5 Things my baby has taught me about mindfulness
I have spent over three decades of my life being formally educated in world-class institutions. In the last 5 years I've spent thousands of hours researching how mindfulness, or present-moment non-judgmental awareness, effects performance outcomes at work. I've been practicing different forms of mindfulness, yoga, reflection, and meditation since I was 18. Yet, I think the largest incline in my learning curve has been driven by the birth of my first child, Everly. Everly is a beautiful, highly sensitive baby girl. Motherhood has been a blessing beyond description; and also the most challenging, enlightening experience I've faced to date. Here are five life lessons that I have learned from my newest teacher.
Letting go. Everyone warned me that when the baby came, life would change. I had my baby when I was 36 years old. Given the average age of first-time mothers in Canada was 30.2 years in the last tally (2011), I've had 6 more years than the average woman to ossify my ways as a leisurely, child-free, rather predictable adult. To quote Tony Robbins, "the quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with." Uncertainty is hard for us humans to the extent that cognitive psychologists believe that stress basically originates from uncertainty. Indeed, our brains expend considerable energy striving to reduce uncertainty about future outcomes. Everly has taught me that the most effective way to make peace with uncertainty is by letting go of control (or at least being aware of my need for control). I could not control when I got pregnant. I did not control pretty much any detail of my labour. I cannot control 80% of my day with a baby. And that's ok. Jack Kornfield, one of the original teachers of mindfulness in the West, suggests that when we look back on our life we should ask ourselves: "How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?" So, to build on Tony's insight: The quality of my life is in direct proportion to the amount of control I can let go of.
The most important time is now. In Buddhism, equanimity involves experiencing events without becoming attached to them when they are wonderful, and without being averse to them when they are difficult. Equanimity can take a lifetime of practice but as a new parent, I'll confess that the path to enlightenment is harder to find when you're sleep deprived. It is hard not to feel averse to getting up multiple times a night and it's even harder not to get attached to the occasional 8-hour stretch of sleep. A quick glimpse at the growing body of sleep research further supports why it's so easy to feel averse to sleepless nights. In The Ripple Effect, I learned that the "risk of a fatal heart attack increases 45% in women who sleep 5 hours or fewer per night" and if you have less than six solid hours of sleep you have a "48% greater chance of developing or dying from heart disease" (p.33). Despite these scary statistics, every time I go into Everly's room and accept the time we have together under the gentle light of the moon, I feel peaceful. No matter how tired I am, when I stay in the moment with my baby, I feel equanimous.
Patience. Patience is a beautiful characteristic to have. I need much more of it. That is all.
Self-Compassion. In the literature, self-compassion as a construct has three parts: 1) being aware of the present moment; 2) being kind to oneself, and 3) recognizing that most of humanity struggles with difficulty of some kind. Despite how easy it is to spend our time furthering our own self-interest, it's surprisingly hard to be self-compassionate. Perhaps even more surprising is that self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem, and it's a better predictor of how vulnerable war veterans are to PTSD than their actual exposure to war. This isn't to say having a baby has felt like going to war. Well, maybe just that one dark week with my husband. But having a baby has exposed me to a level of self-questioning and criticism that I've never experienced before. Everly taught me that practicing self-compassion was critical for my own sanity, and the wellbeing of everyone around me. Visit self-compassion.org if your'e interested in learning how to practice self-compassion.
We are all connected. At the risk of coming across as a full-blown hippie, having a baby has taught me at a visceral level that we really are all connected. Not only in physical uterus/fetus manner or a philosophical Bob Marley "one love" kind of way, but through an incredibly "pure joy" way that arrived encased in the epiphany that happiness results from being apart of something larger than yourself. There are countless studies that support this conclusion. Research from the world of positive psychology has shown repeatedly that wellbeing emerges from social connections; that the quality of our relationships are related to how long we live; and that if we want to be happier and more resilient, we should be kinder to others. Even the brain corroborates these sorts of findings showing through fMRI technology that giving to others activates the same regions of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. At times, having a baby has been a psychological horror show oscillating between picturing gruesome ways that I might accidentally injure my baby or feeling anxious and depressed from too many days alone with an infant. But, bonding with Everly has given me the wisdom to live what I had only previously understood through the articles I read: that connecting deeply with others and genuinely caring for their wellbeing is the ultimate source of sustainable joy.
How can you apply these lessons to your own life?
Falling short of having a baby yourself, the best thing I can suggest is that if you don't have a mindfulness practice, start one today. If you have one but it's inconsistent, commit to practicing for 10 consecutive days starting today for any length of time. Or, if you just want to dip your toe in the still waters of mindfulness, try closing your eyes, sitting up straight, and for three full breaths do nothing else but feel the sensation of a breath coming in and a breath going out!
Guest Contributor Ellen Choi
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