Presence.tv recently published the article that I'm sharing with you entitled "Mindful Mothering". I would love to hear your thoughts about it..
"I'm sorry that you feel disappointed in yourself." When I said those eight words to my son this morning, immediately I felt disappointed in myself. I just sensed that I hadn’t communicated clearly that I am there with him, that I empathize. As I replay the conversation over and over in my mind, I ask myself, “What I could say better in the future? What I can say when he gets home from school?”
He had procrastinated on some school assignments. He intentionally put them off for a time because he wanted to finish other projects first. This approach, he thought, would let him pay full attention all of his projects so that he could complete them in a manner that would reflect his effort. Eventually, he forgot to turn them in, and this resulted in low grades on his report card.
He beat himself up for forgetting. I felt sadness seeing my son so frustrated with himself for not living up to his idea of perfection, so I wanted to help him be easier on himself. At the same time, I hoped he would discover the natural result of consequences. This conflict weighs heavy on me as I’m feeling an internal struggle. Watching my teenage son go through a tough time makes me want to short circuit his learning process. Yet, I know there are some life lessons that can be discovered only through experience.
Looking back at our conversation, hopefully I said some things that comforted him. I told him that I know how hard it is to feel the fear of the possible exposure of perceived failures. He had hidden his report card from me for as long as possible and expressed to me that he worried about disappointing me. I told him that he had made a mistake, but I assured him that I am not disappointed in him because of it. I love him because he is my son, not because he is a grade-getting machine.
However, I hear the words of Einstein replaying in my mind: "Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them." Had I failed to prevent a problem by not effectively teaching him self-discipline? Had I failed to instill in him a sense of inner security when he makes mistakes? Had I failed to inspire him with the motivation for success? How had I failed at preventing this situation? What brought us to this point?
For a long time, I have been appealing to “greed” to jump-start him in setting long term goals for himself—not greed for money and stuff, but greed for choices. I’m convinced that a solid education will get him choices in life. However, I have to ask myself, “Am I taking away his choices now in holding him hostage to my prescribed expectations? Or will allowing him the freedom to make mistakes now motivate him for success later on?” Is it a mistake to let him not make mistakes? Mindful Mistakes
Like a lot of parents with their own children, I’ve not always been easy on my son for making what I consider to be mistakes. At the same time, I’m not always easy on myself either.
In the not-too-distant past, I was afraid that if I did not instill a strong sense of shame in my son that he would be empowered to “mess up” without caring at all. It was essential (I thought) to care about mistakes, to gravely care. He needed to learn strict willpower at an early age so he would grow into a disciplined adult. I assumed that sowing the seeds of carelessness in his youth would cause him to reap a whirlwind of suffering later on. More than that, I believed that if he made certain moral mistakes when he was older that he (and I) might suffer hell for them. Now was the critical time to teach him properly.
I can see that I learned this way of thinking in my own childhood. When I was young, my parents looked on my mistakes as careless errors, and carelessness was inexcusable. It meant that I wasn't being as vigilant as I should have been. I suffered their wrath for my failures, physically and emotionally, and learned the lesson of hypervigilance.
Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors intended to detect threats. Imagine the actions of a zebra in the open plains of Africa, and you may begin to understand some of those intense behaviors accompanying the constant feeling of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance causes continual watchfulness because it perceives nearly everything as a matter of survival.
I internalized hypervigilance, and it became part of who I was. Biblical passages that I might otherwise question the meaning of, or notice the settings of, jumped out of the pages as words validating hypervigilance. Sermons were filled with the encouragement to “Be wary, for woe to the soul who is not!”
God was painted as a thief, who will sneak in at dark and destroy your home. “Watch, then, for you do not know in what hour your Lord comes. But know this, that if the housemaster had known in what watch the thief comes, he would have watched and not have allowed his house to be dug through” (Matthew 24:42-43 ).
The Devil was behind every rock, hoping to find you in a weak moment so he might pounce. “Be sensible, watch, because your adversary the Devil walks about as a roaring lion seeking someone he may devour” (1Peter 5:8).
I didn’t want to be caught by a thief or devoured by a diabolical lion. I longed for survival. So, I developed Zebra Vision. The eyes of prey animals—like zebras—are set on the sides of their heads so that they can better watch for their stalkers. Zebras are able to see behind their own bodies with their panoramic vision.
Though biologically my eyes were facing front, my inner eye of perception was squarely in the prey position. My idea of "Satan" stirred up fear in me that showed itself externally. He, I believed back then, was able to torment me in this life and in the next if I didn’t watch out.
No matter where the judgment seat was, now or in the afterlife, imagining it was terrifying. "What if I had missed something? What if I were wrong about something?" Rather than looking at the love of God, I froze as I stared at my own perceived weaknesses. Making a mistake would be eternally life threatening, and openly showing fear would suggest weakness. This would leave me as prey vulnerable to attack or failure. I must not be afraid. "Be strong." I must not cry. "Suck it up."
Because the idea of making a mistake in any aspect of my life horrified me, I certainly didn't want my son to experience similar torment. So, I strategized to keep my son “safe” and concluded that shame coupled with huge doses of fear and guilt would prevent his suffering.
However, my plan didn't prevent his feeling shameful about everything he perceived as a mistake. He feared sharing those mistakes, and he developed a strong feeling of self-loathing. My plan certainly didn’t prevent him from inflicting shame upon his soul just imagining failure. Paradoxically, I nurtured the very things that I didn’t (and don't) want for him.
"Mindfulness" recently entered my vocabulary, and it perfectly describes awareness in action minus self-destructive hypervigilance. Mindfulness involves attentiveness to life without the accompanying fear, guilt, shame, and the condemnation. Mindfulness transforms mistakes into learning opportunities.
Sometimes the experiences that go along with our “mistakes” are harshly painful. For a child in school, low grades can bring about feelings of disappointment and sadness. For an adult, consistent tardiness can result in the loss of employment. Mindfulness means acknowledging our actions, consequences, and emotions; whereas, hypervigilance often responds with paralyzing invalidation, anger, and shame.
George Bernard Shaw said, "To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer." That statement rings true for me. Feeling like "prey" is no less than drifting in a hellish lake. Surely we are not able to control every aspect of life; however, we can decide mindfully how to approach every situation.
It wasn't until I knew God's unconditional love that I began to be loosed from the bonds of hypervigilance and the shame of failure. It was as if my soul had been entombed, and the very love of God allowed me to experience my freedom.
Awareness of God’s love allowed me to become mindful of mistakes, and to take some time to consider what I might learn from them without the spiritual self abuse that used to torment me when I “messed up.”
It took a large chunk of my son's life for me to learn this lesson, and now I sometimes struggle with having made that mistake in parenting. (Hypervigilance raises its head once again.) As much as I've learned about making mistakes, this is the largest hurdle yet…to forgive myself for passing that suffering on.
For me, not to forgive myself means continuing with shame, guilt, and self-condemnation. My son will perceive this, and possibly internalize it for himself. So, for my son’s sake, I’m learning to forgive myself and to stop punishing both of us. Punishment?
Punishment is the practice of imposing something unpleasant or aversive on a person (or animal) in response to an unwanted, disobedient, or morally wrong behavior. The key concept here is “imposing.” This suggests inflicting external penalties, as opposed to experiencing the natural order of consequences.
Passing down hypervigilance taught my son self-punishment instead of self-discipline. Unforgiveness perpetuates punishment, and my unwillingness to forgive myself caused me to punish myself and my entire family through the way my self-punishment worked its way out in life.
I’ve come to see that the difficulty I was experiencing is punishment itself. When I rest in God’s unconditional love, I can I find deliverance because I lose the fear that causes torment. This allows me to live with empathy toward my son. He and I are not problems to be fixed; we are people to love and be loved.
Mindful of how I felt with loads of self-disappointment, I will be able to affirm his feelings without shaming him as he learns that mindfulness comes through experiencing consequences. So, I can embrace him as he feels sadness over his current situation, and I can help him find the learning in these circumstances.
He received low grades as a consequence of his procrastination. Hopefully he will allow this consequence to teach him the self-discipline of a timely work ethic. Even though I can’t force him to learn the lesson, I can support him as he feels the sting of disappointment. Whether he learns or not (and I imagine he will), I will love him without condition and let him know that he might love himself in such a way as well.
Right now I feel sad that my son feels down, and I’m bummed that it got this far. Yet instead of intentionally increasing (“driving home”) the impact of his mistakes upon him, amplifying his emotional experience, or punishing him by heaping guilt upon him and me, I’ll embrace him and help him learn. I’ll walk with him through this valley.
So, in an ironic consequence to his mistake, I’ve learned from mine. Now, I feel hope for both of us that our disappointment turns into success, mindfulness, and love.