What are practices?
Practices are our conscious attempt to move out of reactive habits toward new ways of thinking, feeling, speaking, relating, and behaving that are more in line with our values.
Over our lifetime, each of us have faced many different challenges and struggles, and most of these have occurred before we could consciously choose how to respond to them. This means that our brains moved to protect us instinctually. This is, of course, a beautiful thing. Without even trying, the intelligence of nature made sure that we adapted our behavior to the cards we were dealt. The only problem is that often these reactive habits do not serve us—or our relationships—effectively at this point in our lives. And so we practice to create new, more consciously chosen habits of attention and behavior.
“Only practice leads to freedom.” — Shannon Coleman
Why are they necessary?
Practices are necessary to break the cycle of unconsciousness and to create the conditions necessary for our own maturation to continue across our lifespan.
Much of what we learn in life—how we think and feel, relate and behave—is passed down to us unconsciously. Unless your parents and teachers were very conscious beings, they probably just talked and related to you in ways that they were taught by their parents and teachers. If we do not become self-reflective and intentionally choose to do things differently, we will likely pass on these unconscious patterns to our children too.
Practices are also necessary because information is insufficient for lasting change.
Have you ever noticed that people’s actions often do not line up with what they know to be the right thing? This is because information in the head does not translate well to the body and our behavior—unless we put this new knowledge into practice. And because we’ve repeated our old patterns for many years, our new practices need to be done regularly to be effective. Neuroscientists have found that the brain and nervous system can change and rewire itself over the entire lifespan. But in order to break the inertia of our old wiring and patterns of energy flow in the brain, we must engage in new ways of perceiving, thinking, and behaving on a somewhat regular basis. These new “ways of being” are cultivated through practices.
“Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations – we fall to the level of our training” — Bruce Lee
Is this like “practice makes perfect?”
Not exactly. The way I am using the term, practices are not about being perfect (whatever that is anyways). To me, engaging in a practice is about entering life whole-heartedly, being courageous, and stepping toward the edge of your own unfolding. If you are practicing well, it will get messy. That is the nature of change and growth. But with the right disposition—one of openness, curiosity, gentleness, and a willingness to make mistakes—you cannot fail. If you bring this attitude to practice—rather then one of perfectionism—the entire tone of your house will change for the better.
“Out beyond ideas of right and wrong is a field. I will meet you there.” — Rumi
Below you’ll find descriptions of the most useful practices that I have discovered so far. I hope you will take up a practice every so often, commit to it for the week, and reflect on how each practice affects your life, your children, and everyone in your home. Thank you in advance to your commitment to being your best self, to waking up as much as possible in this lifetime, and for caring so deeply about your children to go the extra mile. All beings will benefit from your courage and steadfastness.
Each of the following practices (and more!) are discussed in greater detail in The Essential Parenting Home Course.
Practices for the Nuts and Bolts of Essential Parenting Section
1. Essential Time
Practice setting aside one-on-one quality time with your child where the goal is simply to be together and enjoy each other. This “child-lead time” is very nourishing for you and your child, and does wonders to deepen the intimacy between you.
Set aside from 10 minutes to an hour every day to practice being 100% present with your child, just for the sake of connection without any other goal. Make some portion of this time—maybe half—be a time where the child dictates the who, what, where, and how of the conversation or play. Do your best to surrender to your child’s guidance during this time (within safety constraints of course) and put all your attention and energy into creating a feeling of togetherness and mutual enjoyment.
This practice will not only create deeper intimacy between you and your child, but you’ll find that they will also follow your guidance more gracefully as a result. Having felt respected as a separate and autonomous being who is valued and loved exactly as they are, your child will be more respectful and gracious in turn.
“It is better to bind your children to you by a feeling of respect and by gentleness, than by fear.” — Terence (c. 190 – 159 BCE)
2. Provide More than is Being Pursued
Practice being in the lead when it comes to providing relational nourishment. Instead of waiting until attention seeking behavior starts, provide ample love and attention to your child, satiating their nervous systems and allowing them to shift into exploration, learning, and other processes of maturation.
At least five times per day, try one of the following:
- Hug your child immediately whenever you enter the same room
- Allow her to be the first one to release the hug
- Get curious and excited about what he is interested in just for the sake of connection
- Hold her hand or put your arm around her as you walk together
- Let him know, in whatever way feels right, how much he means to you
Engage in these “filling up” interactions before being prompted or before your child exhibits attention-seeking behavior. This is especially effective with “needy” children—children perceived as needing more attention than most.
This practice will bring your child’s nervous system to a greater state of rest by telling her nervous system, “You don’t have to work for love around here; there is more than enough to go around.” This will decrease attention seeking behaviors and free up her brain to shift on the gears of growth and maturation.
3. Connect Before You Direct
Practice taking time to connect with your child before giving them a directive. Express interest in what they are currently doing and share some smiles and laughs before you begin to guide them toward what is next.
Consciously choose three times per day to get down to their level and connect with your child, making sure you feel the connection between you is strong before you ask them to clean up their toys, put on their shoes, or do a chore. Wait until you feel the two of you “click” into a working connection before making the request or giving the directive.
This practice will decrease resistance and counterwill in your kids, help you keep the household running more smoothly, and keep the connections strong by treating your children respectfully.
Practice, as much as possible, being totally in the present moment while you do whatever it is you are doing. Stop worrying about the future. Let go of ruminating about the past. This will help you become less reactive and stressed out, and will set the tone for a more nourishing and intimate household.
Mindfulness can be defined as “intentionally paying attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude of acceptance.” When we are mindful, we are simply in touch with the way things are right now in our experience without rejecting or judging whatever is arising. We maybe aware of an outer event—My son is running down a rocky path. We may be aware of our inner feelings—I am a bit nervous and scared. We may be aware of an inner judgment in the mind—It is bad to run down a rocky path. You could get hurt. We may be aware of our body as this is all unfolding—I feel tension in my shoulders, jaw, and face, and I am holding my breath.
Mindfulness does not preclude speaking up or taking action. It simply gives clarity to our speech and our actions, and helps us to not discharge our reactive patterns in hurtful or scary ways. “Kai, be careful sweetie.” Having said our piece, we can relax back into the moment, enjoying his blossoming coordination and the beautiful truth that we are in love with this little boy.
Pick a 10 minute block every day to be simply present with whatever you are doing. You can simply feel your body, in the present moment, engaged with whatever task you are engaged with the task at hand. Simply wash the dishes or change your baby with an open, relaxed, and present-centered attention. Fully feel the warm water on your skin, or delight in wiping that cute little baby-butt. Check in with your emotion or mood, how you are affected by this current moment of life. Use your breath to keep yourself anchored to the present moment by noting the in-breath mentally to yourself as you breathe in, and mentally note the out-breath as you breathe out. If you notice that your mind has wandered off and is lost in thought, bring it back to the breath first, and then open it up to the felt sense of whatever you are doing.
Mindfulness practice can change every aspect of your life. It is practical in the sense that we become more in touch with the present reality—instead being lost in our head and in our judgments about things—and therefore we can be more effective. And it is healing in the sense that it brings integration to our inner world and to our outer relationships.
“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
For a wonderful introduction to mindfulness, read Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat Zinn.
Practices for the Engaged Level
1. Mindfulness Meditation
By sitting down for 5-10 minutes each day and practicing paying attention to whatever arises in your experience in a non-judgmental way, you increase your “pool of calm” and strengthen your ability to remain open when the going gets rough. This meditation flexes a key muscle in your brain—the prefrontal cortex—and enhances your ability to help regulate yourself and your children in situations where others would completely lose it.
Mindfulness meditation is a more formal version of the mindfulness practice already described. By setting aside 10 minutes each day to do nothing but train our mind to be present, open, and accepting, we can come to know our own inner spaciousness more deeply as we face the seemingly never-ending challenges of parenthood.
Start by connecting with your intention for sitting. Maybe you’d like to get more calm, more centered, or to feel better. Or perhaps you want to deepen your connection with your child, partner, or with yourself. Or maybe your intention is waking up to seeing reality more clearly. Whatever it is, feel your intention from your heart before you start the formal practice.
Next, check your posture. Whether you are on a cushion or in a chair, try to have your spine upright instead of slouching. Tilt your chin slightly down so that the back of the neck is long. Let the rest of your body remain relaxed and supported by this erect spine. If you are in a chair, try to have your feet flat on the floor, and if possible, your knees slightly below the level of your hips. This supports a long, tall spine and a soft, open front. Place the hands either on the tops of the knees or folded together in your lap, whichever is more comfortable.
Now begin to embody an attitude of openness and kindness to all experience. Let the mind and body be curious and accepting to all that arises. The goal is not to have any experience in particular, but to learn about how your system works and how to stay open and connected to all experiences, pleasurable or painful, interesting or boring.
Connect with the breath and land in the present moment. Feel what the quality of the breath is like in this particular moment—is it shallow or deep? Staccato or smooth? In the chest or the abdomen? Or both?
Next find a place where you feel the breath moving in the body and use it as an anchor into the felt experience of your body. Maybe you feel it most at the nostrils on the inhalation, and then leaving on the exhalation. Or in the back of the throat, chest, or abdomen as they rise and fall. For a time, focus your attention on the breath moving in the body.
Once your concentration is established, you may begin to purposefully look for other aspects of experience in your awareness. I find it helpful to oscillate my attention between three reference points: the breath in the body; any internal experience like thinking, planning, or emotional feeling; and any external experience—like sounds in the room, the feeling of the air on the skin, or pressure of the buttocks on the cushion or chair. This develops the capacity to intentionally change the focus of your attention.
Over time, when what is referred to as “aim and sustain” and “intentionally oscillating attention” have been developed, you will be ready to open your attention to a soft, receptive awareness that perceives all experience as one unified expression of Mind. In this state, just let experience rise and fall as passing appearances in the mind, and recognize the transient nature of all things.
- Decide how long you are going to sit before you start. Early on in your practice, setting a timer is supportive so that you can focus on being present and not worried about how much time has passed.
- Shorter sits done consistently (10 minutes every day) are more effective than longer sits done infrequently (once or twice a month) for developing the capacities of mindfulness.
- Find the time of day that works best for you. For many people, morning tends to be the easiest time because the mind is most still upon awakening. Find what works for you by trial and error.
- Do what is necessary to be awake during the practice. If you are tired before starting, splash cold water on your face, do jumping jacks or push-ups, or whatever it takes to enliven your body and mind.
For a beautiful introduction to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation practice, read Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn; you can also buy guided meditation CDs by Dr. Kabat-Zinn.
“The greatest gift you can give someone is to get yourself together.” — Wendy Palmer, The Intuitive Body
2. Grounding Down
The first of the three core somatic practices, Grounding Down is bringing your energy and awareness down low in your body and becoming anchored to the earth. This is a quick and easy way to not fly off the handle when your kids are driving you crazy.
When our children are upset or other emotional things are happening, our energy often rises up high in our bodies and gets chaotic. One helpful practice is to ground down as a way to bring the attention lower into our body, balancing our energy and emotion in a way that allows us to stay integrated.
To ground down, take a deep breath deep into your belly, and on the exhale send the breath down through your pelvis and legs and feet, emptying it into the ground. While doing this, it can be helpful to make a slight “hhaaaahhhh” sound in the back of the throat on the exhalation. This tends to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts our “fight or flight” response and helps to restore balance. Inhale up from the earth, through the bottoms of your feet, up through your legs and pelvis and collect the breath in your belly. Then again exhale down from your belly through your legs into the earth, establishing a strong, grounded connection to this always-present support.
For some, it’s helpful to imagine collecting a cauldron of hot lava in the belly on the inhale, and then sending this hot lava down the legs and into the earth on the exhale.
You can ground down at the same time as you take care of anything that needs taking care of. I am often grounding down as I am walking across the room at 3 a.m. to help my crying baby get back to sleep. Any moment can be an opportunity to deepen our capacities, especially those moments where we least feel like it.
Try doing this practice three times a day when things are really calm. This will help you establish some facility with it before you try it out in a fire-storm. But when you are ready, try this practice—if you can remember—whenever you are beginning to feel frustrated or angry or discombobulated in any way.
Grounding down will give you a sense of weighted-ness, of gravitas, and of strength. You will likely feel more capable of facing the challenge before you from this place of being more grounded, and the people around you will benefit enormously from your steadiness.
3. Getting Spacious
The second of the three core somatic practices, opening your attention outwards in all directions rather than collapsing in on yourself is an effective way of diffusing built up tension that would otherwise lead to unhealthy discharge and aggression.
When life is beginning to feel intense, it can be helpful to move your attention in ways that create spaciousness in our experience.
One way is to just begin focusing your attention on all the space around you, rather then focusing on the “stuff” in the space. If your baby is upset, and you have done all you can to alleviate the discomfort he is experiencing, getting spacious while you hold him may be the next best option. Feel out into the space of the room. Feel the spaces within your body—the nostrils, the ears, inside your mouth, your lungs, your intestines, even space inside the seemingly solid tissues, which are mostly space at the atomic level. Feel these same spaces within and around your child, even as he continues to cry and even as you continue to lovingly hold him.
Let your contact with the space around you balance the fearful part of you that is over-emphasizing the crying, the reactions, and the other “difficult” things in the space. Let your contact with the spaciousness of this moment be a “holding” for you and your baby.
Another way to feel the reality of spaciousness more directly is to dissolve open. Inhale deeply into your belly center, filling it with aliveness. On the exhale, let the belly energy dissolve out in all directions (again, it can be helpful to make a slight “hhaaaahhh” sound in the back of the throat on the exhale). Then inhale deeply into your heart center, and again dissolve out in all directions on the exhale. Repeat this in the head center as well. Take a moment to sense if there is an increase in spaciousness in the field. And then check into the moment to see your relationship to your child’s upset.
Try doing this three times a day when things are really calm to establish some proficiency with the practice. And if you can remember, try this practice when you begin to get uncomfortable feelings in your body, like when your baby is crying or your child is just getting under your skin.
Getting spacious has the effect of lessening the intensity of difficult feelings when they begin to overwhelm your body and mind, giving you a little room to breathe, and will decrease your reactivity with the ones you love. The secondary effects of a more spacious home will soon be palpable.
4. Feeling From Your Heart
The third of the three core somatic practices, feeling you child from your heart increases your level of attunement and naturally precipitates compassionate action, especially during times of frustration, pain, and disappointment.
This is a great practice to do either when things are going just fine or when your child is experiencing some difficulty. The practice probably activates right brain processes that are responsible for helping us feel what another might be feeling as well as the prefrontal cortex which is involved in empathy— the ability to take another’s perspective.
Three times a day when things are relatively calm, take a deep breath into your heart center and then exhale out from your heart in to your child. Then “breathe them” into your heart on the inhale, and on the exhale let your heart dissolve out towards them and wrap around their being like little tendrils that extend from you into them. Feel their heart and their feeling-tone directly from your heart. Breathe this way a few times until you feel that there is no space between you and your child. Let the boundary between you dissolve as you experience yourself and your child as one contiguous field of feeling. Try to do this at least once a day during a difficult moment, like when your child is crying or upset about something.
By feeling your child from your heart, you will be able to deeply and intimately sense where your child is at—physically, emotionally, and psychologically—in any given moment. When you are “one field of feeling,” you will dance beautifully together in this deep state of attunement. And when people—especially children—feel attuned to by another being, their nervous systems come to a deep state of relaxation.
“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” — Pema Chödrön
Compared to the more “up-shift” modes of the somatic practices, inquiry is a “downshift”—a seeking to understand and an allowing of what is arising to unfold in its own timing and in its own way. This non-manipulation of inner experience draws on the power of acceptance and the intelligence of our dynamic emotional system, setting the stage for for transformation from the inside out by the infinite wisdom of the Mystery.
Inquiry is the practice of looking and feeling deeply into any experience simply to understand how the Mystery appears, changes, and unfolds within us. We all have patterns of reactivity built into our nervous systems, and if we don’t make these patterns conscious, we will surely pass them on to our kids. Inquiring into our histories and into the present ways that we get provoked into reactivity, we come to know ourselves better and can interrupt these unconscious patterns. This sets the stage for parents to grow up right along side of our kids.
For a more detailed explanation of how to do inquiry, and list of powerful inquiry questions that will help you better understand your children and how you were affected by your parent’s parenting, check out The Essential Parenting Home Course.
And for a more detailed look at the practice and process of inquiry, read The Unfolding Now, by A.H. Almaas.
Practices for Loving Discipline
1. Practice Saying “Yes” While Saying “No”
The next time you feel a “no” brewing up in you, try to make sure that you also communicate to your child, “you and I are fine.” Most effective through non-verbal communication—soft eye contact, getting down low, a gentle hand on their back, sweetness in your voice—this “yes” keeps their nervous system regulated enough to take in the lesson, builds trust, and over time will deepen the bond between you.
At least three times a day, when you are about to tell your child “no” or redirect them, make sure that you add elements of “yes” to your communication. Non-verbal communications such as soft eye contact, getting down low, a gentle hand on their back, sweetness in your voice are very effective. Because face-to- face communication can be intense in these situations—especially for sensitive children—try, once you have made eye contact, to then turn your attention toward the area of learning so you can look at it together as partners in this learning.
Imagine that your child is heading toward an electrical outlet with a knife. After you have said “no,” and come in with your “yes” communications, turn to look at the outlet while pointing to it and saying, “We have to be very careful of that. You could get hurt. Never touch that, OK?” Your child will likely look at the outlet with you while you are explaining it to them. Finish with a kiss on the forehead, a hug, or whatever feels like a natural moment of connection between you as a finishing touch.
These are ways that directly tell your child’s neuroceptive centers in their brain, “Mom is connected to me. I am safe.” This lets him take in the lesson more effectively and minimizes feelings of shame that can be so toxic for the developing sense of self. This “way of being” helps them separate out in their mind behavior that doesn’t work from there is something wrong with me as a person. Over time, they will maintain a positive self image and develop more self-regulation, which will help them remain focused, learn, and solve problems in a whole range of intense situations out in the world.
2. Let Your Kids Fail More
Let things get messier than is typically comfortable for you. Give your child more room to take the lead, make mistakes, and figure out how to pick up the pieces themselves. You will grow your prefrontal cortex by periodically practicing this mindful allowing, and help your child develop this same brain-muscle simultaneously.
Pick a specific time period each day, say 10-15 minutes to start, and consciously intend to only intervene when something is truly dangerous to your child or to another person. Otherwise, sit back and let things unfold with the child 100% at the steering wheel for that time, learning about cause and effect and adjusting their movements and behavior from their own self-directed learning.
How this manifests will be different depending on your child’s age and stage of development, and you will have to take some precautions up front. Start by making the environment as safe as possible so that you can really relax and know they won’t get severely injured. If you are doing this with your toddler, make sure that things they could choke on and toxic materials are well out of reach before allowing them free reign to explore. Not only will this create the needed safety for your child, but it will help you stay with your own practice of non-intervention and recognize how frequently you are provoked to intervene, even when it is not truly necessary. For the school age child, you might let them forget their lunch or not do a home work assignment (or three) and let the hunger or the bad midterm grade teach the lessons.
Of course, you must decide what degree of “letting go” you are comfortable with, but this is a truly powerful way to promote a sense of autonomy, agency, and responsibility in your child without all the nagging and subsequent tuning out that often occurs in controlling households. Additionally, when we relax and trust our children and the unfolding of things just a little more than we are used to, life begins to feel much more free and spacious. Try it out and see how it effects your child and your relationship with them.
3. Support the Flow of Tears
When you are clear that something is not good for your child and a boundary needs to be set, communicate the limit clearly and lovingly. When the tears come, become a grounded embodiment of love and give them all the room and support they need to go through a full cycle of experiencing their disappointment. Surviving the vulnerable territory of the human heart is a primary way that resilience is developed.
At least once a day, when you are clear in your heart that a particular course of action is not healthy for your child or is disrespectful and/or hurtful to another person, set the boundary clearly and concisely—”No Kai. You cannot have a third cookie before bed.” Your child may, of course, push ahead with their agenda and get frustrated and/or whiny. That is fine and not a problem. Stick firmly to the limit, put a touch of sadness in your voice, and invite them to cry in your loving arms. “I know you wanted it darling. I am sooo sorry….”
Once they begin to cry, hold them sweetly and lovingly, and let them know you understand—“I know it is hard sweetie. I know….” Stay grounded, spacious, and loving to optimally support the flow of tears all the way to their natural conclusion. Don’t rush it along. Don’t distract them with something else that they might like. Let the nervous system do its intelligent work of cleaning house. And notice if your child often seems refreshed, brightened, or smoothed out after a good cry.
This is a key way to support emotional vitality and promote the development of resilience. When our kids experience and survive vulnerable feelings like disappointment, sadness, loss, fear, powerlessness, and hurt, they come out the other side with a newfound confidence. With each cycle, they begin to take more chances in life—asking the pretty girl out, taking the harder class, or trying something new—because they are not afraid to fail. They know they can survive the vulnerable territory of the heart and become more courageous, authentic, and compassionate as a result.
“There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.” — Leon Bloy
4. Find the One Thing that Sets You Off and Work With It
After becoming reactive—getting angry and yelling, becoming anxious and discombobulated, or shutting down, withdrawing, or going numb—take some time to reflect on what it is that provokes your nervous system in this way. Begin to understand your “buttons” and interrupt the inter-generational transmission of these historical patterns of mis-attunement.
At least once a day, when you find yourself getting very upset, angry, hurt, or withdrawn in relation to something your child has done, take some time to reflect on the details of the situation. What was it about their behavior that upset you so? What memories do you have of other similar situations that have set you off like this? How, when, and why was this button created?
If you become intensely angry when your toddler says “NO” back to you or is in some way defiant, explore where that anger is coming from. How was it when you said “no” as child? Did you get harshly punished for any act of defiance? Are you channeling your dad right now? Does a learned pattern of reactivity simply have a grip on you now, even though it goes against your conscious intentions as a parent?
Once you have a little space from your child, enlist a friend or your partner to help you explore what you think is going on. In place of being harsh and judgmental with yourself, get curious about how your system is “set up.” If there is no one to talk to, or this is uncomfortable for you, explore the issue by writing in a journal. Alternatively, a therapist can be a great help in “getting to the bottom” of these often unconscious patterns of reactivity.
By becoming more self-reflective and inquiring into your reactivity, you will spare your child from the effects of passing down unconscious patterns as well as healing and growing up in the process.