t so different.

I have this conversation with my 8-year-old daughter all the time.  There is one girl at school who really rubs her the wrong way.  This girl always wants to be the center of attention, always has to one-up the other children, always has to be an expert on everything.  While I understand why Bess finds this annoying, and I don’t expect them to be BFFs, my daughter has to learn how to get along with all kinds of people.

So we talk about it.  We discuss how, just like Bess, just like all of us, this girl wants to feel special and loved.  Obviously she has decided or learned that the way to get her emotional needs met is to seek attention and approval from others by any means necessary.  We may not like or understand the behavior, but certainly we can understand the motivation.  That’s not to say that one must be willing to be a doormat.  If this girl is doing things that are hurtful or dishonest then it is okay, even necessary, to speak up.  But even though she is frustrating, doesn’t she also deserve our compassion?

And after having had this conversation eleventy thousand times, gradually, my daughter is gaining the skills she needs to compassionately deal with difficult people while demanding respect from them.

The world isn’t made up of right and wrong, me and you.  As long as we think it is, we will continue to have all sorts of unresolvable conflicts.

But when we see that the world is actually made up of 7 billion other people who are just like me these conflicts become manageable and compromise becomes truly possible.  Maybe all those people don’t look, talk, act, eat, or worship like me, but they are just like me in the ways that count

The New Story

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

I have had the great good fortune to be accepted into the Metta Center’s Nonviolence Studies Pilot Program – yay!  Our first assignment was to consider the paradigm shift that be required if we are to achieve a nonviolent society and to write our own New Story.  Here is mine:

My 90-year-old grandmother recently called to discuss a documentary she had seen on PBS.  “They said that all the corn is cross-contaminated with corn from other fields, so there’s no point in spending all that extra money on organic food.”

I launched an explanation of GMOs, pesticides, sustainable farming, farm workers’ rights, animal welfare, human health, and the fact that it takes more calories to ship a strawberry from Mexico to New Jersey than the strawberry is worth.  I may as well have changed the subject to the weather (sans mention of global climate change).

I can hardly blame her for her point of view.  She grew up on a farm where she pumped water from a well and carried it in a bucket.  She washed, hung and ironed the laundry for her family of nine by hand.  Every meal was prepared “from scratch” without microwaves, cold food storage, an electric or gas oven, or even Hamburger Helper.

I often say that she is from the Better Living Through Science Generation.  The washing machine meant that laundry took a couple of hours instead of a couple of days.  New cleaning products meant less time spent on her hands and knees scrubbing floors and bathtubs.  Medical advances all but eliminated diseases like smallpox and polio.  Her telephone and medical alert system allow her to continue living independently.  She is by no means “rich” but she lives a life of comfort she never could have imagined as a girl.

She simply cannot fathom why I would create unnecessary work for myself by line-drying my clothes or canning my own pickles.

To my grandmother, who watched her husband, brothers, and sons go off to war and who now lives in a middle-class suburb of New York City, it looks like violence is steep declining.  The women’s rights and civil rights movements have been successful.  The world is full of democracy and no one need fear a midnight knock from the KGB or the SS.  Human rights and international aid organizations build more wells and medical clinics every day

These points are hard to argue, yet they gloss over a great deal of complexity.  While she, like many others, is surrounded by items manufactured halfway across the globe, she has very little knowledge of the lives of people a few miles away in cities like Newark or Camden, never mind the people in China who made her slippers.

Violence is largely more subtle now, making invisible unless you go looking for it.

There may be laws to protect people from discrimination, but centuries of systemic, habitual oppression cannot be easily cast off in the oppressed or the oppressors.  The Iron Curtain may have fallen but people from former Soviet-Bloc countries who are ill-equipped to compete in the global marketplace now live in poverty.  The period of European colonialism has ended, but it has been replaced by neocolonialism which simply uses money instead of guns to wield power.  Americans reap the benefits of outrageously expensive medications while children are orphaned by AIDS or die of diseases that cost pennies to treat.

Violence against humans is just the tip of the iceberg.  Sitting at the zenith of the Industrial Age that has given us washing machines and cell phones, we can see the exorbitant toll it has taken on the natural systems that maintain us.  We use increasingly destructive means to extract resources,  diminish biodiversity daily, manipulate our food systems with chemicals and genetic modifications, all in the name of turning a profit but without a clue as to the effects on our health in the present or our ability to exist into the future.

Lest I leave the impression that my grandmother is an enemy of nonviolence, I will share my youngest uncle’s favorite story about her.  When he was maybe six years old, she took him to visit her sister in Paterson, which was once a thriving industrial city but had begun to descend into urban decay.  They stopped for ice cream on their way home, and while they sat at the counter an African-American man came in and sat a few seats away.  My uncle was nervous and asked if they could leave; in response she sat next to the man and started chatting about his children, where he lived, what he did for a living, and what he liked to do with his spare time.  She never lectured about racism or equality.

She simply respected the dignity of each human being she met.

I see myself as part of a growing movement towards sustainability and harmony, and my grandmother played a huge part in starting me on this path.  My hope is that I will find the grace to live the message of peace and love that is in my heart to show my own children – indeed, everyone I meet – that we have a choice.  We can make world into a place of beauty and nonviolence.

What is the legacy you hope to leave?  What stories about you would you want your grandchildren to tell?

The future of the world passes through the family

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

The future of the world…passes through the family. ~ Pope John Paul II

Actually the full quote is, “The future of the world and the church passes through the family.” Though I’m not concerned with the future of the church (all due respect to those who are), the recognition that the future is determined by what goes on in our homes is extremely compelling.

Compelling, and a little intimidating.

I chose parenthood and entered into it with the benefit of personal, marital and financial stability. I actively prepared for it and continue to make it my priority. Still, I feel unequal to the task of nurturing two future changemakers. I make mistakes every day. I lose my temper and raise my voice. I work more than I should, and spend less time with my kids than they deserve. I don’t feed them enough fruits and veggies, and sometimes we have pizza three times in a week.

But at least I have a road map when it comes to my own family; I have an idea of what I want to accomplish. My obligation to my own family is clear to the extent that my goals are clear. What is significantly less clear to me is my obligation to the community at large. It is not my responsibility – indeed, not my right – to tell others how to live. Yet I have a deep conviction that our world would be a much better place if people developed a more peaceful approach to life, and I want to facilitate that shift.

If I want to see non-violence in the world, how can I support other families as well as my own?

I work hard to practice non-violence as I understand it. I encourage my own children to do the same. But we are just one small family, and while our family is important I want to do more.

On my home altar, I have the above message from Thich Nhat Hanh: Peace in oneself, peace in the world. On the one surface it seems obvious, hardly worth stating even, that peace on a large scale begins with individual people making individual choices that support peace. But this is one of those teachings that has layers of meaning that are peeled away the more you sit with it. Taken to a deeper level, peace is more than the absence of overt violence, and cultivating a peaceful heart has more subtle and more profound effect than simply refraining from causing obvious injury to another.

Recently I was listening to a lecture by MIchael Nagler on non-violence and mirror neurons. Neuroscientists have found that we have neurons that behave the same way when we do something as when we watch someone else do it, which helps explain why we feel nervous when someone checks out the strange noise in a horror movie and we cry when we see a Kleenex commercial.

I understand this as an anatomical or physiological underpinning of “vibes”. When I am around someone who is stressed out, I feel stressed. Spending time around someone who is angry leaves me feeling a bit angry myself. But when I am with someone who is peaceful and centered, I take a bit of that with me. My own state of mind is impacted by the people around me.

But it works the other way, too: we impact the states of mind of others. In this way, we can promote peace with everyone we meet without saying a word. If we walk in the world with peace in our hearts and minds, others people’s mirror neurons will reflect that and they will feel a bit more peaceful than they otherwise would have. The more we elevate the level of peace in ourselves, the more it is elevated in the people around us, and around them, and around the world.

How will you boost the peace factor in the world today?

Plant nothing but love

I just completed a twelve-week class with ZENVC, which was amazing and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to cultivate mindfulness and their ability to practice non-violent communication.

One of the other students posted a poem by Rumi in the online classroom called “One Tree”, which I really loved. Here is my favorite line from the poem:

rumi

My mindfulness journey – Frustration and Beauty

Since I believe that mindfulness is such an important part of nonviolence in general and as a parent in particular, I am going to occasionally share stories about my own mindfulness journey and I hope that you will share yours. By seeing how others undertake this process, I am hoping that we will all feel less alone along the way. I wrote this piece in January.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Luigi Torreggiani

Photo courtesy of flickr user Luigi Torreggiani

After a month of regular meditation practice I still can barely keep my body still, much less my mind. I do not feel calm or centered; I feel frustrated. I keep trying different positions, different cushions, but my knees and back ache. I set the timer and give myself a pep talk. “You are resisting. Give it time. If it was easy, everyone would achieve supreme enlightenment.” So far, my time on the cushion has not been spent in deep contemplation, and certainly not in a state of alert relaxation. It has been spent persuading myself to stay there.

Stillness is not comfortable for me. Neither is patience. This is why I’m on this cushion in this cold room in the predawn darkness while my family and my left foot sleep. My need to control, to painstakingly, meticulously craft every moment for myself and the people around me through a flurry of nonstop action, is no longer working for me if it ever did. I know it is time to abdicate authority over my life to something greater than myself, I know it in my bones, yet my zone of comfort is well-fortified by ego and maintained by inertia.

I think about my first car, affectionately called The Tank. It wasn’t in great shape when I bought it, and after seven years of faithful service to me it was clear that it was time for The Tank to retire, but I had worked hard to buy it and I wasn’t ready to give it up. It had given me many miles, many fun road trips. It was ugly, embarrassing even, and increasingly unreliable, but it hadn’t always been that way. Against all reason, I held out hope that one more trip to the mechanic would bring it back to life.

I return to my breath, wiggle my toes and check the clock. Ten minutes have passed. It feels like it’s been ten hours. Armed with a list of things I’d rather do with these rare moments of quiet, I decide to bail.

I am about to rise from the cushion when I’m stopped by a breathtaking scene emerging beyond the window. The sun peeks over the horizon, illuminating the fog while bold calligrapher’s strokes are etched across the stark white canvas of mist. I watch the sun inch higher, the moisture burn away, and the black lines become the limbs of familiar trees before my eyes. I am surprised when the timer rings and my thirty minutes are over.

I want to capture what just unfolded. I try to photograph the scene through the window, I sit on the wet pavement of my driveway, but it is gone. That particular instant of fleeting beauty is unique to the particular vantage point of the zafu on my office floor and a particular moment when the weather and the sun’s position in its ascent are just so.

I think maybe I’ll sit again tomorrow.

I sent this to my Sensei, and his response was, “Keep sitting. Expect nothing.”

The $64,000 Question of Attachment Parenting

courtesy of flickr user kenleyneufeld

courtesy of flickr user kenleyneufeld

I talk about Attachment Parenting a lot. I lead an API support group, and I’ve given talks to numbers of moms’ groups locally and internationally.

I’ve noticed that when I give my talks, someone pretty much always asks some permutation of this question: “I hear what you are saying, I’ve read lots of books, and I love the idea of AP. But still when my buttons are pushed, I can’t help but react out of habit by [yelling, or guilting, or punishing, or whatever]. It is so frustrating! How do you DO it? Tell me how to BE an Attachment Parent!”

I have come to think of this as the $64,000 Question of Attachment Parenting.

This has been my answer in the past:

  1. Really, you never DO it in the sense that you never achieve perfection. Or at least I haven’t. Give yourself some love because the fact that you are working to create a home environment that is in line with your values of mutual respect and love is really awesome.
  2. AP is not a set of techniques but a way of living and interacting with other people in general and our children in particular. (I always feel like a loser when I give this answer. People want to know what they should do and I’m not telling them! They came for answers, and I’m giving them nothing!) Playful parenting and talking so our kids will listen and all the rest are tools we keep in our toolbox and take out when we think they will help us connect with our kids. They are ideas we can use to help us connect from moment to moment. They are not “Attachment Parenting”.
  3. It takes time. For awhile, you will learn about AP and sill continue to react out of habit by yelling or punishing or whatever. Then one day you’ll be in the middle of a habitual reaction, and you’ll stop yourself. Finally one day, your child will do something that would normally set you off and you’ll do something calm and connected and loving and brilliant and the seed of a new habit will be planted and it will feel great. (And then five minutes later you’ll do something out of habit again and realize how much work you still have in front of you.)

As I’ve gone on my own journey – through life, through marriage, through parenting, and through Attachment Parenting – I’ve come to realize that all this can be summed up in one word:

MINDFULNESS

Attachment Parenting, and non-violent living, is a commitment to be mindful of our own habits and triggers, of our child’s (and spouse’s, and friends’, and the guy standing behind us in line at the grocery store’s) habits and triggers, and of how those two interact. It is a parenting/life philosophy that demands of us the willingness and the ability to look hard at ourselves so we can create space between stimulus and response in order to come closer to those around us.

In NVC, they call this the difference between reacting and responding.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this does not come naturally to me. My habit is to react, but I am working very hard to cultivate the ability to respond. Through hours spent in meditation, and hours spent studying Nonviolent Communication, I have been able to more clearly see my habits of mind, which create my habits of behavior. Slowly, I have been able to push open a crack of light where I can stop defining myself by my reactions. Instead of “I am frustrated”, more often I think “Right now I feel frustrated. This too shall pass”. It may not seem like a big difference, but I assure you, it’s huge. Life changing, even.

The next time someone asks me the $64,000 Question of AP, I will have a better, or at least a more efficient, answer. I will say:

The key to successful Attachment Parenting is introducing some sort of mindfulness practice to your life so that you can begin to recognize your habits and replace them with something new.

Do you have a mindfulness practice? Has it affected your relationships? How?

What we’re reading: The Forgiveness Garden

There is a hard law…When an injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive. ~Alan Paton

forgivenessgardenOn a recent trip to the library one of the books on display was The Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Christy Hale.  I don’t know how the librarians choose which books to put on display, as they rarely seem related to the season or even to each other.  In the adult stacks, I tend to look at all the titles on the shelves, but in the children’s section I almost always choose from the books on display.  I don’t know if the volume of picture books is too overwhelming or if the spines are too small to read, but unless I am doing research or looking for something specific I simply don’t bother.

While the cover art wasn’t that enticing for me, I couldn’t pass up a book with that title.  After a quick look, I wasn’t planning to read the book to my kids because it seemed more violent than what I would ordinarily choose for them, especially as a bedtime story.  But I decided to go for it, and I’m glad I did.

The Forgiveness Garden is the story of two feuding families.  During one of their disputes, a boy threw a rock and hit a girl from the other family, and tempers flared.

But when presented with the opportunity for revenge, she chose empathy and forgiveness.  

She encouraged her attacker to join her in planting a garden for both families to enjoy and remind them of their shared humanity.

The book was inspired by two gardens of forgiveness, one in Beirut Lebanon and one at Ground Zero in New York City.  A movement towards planting these gardens has sprung up, and there are now over a dozen such gardens around the world.  The organization spearheading this effort, Forgive to Give, describes its mission:

“to create a world beyond violence, with gardens as venues for conflict transformation and healing in communities around the world as well as vehicles through which [they] raise awareness about the power of forgiveness.”

I am intrigued by the idea of creating a Virtual Garden of Forgiveness.  It would be amazing to have an accessible and safe online space where people could explore their wounding and work through their struggles.  Another project for another day…..

Any web developers out there interested in working on something like this?

1MM4NV

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings nearly two months ago, we are still in shock and looking for answers.  Who is at fault?  Parents?  The mental health system?  Weak gun control laws?  What can we do to prevent something like this from happening again?

Naturally, the issues of gun control and gun violence is front and center in the conversation.  The organization One Million Moms for Gun Control has gained huge popularity, and based on the numbers turning out at rallies and marches across the country, their message has struck a chord.  I’ve been watching the news of their influence and growth with great interest.  What can I say?

I’m a sucker for stories about moms on a mission making waves.

I can’t say that I am in favor of gun ownership.  I can’t fathom any legitimate reasons for a civilian to possess an assault rifle.  I would not knowingly allow my children to play in a home where there are guns.  I just don’t get the fun in shooting another living thing.  I don’t like it when Harry pretends to use a gun (though the fact that he continues to do so despite the decidedly anti-firearm culture in our home is a topic for another post, or maybe a book….)

I understand the immense appeal of the idea that passing laws regulating gun ownership would make our children safer.

 I wish it were so easy, except guns aren’t the problem and stricter gun control laws aren’t the solution.  As they say, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  Admittedly, a gun makes the difference between killing one or two people and killing 28, but people have been committing murder since time immemorial with fists, rocks, knives, fire, water, and all sorts of other implements.

Improving the mental health system in our country gets much closer to the heart of the issue.    Certainly, efforts to keep guns away from clearly unstable people couldn’t hurt.  However, the vast majority of gun crimes are not committed by people who would be identified as mentally ill, never mind the hundreds of accidental gun deaths that occur in the US each year.

Where does that leave us?  Do we just sit back and wait for another Sandy Hook, Jonesboro, Virginia Tech or Columbine?

Obviously not.  But the question begs to be asked:

What is up with Americans and their guns?

Our per capita gun ownership almost double that of the next country.  Americans own almost six times as many guns as Indians (second on the list of total civilian gun ownership), despite the fact that the Indian population is nearly four times that of the US.  A look at the twenty-five nations with the highest gun violence rates shows the United States right up there with South Africa, El Salvador and Albania.

In a 2005 Gallup Poll, 67% of gun owners cited self-defense as their motivation.  Granted, people gave multiple reasons and there was some overlap.  But seriously – 35 million Americans trust their neighbors that little?  Is it just me, or is that outrageous?

Why are we so afraid of each other?

Focusing on gun control is like giving someone with a broken leg an Advil.  It might help a bit, but it doesn’t even begin to address the real problem, and it creates yet another division between right and left, red and blue.  So I propose a new mother’s movement:  ONE MILLION MOMS FOR NON-VIOLENCE.  Instead of lobbying our representatives for new legislation, we go into our homes, our schools, and our communities and treat each other with love and respect.

Instead of fear and fighting, we can choose trust and love.  

We can all commit to finding solutions to our problems that may not be ideal, but that respect everyone’s needs.  This will not be easy.  We do not live in a culture of cooperation.  Maybe it’s the spirit of rugged American individualism, but most of us operate from a worldview of scarcity and competition.  But we need to recognize that this is a choice we make, and we can make another choice.

Who is with me?