Birds that survive cyclones fly right into the heart of it. The energy of it lifts them above the turmoil.
My teacher at meditation class recently was talking about our human tendency to get caught up in a cyclone of thought, of suffering and of wanting things to be something other than the way they are. Our minds want something to chew on and it is so seductive, so culturally reinforced, that we get sucked into the cyclone and lose our peace and equanimity.
She was speaking about the potential we all have to rise above the cyclone and experience the freedom and creativity of an open, spacious mind. As a parent, and a mindful-mom-in-progress, I was immediately struck by the daily opportunity to do this with children. It requires us to let go of our agenda and let it just be what it is.
I thought of the 9-year-old cyclone I am living with right now. It is easy to get sucked into the cyclone of wanting her to behave other than the way she is. That causes both of us suffering. The idea of rising above it is appealing — enough for me to acknowledge the hurt I inflict when I communicate that she should be different from the way she is.
Don’t misunderstand me. As I wrote some time ago, I really believe in the importance of communicating “you and I are OK — it’s just your behavior that isn’t.” Yet this emotional roller coaster has been going on long enough that I think she gets the message that something about her is unacceptable. What other conclusion could she reach?
Rising above the cyclone involves letting her be what she is, clearly communicating unconditional acceptance and love. How do I do that when the cyclone is raging? I can’t always, and that’s OK, too. We don’t need to be perfect for our children to know we love them. We do need to develop the ability to rise above the cyclone more often. Mindfulness and self-compassion are two of the best tools for that.
Here are some ways to quiet the cyclone:
- Recognize that the cyclone is triggering reactions, stress and struggle in your body and mind. Name it to tame it, even a little.
- Send kindness to yourself — empathy for what that feels like for you. This is hard.
- Soften into this kindness. Stay with it a while. Don’t try to change anything or make anything go away. Just surround those feelings with kindness and understanding. Let it be what it is. Don’t run away with it or push it away. Just be gently curious and kind. Ask yourself what you need right now.
- Scan your body, softening any obvious signs of tension. Invite it to let go, even a little. It’s natural for our bodies to tense against the storm.
- Recall the tenderness you feel for your child, knowing that he or she is suffering right now. This is what distress and overwhelm looks like for your child. Don’t take it personally. Children are still learning how to manage their big feelings. See if you can connect to a feeling of empathy and understanding for what is going on for them too. Experiment with letting go of the expectation that they be anything other than what they are right in this moment. Ask yourself: What do they need right now? Am I calm enough yet to be able to provide what my child and I both need right now?
- Communicate understanding to your child, if you are ready. If you are not, spend a few more moments with that kindness, coming back into a relative state of equilibrium yourself. You are not able to help your child become more emotionally regulated until you are yourself. Giving your child words to describe what they are feeling tames their feelings and helps them start to become more regulated. Communicating that you “get them” even in this state of overwhelm gives them a safe container for their feelings and reminds them that you are the adult here and your relationship with them is not at risk; you love them no matter what.
- Listen. Only redirect behavior or clarify boundaries once they are calm enough to hear you. Unless there are safety issues that need to be addressed first, this process is about both of you getting what you need to recognize the feelings that you are experiencing, restoring calm and maintaining caring connection.
Only when our thinking brains are back online can we do any of the teaching that sometimes goes along with these emotinally intense moments. Often seeing, communicating they are seen and then soothing the feelings is all that is needed. Trust that you will know what to do next.
Tornado image available from Shutterstock