The Moon

 

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“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.”

― Jon Kabat-Zinn

When the moon is bright and beautiful, one of my daughters will text me: “look at the moon!” When it is a group text, her sisters will chime in: “Pretty,” “I see it!” “Awww, there’s no moon in the city mom L,” or an emoji moon. I am always filled with emotion when I share the sight of the moon on those evenings. It is curious what I remember now that my children are grown and it is always comforting when they remember the precious, quiet moments that speckled their imperfect childhood. I remember late one summer night at our home three miles outside of Queens, NY I corralled my three girls into the car in search of a place where we might see a lunar eclipse; a treasure hunt I thought – we didn’t find it. There is more to that memory than my desire to introduce my children to the wonders of the night sky. During that time I was grieving, alone, and filled with fear about my future and theirs. I had to get out of the house – I just had to go somewhere away from the feelings that swirled around like a storm in my heart and mind.

A year later the turmoil that led me in search of the moon that night had passed, as all things do. We moved to Connecticut where life was simpler and the moon was easier to find; we only needed to step into our front yard, and there it was. Home become our usual stargazing spot. The harvest moon was always our favorite; its warm amber glow enhanced by the cool air, the fragrance of autumn and the girls’ growing excitement that Halloween was just around the corner–I can still hear their little voices filled with awe: “oh mommy.” Priceless.

As I told my little girls to “look at the moon,” I did not predict that in the decades ahead they would continue to notice and remember. The practice of mindfulness was not yet a daily part of my life. Unbeknownst to me, in those moments of stillness with my children I was encouraging their innate ability to notice, be present, and become one with the world around them, because there is beauty and love to be found in the darkest of times if we can just stop and look at the moon.

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Running in Stillness

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Running in stillness-

                                    by Kim Oliver, Ph.D.

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

Thích Nht Hnh

When I was 12 years old I joined the local youth track team and I started running; not to become an athlete, or to cross the finish line, or reach a goal… I just ran. I ran, and I ran, and I ran… almost every day for the next five years. I didn’t have the competitive focus or the relentless drive necessary to become exceptional; I was average, but I loved to run without exception.

Even then, I realized that my love of the sport was derived from something greater than the physical act of running, but it was only many years later in looking back on my tenure as a Golden Spike that I truly comprehend what motivated me to lace up my Adidas Antelopes day after day, year after year. When I ran I couldn’t think, or at least I didn’t. Academic pressure, social stresses, the whirlwind of living in household with four younger siblings and two young parents, insecurities, worries: it all fell away, piece by piece, with every stride.

I focused on the feeling of air filling my lungs, on the rhythm of my steps contacting earth, on the loops around the track, around the lake, around the neighborhood. I watched for rough patches in the woods, puddles in the dirt, for twigs or rocks obstructing my path, for inclines that would needed a burst of energy, or descents that required steady balance and a shorter gate. I didn’t project, I didn’t reflect, I didn’t worry. I wasn’t wrong, scared or unworthy.

Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled across the seventh practice of the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha more than 2,500 earlier: Right Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the complete (both mind and body) awareness of the present moment. To be fully present requires the awareness of our thoughts, our feelings, our bodies and our surroundings, without the distortion of judgment. When we are mindful we are not caught in thoughts of the past or the future. We are not judging ourselves or our worthiness. We recognize our thoughts for what they are: thoughts. We see our feelings for what they are: feelings. That is not to minimize our thoughts or feelings or the significance they may hold, rather we acknowledge that thoughts and feelings are not the reality of who we are or of the present moment: they come and they go, and they change, as everything changes. Through mindfulness we learn to accept our thoughts and feelings, to accept ourselves and to accept those we love.

When I was 18 I stopped running, much as I had started, without much thought. During difficult times I often had a fantasy that I was running, running anywhere or nowhere. I imagined I could run and never stop and that with every step I would be further and further from the pain or discomfort I was facing. But in the fog of unpleasant thoughts and feelings I failed to recognize the true peace that running had given me in my youth. It had not allowed me to escape my thoughts and feelings or flee a particular situation, it had given me the ability to stop!; to be truly present; to be aware of my body, of my breath, of the world around me: to be Mindful.

You don’t have to become a Buddhist to grow in your ability to be mindful, to pay attention, to accept, to be aware. These principles are available to us no matter our beliefs – they are not religious constructs and they are inherently human ones.

Psychologists and neuroscientists are using the technology of the 21st century to substantiate the profound impact of the ancient practice mindfulness. fMRI technology has been used to show structural changes in the brain of participants in an eight week mindfulness based stress reduction program. Mindfulness practices have been shown to help people reduce anxiety, cope with chronic pain, reduce stress, regulate their emotions, and increase their capacity for empathy and compassion and neuroscientists are continuing to map how mindfulness training can change the brain.

You don’t have to become a Buddhist or meditate for hours on end or join a track team to practice Mindfulness. There are an infinite number of ways to incorporate Mindfulness into your life and in doing so reap the benefits of this ancient practice (rubber stamped by science).

We don’t need to run away – we can be still – breathing, noticing, accepting, and truly living every moment with compassion for ourselves and others.

 

 

“But Doctor, they only listen when I scream!”

I remember being shocked when my children didn’t listen to me.  Never mind listen, my children did not obey!  Unless of course I raised my voice (yes, therapists “loose it” with their kids too).  I distinctly remember one such instance, after which my then seven year old daughter screamed in response  “You’re  mean! I’m going to tell all of your patients!” Oh, brother.

I never raised my voice to my parents and usually did as I was told without having to be told a second time (well, at least until adolescence, but that’s another story).  So what was I, along with so many of my clients, doing “wrong”.  What did our parents know that we didn’t?  I mean, we turned out O.K. didn’t we?  The answer is simple: our parents knew that a family is not a democracy.  Our parents were in charge and they did not feel the need to justify that reality.  They didn’t feel the need to coddle us or deliberate every feeling that would arise because we didn’t like the food they put on the dinner table, or the time they set for lights out, or the chores we were assigned, or… I think you get the drift.

So why do we ask our children over and over and over to do the same thing until we finally become so frustrated we find ourselves screaming at the top of our lungs “ARE YOU KIDDING ME, FEED THE DOG!”  It’s simple: so many of us treat our children as equals.  We care so much about hurting their feelings, or damaging their self-esteem or being “mean” that we fail to put in place the simple structure that has allowed the family unit to function since time immemorial: the hierarchy.

I am not suggesting that we turn back the clock to the days of “children are to be seen and not heard.”  Raising these little hearts, minds and souls and preparing them for adulthood is an enormous responsibility and there is a substantial benefit in allowing our children to communicate their thoughts and feelings with us, especially those of hurt or distress.  However, in the interest allowing our children to feel they have a voice, many of us forget that firm rules and consequences are not child abuse.  Clear limits serve a valuable purpose for our children.  We must teach them that they deserve to be heard and that their feelings are important in order for them to recognize their value and their place in the world.  But the world outside of the nest will ask a lot more of our children than a healthy awareness of their own worth and an ability to express their feelings.  They will be told to abide by the student code of conduct at college, they will be given directives from their boss, and they will be informed that their car insurance payment is due once a month.  Their Dean’s office, their employer and their insurance agent are authorities that have implemented structures to benefit the communities our children will become part of and they must enter these situations prepared to recognize when someone else in charge, be aware of what is expected of them and how to proceed accordingly, EVEN WHEN THEY DON’T WANT TO.  The family is the first community our children belong to and it is where they will learn, or fail to learn, how to be part of the communities they encounter in the future.

It is in our children’s best interest to learn how to follow the rules and respect authority and they can be guided to do what we ask the first time.  Ok, maybe that’s pushing it., but at least after the second time.

Incentives like a chore chart where children are rewarded for following the rules several days in a row helps them see that loading the dishwasher everyday benefitted the family and they are getting a benefit in return. It is good for children to do chores and to earn rewards.  Your responsibility to your children is to provide food, shelter, education, exercise and love, everything else is a bonus.  Do you get a bonus in life that you haven’t earned?

If we lead with strength and structure as well as sensitivity, the end result is a heck of a lot better than running our home like an army barracks or having to keep the windows closed so your neighbors don’t think (or know) you’ve lost your mind.

Just saying…

Raising Emotionally Healthy Children in The Wake of Divorce

When couples who have decided to divorce come to see me for counseling, the first question they always ask is “how can we get our children through this”.  The guilt, pain and sense of loss that couples experience before during and after divorce is often coupled with the fear that their children will be emotionally damaged and will never fully recover.

According to the United States government, more than one million children per year are living through their parents divorce.  Although past research focused on the negative outcomes suffered by the children of divorce, especially when those children enter young adulthood, more recent studies find that most children from divorced families are doing as well as children from intact families.

Surely divorce is a crisis in the life of children and their parents. There are emotional risks to children as a result of a divorce but these can be mitigated by something very important in the child’s life and that thing is the support and love of their parents.   So let’s go back to the question I hear most often from divorcing couples “how do we get our children through this”?

Children whose parent’s are divorcing do better when they are sufficiently nurtured and supported through the process and beyond by both parents.  A good and trusting relationship with both parents helps to prevent some of the emotional problems often associated with children of divorce.  Significant access to each parent is also extremely important.

Most importantly, children must be kept out of the middle of parental conflict.  Hostility between parents is detrimental to children whether or not their parents are divorced.  A highly emotionally charged and hostile divorce complicates a child’s adjustment and sense of emotional well-being.

Many parents do try to put their own pain and anger aside for the welfare of their children.  Understandably, some parents have significant difficulty managing their emotions during such a painful time.  Parents who are struggling to manage their emotions can find support from trusted friends, clergy or a counselor.  Families involved in high conflict divorces where there has been long term conflict, infidelity, abandonment or betrayal, need particular support and care in order to shield their children from hostility, cope with strong emotions and return themselves and their children to a place of stability and wholeness. Seeking professional help may allow these parents to be better equipped to guide their children throughout the process and to shield their children from adult conflict.

Children who are raised during and after a divorce in an environment that is secure and cooperative will learn how to cope with the divorce more quickly and will likely develop into the healthy happy children we’d like them to be.  In the end, the children of divorce need the same things that all children need, among these are an atmosphere of emotional and physical safety, appreciation of their need to become the unique individuals they were meant to be,  and most of all love.