“To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible,” writes the cultural philosopher Alain de Botton. And this seems to be an even greater challenge for our children. Screen-Free Week is an international event that invites children, families, schools, and communities to turn off their digital entertainment and play, read, daydream, create, and explore with family and friends instead. It’s not about throwing away our devices, but expanding ways to enjoy downtime. Julie Croston, coordinator of Screen- Free/Screen-Wise week at the Cambridge Public Schools, asked me to create a workshop for parents on managing stress, both theirs and their children’s.
The group of parents who gathered reflected the rich ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity of Cambridge schools, which is the 2nd most diverse school system in the country. Although the parents had children of all ages, ranging from infants to college age, the concerns were universal. As these parents shared what was most stressful for them, we were united by the commonality of experience: sick children, aging parents, financial worries, kids who are lonely and isolated, who lack motivation, struggle academically, are in conflict with demanding teachers, overwhelmed by too much homework and the pressures of getting into college, as well as the stresses of a parent losing a job, or of parenting alone. I thought of a maxim that has been true for me through the years of raising two children: You are only as well as your unhappiest child. When our children are suffering, we feel it. It impacts our sleep, our mood, and our functioning.
Can mindfulness help with the onslaught of constant demands, worries about a child’s well-being, of being spread too thin and feeling constantly exhausted? While it isn’t a magic wand, there’s an analogy I appreciate, especially since I live in New England. Mindfulness is like snow tires in a storm. It doesn’t stop the weather, get rid of the ice or the drifts of snow, but it does help you navigate and gives you a little more traction.
While I taught a number of basic practices, the one that really spoke to the group was the Mountain Meditation. No previous meditation experience is needed, and parents and children can do this one together. It’s a practice that helps us find an anchor, a place of balance, during the constantly changing weather of our lives.
- Start by sitting comfortably, taking a moment to ground and center yourself.
- Visualize a majestic mountain, either one that you know or one that you can create with your imagination. (For this exercise, don’t choose an erupting volcanic mountain.)
- Imagine your body becoming like the mountain, grounded, solid, still. Let the legs be the base, the arms and shoulders the slopes, the spine the axis, and the head the peak. Allow yourself to become centered, quiet, present.
- Visualize the mountain as the seasons begin to change. (You can begin in the current season and then move through the others). See it in autumn, surrounded by golden light and brilliant colors. Gradually autumn gives way to winter, and the mountain is assaulted by intense and violent weather, fog, snow, and ice. Notice how the mountain remains still, quiet, and steady through the storms.
- Watch as the seasons flow into each other. In spring, the snow melts, birds sing, and animals return. The mountain streams overflow with the melting snow.
- See the mountain in summer, bathed in light, quiet, solid, majestic. Except for the highest peaks, the snow is gone. In every season clouds cover the mountain and then blow away, storms arise suddenly and then pass.
- See if you can sit like the mountain, still and grounded through the changes of weather, time, and seasons, allowing day and night to come and go, accepting change, not resisting it.
- Take these qualities into your day, allowing the weather and the seasons to come and go. Feel yourself being present, rooted, and still, unmoved by storms, wind, cold, rain, heat, moments of dark and light, joy and sorrow. Let life continue to unfold around you.
For an audio version of this meditation, go to www.sittingtogether.com.
Finding other ways to relax is not limited to a solitary week in May. See what it’s like to turn off the TV, avoid the computer games, and try the Mountain Meditation (perhaps with your child) instead.
Susan M. Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.