Buddhism for Parents On the Go
Gems to Minimise Stress
By Sarah Napthali
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2010 Sarah Napthali
All rights reserved.
Adjusting to new Surroundings
Once I was in a reality TV show. No — really I was. In 2008 I belonged to a soul-music choir and we competed in a show called Battle of the Choirs. I found adjusting to the foreign environment and pressure of a television studio profoundly stressful. The days were thirteen hours long. We were learning new songs and 'choralography' (read 'dance steps') and I felt way out of my depth: being one of the least talented members of a choir dominated by music teachers, I was worried about letting them down — on national television.
I decided to observe my reaction to stress, which went something like this: No! You can't be stressed! You must be calm! Nobody else is ruffled! Be cool and laid-back. You're the only Buddhist here so the least you can do is keep your head. Clearly, I was blocking my feelings: suppressing, denying and ignoring the stress gripping my body. This was not mindfulness. Rather, I needed to be with my feelings of stress, with an attitude of allowing. Resistance to the stress was only compounding it. Practising awareness of my bodily reactions and of my thoughts was the most effective way to minimise my panic and a far more compassionate way to treat myself. Accepting my reactions, I settled down (hid in the back row) and we made it as far as the semi-finals.
Have we not all been trained to be vain? How strongly we all long to feel attractive. We also want to feel healthy and capable of all the physical feats of our youth. What a psychological challenge ageing can be — Westerners hate it. How to cope?
Buddhists know some techniques, but these do seem very counterintuitive to the Western mind. They include meditating in a graveyard, meditating on the disintegration of the human body before and after death, or repeating the mantra 'birth, ageing, pain and death'. I admit that most Westerners cannot stomach these techniques, though my friend, the Buddhist teacher Subhana Barzaghi, at the age of nineteen spent 30 days in Nepal meditating on death. (Of 150 Westerners, only 30 completed the retreat.)
What Westerners can do is spend more time contemplating the Buddha's teaching of impermanence, the way nothing lasts. Notice it in nature. Notice it in people. Notice it in objects. Impermanence is the only thing we can count on; change is the only constant. Denial and aversion are mentally unhealthy ways to cope with the advancing years and can only lead to ever-increasing anxiety. Mindful of the certainty of death, we live our lives more thoughtfully as we appreciate each new day, each new moment. Acceptance of impermanence, understanding that we are not excluded from this natural law, is our best hope for ageing calmly.
Funny how sometimes the simplest things can bother us so much. One reason is that rather than seeing something for what it is, we add. We aggravate. Many Buddhists make a habit of asking themselves whenever they feel stressed, What am I adding? For example, I am a slave to a tree in our backyard that sheds many leaves, so I often find myself raking. Zen Buddhists would encourage me to see this activity as just raking. In my head, however, I add: This is such a waste of my time, This is so repetitive and boring, I wish the council would let us remove this tree, Why aren't I getting the kids to do this? In adding all this (and more), I am not being mindful. I miss an opportunity to experience the sensory feast of the present moment: the scratch of the rake, the crunch of the leaves underfoot, the fragrances of nature, the colours of the leaves, the satisfaction of an active body. Zen Buddhists would call the raking 'work practice' — such tasks need not be separate from meditation or other spiritual activities. Just raking is potentially an experience of mindfulness in the present moment. This goes equally for just sweeping, just dusting, just cooking, just wiping and just hanging out the washing. And then there is just being with our children, just watching them or just listening.
In a book called Momma Zen, mother and Zen priest Karen Maezen Miller writes: 'I lose it all the time. We all lose it all the time. The point is not that we lose our cool, the point is how quickly we find it again.' It was a relief for me to read this. My Buddhist practice has not stopped me from losing my cool and as much as I know that guilt is not helpful, I have sometimes surrendered to its pull after yelling at my sons. But Karen is right. We are only human and children can be crazy-making and, at times, so can marriage and everything else.
So the question becomes not How can I stop losing my cool? but rather, How long will I spend in a state of anger? and, What is the best way to deal with my anger? After all, the Buddha said, 'Anger is the single enemy that all the wise ones agree to kill.' Not that the answer lies in suppressing anger, denying it or acting it out. Rather, treat anger as a temporary visitor (for it is), and as a teacher. Be curious. Try to uncover what you are clinging to: a belief, a vision, a desire, an aversion, a 'should'? Is it realistic? Can you let go? Or hold on less tightly?
See alsoImpatience, Irritation
It's a funny thing. The older I grow, the more often I feel anxiety. In my youth I was cocky about so many things that I no longer am: catching a plane, walking down a dark street, public speaking, new projects with new clients. Why the change? I suppose when I was younger I lived in denial about my own mortality, whereas by the age of forty it has finally sunk in that I will die and that sickness and old age are highly likely. Now, too, I am a mother and the enormity of the responsibility, the power of my need for my children to be happy, will create anxiety. Whereas in my twenties I could quite easily distract myself from the stress and suffering in the world, now I know better and no longer can.
What is important in my Buddhist practice is that I accept the occasional bout of anxiety for the impermanent state that it is. There is no need to fight it and force myself into an instant false calm. I can allow the anxiety to run its course, be with it, watch its journey and learn from it. The awareness alone will soften the experience. After all, we need to practise tolerance for the whole spectrum of mental states in order to know ourselves deeply and grow in compassion for ourselves and others.
See alsoFear, Sleeplessness, Worrying
Undeniably, it feels satisfying to receive praise, validation and appreciation. Yet many of us become beggars for approval, constantly needing others to reassure us we are all right. We waste many hours wondering how others perceive us, whether they like us, why they wouldn't. Ironically, those who become obsessed with seeking approval alienate others, for most people cannot help gravitating to the confident rather than the needy or insecure. We cannot afford to allow others — or our perception of what others think of us — to mould our self-image as it leaves us vulnerable. We also need to model self-confidence for the sake of our children, rather than the art of self put-downs.
Inner confidence is far more likely to bring us the sense of connection with others we seek rather than relying overly on externals, such as approval. We can nourish inner peace and self-acceptance through meditation, through challenging our inner chatter, writing in a diary where we become our own best friend, or by carving out some time to delight in quiet solitude from time to time.
Arguing with children
Many of us live with a defiant child. Call them debaters, compulsive negotiators or just rebels, they drain our energy. It is easy for our relationship with a stubborn child to disintegrate into endless bickering. I once listened to a child psychologist addressing a room full of parents and he spoke of the uselessness of engaging in rapid-fire battle with smart-alec children — it is exactly what they enjoy. They thrive on it. They have your full attention and you are being their favourite plaything — covered in interesting buttons to press.
Sometimes we have to think hard and be creative about dealing with problems in ways that don't default to nagging and battling. A clear consequence that they know you are prepared to follow through with helps. A fixed, non-negotiable routine is more effective than coasting along, the child treating every turn as negotiable. Ensuring such children receive affection and positive attention makes them feel secure so they do not misbehave to win attention — I concede though that for some children, too much parental attention is never enough. When muddling through, take the occasional moment to dwell on their numerous positive qualities, which are likely to be their ability with language, their critical thinking skills and their assertiveness — they'll never be a doormat.
You had an unproductive day at work — your computer was misbehaving, nobody you phoned was available, you made no progress on any of your projects and the traffic home was heavy. But now you're home and it's all over and tomorrow will be a fresh day. Why do you still feel irritable? Why are you yelling at the children and complaining about every irritation? It is because the mind is fast but the body is slow. The tension in your body from a stressful day is yet to dissipate. Your body still feels sluggish, or edgy, and the racing mind can easily invent any number of causes. We tend not to see this. Rather, we fully believe in the seriousness of our complaints and allow small problems to soar out of proportion.
It can help to practise mindfulness of the body. Tune into exactly how your body is feeling in the moment and label it tired, heavy, achey, hungry, tense. Don't resist the feeling, or suppress it, but try to accept it without judgement. With full awareness of how our body feels we are less likely to buy into the complaints our mind invents. My eldest son Zac has learnt to do this: often he catches himself complaining about small irritations and adds, 'Sorry, but I'm just really tired today.' Many adults can't do this.
See alsoBodily tension, Complaining, Moodiness, Negativity
For those new to Buddhist ways of thinking, this page might feel like a real stretch. A busy parent might find losing property to be the greatest test of their anger management resources. Yet when a thief takes what is yours, rather than feeling angry and vengeful, could you consider feeling sorry for him?
Such a response is for our own sake: anger and revenge fantasies will not bring our stuff back and only leave us feeling disturbed. An alternative is to mentally give the object to the thief. I know it might sound crazy but it enables you to let go of a strong source of suffering: feelings of possession. You replace clinging and attachment with generosity. It might take a while to work up to this mental gesture of giving while you mindfully process the shock. What can help is to consider the thief's karma for this action. Suffering awaits him as a consequence of his action and this is cause for compassion; there was probably also a fair share of suffering in his past that led him to commit the theft. Many thieves are slaves to a drug or gambling habit that they genuinely struggle against but feel powerless to stop, despite several attempts. And we never know, maybe one day we will desperately hope that one of our own children can be forgiven.
A trusted colleague backstabs you. A friend stops speaking to you. Your partner flirts — or worse. Or your teenager flouts your most basic values. The hurt of betrayal from someone we love or respect is one of the most painful wounds we can bear. While anger or sorrow may be our initial reactions, we eventually realise that these emotions punish ourselves more than the perpetrator.
The best way to relieve our pain — and restore our ability to live in the present rather than the past — is to forgive. This may take time and work and an attempt to deeply understand the perspective of another. It might require us to admit to some responsibility, or remember the times we erred and needed someone to forgive us. It is not about being a pushover for we can still, where necessary, find ways to skilfully defend our values and assert our boundaries. Forgiveness is an act of compassion for yourself as you become free from negative emotions and from the past.
See alsoDisappointing friends
Life can feel so mentally demanding that, rather than acknowledge the complexity of a situation, we blithely accept the first simple explanation that springs to mind. Likewise, rather than see the people we know in all their multiplicity, we label them: they are the joker, the whinger, the drama queen, the adventurer. We label our children too: difficult, stubborn, high-strung, demanding, hot-headed, gifted. Such views of our child can crystallise over time, so we stop paying close attention. Yet concretised views of our children can become a prison for them so they no longer feel seen for who they are.
When our children interact with us we need — as often as possible — to pause and ask ourselves, Who is this? Look at them with a fresh curiosity that recognises that people change, mature, and behave inconsistently. When time allows, we listen to them with full attention and let them speak without interruption. Rather than shape them into our image of who they should be, a wiser goal is to begin a quest to see them for who they truly are — and to see their 'Buddha nature' or innate goodness. Our children are, above all, ever-unfolding mysteries. We can never fully know them. Same for our partners. As Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Màrquez says of his wife of fifty years, he knows her a little less with each passing year. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Buddhism for Parents On the Go by Sarah Napthali. Copyright © 2010 Sarah Napthali. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.