Too Busy to Be Mindful? Try This.

Sumi Kim
January 8, 2020
A busy street

Having coached countless parents in mindfulness for the past ten years, one of the most common complaints I’ve heard is, “I’m too busy to be mindful!”

Believe me, I am with you! 

Most parents (and most people!) have unbelievably full and fast-paced schedules -- we barely have time to fit in the basics. Not only are we quite busy, but most of the time we’re multi-tasking: getting dinner on, nudging one kid to get started on homework while listening to a story from another, keeping from stepping on the cat’s tail, thinking about how to respond to the text message that just came in… all at once. 

And yet, a lot of us yearn to bring mindfulness into our lives. We may have a sense that mindfulness will help us slow down so that life feels more manageable, and that we can feel more at ease, content, and relaxed. 

So I want to suggest a different approach to bringing mindfulness into family life, one that is more realistic, has more long-term benefits, creates a much bigger impact, and is deeply transformative.

The advice is this. Rather than prompting yourself to be mindful throughout the day, collect that time and effort into one period of concerted practice in the form of meditation: one period of five or ten minutes to stop everything, sit down, and practice becoming aware of your breath, body, mind, heart, and surroundings. 

After several weeks, you’ll begin to see something shift. 

What will happen is that the strength of mindfulness that you develop from this short meditation will be available for you during the heavy lift of family life. As a result, you won’t actually have to try to be mindful. You do have to try to make a solid effort during that five minutes of meditation. But during the rest of the day, mindfulness will come naturally from that meditation practice period.

Let me explain how this works. Think about how kids learn baseball, clarinet, or drawing: they have dedicated practice periods to develop specific skills through instruction and repetition. Then they play the game, perform the piece, or produce the museum-worthy art.

Likewise, meditation is the time in which we practice the skill of mindfulness. And then we bring it to the game, performance, or art of our lives. When you meditate regularly, you naturally become more mindful throughout your day.

In addition, meditation is the time in which we practice the invaluable skill of clearly seeing or hearing our own mind and heart. This inner attunement is key to those fraught family situations: as a challenging dynamic is playing out, we are deeply aware of the thoughts and feelings driving what we’re saying or doing. We then see where we’re being hurtful, either to ourselves or another, and we may see the underlying psychology of that. The insights we get from this can unlock dysfunctional patterns which in turn can ultimately heal and transform our parenting entirely.

I’ll leave you with a wowzer-kapowzer final thought about the benefit of meditating as a parent. 

I know a lot of us not only want to bring mindfulness to parenting but we also hope our kids could learn some mindfulness, too. But again, we run into that time problem -- how do we fit in teaching meditation to our kids when they’re already as busy as we are? 

Here’s how. Think about how much our children unconsciously adopt our behaviors, speech patterns, and personality. It’s actually quite amazing. Once my daughter told me about how terrible it was that her friend only brought sugary foods to lunch. She was very worried that the friend would face cavities, diabetes, and weight issues, and would have a hard time concentrating in class because she was still hungry. I was chuckling inside, even as I kept a sympathetic straight face to her, because she had just recited my years of mantra about why we’re not having Nutella on everything we eat. 

So, the more we as adults embody and live out a mindful awareness, being thoughtful and studied in our responses, and being kind with ourselves and others, the more our kids are going to absorb that for themselves. As a result, when we meditate, we are really getting a 2 for 1 deal: as we become more mindful, our children take on that quality for themselves, too.

Of course, it is fabulous if you can share meditation practices with your kids, read them stories that include mindfulness themes, and take them to a children’s workshop or on a family meditation retreat. But in the meantime, on an average day, you can teach them by being how you are.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go lick a spoon of Nutella.

Sumi Loundon Kim is the Buddhist chaplain at Yale University and a leading authority on mindful parenting. Originally brought up in a Soto Zen community in the 70s, Sumi has been a student of the Theravada (insight) tradition since her teens. She is the author of several books: Blue Jean Buddha; The Buddha’s Apprentices; Sitting Together: A Family-Centered Curriculum on Mindfulness, Meditation, and Buddhism; and Goodnight Love: A Bedtime Meditation Story.

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