Thoughtful v Mindful

I have just returned from a walk on which I had a very simple insight: I try awfully hard (and unsuccessfully) to be Mindful, but I have sort of lost Thoughtfulness in the shuffle. They are both very important to the kind of life I want to live, as my attempts to be Buddha, Jesus, Socrates, etc. daily demonstrate, but these days, I am more just a reactive, emotionally flooded disaster than a sage or holy person.

Never one to quote the dictionary, I will give my take on the difference between these two words:

A Thoughtful person considers a matter carefully, with reason leading the way.
A Mindful person is aware of each thought, feeling, and sensation present in any given moment.

Thoughtfulness is geared a little more toward action, and Mindfulness toward observation.

To me, there is also a matter of degree – thoughtfulness, while still a challenge, seems a lot more in reach than mindfulness. Thoughtfulness involves bringing one part of yourself to bear on one aspect of your existence. I have “done” thoughtfulness up right many hundreds of times; mindfulness maybe a handful. My focus has been a lot on the latter recently, but it has occurred to me that perhaps I should aim a little lower and at least try to be a little more thoughtful from time to time. I have my hands plenty full with that, without trying to achieve enlightenment or Nirvana or even a lesser goal like serenity.

Observe: I went out for a walk this evening when a storm was imminent. I was angry at having been cooped up all day doing my repetitive household chores and repetitive thought patterns. Everyone here suggested I figure out an alternative but, out of pure reactivity, I insisted on leaving. My SEVEN-YEAR-OLD daughter gave me an umbrella on my way out the door.

Five minutes in, the heavens opened, and thousands of cold, sharp knives stabbed my back for the next forty minutes. It turns out that umbrella, in addition to being far too small to cover 90 percent of my body, also had a hole right in the middle of the top, so a Chinese-water-torture-style trickle ran down the middle of my face the whole time. While I’m glad I got a chance to clear my head, a little thoughtfulness may have been a good idea, and the walk postponed.

Now that I demonstrated to myself the need for more attention these matters by getting very cold and very wet, I think I may find keeping them in mind a little easier.

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Trying

I have encountered advice almost daily about pausing before reacting in exasperating moments with children. There was a point in my life as a parent when my automatic reaction was no longer to be charmed or filled with wonder at the things a child said, but overwhelmed by the sheer volume and quantity of the things coming out of four different little mouths. I could feel myself making the choice to be annoyed, all the time. I slowly shifted toward viewing everyone as getting in the way of my goals, which usually involved getting through four loads of laundry or a bunch of dishes in the sink, or a whole host of other, legitimate tasks. While I could still appreciate them as cute, clever, amusing, and all of that, I wasn’t enjoying them anymore. Luckily, my slow-to-learn mind eventually caught on that this was a losing proposition, as (a) they were never going to stop doing what they do such that I would no longer be bombarded with “input,” (b) I was never going to stop having a long to-do list, and (c) my consistently negative reactions were making everyone miserable.

Luckily, this has been a relatively short-lived part of our lives together, but I do so regret now how I got lost in that wrong mindset. Since I had my little epiphany, I have made a very simple and deliberate decision in (at least 80 percent of) all instances to react with kindness, to listen, to “be with,” and to laugh with my sweet babies. They have noticed the difference. Today we made cookies together, and baking with all four is very easily seen as a project to avoid at all costs, but with the new mindset, it’s just a thing we’re doing together. The goals and expectations are left behind and only the simple pleasure of being together remains. I used to know that, and I’m so happy to have found my way back again.

Simplicity Parenting and Henry Huggins

My children are in love with all the Beverly Cleary novels about Beezus and Ramona, and their friend Henry Huggins. There are about 10 books in all to enjoy about all these characters who live on Klickitat Street, and we are listening to all of them, sometimes several times over, on our drives various places throughout the week. I am continually amazed that my children have the patience for these ponderous, hum-drum stories about very ordinary childhood adventures, but the performances by the readers really are pretty engaging. Anyway, I am finding some surprising things about these books as I listen helplessly to all of them:

1. The first was written in 1950 and the last was written in 2000. That is 50 years of writing about these people and, while the world that the children are living in changes drastically, they themselves age only a few years over the span of the books. The bulk of them take place before the dawn of the computer age, so the setting of nearly all of them is either unfamiliar or only dimly familiar from my own childhood. Henry Huggins’ first book takes place in a time when raccoon caps were THE thing, and all of the other things boys care about in 1950 are similarly foreign. In the second book, written in 1952, bubble gum chewing features prominently as an activity.

2. The value system in all the books is rooted in frugality, simplicity, and taking responsibility for oneself. It floors me how unfamiliar the concepts are, like Henry not getting to have a bike because his parents can’t afford it. Henry has to earn his own money to care for his dog. The Quimbys, Beezus and Ramona, learn to sew with their mother, who makes most of their clothes. Their father gives them ERASERS as a back-to-school present because that’s all they can afford. There is nothing for kids to do but play chess, read, or run around outside, because rowdy play inside, video gaming, or TV watching (except in one of the later books) would never be an option. I didn’t realize just how far afield we had gone from those simple times. My husband and I thought we were pretty radical not having any gaming systems in our house, but we have a long way to go to reach the goal of true simplicity.

Truly, I cannot quite imagine getting to a point where we could live like this, only because it turns out my own default value system is so much more “modern” than I thought. I mentioned recently waking up out of my fog of self-delusion and attempting to accept that I am as materialistic as everyone else in my own way, and I am trying to figure out exactly how to change my whole mindset about possessions. It turns out that my materialism has about 100 roots firmly planted in my brain structure, so digging it out is challenging. I’m working on it, of course, and have changed my reading regimen to fit the new goals, but I can see how many steps away from simplicity I am as a parent as well as a person. I wish I’d gone on this journey a lot sooner, so I could have started with my children as I mean to go on.

Interruption

Interruption is painful. It is maddening. It can and does make me scream. With four children, three of whom are still small, the interruption-to-getting-things-done ratio is pretty high.  And most of the demands are completely legitimate. There are the bodily needs – calls of nature, thirst, hunger, illness — and the emotional needs – for connection, reassurance, comfort, security.  But there will always be the seemingly unjustified interruptions that are so very, very annoying: the whining, begging, tantruming, complaining, and clinging.  I admit that my boundaries are pretty fluid, and I have an open-door policy to being importuned no matter what else I’m doing.  And that needs work.  But I still think the incidence of interruption would be painfully high because of the numbers and ages of the children.

I find, too, that even when I cultivate calm in various ways – just by getting out and thinking my own thoughts while running errands or, more rarely, by doing yoga or other flow exercise – it is easily shattered the second those high-decibel voices re-enter my head.  I have not yet found a way to bring that calm back and maintain it for more than three seconds.  Clearly, I do need that time away, but I also need to find a way to that still place while right here in the middle of a busy day, and even in the midst of interruption.

I think non-attachment will have to come into play here, too, where both my own thoughts and the slings and arrows of my children appear more as ripples in a pond than seismic tsunamis upon which I am forever and hopelessly tossed.  In the flow that is our family life together, things happen.  Work gets done, work doesn’t get done, events happen, events don’t happen. Ultimately, we will get to that place where the children all stand on their own and we move on to the next big journey.  I am currently magnifying the thousands of moments that make up a day, focusing in more and more on every detail.  Most days, I remain completely unaware of the big picture.  Ironically, I suspect that focusing less on the details will make them more likely to fall into place.  And then the water will smooth out at last and I will be able to see where I am going.

Non-Attachment Parenting

This is my clever little play on words.  I Googled it, and no one seems to have thought of it yet.  Here’s the definition: Parenting through the use of Buddhist non-attachment techniques.  As far as attachment parenting goes, I’m all for it.  Its definition is something like: “allowing your baby to tell you what he/she needs and responding to those needs, rather than imposing structures or schedules on said baby.”  My thesis is that the two ideas have a strong connection and tension between them, even though the play on words is merely coincidental.

I am attempting both forms of parenting right now.  By being sensitive to the needs of each of my four children and trying to meet them where they are and help them build to the next place as I follow their leads, I am practicing attachment parenting.  I have practiced it, largely faithfully, since Jane was born six years ago.  Even after my last one was born into an already crowded family, I still tried to carry him, cuddle him, and be with him as he needed me to in early infancy, and I continue to use this approach to see him through to the ultimate goal I have for them all: happy independence.  It is a tenet of attachment parenting that we are creating a strong base from which our children will then be comfortable and self-confident branching out.

But none of them is happily independent yet, and that’s where non-attachment comes in.  When mired in the chaotic mess of the daily lives of these four people, it is all too easy to get caught up in the emotions of the hour — and there are so many over such a range that I sometimes long for a very powerful sedative for everyone.  The problem is that I have emotions about their emotions, and emotions about this whole crazy job in general, and emotions about my own life “journey” in big-picture terms.  I am dedicated (in theory, not practice, so far) to maintaining a “scream-free” household, but how can I if I actually attach to each and every emotion that runs through all of us each day?  For an attachment parent, though, my kids’ emotions are the meat and potatoes of my job. They are my clues about what needs to come next.

So what I have come up with is the sense that staying “present” with the needs of each child at each moment does not mean that I have to feel what they’re feeling, or have an emotional reaction at all.  In fact, the more my emotions enter into it, the less effective I am at negotiating theirs.  When I am at my worst, I take every small outburst or demand personally, as though the children are deliberately putting more of a burden on me and expecting too much of me.  On other days, when I have my game on, I dodge and parry everything they throw at me with all the expertise of a Buddhist master.  When I have it together like that, the flow here is breathtaking.  Needs are getting met, souls are being guided, and good habits of being are formed.  On those days, I am a non-attached parent who does not allow any of the emotions of my children stick to me and slow me down.  I greet the feelings, deal with them, and watch them fall away with the moment itself.  And when it works, the child and I are left only with the wisdom we cultivated in that moment together.