Rohan shares how he’s had to learn new ways to meditate when first becoming a father.
As a maker of a mindfulness app and a father of a now two year old son, I now and then get asked about mindfulness in parenting and how best to introduce young people to meditation. The truth however is that I have no idea. I’m as much a novice to the area as anyone else and just being a parent is no qualification in itself, especially of such a young child.
But I am of course interested in the question and that’s why we made buddhify kids and worked with some of the world’s best people when it comes to teaching mindfulness to young people.
That said, I am exploring how I can encourage my son to become more curious about what is happening both inside and outside of him and am currently working on a blog post which shares some of what I’ve learnt. In the meantime, here is something I wrote half a year into the adventure that is fatherhood. I hope you like it.
[Oh and if you’ve not tried switching to the Kids wheel, you absolutely should. Even if there aren’t any little people in your life, there are some truly special practices in there.]
A big theme of my personal meditation practice has always been inclusion. When I first got into meditation over thirteen years ago I realised very quickly that to get the most benefit from mindfulness and meditation in my life, I had to include all areas of my life. And in the doing, avoid the all too common pitfall of compartmentalising meditation to something that only happened as time on-the-cushion in formal sitting meditation. It was therefore very early on that I started playing with the idea of what I then called urban meditation, and now call mobile mindfulness — working out how to develop calm, kindness and insight wherever I was and whatever I was doing. This led to the city, my relationships and my work all becoming meditation spaces and while I still do a lot of traditional sitting, it is no longer limited to such and my practice is I believe more more playful, more insightful and more rewarding as a result.
Then just before Christmas (2015) I became a father for the first time. Events such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one live in a strange category. They are both ordinary and unremarkable everyday events, yet at the same time the most extraordinary and remarkable moments that impact so massively on the trajectory of our lives. In that way they are perhaps the most human of things. So having now joined that most common/uncommon of clubs — parenthood — alongside all the other things that come with that new status, I suddenly had a whole new domain of experience. So as someone whose whole meditation practice has been about including more and more aspects of life, I now have a whole new area to play with.
With my first mindfulness book having been launched just four weeks after the launch of my first human, quite a few people have asked me whether my second book might be about parenting. Given how little experience I actually have (20 weeks and counting), it would be a little hubristic to put out anything that claims authority with regards mindful parenting. But what I can share are some of the practices and reflections that I have personally been using as a way to include my tiny son in my practice during the last few weeks. Because designing mindfulness practices is sort of what I do. These are in no particular order.
Spending time with a baby demands that you are present. It would a little flippant to say that a baby is the ultimate mindfulness app but there is definitely something about the level of attention and presence that holding, playing with, feeding, responding to my son requires. It is therefore incredibly jarring when I notice how the habit of distraction still rears its scattered head when I am with him and I feel the impulse to check-out my attention with him and put it elsewhere. Reaching for the phone is the classic pattern but there are others. When I notice this happen, what I do is note it, and tell him that ‘I’m back’ while at the same time making sure not to give myself a hard time. This practice has really helped improve my quality of non-distraction and I am now noticing the distraction process very early in the process and that level of awareness means that just by noticing it, it shuts itself down. This practice is also good for self-forgiveness, something I’m betting is going to be an important superpower in time to come.
Body and breath awareness is one of the most foundational mindfulness practices and it is delightful with a baby. The way I like to do it is to hold my son while sitting, often in a formal meditation posture (me not him), and instead to take the sensations of his breath and of my holding his body as my object. Then when that is established I then open out my awareness to include my own breath and my own body. His breath will always be at a much higher frequency as mine and it is a lovely thing to hold both our breaths in a relaxed, open awareness. It feel really very intimate and a special way to be with him while at the same time being deeply relaxing.
My son is at an age where his expressions will change very quickly, a grump flashing into joy, a smile switching into a wide eyed look of curiosity and wonder. While I doubt that I can have any strong sense of his emotional life with any certainty, I can use its his fluid expressions as a prompt for self-awareness. What this means is that every time I notice a change in his face, I use it as a cue to check in with what my emotion at the time is and I then note it, giving it a name: ‘calm’, ‘restlessness’, ‘frustration’ and so on. This can be quite a workout and it’s also a lovely way to notice how his state affects mine and vice versa.
The reason that it is a cliché to think of new parents as sleep-deprived zombies is because it’s basically true. Good consistent sleep is a luxury good at this point and so given that fatigue is a common part of my experience at the moment it makes sense that I try and get something out of it. How I do this is take tiredness as my meditation object. Sitting formally or just lounging around, I’ll close my eyes and identify the physical sensations that most make up my sense of fatigue. I’ve found these are typically around the eyes. Then because I’ve got a decent amount of mindfulness skill and experience, I use my ability to look in microscopic detail at these sensations. When I do so they often become much more interesting than just ‘feelings of tiredness’ and experiencing them as constellations of different layers and types of sensation mean that they lose their solidity. Sometimes when the mind is particularly sharp, the tiredness can pop like a balloon and all that is left is brightness of mind. This is relatively rare but is possible because the awareness that knows tiredness itself is not tired. More typically it just helps me be ok with the fact that there is tiredness and I don’t have to struggle with it.
My favourite time to do formal sitting meditation has always been the evening and as me and my wife’s routine around the wee one’s bedtime has taken shape I’ve included my sitting into it. All this means is that when my wife does our son’s last feed of the day, I sit just next to them and do my formal practice in the same shared space. It is particularly lovely to sit in a position where I can see the both of them in my eye line with my head and chest directed their way. I tend to vary my technique based on what I’m looking to work on at the time but at the moment I’m working on deepening my concentration and using the physical sensations near my heart as the primary object. It’s a lovely technique since using the heart-object it connects kindness and concentration and overall sitting with my wife and son give is a new extra level of sacredness to what was already a special time for me.
Becoming a parent for the first time means that you go from a life where most things you do are things you actively chose to do to one where you’re required to do quite a few things you don’t really feel like doing. Or in other words, sometimes you have to change a nappy at 3 in the morning. This is where this thing we meditation-types call ‘letting go’ becomes a real skill. The practice therefore is being aware of all the chatter that goes on in our minds, and not getting caught up in it even when it is at its most persuasive. I think of this as letting things go by leaving things alone. Because that nappy isn’t going to change itself.
With my wife breast-feeding the little chap at the moment, his little growing body is effectively being exclusively made up of bits of her. Therefore all the food that I make for her is food also for him. This is a beautiful supply chain — my cooking feeding her and then her feeding him. So I reflect on this while I cook and that intention fills me with joy. And I reckon makes the food taste better too.
Having a human around who is part of you but also not part of you is pretty trippy. Especially for a Buddhist given that so much of the practice, certainly for me, is about identity. If I listen carefully enough, every time I hold my son in my arms, watch him sleep, hear him cry, I can hear the question being asked: ‘where am I?’, ‘where is my centre?’. Is it in my body? Is it in his? Is it somewhere in between? I have done the practice in the past of holding the open question of where is the centre of this thing I call myself but there is an extra level of charge now that my son is here.
I started this post talking about how valuable I have found it to be to avoid compartmentalising my meditation practice. Now that I have more demands on my time than I did a few months ago, I can see the temptation to want to carve out some ‘me time’. The challenge I’ve therefore set myself, is to let all my time be me time, thereby avoiding the need to guard territory and the fatigue, pain and conflict that comes with that. Early indications are that it is a massively important practice and what I’ve found so far is that allowing all time to be me time allows me to not only broaden my practice as I explore more and more aspects of my experience but also to deepen it.
I recognise that some of these practices are closer to the deeper end of things but I hope that this has been useful. I’d love to hear about other examples of how you may have used your life as a parent to develop your own wisdom in your own way and I look forward to many more adventures of my own.