LET THE SUNSHINE IN
Transform your family’s life by learning to land in the moment
It was one of those mornings. I hit the ground running – preparing lunches, feeding little ones and attempting to get everything done as efficiently as possible. Kids shovelled into the car as I scanned the house, the car, the kids and myself to ensure nothing had been overlooked. We joined the traffic as the children created an orchestra of questions, shrieks and demands. My mind, as always, became a buzz of thoughts, which generally revolved around my to-do list. Work, school pick-ups, extra curricular activities for the kids, doctors appointments, meal planning, housework. An inventory of do, do, do. This future-focused thinking had a way of taking me away from reality to the point where my children’s questions and delightful views became a composition of noise and interruption. By the time I dropped the kids at school, parked up at work and took the time to catch my breath, I realised something of concern. Not only had I not heard a word that my older two children had said as I drove them to school, but I also had an inconspicuous passenger in the backseat. During my autopilot haze of driving to work, I had completely forgotten to drop off my six-month-old son at pre-school. You hear of it happening, mums so caught up in the rush of morning chaos that they forget their babies are still in the car and the consequences can be catastrophic. To this day, I remember that moment with a shudder of what could have been had I not taken the time to pause and check the backseat. Fast forward three years and the world of my little family could not be further from those endless days, where I was completely void of conscious awareness. My children and I now walk together to the school bus, taking in the bouquet of sensory delights that continue to unfold. We see the vibrant, everchanging colours of the seasons. We experience the tantalising sensations of wind, rain and sunshine on our skin. The array of sounds act as reminders to relish the present moment in ways we never truly appreciated before. Finally, we have found a place where we can embrace present-moment awareness and our lives have been transformed because we have introduced a sense of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
According to Jon Kabat-zinn, who is basically the godfather of mindfulness, it can be defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” When working with children I simplify it even further to “understanding what is happening right now.” So it all seems pretty simple, right? It is pretty simple, but at the same time it can be incredibly hard. Our brains are wired to think, think, think and in this modern digital age we, as humans, are pretty much wired to do, do, do. So actually taking the time to stop and pause is really quite foreign and often takes some practice. But by keeping it simple and not being too hard on ourselves, we can bring mindfulness into our day-to-day lives and the lives of our children.
Is there science behind it?
Research indicates one of the most evolved areas of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC, the region behind your forehead), is activated during mindfulness practice. This region
is responsible for higher level functioning such as empathy, response flexibility and emotion regulation. Strengthening our understanding to regulate emotions through mindfulness enhances our ability to be calm when emotionally charged, or in a state of underactivity or depression. Emotion regulation also includes fear modulation, which helps us to recognise how realistic our levels of fear or anxiety actually are. When we react to situations with fear, anger or anxiety, this activates the limbic region of the brain, in particular the amygdala (the emotion centre). This region is related to our “fight, flight or freeze” response and can be vital in dangerous situations, but not so helpful during times that don’t present threat. The more we react with fear or anger, the more likely it is that such reactions will become our default response. Being mindful of our experience during times of heightened emotion helps to deactivate the amygdala and engage the higher-order processes of the PFC. Mindfulness practice helps to strengthen the PFC like lifting weights helps to strengthen muscles. The more we practice, the easier it is to utilise functions such as emotion-regulation and empathy. This can then result in reduced stress, enhanced relationships with others and a happier approach to life.
If there were three top techniques that I could give you to bring mindfulness into your life they would be the following: 1. MINDFUL BODIES: Stop and take the time to be still, really still When we put on our mindful bodies, we take this time to be still, reconnect with the present moment and quieten our inner dialogue. 2. LISTEN... truly, deeply listen Mindful listening is a tool that is so painfully lacking in our world. Have you ever spoken to someone and realised that he/she isn’t listening to you? How did that make you feel? In a recent workshop I ran with girls aged six to nine, a young girl mentioned that her parents didn’t listen to her. This comment enabled other girls in the group to admit that their parents also had a tendency to switch off. In fact, I too had to admit as a mother I wasn’t always present to hear everything my child had to say. What was eye-opening, however, was how this one girl felt when she was unheard. According to her, mum and dad’s inability to listen made her feel as though she, “Wasn’t important.” By listening with awareness we not only reiterate how important our children are to us, but we enable deeper connections to be made with them. These deeper connections develop trust, a sense of security, identity and self-worth. 3. OBSERVE No matter how focused you become, thoughts will still appear (up to 70,000 per day). Recognising that we have become distracted by a thought is when mindfulness is taking place. We are then able to observe our mental activity and bring ourselves back to a present state of awareness. These practices are beneficial to everyone, but in my work I see the benefits of introducing mindfulness to children to not only be worthwhile, but transformative. Kids are instinctively mindful, but it doesn’t take long before this balanced way of being is lost. Granted, some schools have been able to see benefits and implement teachings, but many are lagging behind, while levels of depression, anxiety and suicide soar. Many parents are at a loss when it comes to offering support to struggling kids and children are left feeling they must combat obstacles alone. As parents, we have the opportunity to develop our own mindfulness practice. By sharing this with our children, we provide them with cognitive tools that can help when facing challenging emotions. This creates a mental space when challenges arise, enabling us to replace hasty reactions with thoughtful responses. Mindfulness also assists in the development of focus and attention as well as a sense of gratitude, empathy and optimism.
Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment Jon Kabat-zinn Definition for children: Understanding what is happening right now