family

“The Rhythm of Family” by Amanda Blake Soule

The Rhythm of Family

First, if you’re my wife, please stop reading this review. If you’re not her, I’ll explain that statement later.

Now that’s out of the way, The Rhythm of Family is a year-long journey through the life of one family living in Maine. It follows the seasons, from January snows back to the turning of the year at the winter solstice. The Soules have four children who are, during the year described in the book, from nine to one years of age. The point of the book is to describe the intersection of family and nature.

The introduction to the book is called “Noticing,” and this sets the tone for what follows:

Wonderful things happen in our family when we choose to move slowly through our days. When we stop running and rushing about, we discover more time, energy, and space for the things most important in our lives. By slowing down, our connections with our children and as a family inherently become deeper, our creativity thrives, and we find meaningful ways to fill our time.

It’s astonishing how things have changed since I was a child. In every family I knew, dinner was an affair when the entire family got together around a table. There may have been bickering and moodiness and children refusing to eat what was in front of them — I don’t want to romanticize — but the family was together. Now in most families people eat separately, often not at the same time, never mind in the same room. And the most commonly eaten “meal” at dinnertime is a sandwich. Now human beings are flexible, and I don’t think these changes represent The End of Civilization As We Know It, but I don’t think they’re healthy. Families need to spend time together. We’re too busy.

The Rhythm of Family is the rhythm of a family living close to nature. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly where the Soules live, but they describe their home as “suburban,” so I think it’s safe to say they don’t live in the depths of the countryside — a privilege (if it is such), open to few. But they make good use of the nature that is around them. They get out of the house. They play together. They explore.

Title: The Rhythm of Family
Author: Amanda Blake Soule
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-777-9
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Again, from the introduction:

The natural world can serve as both inspiration and reward on this journey. For it, too, is ever changing and constantly in motion .. there is an ever present awareness of both birth and death, and the constant passage of time … it is only by spending time in the natural world, by paying attention and noticing, that we see these important changes … this natural rhythm can act at the heartbeat of our lives.

The Rhythm of Family is a lyrical and poetic book. Amanda’s words are joined at times by those of her husband, Stephen. It often reads like a blog, and can at times be a bit too gushy for my taste. Amanda’s penchant for sentence fragments sometimes grates. Sometimes irritates. Sometimes annoys. (See what I mean?) Sometimes the writers are striving too hard for effect. It’s fine to say that the birds return in the spring, but phrases like “In the spring–oh, in those precious spring months–the birds return” made this reader wince. Something about birds seems to make Amanda’s brain turn to mush; at one point birds are described as “two-legged tiny creatures that fly.” Much of the writing, however, is excellent, and please note that the version I read was a pre-publication draft, and it’s possible that future editing will reduce some of this verbiage.

Despite the book’s occasional lapses into sentimentality, I enjoyed reading The Rhythm of Family very much. It’s a powerful reminder of the importance of nature, the preciousness of family, and the connection between the two. As well as lyrical pieces describing the family’s activities throughout the year, the book is illustrated with beautiful photographs. This is one book you won’t want to read on the Kindle. It’s a book to hold and appreciate as a visual object. The book also contains “Make and Do” sections that tell you everything from how to make a bird feeder to how to make potato soup, with some knitting instructions thrown in. I came away with a deeper sense of how we could have fun as a family, making things and using the things we’ve made to connect with nature. I don’t think I’ll be taking up knitting (to be honest, I skipped those parts) but there are some arts and crafts activities that I’d love to do with my kids.

Some harried families will no doubt be saying, at this point, “Yeah, it’s all right for them, but where do I find the time.” And there’s a certain degree of validity in that. What do the Soules do for work? I can’t tell you. After reading an entire year’s worth of description of their daily activities, I don’t recall any mention of anyone working, going to work, coming home from work, or any concern about finances. The word “money” doesn’t even appear in the book.

But don’t use that as an excuse. I think there are many families harried by a sense of time being short who, if they gave it some thought, could work out ways to spend more time together. The average adult American watches more than 28 hours of television each week. The average American child spends more time watching TV each year than he or she does in school. According to the TV Turnoff Network [2023 update: now defunct] the number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children is 38 ½. Before we start complaining about not having time to spend with our kids, let’s spend less time with American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

You may not live in or near the countryside. But even in a city there are parks. Even in a city there are wild birds, and you can put out a feeder for them and make an effort to learn more about them. There are leaves and seeds and pods and flower petals you can take home and use in arts projects.

It is, however, unfortunate that the Soules, in trying to convince us to spend more time with our families and with nature, give the impression that they live in a protected bubble of unreality, since that impression reinforces the notion that time spent with children exploring nature is an unattainable goal. It’s not, and the book itself will give you plenty of ideas for activities with your kids, especially if they’re younger. The Soules do admit to being imperfect (“sometimes we eat popcorn for dinner, sometimes there is fighting, and sometimes we as parents wonder just how it is that we’re going to get through a day”) but they don’t show you that. You never get to see their struggles. You never get to learn from their mistakes or to empathize with them as they doubt their parenting abilities. But they also remind us that

Letting ourselves believe … that someone else has it so much more together than we do … is just a distraction and takes us away from the real work that each of us is doing in our everyday lives.

I wish The Rhythm of Family had taken a more honest “warts and all” approach, rather than offering a portrait of a perfect family who tell you, as an aside, “Oh, we’re not perfect.” But we should take their advice, cease from making comparisons, and simply starting from where we are, consider step-by-step how we can spend more time with our kids, and more time exploring nature as a family.

The Rhythm of Family is a flawed book for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but it’s an immensely valuable book as well. I’m inspired by it, and found myself appreciating much more the simple moments I spend with my children. And I’m sure my wife will like the book even more than I did. Her birthday’s coming up soon, almost exactly a month after the book’s publication date, and I was thinking it would make a great present for her.

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“Buddha at Bedtime,” by Dharmachari Nagaraja

Buddha at Bedtime

Recently I walked into a bookstore and saw a spine bearing the title “Buddha at Bedtime.” As the father of two young children who always want a good story at bedtime, I was delighted to know that this book existed. I was even more delighted — and surprised — when I pulled the book from the shelf and realized that I knew the author, Nagaraja.

So for full disclosure, I first met Nagaraja at the Glasgow Buddhist Center over 20 years ago, and although we’ve never been close friends, we were ordained together and I’ve sometimes asked him to review books for me. But our connection is weak enough that his book could be out for almost two years before I stumbled upon it.

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Nagaraja is a regular guest presenter on BBC Radio 2, where he used traditional Buddhist tales to communicate the Buddha’s teachings to a UK audience of 7.7 million people. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1988, was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1993, and went on to teach at and manage the Covent Garden Meditation Centre, London. He has now returned to his native Scotland, where he is now involved with the Glasgow Buddhist Centre and works as a psychotherapist.

Title: Buddha at Bedtime
Author: Dharmachari Nagaraja
Publisher: Duncan Baird
ISBN: 978-1-84483-596-6
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Buddha at Bedtime is a collection of jataka stories, which are traditional folk-tales that have been incorporated into the Buddhist tradition. In the jatakas, the hero, who is often an animal, is said to be the Buddha in a previous life. The stories are similar to many of Aesop’s fables, and both traditions may well have been drawn from a common pool of tales that circulated among many cultures from Europe, across the Middle East, to India. Each tale illustrates a particular virtue, such as courage, thinking before speaking, or responding with intelligence rather than violence.

Buddha at Bedtime contains adaptations of twenty such jatakas. The stories are westernized to some extent, so that the characters names tend to be recognizable rather than foreign-sounding. Whereas a young girl in the original Indian version might be called Nandavati or Sundari, the corresponding character in Nagaraja’s version might be Rosalina or Polly. Additionally, the protagonist of the story is never explicitly named as being “the bodhisatta” (the Buddha before his enlightenment). These changes help to make the stories more contemporary and accessible. Additionally, Nagaraja has chosen not to stick slavishly to the original plot, which I think is wise, and in keeping with the original tradition of storytelling, where each teller of the tale would add his or her own embellishments while respecting the essence of the narrative. A couple of times I wished that Nagaraja had gone a bit further and changed the few references to “the gods,” although that’s just my taste.

Nagaraja is an effective storyteller. Each story has a short introductory teaser that gives a preview of the forthcoming attractions. Every time I got to the line “Would you like to know what happened?” I was surprised to hear my children yell “yes!” It’s a clever technique, using questions as a way to generate engagement. The language is simple and vivid, and yet the book doesn’t condescend. Here’s a randomly chosen sentence from “Two Ducks and a Turtle”:

For many years, he was quite content swimming lazily around the large pond, or basking in the sun on top of one of the big, rubbery, green lily pads that covered its surface. Sometimes, he would snap at a passing dragonfly, or try to catch a fat, juicy water beetle to eat.

The stories end with a moral, expressed in two or three sentences. For example, at the conclusion of “The Grateful Bull” we read:

It’s all too easy to lose our patience with people and act unkindly. A wise person knows that showing kindness and compassion is the most effective way to bring out the best in others.

These morals are as appropriate for adult readers as they are for young listeners, and perhaps even more so. I had the impression that my children’s attention had been lost the moment the story ended and that the explicitly stated moral was lost on them, but after a sometimes hassle-packed bedtime routine I sometimes found myself reflecting on how my own behavior could be more ethically skillful and kind.

The book is intended to be meditative as well: a natural meditative absorption that trains young minds in vitakka or continuous attention. Each tale begins with the words, “Relax, be very still, and listen — listen carefully to this tale…” There’s also a section at the end with child-friendly guided meditations, which I successfully tried out on my four-year-old daughter.

Buddha at Bedtime looks gorgeous. Each story is preceded by a detailed full-page illustration, and the following pages are decorated with elements extracted from the main image. The colors are rich and vibrant, and both the human and the animal characters are expressive and dynamic.

My only quibble with Buddha at Bedtime is a small one. The image of “the Buddha” accompanying the moral at the end of each tale is not the Buddha at all, but is the fat, jolly character that one sees referred to as “the laughing Buddha.” This personage is actually Po-Tei (Chinese) or Ho-Tei (Japanese) and he was a folkloric monk who has been granted the status of a household deity representing prosperity. He is a character who smiles despite having little, and who is portrayed as being generous. He carries a sack (his name means cloth sack) and in the Zen tradition he’s said to give gifts to children. Confusing Potei with the Buddha is rather like confusing Santa Claus with Christ. Rather than being portrayed as fat, the Buddha is always depicted as being slender, and he’s never portrayed as laughing, but as smiling serenely. If there’s a second edition of Buddha at Bedtime, I hope that the illustrations can be corrected. A Chinese book called “Jesus at Bedtime” where Jesus had been replaced with Santa would properly evoke wry laughter. Its time to lose the cultural confusion over Hotei and the Buddha.

That aside, this is a wonderful book. Ultimately in a book such as this the reviewer is the child. I’d expected that it would take close to three weeks to read the entire book — one story a night for twenty nights but due to demands placed on me by my two tiny tyrants we ended up reading Buddha at Bedtime in just over a week. My daughter still asks specifically for the book, and had two stories read to her just last night. There are some suggested meditation exercises that I haven’t yet tried out with my kids.

I would highly recommend Nagaraja’s book to all parents of young children, whether Buddhist or not. I’m expecting to be reading this book over, and over, and over — for many months to come.

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Meditation for children

maia sitting cross-leggedFor the last six weeks I’ve been teaching a class at the University of New Hampshire’s Upward Bound program. The class is called “Success Studies” and it’s a combination of study skills and personal development, aimed at teens from impoverished backgrounds. The aim is to prepare them from college in order to break the cycle of poverty that affects poor communities.

We’ve done some meditation in every class; not much, just five or six minutes at a time during which we’ve explored the breath, learned different ways of paying attention that can help calm us or make us more alert, and cultivated lovingkindness. Most of the students seemed to really enjoy it. One always complained because he always turned up in class in a state of exhaustion and found it hard to close his eyes. The most common was complaint was that it was hard to sit up; some of these kids seem to have a goal of spending as much of their life horizontal as they possibly can, and they strive at all times to sink into their chairs.

These were kids aged 14 to 16. I’m sure meditation is beneficial for them, even in such small doses. Heck, even I felt better after our short sits. And there is a body of research and anecdotal evidence suggesting that meditating helps kids’ attention and emotional regulation in school. There’s a lot of interest in teaching meditation to younger people, as evidenced by this story of teenagers learning meditation in school, or an entire school in San Diego focused on “inner being,” or the meditation sessions in a high school in Staten Island.

I have a three-year-old (actually, she’s going on four) and I’m starting to wonder about how to introduce her to meditation. My wife and I have already encouraged her to talk deep slow breaths to calm herself (although I’ve discovered this does not work during a full-blown tantrum!), but we haven’t done anything more formal. I find myself wondering what kind of meditation would be most appropriate, how long to do it for, and what kind of language to use. My own style of teaching meditation tends to be rather adult. I can modify my language to talk meditation to teens, but I don’t think I yet know how to introduce basic principles of meditation to a little girl who still needs diapers at night!

There are some leads I’ll be following up. Amy Saltzman has a nice CD for kids called Still Quiet Place: Mindfulness for Young Children. I need to check that out again.

Some people are teaching meditation to preschoolers, and according to this recent article, Anne Kenan teaches a meditation class for 3- to 6-year-olds at New York City’s Shambhala Center.

I also have a rare copy of a book called Baby Buddhas, by Lisa Desmond. It’s sadly out of print, but when I reviewed it I was impressed at the way she found appropriate ways to introduce spiritual principles to children.

I think teaching my daughter to meditate is going to be much more challenging, although she’s less likely than my Upward Bound teens to complain about sitting upright!

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“The Quiet Book,” by Deborah Underwood

The Quiet Book, by Deborah Underwood (illustrated by Renata Liwska)

In a world where children are constantly exposed to stimulation, there is not enough silence. But a new children’s title, The Quiet Book creates a space of stillness in which children’s imagination and attention can grow.

I have two young children, who are going on two and four. We don’t have a television in the house, and toys that make electronic noises are banned. From time to time we get gifts of toys that beep or (the horror!) play electronic music, but they’re passed swiftly on to our local thrift store or, where the toy has some value, the batteries are removed. In at least one case we’ve explained to a giver, as politely as possible, that certain kinds of noisy toys don’t fit with the atmosphere of our house.

Title: The Quiet Book
Author: Deborah Underwood (illustrated by Renata Liwska)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
ISBN: 9780547215679
Available from: Amazon.com.

Toys that make appalling electronic noises are pitched as “stimulating learning” and as “rewarding exploration.” I think they do the opposite. Our children love playing with sand and water and paint, exploring the properties of the natural world around them. They enjoy playing dress-up and playing with dolls and toy cars. They can happily spend hours having books read to them, or listening to stories that their parents make up. They’re naturally imaginative. My daughter can entertain us for ages with stories that she makes up for us. Our children don’t need flashes and beeps and electronic versions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in order to become absorbed. On the other hand, children who learn that “fun” involves frantically blinking LEDs and manically chirping music will, I suspect, find it harder to settle down, think creatively, and use their imaginations. I’ve seen children sit in the midst of a seas of such toys, complaining that they’re bored.

Toys that make appalling electronic noises are pitched as “stimulating learning” and as “rewarding exploration.” I think they do the opposite.

It’s not that our house is exactly quiet. We have a toy piano. We listen to music (at the moment my three-year-old daughter insists on Vivaldi). There’s a lot of singing and dancing. And sometimes we’ll let the kids watch some Sesame Street on YouTube or watch a Thomas episode on DVD. And kids like to make noise just for the fun of it. They like to yell and bang things. And there are questions, questions, questions. So there’s plenty of noise But there’s a lot of quiet, too.

The Quiet Book, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska, is — surprise, surprise — about quiet. It’s a book that teaches kids about the different varieties of quiet.

“Different varieties of quiet”? I know, gentle reader, I know. Isn’t all quiet the same? Kind of, you know, an absence of sound? Not quite.

There’s:

  • First one awake quiet,
  • Pretending you’re invisible quiet,
  • Right before you yell “surprise” quiet,
  • Making a wish quiet, and
  • Car ride at night quiet.

All in all there are 29 varieties of quiet in The Quiet Book, my favorite being “Best friends don’t need to talk quiet.”

Renata Liwska’s charming illustrations feature a cast of cute baby animals, but mostly a moose, a bear, a rabbit, a mouse, and a porcupine. They’re funny, and sweet, and they — quietly — dramatize the various kinds of quiet, giving us little vignettes that children and adults can empathize with. There’s the shame on the face of a moose calf being marched out of school by his no-nonsense mother (illustrating “Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet”) and the agonized wishfulness of a baby mouse pretending to be invisible while waiting to get a shot.

My children love this book. And so do I.

There’s a tendency to think that the solution to every problem is some new product, but what needs to change is our attitudes.

The Quiet Book teaches children empathy by presenting them with (mostly) real-life situations that they’re bound to experience at some time. It teaches children to appreciate silence, and the activities that take place in silence. It teaches children the value of focusing on one thing, and the value of paying attention. It teaches them the value of daydreaming, and of letting the mind creatively wander. It teaches them that valuable experiences come not from the Pavlovian rewards of complex flashing and beeping toys, but from the simple absorption of the mind in a simple activity.

In a world where our we simultaneously listen to music, surf the net, text, and do work, both the ability to concentrate undistractedly on one task and the ability to let the mind wander into creative pathways are under threat. The Quiet Book is a useful corrective to those trends. Of course it’s not enough in itself. There’s a tendency to think that the solution to every problem is some new product, but what needs to change is our attitudes. Our modern interconnected media are wonderful, but in order that we use those media rather than simply become hopelessly distracted by them, we need to learn discipline, and to teach discipline to our children. We need to learn to unplug — even if it’s just closing Facebook and switching off our phones while we read an article (online or on paper).

We need to learn to appreciate the quiet that allows for deep engagement. If we try to do that, and teach the value of silence to our children, The Quiet Book can help. At the very least, sitting down with your children and reading them this book will helps create a space of stillness in which their imagination and attention can flourish.

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Moody Cow Meditates, by Kerry Lee MacLean

Moody Cow Meditates

There are far too few books on meditation for children, and Kerry Lee MacLean’s Moody Cow should be a welcome addition to the book collection of any meditator’s child. But Bodhipaksa has some concerns. Find out why.

“My name is Moody Cow. It used to be Peter, but now it’s Moody Cow. It all started one stupid, rotten day when everything went wrong…”

So begins the story, which introduces us to Peter the calf, his sister Daisy, and his mother. We also get to meet Peter’s grandfather, who plays a pivotal role as the wise old bull of the family. Peter’s father is strangely absent, although we do get to see his car. Fathers do not generally get a good rap in modern culture, and it’s a shame that the author participates in this trend.

Peter has an awful day, which starts with a bad dream and his being unable to find his mother (I keep wondering where she might have been), a confrontation with his sister (which turns violent), having to cycle to school through the snow because his mother (what was she thinking!) kept him late to punish him for vandalizing his sister’s doll causing him to miss the school bus, no fewer than two bicycle accidents (not surprising given the weather conditions), and then a stress-induced incident where Peter throws a baseball through a window, for which he is again punished by being made to clean the toilets for a month and is also publicly humiliated by his mother, who (with the best of intentions, apparently) calls him a “moody cow” in front of his sister and her friends.

The mind jar is an excellent idea, and there are detailed instructions on how to make one

Peter’s grandfather is called in to help him work through his issues, although given the issues reckless endangerment, unfair treatment (Peter is punished for vandalizing his sister’s toy: she is not punished for vandalizing his), and public belittlement he has faced, I wonder if Social Services might be more appropriate.

Granddad’s a meditator, and he introduces Peter to the “mind jar” which contains water. Peter adds a pinch of sparkles to the jar for each angry thought he has — many sparkles are added — and then granddad shakes it up to represent the way that these thoughts are swirling around in Peter’s head. Peter then listens to the sound of a gong as it fades away into silence, and by the time he’s finished he finds that both the sparkles and his angry thoughts have settled down. Peter decides to meditate every day with his grandfather, and he also decides to keep the name “Moody Cow.”

There’s no suggested age-range for this new book by Kerry Lee MacLean, who previously wrote Peaceful Piggy Meditation, but I’ve tested it repeatedly on my 2 3/4 year-old daughter, who seems to enjoy it very much. Admittedly she’s precocious, but I’d imagine this book could be appreciated by most children from about three to eight years old — and perhaps older.

As you can probably deduce from my comments above, I had mixed feelings about Moody Cow. I’m pleased to see a book for children about meditation. There are very few resources appropriate for a child as young as my daughter, who perhaps has a better idea now of what I do when I disappear into the basement. The mind jar is an excellent idea, and there are detailed instructions on how to make one (it’s not just sparkles and water). I appreciated the instructions very much, and although I haven’t yet made my own jar I’ll do so soon. The jar is an excellent way of introducing one basic concept of meditation, which is that the mind settles down if you observe it for long enough.

In the parts I come from, the term Moody Cow is a serious insult

On the other hand, the book does present some outrageous behavior, from the violence of Peter’s sister making him fall downstairs by tripping him, to Peter being forced by his mother to cycle to school in the snow. My daughter’s rotten days tend to consist more of things like not getting enough sleep because her little brother was teething, not wanting to share a favorite toy with another kid, the YMCA pool being closed when she’s been promised a swim, and not liking what’s for dinner.

I presume that Peter’s woes are being made exaggeratedly grave in order to dramatize the story and thus make it more interesting, but I’m not sure I wanted my little girl introduced to the concept of one sibling pushing another downstairs. If the title was just the title then I would have regarded it as a mildly witty pun, but “moody cow” is also used as a term of ridicule by Peter’s sister and his friends in order to humiliate him (although shouldn’t be be a “Moody Bull Calf”?). In the parts I come from, the term “Moody Cow” is a serious insult. I don’t particularly want this term to become part of my two-year-old’s vocabulary, although admittedly she might not take it seriously if she herself is ever subjected to that term of abuse in the future.

The dialog in the book is well written from a first person perspective, so that we see things from Peter’s perspective throughout. Kerry Lee MacLean has a sense of humor that both my daughter and I appreciate. The illustrations are from paintings, which are charming, even if the colors are rather gray and muddy for my taste.

I’m pleased to see a book for children about meditation.

I’m new to parenting, having only been a father for a little over two years, so it may be that I’m underestimating the resilience of older children’s minds. Or perhaps, not having a television set, I’m out of touch with what children are exposed to these days. Perhaps pushing downstairs and parental abuse are staple topics of entertainment for three-year-olds. Or perhaps the book is aimed at much older children than it appears. Without any guidance in the book I just can’t tell who it’s aimed at. (Plea to publishers: please put a suggested age-range on every book).

If you’re surprised by my discomfort with the book’s violent themes, then of course feel free to disregard my concerns. If, like me, you feel a desire to prolong your child’s innocence, you might want to tread warily. MacLean, it should be said, has many years of experience of teaching meditation to children, and perhaps I should give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she knows what’s appropriate, but I suspect this book is going to quietly make its way to some hidden spot in the house, out of the reach of my children. But the mind jar is still cool.

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Key to family happiness is accepting difficulties

mindfulness unhappy families

Doctors Diane Gehart and Eric McCollum of California State University and Virginia Tech University say that accepting the existence of miserable times in family relationships is better than striving for perfection.

“The myth of problem-free living is easily identifiable in Western culture through its childhood fairy tales and modern love stories,” they say. Gehart and McCollum argue that the very term “mental health” can conjure a false sense of a life without suffering, and that this can lead to unrealistic expectations that can in turn lead to greater dissatisfaction.

Rather than seeking a life free from teenage moodiness and spousal arguments, they suggest that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness can allow family members to “compassionately engage” with suffering.

Mindfulness is the Buddhist practice of nonjudgmentally observing thoughts and feelings in the present moment, and has been used successfully in a variety of therapies to treat depression, anxiety, chronic pain, stress, and eating disorders.

The authors of the paper, “Engaging Suffering: Towards A Mindful Re-Visioning of Family Therapy Practice,” published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, say that although Buddhism is generally considered to be a religion, the technique of mindfulness can be useful even separated from Buddhism’s spiritual beliefs and practices.

The practice of Mindfulness includes the notion of developing equanimity, which means that we accept painful and pleasant experiences when they arise, without judging them as good or bad. The approach of mindfulness helps practitioners to accept the presence of difficult situations without feeling that they have failed or that there is something wrong with them or their relationships.

The authors argue that “family therapists can integrate mindfulness principles into their work to help clients shift how they relate to the unique forms of suffering that one encounters in intimate relationships, such as abuse, divorce, rejection, and loss.”

Has the practice of mindfulness helped your family relationships? Have you found meditation helps you deal with problems more gracefully? Why not drop us a line using the comment box below?

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Dialing up emptiness (Sacramento Bee, California)

Kathy Pezdek, Sacramento Bee, California: Back in the ’70s, many of us devoted ourselves to “being in the moment” and “living in the present.” To achieve this end, we meditated, we did yoga, we sought a simpler life. And it felt good. The idea was that whatever it is that we are doing right now is as important as anything past or future. Our life has meaning and is rewarding to the extent that we can focus on each task we perform as we are performing it, each thought as we are thinking it, each emotion as we are feeling it. Ram Dass presented this way of being in his 1971 book “Be Here Now.” Although most of my friends and I were ambitious, the book helped us become more internally motivated, and life seemed quieter and richer.

A trip to the beach with my teenage sons, Ted and Reed, and eight of their friends at the start of this summer showed me just how much the world has changed.

We were celebrating summer freedom from school with s’mores made over our traditional bonfire fueled by their graded papers and notebooks. The kids rode waves for hours, skim-boarded on the beach, played football, and hiked the rock cliffs to watch the sunset. Another mom and I organized a cookout just after dark. What could be better?

Well, apparently something could be. Our trip was constantly punctuated by outgoing cellphone calls. At all times, at least one of the 10 boys was on his cellphone.

I was curious what the draw was. As I listened from our end, I learned that the boys were calling friends elsewhere just to see “what’s happening.” They were checking in on who was where and what other kids were doing.

Even if a trip to the beach was fun, some cute girl was someplace else. Some other guys might be having a party. There might be some plan for tomorrow they were missing out on.

It occurred to me that this was the antithesis of “Be Here Now.” Cellphones were effectively taking kids out of the moment. Rather than just enjoying a trip to the beach, the boys were constantly monitoring what other things – present and future – they could be doing, what other people they could be with. Just having a cellphone in their pocket fostered the consciousness that “there might be something out there I’m missing. Better check.”

This cellphone mania promotes superficial social contacts. “Just checking in” is really just checking out. While others are enjoying a football game on the beach, someone is cellphoning about where another group will be tomorrow. While the rest of the boys talk around the bonfire, one or two are cellphoning to find out who’s at another party.
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The appearance of obsessive busyness seems ironically linked to ultimate emptiness. By “reaching out and touching somebody,” kids avoid the intensity of relating to the somebodies they are with right now.

Many parents purchase cellphones to give themselves a sense of security that they can contact their kids wherever they are. But these cellphones in every kid’s pocket have taken on a life of their own.

The potential to talk to any friend any time has created a new level of opportunity for checking out of the here-and-now. It’s like getting a $20 bill when you’re a kid. A universe of options sometimes leads us to forget the joy of what’s already in our hands.

Some of my sons’ friends did not bring cellphones to the beach. I think they were the lucky ones. They knew that there would be other adventures tomorrow, but for now, this was as good as it gets.
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For the rest of this season, I’m going to have Ted and Reed leave their cellphones at home. I want their memories of the summer of ’04 to be filled with what they actually did, not just a playback of their cellphone conversations.

• Kathy Pezdek is a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University.

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