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Mindful parenting: the unbearable annoyingness of children

There is a Buddhist story in which a great yogi dwells upon a mountaintop, meditating ceaselessly. One day, after many years, he comes down from the mountain, triumphant. He has accomplished the goal. He has Awakened. He walks, serene, toward the town and down its streets. Imperturbable, he enters the marketplace, ready to teach the benighted townsfolk of what he has learned; ready to open their eyes to the truth.


But then, in the clamour of the marketplace, a little boy runs into him and treads on his toe. It hurts, and the great yogi shouts at the boy in fury. Then he pauses, stricken, as he realises what he has done. He turns and trudges back towards the mountain, not Awakened after all.


I said a couple of posts ago that parenthood is humbling for the meditator. And the most humbling aspect of it, arguably, is the anger. Because it is unseemly to want to punch a 3-year-old. But no matter how much awareness, kindness, and tranquility you manage to cultivate in your meditation, when you get off your cushion and re-engage with your children, soon enough, that is what you’ll want to do. But you mustn’t. And while mindfulness and meditation won’t stop the anger arising, they can help you to refrain from acting on it.


Basic mindfulness


This is, of course, the place to start: just knowing what’s happening as it’s happening. You absolutely do not want to be the person who says, “I don’t know what happened. I just lost it, and the next thing I knew, I’d…”


So, you will want as much mindfulness as possible. You want to know that you’re angry when you’re angry, so that you can take appropriate action, be that leaving the room, activating some specific mindfulness-based anger-management strategy, or just gritting your teeth and not saying that nasty thing you’re on the verge of saying. To cultivate basic mindfulness, try to meditate regularly, and to practise mindfulness on-the-go as described in this previous post.


Investigation

Once you’ve got a little bit of mindfulness going, it’s time, as with all unpleasant experiences, to turn towards your anger and begin to investigate – to mindfully explore the anger and break it down into its constituent parts. Because when you see clearly that your anger is made of these thoughts and those sensations, it becomes something to be observed, rather than an inexorable force that must be acted on.


So, when you are angry, see if you can notice just what happens in your mind. Does a mental image flash through your mind, of you throwing the baby on the floor, or falling to your knees and screaming? Do you say to yourself, “I shouldn’t have to do this”, or “I can’t take this”?


And what does your body feel like? Where is the anger? Can you feel your heart beat fast and your muscles tense? Or, more subtly, can you feel the distinctive tang of anger in your chest, your throat, your stomach?


In the case of thoughts, your investigations might reveal that there are particular thoughts, tied to particular narratives, that drive your anger. For me, it was often, “I shouldn’t have to do this”, because I read in a very interesting book by an anthropologist that it’s only in modern, Western cultures that adults play with small children. Everywhere else, the children have lots of other children to play with, so they don’t need to bother the adults. But when I thought about that at 5.30 am while playing with my daughter, it just made the experience

that much worse. Whereas when I noticed that I was having that thought, it no longer controlled me, and things got easier.


In the case of feelings, you can really go in and investigate. Focus intently on the sensations of anger. Explore them in as much detail as you can; really get to know their size and shape and character. In doing this, you might find that they ease, because you’ve taken your attention away from your thoughts, which are usually the main driver of emotion. And if they don’t, that’s not a problem, because in turning towards them in this way, you’re changing your relationship to them. They’re no longer an awful, powerful thing that must be got rid of by venting your fury; rather they’re an object of interest that you approach and explore; that can be allowed to stick around for as long as they want. And when there’s no need to get rid of your angry feelings, there’s no need to snap, to shout, or to kick toys angrily across the floor. Just stay with the feelings, as you continue doing whatever it is that you need to do.


Kindness


And of course, there’s a place for kindness in all this. Because kindness is a species of love, and love is precisely the thing that evolution put there to stop you from mistreating or abandoning your children. So, the more we can turn up the volume on kindness and love, the less destructive anger will be.


Start with yourself: recognise that when you are angry, you are suffering, both from whatever made you angry, and from the anger itself. It hurts. Try and sympathise with yourself a little: you’re doing your best, after all, and it’s very, very hard. See if a little kindness towards yourself takes the edge off the anger – it’s calming, to feel cared for and understood, even if we ourselves are doing the caring and understanding.


Don’t blame yourself for feeling angry - it’s a natural human emotion, unavoidable under the trying circumstances of parenthood. What matters is what you do when you’re angry, not whether or not the emotion arose. So don’t double your anger by being angry with yourself for being angry.


And even if you did do something regrettable while you were angry, there’s a limit to how much self-recrimination is useful. Some degree of what the Buddhist tradition has called “healthy shame” might be, well, healthy, but it’s easy to go overboard. Your self-flagellation won’t change what happened, and nor will it necessarily help you to be an effective parent going forward.


It’s like in meditation: when you realise you’ve got distracted and wandered off your object of meditation, there’s no point in beating yourself up about it. Instead, just return to what you’d meant to be doing in the meditation. And when you realise you’ve wandered away from being parent or partner you want to be, the important thing is to correct course as quickly as possible, not to make yourself suffer over it.


As for kindness towards your children and your partner, its importance is obvious, but how to access it is less so: you might struggle to connect with warm feelings for your child when they’re whining in that particular way that drives you up the wall, or for your partner when every interaction you’ve had for the last three days has either been about logistics or has been an argument.


So, how to do it? Well, if you are managing to meditate, then you can do it there. Meditate on kindness, for your family and yourself. Feel the raw, upset, angry feelings in your body, and offer them kindness. Then visualise your partner and children and offer them love. Imagine their faces happy and smiling, and notice how that feels. You might find that it feels good, and that you want to make it happen. Or you might feel nothing much at all – that’s fine. Just having the intention to feel and act kindly is enough to produce positive effects, over time.


And if you aren’t managing to meditate, just keep on remembering that you love them. Notice and fully absorb the good moments, when you do feel loving, and commit them to memory. Remember those moments, when things aren’t so good.


Making it all happen


All of this might sound great, but it might be hard to remember at the crucial moment, when you are half crazed with fury. So, you need to give yourself a head start.


At the start of your meditation, or just at the start of your day if you’re not meditating, take some time to reflect on your intention for the day. Reflect on how you want to act, and why. Visualise, again, how happy your family might look if you manage to interact with them in a positive way. Think of the situations where you’re liable to lose your temper and resolve not to do so. Make a solemn promise to yourself, knowing that you’ll probably break it repeatedly, and that’s okay. Just like in meditation, you persist in your efforts, even as you keep on falling short.

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