Episode 10: Do We Have to Meditate to Be Mindful?


To get all the mindfulness benefits we want, is meditation a requirement?

For those of you that cannot comprehend your mindfulness practice without meditation, I see it all the time in my work introducing families to mindfulness techniques.  Parents, teens and little kids dipping their toes into this process but not ready to sit on a pillow with their eyes closed every day.  And I get that, I will admit, it took me a couple years of working with mindfulness professionally to get it through my head that I should probably practice meditation regularly.  I really took my sweet time getting around to it.  Now, I look forward to this part of my day.  I share this to acknowledge that everyone is on their own journey with this. As I put this show together I realized that having a child put a fire under me to start taking my mindfulness practice more seriously, approaching it with the same dedication I approach the other things in my life I value.  I think it's made me a better teacher and therapist, it definitely helps me fight my parenting brain fog and it helps me to keep my family tuned to calm.  This was a huge personal goal for me as a mom, (more than what my baby ate or how my baby was diapered) I wanted my baby to be connected to calm.  I wanted calm to be this brain's standard mode of operation.  I knew this baby was going to read their neurological signals from me, so I might as well focus on actually being really calm vs. putting a bunch of energy into faking it, which sometimes I have to do but most the time, I am able to find it.  Most of the time, I can find my calm. and meditation helps me do this, efficiently, quickly, consistently.

So what do the experts say? To figure this out I looked at evidence-based mindfulness programs, some are clinical, meaning they support individuals with health issues and some are educational, meaning they offer information to encourage wellness and quality of life but are not viewed as a form of treatment.  When we hear about the benefits of mindfulness- these are the programs that are being conducted using a group of participants. So it’s really important to understand what is being implemented in these programs in order to replicate all these cool benefits we keep hearing about and want for ourselves.  If you heard that a green smoothie could fight every ailment, you would want to know the ingredients right?  Are we talking kale, avocado, what is in there?

First, we will look at Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.  It's a  program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and continues to be researched and validated at the University of Massachusetts.  Mindful meditation and mindful hatha yoga are The core tools used in this program. This is one of if not the most respected mindfulness program in the medical community. As a complementary treatment method, it is proven to be effective in treating both medical and psychological conditions.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy was developed by Zindel Williams, Mark Siegel and John Teasdale, and is based on the previous program MBSR. Research and validation of this mindfulness program continues to be done at the University of Oxford. 

This is what the program's website says about the role of meditation in mindfulness practice:

“Mindfulness is traditionally cultivated by the practice of meditation in which people learn to pay attention in each moment with full intentionality and with friendly interest. Meditation is not about clearing the mind, but rather coming to see the mind’s patterns. Daily meditation practice allows people to see the way in which certain patterns of mind lead to an escalation of emotions, despite our best efforts to control them. It also allows us to see more clearly what sorts of actions lead to more wholesome outcomes in everyday life.

When people practice mindfulness meditation for any length of time, a number of qualities of their experience change. People say they feel more aware or awake, feel calmer and are more able to see clearly and gain freedom from their own emotional patterns and habits. They feel freer to be more compassionate to themselves and to others. The early research trials conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues had shown that this approach could be highly effective for patients who suffered long-term physical health conditions that had been destroying the quality of their lives (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).”

MAPS for ADHD is a program at UCLA based off of the work of Lidia Zylowska, M.D. is an expert in ADHD And a co-founding member UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center where she continues to serve as the Assistant Clinical Professor, in her program she includes meditation exercises such as  Mindful BreathingSound, Breath, and BodyBody ScanMindful Walking etc. 

Inner Kids is an amazing mindfulness resource for parents created by Susan Greenland, she has written books on mindful parenting and my favorite is her mindful games activity cards.  On her website, she describes the program as educational for children and parents.  If you are wondering how to implement more mindfulness activities into your child's everyday life, this is a good jumping off point.  She includes meditation as an important piece of her program however it looks different than the adult programs as it is meant for children.  What I mean by this is that development is considered, a small child has a different capacity for what we think of as meditation than we do but we can still teach them about meditation in a way that allows them to gain the same benefits we are seeking.  Here is what Susan Greenland says about how she conceptualizes mindfulness:

 "Mindfulness: a stance of attention where we notice where our mind is, and our state of mind, in real time. Keeping our mind on a chosen object, and not getting lost in distraction, is the function of mindful attention. When we are mindful we have a heightened awareness of the mind’s processes (what we see, hear, taste, smell, feel, think, or intuit) and notice our current state of mind."

This is what our podcast is all about, using these mindfulness skills to improve our parenting and our relationship with our child.  By being focused and clear we are more intentional with our goals and we are aware of what is our emotional stuff that needs caring for, and what is our child's emotional stuff that needs caring for.  That piece right there is the best tool we can model for our child for them to have emotional regulation and in plain terms, a good relationship with themselves and a good relationship with others.  If you are having a lot of success with this please share with us how you are doing it.  Is meditation part of your routine?

Research has also shown that positive emotions are correlated with a left to right ratio of activity in the prefrontal cortex.  It was discovered that monks who meditated more than once a day have higher left to right ratio in their prefrontal cortex and so researchers started replicating this, which is what we try to do with all research, replicate our findings to prove hey this is not a fluke, and we are finding that yes, the brain can be changed by meditation. Cortical thickening correlated with practice, in this case, emotional intelligence, attention, and compassion. Attention and compassion sound like very very useful parenting tools and I will take the emotional intelligence too!

Dr. Shauna Shapiro, the author of our parenting book we love for January, talks about the practice of meditation creating worn roads in our brain, referring to our neural pathways.  This is a way to think about habit formation.  Will this practice support your mindful or conscious parenting by making it come more naturally, making it more of a habit?  Yes.  Using her metaphor, the practice of meditation helps your brain and body know what calm and focused feels like, making it an easier landing pad throughout the day.  I don't want to underestimate how important this is.  Think about how we learned what a respectful relationship feels like, or what it doesn't feel like.  We have some experiences with others that formed this and helped us to know in our interactions, this feels good or safe or respectful.  This is one of the benefits of meditation, especially if you find yourself worrying, irritated, depressed or anxious, you may move through your days forgetting what exactly calm and confident or peaceful and optimistic feel like.  As with most things, the more you practice them, the better you get at them and the more effortless it becomes to land here.

I want all parents to feel calm, confident, peaceful and optimistic.  If they did we would have a bunch of calm, confident, peaceful and optimistic kids and a bunch of parents present enough to enjoy their time with them.

If you currently are not meditating, I hope this peaks your interest.  However, if you have a practice that works for you right now, makes you feel good about your parenting and is nourishing, then please do not be discouraged by this information or allow it to minimize your success.  There are many paths to getting to where we want to go.  If you want to meditate but aren’t sure where to start here are a few suggestions. 

How do I meditate?

Many meditation programs suggest that participants practice formal meditation (the “on the cushion” practice) anywhere from 15-30 minutes per day, 5-7 days per week. This makes sense because published research tends to show that the participants who report the greatest amount of meditation practice are the ones who show the greatest gains. I think this is a great goal but probably not a starting point.  For one thing, it takes practice to meditate, to sit still, to relax our body, to keep coming back to our meditation and relinquishing our worrying thoughts, our list making thoughts etc.  I recommend starting with 5 minutes a day just to get comfortable with the process and begin to carve out time for yourself.  If you can create a space where you do this every day, excellent, if you cannot, but are okay being flexible with this good, don't let it stop you.  

If you have never meditated before I would start off with a guided meditation, and they are everywhere.  There are so many apps that offer these now, I use Insight Timer but there are many to choose from.  UCLA offers free guided meditation recordings and I use these as well in my work with clients.  

Like parenting, other relationships and self-care, meditation is deeply personal, so experiment with the recordings, find where and when feels best. I prefer the mornings and to be outside but I adjust during the cold weather. I have my own daily meditation that is a culmination of my favorite recordings I mix together by memory now, afterward I set my intentions for the day. 

The most important thing is to be patient with yourself.  Allow yourself to incoprorate a new activity, in this case meditation, in a way that feels nourishing and not draining.  This may mean starting really small.  If you don't like a meditation, try a different one, and accept that your routine may take time for you to find and it will change as your needs and enviornment change.  I love hearing all the creative ways parents fit meditation into their schedule, please feel free to share your tips with us at wideawakeparenting.com or on any of our social media links because they are so inspiring and could really help a parent that is brand new to this.

 I try to meditate daily and have gotten to a point in my practice where I would adore the luxary of a 20-30 minute meditation session.  My sessions are usually ended for me with  a child or animal in my lap- those good vibes are magnetic- and who do we think we are focusing on ourselves anyway.  But accepting that for now, my meditation practice will look a little different everyday has really helped me to not get hung up on the details that could derail meditation being part of my daily routine. With all that said, I feel the difference between my days I meditate and the days I do not.  

Kirsten Kuzirian