I've never had a problem understanding the advice given in the "how-to" parenting books. I've just had trouble following it. Whether it is talking-to-my-children-so-they will-listen, a la Faber and Mazlish, or applying Adlerian humanism to family dynamics, there has been a gap between knowing what should be done in a given situation and actually doing it. Swept up in an emotional storm of conflict with my children, all those pearls of wisdom fly out the window.
I attributed this to my own deficiencies until I read Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. They write: "....these books often do not address.... the inner experience of parenting....what do we do with our mind for instance?"
"Ring the bells that can still ring Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in."
Yes, I thought, instantly identifying: one part of my mind is giving me a reasonable course of action, while another part is, as the Kabat-Zinns explain, " being swallowed by doubts and insecurities.... and distracted by life's real problems...."
This is the book's initial point of departure. From there the authors discuss not, metaphorically, what to plant in our garden (what to do or say with our kids,) but how to fertilize the ground, i.e. how to prepare our minds for those difficult moments of conflict, frustration or tedium. By the same token, they show us how to embrace those precious moments of joy, exuberance or harmony, that tend to elude us in the busy comings and goings of everyday life.
In this way, Everyday Blessings is a unique blending of a practical parenting guide with a lyrical, emotional tribute to the greatest love relationships of our lives.
Being in the Moment
The practical side offers the practice of "mindfulness meditation" as a technique for "being in the present moment" as much as possible. In this mental state we are able to acknowledge potentially disturbing thoughts or feelings without being swept away by them. The idea is that the calmer, more open we are, the more likely it is that we will be able to respond appropriately.
While all of this may sound abstract and philosophical, in the Kabat-Zinn rendering it is quite down to earth and accessible: They tell us, "Everybody has a mind, everybody has a body and everybody's life only unfolds in moments." The basic instruction is easy to remember: "Just keep bringing yourself back to the moment." We are told to practice this diligently over time. Obviously, fully internalizing this is more complicated. Yet the process is an end in and of itself: Even small efforts bring incremental benefits.
Unlike traditional parenting guides, they give no measures of absolute success or failure. This, I have always found, is a problem with other how-to books. There is a right and a wrong way to deal. If I was too angry or frustrated to act "the right way", I saw it as a failure, and often gave up. It wasn't working.
The Kabat-Zinns on the other hand, say "you don't have to be good at this, .... and certainly judging yourself is not part of it.... you just have to be there for that particular moment. Why? Because you already are." It means just "being the best you can be" at any given juncture.
This advice has inspired me time and again. Heading into a nasty battleground with one of my kids, I think to myself, "Well, those last three minutes were pretty ugly, let's see what the next three minutes bring." This thought in the context of "mindfulness" might just bring me several steps out of the danger zone. "The one thing we can always do, even in moments of darkness and despair that show us we don't know anything, is to begin again fresh right in at that moment."
Also, other parenting guides assume a dichotomy between "emotionalism" and following a "sensible" parenting strategy. "Rather than a disadvantage, sensitivity is an ally..." Myla Kabbat Zinn writes. Thoughts and feelings, that might otherwise be considered "distracting," find appropriate places in our moment-to-moment awareness of them. They bring us to greater insights into ourselves, our children and our interactions with them.
Swept up in an emotional storm of conflict with my children, all those pearls of wisdom fly out the window.
In this way, Everyday Blessings prepares us to deal with the ever-changing spectrum of family life. It's not that other theories don't offer useful constructs. But realistically, parents must constantly alter their applications as children grow and external circumstances change.
A Collection of Meditations
Trying to remain in the moment breeds an atmosphere of constant improvisation and innovation. The more we model this kind of problem-solving for our children, the less afraid they will be of the unknown.
This important book should be seen not as a substitute, but as a complement to some of the classic parenting literature of our era. True, the Kabat-Zinns journey with us through the various phases of family life, starting with baby care, and continue through adolescence. Yet the result resembles a collection of meditations rather than a guide. Everyday Blessings has no intention of presenting a detailed paradigm for family interaction that other books provide.
Readers will not find all the suggestions, anecdotes, and stories in this book equally relevant. Not all of us exclusively breast-feed our children, sleep in the family bed, or live in an idyllic place that must look like Walden Pond.
If the Kabat-Zinns wear Birkenstocks a little too often, and eat too much granola, we forgive them, right? For they have written a book that opens a place deep into the very core of our "parenting souls." They beckon us in to experience that "intense joy, usually reserved for special occasions," and that "authenticity usually reserved for special tragedies." And perhaps, most important, they show us repeatedly that there is no more opportune moment than the present one.
"Ring the bells that can still ring
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in."
(as quoted in Everyday Blessings)