by Cassandra Vieten, PhD
May 22, 2012
Pregnancy, childbirth, early parenting can be a roller coaster – ups, downs, highs, lows, scary parts, exhilarating parts, relief, tension and fun. It really is an intensified microcosm of the life journey. Mindfulness teacher and physician Jon Kabat Zinn quotes Zorba the Greek – calling life “the full catastrophe!” Perhaps no time is this more true than during the birthing year and the year or so afterward.
Mindful motherhood is a way of riding this roller coaster with your eyes open, your mind clear, your body relaxed, and your spirit and heart involved – rather than clutching on for dear life, clenching shut, and not really enjoying the ride at all. In some ways, it’s about riding it for all it’s worth.
Mindfulness practice helps us deal with stressful moments by keeping us breathing, awake, aware, and able to meet each moment as it arises with an understanding, first of all, that all moments are temporary. Everything arises and passes away, and something new comes to take its place. Just seeing that, letting go, and riding the wave, say of your baby crying in the middle of the night, or difficulties with your partner, or difficulty with breastfeeding – or any of the whole host of things that can happen – can really help.
Spiritual wisdom, and now scientific research, shows that paradoxically, attempts to avoid or suppress your experiences – even when they are upsetting, like anxiety or anger – prolong them. Instead, meeting your own anxiousness or anger, say during a toddler temper tantrum in a supermarket, accepting that “this is what is happening right now – my baby is throwing a fit and I am getting anxious and angry” and breathing right into that for a few moments, centering your awareness in the present moment and in your body, amazingly helps you respond in ways that are adaptive for you and your family.
On that note, centering your awareness in the present moment may be one of the ways that mindfulness is most helpful in pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting. As I said in my book, Mindful Motherhood, “Being present forms the foundation for mindful motherhood. It’s the key to being a mindful mom. If being nonjudgmental, accepting, curious, and compassionate, and observing your experience and letting it be as it is without struggling against it are some of the rooms that make up the house of mindful motherhood, being in the present moment is the foundation of the house.”
Why is this? I talk about it as making your attention less like a pinball machine, and more like a searchlight. In a pinball machine, you don’t have much choice about which direction the pinball goes – it just bounces around from place to place depending on what it bangs into. Our attention can be like that, bouncing from place to place, rolling into the future projecting about what is going to happen, or ruminating about the past and what happened there. We even have full-blown emotional reactions to what we imagine about the future and the past, totally unrelated to what is happening right now, in the present moment. Our attention can also be drawn by whatever is most compelling, and because of how we are wired, this is often what is most negative, what is not working, what doesn’t fit, or what is potentially threatening or fear-inducing. That’s just how our minds work – partly because it’s been useful for survival.
But when directed with intention, attention is like a searchlight. Wherever you point your searchlight becomes illuminated, and you can see what is there. When the searchlight of your attention is not pointed at something, it is difficult to see clearly what is there. So, when your attention is not trained onto the present moment, it’s hard to perceive the current situation accurately. And, in general, the more your attention and awareness is on the present moment, the more you can be responsive, awake, and creative as a person and as a mom. Babies love people who are right there in the moment with them. It makes them feel safe, loved, and attended to. For that matter, so do partners, loved ones, colleagues, and in fact when we learn to center our attention in the present moment, even we end up feeling safer, loved, and attended to. Present-moment awareness in parenting makes it easier to do everything – from feeding the baby, to soothing their crying, to dealing with in-laws, and it helps us see all the aspects of each situation – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The focus of mindful awareness practice is to cultivate the capacity to be aware and present with whatever is happening. It is to stabilize your attention so that you can be the one who is directing the searchlight of your attention, rather than being the pinball, having your attention bounce toward whatever is most compelling at the moment.
Being a mom happens in the present moment. In fact, when you really think about it, everything that you can do anything about happens in the present moment. I am sitting with my baby having lunch with a friend and her baby. I am nursing my baby and reading this book. I am walking on the StairMaster, five months pregnant. In some ways, the only relevant place for your attention to be is right now, in this present moment. Motherhood happens now, and now, and now. As much as we spend our time focusing on the past or planning or rehearsing for the future, the only moment in which you have any power is right now.
When you are present, you can see when your baby starts to get distressed, sometimes before it turns into a full-on wail. When the baby is wailing, you can still be present with her, rooted in the present moment in your body with your breathing. You can see your baby’s expressions and can better respond to what you sense your baby needs. The focus here is on being aware of your experiences as parents as they arise, meeting them as they are, learning to center your attention in the present-moment – on what actually is happening right now, rather than your stories about it, or what it means. It’s about learning to approach all of your experiences, as much as possible with openness, curiosity, and compassion. It’s about learning to ride the waves of parenting rather than resisting them and getting battered about in the process.
Cultivating mindful awareness is a wonderful foundation for great parenting. Mindful awareness is a skill that can be learned, like playing the piano or learning a new language, and as such it takes practice. There are lots of opportunities now to learn mindfulness – at a local meditation center, through taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction class, and increasingly mindful parenting classes are popping up everywhere. But it’s not always possible to get to a mindfulness class. You may not have one in your area, you may have other children and the taxi-driving juggling that goes along with Boy Scout meetings, soccer games, and school pick-ups and drop-offs.
Mindful Motherhood Book and Online Course
How can you learn more about mindful mothering? There may be a Mindful Motherhood or other mindful parenting course in your area, and you can also look for a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course which won’t be focused directly on motherhood, but will teach you mindfulness practices that can be applied to all areas of your life.
If you’d like to take a course online – try the Mindful Motherhood Online Course – a companion to the book Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child’s First Year (New Harbinger/Noetic Books, 2009).
Based on a program developed in a clinical trial with pregnant women, this program teaches pregnant women and new moms how mindfulness and acceptance-based practices can be brought into their everyday lives to reduce stress, improve mood and enhance bonding with their babies. This online course offers many different ways to explore the information including video lectures, downloadable audio-guided mindfulness practices, pdf readings and exercises, and links to numerous multimedia resources for further exploration. Also for those in the health care professionals who wish to incorporate the Mindful Motherhood Training into their work, IONS offers an online course for professionals with 15 hours of continuing education.
Tips for Tough Moments from Mindful Motherhood
- Find the place in your body where you can most strongly feel your breath moving in and out. Whether this is around your nostrils, in your chest or in your belly, bring all of your awareness to this spot for 10 full breaths. This brings you into your body and into the present moment.
- If you are pregnant, feel this breathing as though you can sense the oxygen in your blood moving through the placenta and into your baby. If you have an infant, hold the baby and feel the place where your breathing and your baby’s breathing can be felt on your body. Pay attention to that place for 10 breaths.
- Breathe all the way out. Focus intensely on the place where the breath stops going out and starts going in, and then on the very end of the in-breath and the beginning of the out-breath. Let those two spots, those little moments when you are neither breathing in nor breathing out, be the focus of your attention for about 60 seconds.
- Bring all your attention to the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet for 10 breaths. This grounds your attention when it is flying all over the place, or when you are really agitated.
- Find a word or phrase that is deeply calming, emotionally nourishing or sacred to you. For some, the words “safe” or “peace” are good. A phrase like “be still” or “be well” will work. Breathe in through your nose and say this word or phrase on the out-breath, either out loud or in your mind, until your attention feels a bit more stable.
Download a free guided audio recorded guided mindful awareness for pregnant women and new moms here.
About Cassandra Vieten
Cassandra is a licensed clinical psychologist, director of research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, co-director of the Mind Body Medicine Research Group at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco, and co-president of the Institute for Spirituality and Psychology. Her research has focused on mindfulness-based approaches to cultivating emotional balance, the involvement of emotion regulation in addiction and recovery, and the factors, experiences, and practices involved in psychospiritual transformation. She has published several academic articles and spoken at academic conferences worldwide. She is author of the book Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child’s First Year (New Harbinger/Noetic Books, 2009) and co-author of Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life (New Harbinger/Noetic Books, 2008).
Portions of this article appeared in an interview with Elisha Goldstein, PhD (Author of The Now Effect and A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook).