Mindful

It was Veteran’s Day, and I was off from work and home with both of my young children. I did what any sane parent of young kids does when home alone—take them to a park before the parental meltdown begins. As other cabin-feverish parents and their kids milled about, I sat on a see-saw with my four year old daughter across from me, me lightly bouncing us, but my heart not in it.

My five-month-old son, Theo, sat, still strapped into his stroller next to me and watched as I tapped out an email to my co-author on a new book project we’d begun. A book about mindfulness of all things. As my kids watched me quietly, my focus had gone down the two by four inch rabbit hole of my Iphone’s screen.

A tap to my shoulder from behind brought me to attention, and I turned to see an elderly Asian woman smiling at me. She pointed at Theo and made a cradling gesture with her arms. She said something in what sounded like Chinese, though her continued caress of the invisible baby in her arms underscored how she knew I didn’t understand.

I assumed she wanted to hold Theo—he’s just that cute. Surely his charms spanned all cultural barriers. The woman looked so gentle, and she certainly couldn’t outrun me, so sure I thought—“You can hold him for a second,” I said aloud. I took Theo out of his stroller and moved him in her direction. She smiled, and did the cradling motion again.

I dangled my son like bartered goods in the air between us, suddenly aware of how I was willing to pawn off my child to a complete stranger in order to end an awkward exchange. But I didn’t need to hand over Theo because that’s not what she wanted. She did the cradling motion again, saying whatever it was in Chinese once more.

And then she pointed at me.

A wave of embarrassed recognition surged through me. The old woman couldn’t speak English and yet she spoke the universal language of true parenting. I’d just been nonverbally dope-slapped to stop mindlessly emailing about mindfulness—some gleaming future prospects—and get present as a dad with my two amazing kids.

It’s a prompt to check out what your mind is doing—am I here, now in the present with what’s happening (inside me, and with my family around me) or am I lost “there and then” in memories and thoughts and therefore missing out?

I sat Theo on my lap and faced my daughter, Celia. I bounced us in earnest and it wasn’t long before Theo was doing his recently-acquired giggle. All three of us were smiling there in the park.

From this “teaching” episode in the park, a crucial question arose for me in my parenting, and for the work I do as a family psychologist: Here, now . . . or there, then?

The question, if asked with mindfulness, is crucial. It’s a prompt to check out what your mind is doing—am I here, now in the present with what’s happening (inside me, and with my family around me) or am I lost “there and then” in memories and thoughts and therefore missing out? Such an inquiry can wake you up in moments like mine there on the see-saw with my daughter. It can get us in the game with our families and make all the difference.

The answer is certainly there—or more correctly, when. That moment on the see-saw with Theo and Celia and all the smiles will never show up again in exactly the same way. And it would not have come about at all without the elderly maternal mime willing to punch through park protocol and lightly tap me on the shoulder.

When it comes to my children, I see the restlessness that pops up in me when the moment calls for presence and engagement.

How many moments as parents are never realized by us for lack of attention?

Or even if they do arise, how often do our minds cloud over the authentic seeing of our kids with thoughts of past or future?

There’s something always here in my parenting I’ve almost always been missing.

When it comes to my children, I see the restlessness that pops up in me when the moment calls for presence and engagement. It is consistently and reflexively hard for my mind to let go of what might later be. When my daughter was a newborn, I tried getting present by writing short notes about the angst and joy of being a new dad. I called them my “Notes to Celia,” and wrote about 80 pages worth of dipsticks into the parental experience. I intended to keep up the writing of these entries indefinitely. Perhaps they’d be a Bat Mitzvah gift? Or at her college graduation? Maybe handed to her on lovely parchment after a toast at her wedding?

And then these “notes” stopped. I had lost the initial “here – now” focus, and had drifted forward into possibilities. Perhaps I can publish this, I thought. Maybe I can get an agent interested . . . And it was not long before the notes languished as another rusting relic in my junkyard of incomplete book proposals.

The answer has something to do with getting past the past and simultaneously foregoing the future. “It” . . . is . . . here . . . now.

Writer sitting with fingers alternatingly attached and unattached to keyboard keys as words form and the thought of smiles on a seesaw ripple across mind’s eye. I pause the writing and look about. I find my daughter’s face over in the kitchen as she plays her very first board game with her older cousins there at the table. A smile lights her face not unlike that day on the seesaw once I’d laid down my phone along with the future. And an old woman’s cross-cultural smiling shines there as well.

Pause & Practice

Claim a moment for yourself here and now, either with a family member or otherwise. What is happening right now in your senses? What will you miss that will never show up at the end of your experience again? Don’t focus only on the big things, the earth-shattering stuff—it could be there in the look of a loved one on a photograph on your desk or dresser. Maybe it’s someone next to you on the bus that if you’d only look up and meet there eyes, something beyond last night’s dreams might begin. Or it’s just a moment of rest in the awareness that’s always there for you to lean back into. Ask this “here, now?” question enough, and you might find yourself more present than I did that day in the park. What emerges from the simple inner act of asking?

Mitch Abblett

Dr. Mitch Abblett is a clinical psychologist and is the Executive Director of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, a non-profit focusing on the education and training at the intersection of mindfulness and treatment. For over a decade, he was the Clinical Director of the Manville School, a Harvard-affiliated therapeutic day school program in Boston, serving children with emotional, behavioral, and learning difficulties. He maintains a private psychotherapy and consulting practice, and writes about mindfulness, professional development, and family mental health. His books include The Heat of the Moment in Treatment: Mindful Management of Difficult Clients (W.W. Norton) for clinicians, Mindfulness for Teen Depression (New Harbinger, co-authored with Chris Willard, PsyD), and the upcoming Parenting Your Angry Teen (New Harbinger). He also co-authored the child/family-friendly practice aid Growing Mindful: A Deck of Practices for All Ages and additional mindfulness-related card decks. He conducts national and international trainings regarding mindfulness and its applications.

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