When I am with my toddler son, my intention is to follow his subjectivity as closely as I can and to convey that empathic presence to him. To do so my mind must be empty of all other things, except the interface of his experience and the context in which it occurs. I watch him explore and enjoy his ingenuity and innocence, contemplation and apprehension, bravery and pride; I observe closely as I consider how much to protect him and how much to let him experience; I understand that he will reference me along the way and will without warning reach for my hand when uncertain; but I sense that this is all an expression of his will and he would prefer to experience the agency and pride of doing it, rather than the experience of having been helped to do it; it's a fine distinction and I know I can misjudge it. He doesn't use words yet and will do these things without signaling them, yet he regularly looks - however subtly - for validation of his experience and for feedback on how I feel about it, and to see if he's ok.
To provide useful feedback I have to be paying attention, not just to what I think is happening and going to happen, but to what he is experiencing, and must anticipate what he might be planning to do. The information he is looking for is intuitive and intentional as much as gestural or verbal. He doesn't want me to say "be careful" or "you can do it" as much as he wants to see simply and directly that I understand and he is ok.
To provide this kind of information I have to be present. I cannot be lost in my own thoughts unrelated to his experience; I cannot engage with my own moods; I cannot be paying attention to anything else. It goes without saying I cannot be engaging my iPhone or another person.
Cultivating such a presence shares many aims of meditation and other mindfulness practices: Bringing one's attention back to one thing (as one does with a mantra or the breath); letting go of the contents of one's mind; and detaching from emotions other than those that occur in spontaneous empathic reaction to the moment; and opening to a deeper understanding of myself.
I approach fatherhood with this kind of intention and use what I have learned from meditation to tame my mind toward achieving my aims. When my mind wanders, I take note of it gently (i.e., with a compassionate attitude) but let it go and redirect my attention to my son’s experience. Over and over, as my mind is distracted by, and responds to, internal or external stimuli, I refocus, reconnect, and join my son where he is. When I am affected by unrelated emotions, I acknowledge this and do one of the following, depending on how entangled in it I am: I try to simply and gently name it and let it go, reconnecting with the meaning, joy, and importance of being in my son's mood, and in a generally positive, uncomplicated frame of mind; or, if I have trouble freeing myself from my state, I shelve it and commit to dealing with it later; and, if I’m still stuck, I dismiss myself from the responsibility at hand by getting a substitute to care in my stead.
As with a mantra or watching the breath, it is helpful to direct attention to something, instead of engaging in the power struggle of trying to stop thinking or feeling; trying to wrestle free of things is like being in quicksand, the more we struggle the deeper we get stuck. Instead I remind myself to be here now and do one thing at a time- this thing. And it helps to remind myself this thing matters and is the most meaningful investment I can make in my son's future. I remind myself that whatever it is that is intruding, "it can wait". The things that seem at the time so important are noted and I commit to dealing with them at a later time when I can be more constructive. As when one is trying to go to sleep at night or in a conversation or working, this is not the time to get internally preoccupied. But a deal must be struck: I hold myself to giving the shelved issue my sincere attention and work to resolve it or make a plan to do so over time, otherwise I won’t trust myself and the shelving technique won’t work.
Dealing with the intrusive emotions or thoughts - when the time is right- means they get resolved (to some degree, anyway) and will be less intrusive thereafter.
Two principles are at work. First, the mind's job is to solve problems, answer questions, resolve issues, and smooth disturbances so it can return to a state of unperturbed rest. It wants to know it will be ok. Problems, questions, and issues clamber for attention until they get resolved. Depending on the person, the mind will accept different kinds of resolution (aka ok-ness). This variable goes a long way toward differentiating people and personality styles. Some people are not ok without a foolproof plan to avoid potential criticism; some without a final acceptable resolution. But some people are ok with faith that things will work out, or trust themselves to work it out one way or another. People differ on how effectively they can resolve the stuff that arises, and how much stuff needs resolving.
Sometimes we can reduce the volume of distractions with effective use of to-do lists and a healthy balancing of the things that matter to us. But sometimes what intrudes requires a more penetrating look at ourselves. Mindfulness can help differentiate organizational problems from deeper issues.
The point of meditation isn't to cleanse your mind and spirit in discreet sessions, as though at a service station for a tune up; it is not simply de-cluttering or defragging. That said, taking time on a regular basis to practice, as with anything, will strengthen our abilities in this regard. Meditation is partly a kind of training exercise to strengthen our ability to control our mind: to be aware of its contents, able to let them go, and to direct our focus where we want it. This can include choosing what attitude we want, and choosing to have a positive frame of mind. Meditation is more than that, though; it awakens us to the nature of the contents of our mind and tells us what needs attention. We start to see tendencies, where our mind tends to go, the leanings of our attitudes, our style of thinking. We begin to see who we are.
Nor is the point of meditation to perfect some ritual of religious significance, to "improve", achieve, or exceed some standard. It is not about the dogma, the text, the posture, or the altar. These things are meant to assist us and are not the point in and of themselves. Yet, the trappings can add dimensions of meaning and spiritual significance to our practice and to our lives. Genuine engagement in any spiritual tradition can lead us beyond ourselves and beyond a limited perspective into meanings that would be otherwise inaccessible.
The point of meditation is not to shop for an instant community of fellow seekers and supplicants. Insecurity and alienation are not the same as loneliness and isolation. Yet, fellowship and community provide deep rewards, connect us and our practice with others who can relate to the inevitable struggles, and weave us into the fabric of a community and its traditions. We are not alone.
The point of mindfulness is to live better and more fully. Being present with people helps us connect, allows us to know others, and to be known. Being present with children allows us to properly attune to, and take care of, them. Being present with any task, be it work, hobby, play, eating, or entertainment, allows us to give it our best and get the most out of it. Being present with ourselves allows us to know ourselves, understand ourselves, and treat ourselves kindly, with love and acceptance, even when we, becoming increasingly self-aware, more clearly see how we might change something about ourselves and the course of our lives.
My work as a psychologist requires my full attention with the qualities described above. In every minute with every patient I search for profound empathy, understanding the patient on many levels, some of which they themselves are not aware of, while simultaneously providing a safe, supportive context in which their experience can unfold and their awareness can deepen. I am following what is happening and continually choosing which levels of experience to affirm, verbally and non-verbally. There is no room for extraneous or personal thought or feeling; distractions are immediately set aside; I follow the patient wherever they go or might go. To be this present I have to be able to clear my mind of everything other than what is relevant to the patient at the time. I have learned much in this regard from meditation practice and mindfulness training. Also, to be able to extricate, or at least minimize, my own issues, I have to know myself thoroughly, to have resolved my neuroses, and to be able to set aside whatever issues are currently active in my life. To the extent I am able to achieve these aims I am free to connect with the patient for the time they are with me. When one patient exits my office I must completely reset my mind to join with the next patient, and so on throughout the work day. With this intention, and the hard work required to do it, therapy is a practice that strengthens itself.
Aside from attending to my son and work, my time is filled with marriage, friends, sports, and a range of entertainments. I approach all of these things with the same principles in mind, to be present and engaged, honest and transparent, compassionate and accepting; as a vehicle for being and becoming, as meaningful opportunities to become a better, fuller, more capable person; to be well, to give myself to others, to try to affect the world in positive ways; and to experience joy, pleasure, freedom, and fun.
Mindfulness is not a thing to do here and there in sacred bouts of good intention; but rather, is a way of life, applied to virtually all experience. I think of it as living with intention. The goal is to get to where this mindful, present, connected way of being is not a chore but is like a child moving unselfconsciously from one activity to the next, not fighting it, not hanging on to anything, not always looking down the road. There is a shift from energy output to self-perpetuation, where we get back as much as we put in, continually energized by the flow of experience.
This is a worthy goal, to stop fighting experience, stop trying to make it what it is not or can not be; yet, not to forfeit our right and responsibility to lead our lives with direction and agency. This is a fine distinction and a difficult balance to achieve; to engage with life as it is and as it could be if we try to get the most we can from it.
I accept that this is a lifelong process, and acknowledge that in some ways I got off to a good start in the years I devoted to understanding and honing these qualities, and also that I have so much to learn and so far to go. But I’m ok with that and am enjoying the process.