Meditation and parenthood: this may appear to be an oxymoron, as the words conjure up images that seem contradictory—the serene meditator enjoying the silence in their quiet mind, versus a frazzled, unkempt mother or father surrounded by chaos. But many years working in war zones has taught me something new: the power of meditative moments. Short, conscious moments of calm, infused throughout the day, can be your most useful tool against the confusion and disorder of parenting.
“I Learned to Meditate in a War Zone”
One morning in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the air still ripe with the echoes of last night’s bullets, I sat at the foot of my hotel room bed and practiced listening meditation. It was all I could think to do to slow my terrified, rapid heartbeat. I quieted my mind, closed my eyes, and opened my ears.
At first, I only heard the sound of military-grade vehicles and sirens. Then, beneath, the wail of a baby, the beat of African drums pulsing through transistor radio static, and a woman laughing—reminders of humanity’s common desire for peace, a fresh moment to connect to something bigger and more sane than war. My heart slowed; I opened to the day ahead, whatever would come.
For me, motherhood has been a bit like working in a war zone. Not to diminish what living through war is like, but the constant vigilance, the drain on the adrenal system, the sustained lack of sleep, and the loss of regular bathing and meals, all felt very familiar with my firstborn. And, as such, some of the meditation practices I had adapted to my life as a human rights activist became applicable.
This 5-Minute Meditation Can Save Your Sanity
Here’s a practice I call “Taking a Lap”: Both kids are screaming now, because it’s a cruel fact that when one child starts screeching, like macaws, the other will inevitably chime in. In the cacophony, it’s hard to distinguish one’s needs from the other’s, and, to be honest, I don’t really care. I’ve reached my edge. Every parent has one. This is the crucial moment I take my lap.
Whether they need to be in the car or not, I strap the kids into their five-point harnesses, roll up the windows, close the car doors, and exhale, knowing they are safe and immobilized. I drop into my listening mind. Taking a deep breath, I look to the sky and push all of my frustration out in one loud sigh. Then, placing my attention on my feet, I walk slowly, heel to toe, around the car. To an outsider, it may appear as though I’m simply taking the long way around to the driver’s seat, but in my mind I am a wandering ascetic, and to my nervous system each step is a healing balm.
Heel to toe . . . heel to toe . . . I listen.
At first, I hear the sounds of other cars in the parking lot, groceries being hauled into power-lifted cargo doors. Then, underneath, a teenager crying at the coffee shop next door, her heartache palpable in each sob. And there, way in the background, the birds singing loudly, while the air itself makes music through the trees, just as it always has; another fresh moment to reconnect.
No matter which shrieks come pouring through the door, whether laughter or tears, I know that it’s workable. In one three-minute, conscious lap around the car, that edge, so solid only moments before, softens. I am a warrior newly readied for battle.
I married a man who was hit by his father for misbehaving. My own grandfather hit my dad and his brothers from pent-up frustration and anger. In fact, four out of five Americans believe it is “sometimes appropriate” to spank children. Part of the problem is that violence is learned and it is cyclical: Our children literally navigate the world by watching our every move, and that’s a lot of pressure. Add in sleep deprivation, financial stress, and a pace of life that could make Olympic athletes tire, and it’s not hard to see how we can fall into behaviors that allow our microaggressions to take center stage.
My antidote lies in practicing meditative moments.
“What were you looking for, Mommy?” my three-year-old asks after watching me stare at the asphalt as I slowly crept around the car.
“My sanity,” I reply.
“Oh. Did you find it?” she asks, hopefully.
“Yes I did,” I can honestly say. “It was somewhere between the back bumper and the rear right tire.”
And this is how I’ve come to bridge the sacred world of meditation with the profane reality of motherhood; by carving out short moments of “big mind,” I can better handle life’s “small mind” moments. Instead of recreating the painful patterns of our pasts, we have the unique opportunity to spin a different tale for our grandchildren.
The other day, my now six-year-old daughter wandered into the forest, heel to toe . . . heel to toe. She said she was “looking for her calm.” I knew then, if nothing else, that my often desperate, sometimes ridiculous-looking moments of street-side walking meditation had provided her with the invisible tool my own mother gifted me decades before, a tool that’s saved me from coming unhinged time and again.
When it comes to meditation and motherhood, my only advice is to create your own meditative moments and practice them regularly, so when you come up against your edgier places you will know exactly what to do with them.