mindfulness

Rollercoasters & Ruts: Mindfulness Promises a Better Way

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I feared something like this would happen, and it finally did. My son bulldozed the new girl in his kindergarten gym class, knocking her down and making her cry. I had noticed how my son was unraveling in the afternoons, crashing into me hard when I greeted him outside of school and “hugging” his sister too hard, pulling her to the ground. I saw this coming, but how could I prevent it?

That question, how could I prevent this?, is loaded with the assumption that I can and should control my son’s behavior, experiences, and/or surroundings, even when he’s outside our home. Entertaining that question was my ticket onto an emotional rollercoaster that kept me up half the night. I analyzed the situation, recognizing how my son’s social and emotional struggles fed into the gym situation and how gym in the afternoon overstimulated an already exhausted boy.

I feared this incident signaled the unraveling of his smooth transition to kindergarten. I buckled in and held on tightly. I thought hard about the problem, considered possible strategies, and e-mailed the teacher, case worker and the school occupational therapist with my input and ideas. The next morning, exhausted, feeling like an overbearing helicopter parent and fearing I had damaged my relationship with my son’s team, I regretted even getting on that emotional rollercoaster.

One sure wouldn’t guess it by my actions, but I was in week two of a Mindful Parenting for Stress Reduction course. I had learned enough to recognize what had just happened. Rather than feeling the grief and fear inside me and letting it be, I automatically jumped into “doing mode” because it made me feel a sense of control. Thankfully, I also had practices, information, and strategies from the course that would help me get off the roller coaster before the next go-round.

Mindfulness is, essentially, a practice of meditation. In each of our six weekly meetings, we read about the way one gets stuck in ruts (patterned responses to stress), and how cultivating mindfulness attitudes and meditation practice can help shift us out of those ruts. The readings were painfully spot-on to the struggles my husband and I face as we navigate our family’s autism journey and try to foster healthier habits.

One of my patterns is to always look outward–to change my circumstances or take in new information to inform my doing (a.k.a. my fixing and controlling). But practicing mindfulness is not aimed at changing one’s circumstances. Instead, it aims to change the way we respond to our circumstances. That is hard… really, really hard. It is so much easier to do than to be. For me, practicing mindfulness has meant acknowledging and then letting go of my desires to change my circumstances (perhaps 100 times each day!).

Bonnie, the course’s facilitator, offered insightful encouragement that I initially took for sarcasm: “Each time your mind wanders [during meditation], look at it as an opportunity to get more practice at coming back to the breath.” The same is true for getting out of the ruts of our habitual responses to stress. Each time we get a little traction, maybe just by noticing and sitting with the stinging regret that follows our actions, we are slowly carving, pressing, pushing our way out of a rut. But it takes a lot of practice and repetition to get out of deeply carved ruts.

Each session of the course introduced us to different yoga and meditation practices of varying durations. Bonnie encouraged us to try the practices to see what we liked and what would best fit into our day. I still struggle to integrate the practices daily, but I remain hopeful and patient with myself. In closing, I will share a meditation that Bonnie shared with the group and that I continue to ponder as I try to incrementally shift my patterns:

Ordinarily, when we undertake something, it is only natural to expect a desirable outcome for our efforts. We want to see results, even if it is only a pleasant feeling. The sole exception I can think of is meditation. Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at the bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are….When we let go of wanting something else to happen in this moment, we are taking a profound step toward being able to encounter what is here now. If we hope to go anywhere or develop ourselves in any way, we can only step from where we are standing. If we don’t really know where we are standing–a knowing that comes directly from the cultivation of mindfulness–we may only to in circles, for all our efforts and expectations. So, in meditation practice, the best way to get somewhere is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all. 

– Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life” pages 14-16.

Author: Beth

Beth is a wife, mother, researcher and connector. Her five-year-old son has autism, and she has a preschool-aged daughter. She has a PhD in Education and has conducted research and evaluation focused on youth and community development. She lives in St. Louis Park, Minn.

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