As a new parent, I often find myself going into a trance state when I watch my 7 month old daughter play. I’m sure I am not alone in this. There’s something magnetic and magical about watching your child discover, experiment, learn, and grow. Everything is new for my daughter; she loves bath time, but her first trip to the pool? Mind-blowing. Starting solid foods was fun, but the transition from oatmeal to applesauce and sweet potatoes? The heavens opened. Her joy and wonder is unadulterated by previous experiences. Additionally, her anger and tears are also unaffected by her history. My little girl can go from laughter to screams at the drop of a hat, and to my amazement, back to laughter again just as quickly. On some level she is truly reactive to her environment; she deals with events and feelings as they happen, and adjusts herself as they change, too. The other day I watched her playing on the floor, happily cooing and definitely saying “dada” with intention (I will fight you on whether that’s a genuine reference to me, or just play noises) when she looked up, screwed her face into a grimace, and wailed. Appropriately trained by my daughter at this point, I knew she was hungry, so I got her into her high-chair, prepped her sweet potatoes, and put on her bib. Her crying escalated right up to the moment she saw that golden-delicious mush on the spoon. Suddenly, all was well again, and she cooed and laughed with all of her inherent cuteness.
That’s when it hit me: my baby girl is a buddha.
I don’t mean that in a disrespectful or cultural-appropriation kind of way. I genuinely mean it. According to author, teacher, and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the word “buddha” comes from the root word buddh, or, to wake up. To become like the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh writes that we must practice mindfulness in order to cultivate the seeds of spiritual awakening and peace that lie dormant in each of us (2007, Nhat Hanh).When we connect with the present moment deeply, authentically, and with appreciation for all with which it connects, we are developing awareness of our own experience, as well as the interconnected nature of our world. Being mindful, in its most general sense, means to be aware; aware of our feelings, thoughts, and experiences, without being attached to the past or future. When we find ourselves dwelling on the past or the future, it can contaminate our present experience. That’s one of the reasons why our sadness can trickle down and inflate into depression, or our investment in the future (supporting our family, having meaningful relationships) can escalate into anxiety. Being nonjudgmental is also a critical aspect of mindfulness; if I accept the judgment that my sadness is not good or not acceptable, I push against my experience. The more that I push against my experience, the more I hold onto it. As I grapple and wrestle with my feelings, trying to distract or force myself to feel something, anything else, I intertwine myself with my sadness. My experience of myself becomes defined by sadness.
Not so with my baby buddha. She accepts her experience without judgment. She is hungry, and feels distressed. She fully feels her distress and allows it to inform her experience, but when the situation changes, she doesn’t remain attached to that distress; she allows it to pass, because the situation has changed. My daughter also doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to judge herself for feeling distressed, so there isn’t an internal wrestling match with her emotions. She feels them, isn’t afraid of them, or overly attached to them; as such, I believe my little girl has taught me a great deal about how to truly enjoy the world we both inhabit.
You may be reading this and thinking to yourself, “this sounds great, but if I allow myself to fully feel everything that goes on inside me, I’ll get into a lot of trouble!” and you’d be right, if you assume that being mindful means acting on every felt experience. Being mindful, however, is not about reacting to everything you experience without thought. It’s actually quite the opposite. When we are mindful of our experiences, and fully present within ourselves, we become free to behave in a way that is consistent with our values. I can recognize that I feel angry, and even that my impulse is to yell at my boss because of that anger; if I weren’t being mindful, I might find myself doing just that! If I am able to be mindful in that moment, nonjudgmental of myself, or overly attached to my experience, I’m then free to act in a way that is consistent with my values. My anger is a tool that helps to inform my experience, and so if I’m acting in accordance with my values, I’ll speak assertively and appropriately to my boss, so that my concerns are addressed. Once the issue is dealt with, I’ll also be able to successfully move on from that experience and fully enjoy my day.
I know that this sounds simplistic, but mindfulness kind of is just that. It’s incredibly simple. Just because something is simple, however, doesn’t mean that it is easy. Mindfulness is a practice, and takes deliberate effort to become an engrained part of our lives. Thankfully however, its benefits are immediate! I invite you to take just a minute, push back from your desk, and close your eyes, taking slow, deep breaths into your belly. Do this just for a minute, really allowing yourself to feel each breath; its time, its texture, the physical sensations in your nose, throat, and torso. Keep coming back to that awareness when your mind wanders (as it will) and just notice how your body changes with each deep, slow breath.
It’s calming, right? Mindfulness has an immediate benefit, and put into practice regularly, can be life-changing.
Nhat Hanh, T. (2007). Living Buddha, Living Christ. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.