Remember that each of us lives only in the present, this fleeting moment of time, and that the rest of one’s life has either already been lived or lies in an unknowable future. The space of each person’s existence is thus a little thing….
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 3, Section 10
How much time have I wasted mulling over mistakes of the past? Thinking about unfulfilled hopes from younger days? How many moments have I squandered worried about the future: about what would happen later today, about next week, next month, next year? Anxious that I might disappoint other people or let myself down?
I realize I can’t eliminate these kinds of thoughts, but these are things that I strive to notice. I want to at least be aware of them. I would like to recall Marcus Aurelius’ lines continuously, but it’s very hard to make my brain think that way.
Marcus’ wisdom resonates with what I’ve learned about mindfulness and Buddhist meditation practices. By focusing on the current moment, by just being present now, we can (even briefly) escape our “stories” about ourselves (often filled with insecurities, defensiveness, and misjudgments), the litany of fears that have governed us in the past, the bad habits we find hard to break, and the anxieties that plague us about tomorrow. This is a difficult practice for someone steeped in concerns, cautions, and sometimes-unrealistic expectations (about myself and my world), but very much worth trying.
I’ve been pouring over Marcus Aurelius’ work recently to try to re-ground myself in a time of stress in my job. And I’ve found another book that offers a different kind of grounding. It’s Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, a study of how reason and science have led to an enormous amount of progress throughout the globe since the Enlightenment period in the late eighteenth century.
The book is filled with pragmatic wisdom and actual facts about improvements in the standard of living, health, education, food availability, women’s rights, and more. This knowledge needs not only to be written about in smart books, but also to be verbalized much, much more in society today. The anti-progress people, those who decry reason and science and say that the world is getting worse, seem to be winning for the moment on our public stage for the time being. But it need not be this way in the future.
Look how far we have come in terms of laying the groundwork for more and more people to live a good life. We can quibble about exactly what values we should subscribe to, but knowing that reason, science, and humanism have yielded a world in which things have gotten a great deal better—so much better that more of us can afford to spend time thinking, reading about, and practicing practical philosophy, among many other good and useful things—is eye-opening.
It’s far better to be a woman and a mother today than in past generations, however rose-tinted our backwards-looking glasses may be. And I’m even more optimistic for my two daughters. They are living in a time when people are working hard to expose and diminish bias, fight against harassment, and offer the best education possible for girls as well as boys.
There’s much more work to be done, surely. In fact, education is one of the most problematic areas today in terms of inequality and issues of access. But knowing that something’s not perfect doesn’t mean we should decry it, or give up on it. Letting go of the past and remaining cautiously optimistic (though realistic) about the future, we can carry on today.
And as for me, I’ll try to use whatever time I have given to me in the now to live in accord with nature--and to make my best efforts towards wisdom, justice, and self-knowledge.
Last week, Modern Stoicism published my guest post on Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction. If you haven't seen it, please check it out. If you already have, thanks!
The post is my take on staying focused on what really matters - as parents, modern Stoics, and technology users. It's not an easy task in our world filled with distracting devices and competing demands.
My story begins with my dad, who had remarkable powers of concentration. I find it much more difficult than he did, but every day is an opportunity to practice. I try to squeeze in dedicated periods of concentration. The more I remind myself to be present, the more I'm able to focus on the people and projects I truly care about.
In case you are not familiar with it, Modern Stoicism is an excellent source on applying Stoic philosophy to our lives today. Writers for the blog explore a wide range of interpretations of Stoic thought. The group also organizes the annual Stoicon conference and Stoic Week.
Cascade Falls, Emerald Bay, in Tahoe, California: where my bad mood was suddenly broken by a very tactile moment
Long streaks of water tumbled over the gray granite mountain walls above us. Dark streams gushed past well-washed tree trunks and over green shoots bearing pink wildflowers.
As I stood there taking in the scene, I was angry and frustrated. About a lot of things. Part of me couldn’t even bear to look around. It was too beautiful, and it didn’t match my mood at all.
I bent down to get a closer look at the rushing streams. Then I reached my hand towards the water, drawn to the rushing falls’ clearness and coolness in the midday sun.
The moment I felt the icy cold water touch my fingertips at cascade falls, my mood began to change.
Before that, all the advice and thoughtfulness of my husband, my hiking companion, hadn’t shifted my dark mood. “Come on, make the best of it—you’re in a gorgeous place,” he said, and it made no difference. Our kids were at camp and it was a rare chance to take a hike solo. But all the views of the mountain, the trees, Lake Tahoe, and its crystal water hadn’t broken me out of my negative thought pattern. All the footsteps that led me to these rushing falls hadn’t done it either.
It wasn’t that I had something serious to worry about that day—my terrible mood was a result of a range of petty problems and missed expectations that fed my anger with myself and other people.
But somehow the water, feeling it and being shocked by its frigid temperature, noticing just how clear it was, hearing it wash the rocks, changed me. I realized afterwards that this was an example of something I need to do much more often: Using mindful awareness of my (tactile) senses in the moment to break out of a difficult, negative emotion.
I know I have a tendency to focus on the negative. Actually, on some level, we all do: it’s how primitive humans survived in a dangerous world, by spotting threats and avoiding them. It’s just that today, we perceive so many things as threats, from other drivers (who legitimately are potential killers) to unexpected expenses to disapproval by our family members or our bosses. But my thoughts about our less-than-perfect world often spiral out of control far too quickly. I am trying to understand that, and develop resilience for myself and also for my kids. To be there for them more fully, and to model for them how to handle tough feelings.
Often I talk to my daughters about the importance of calming themselves when they get upset. While deep breathing can often work, some methods are more senses-based and tactile. I recommended that my angry daughter punch a pillow. A counselor I know suggested other things: Try a blowing game where you move a balled tissue across the table with your breath. She also mentioned finger painting, which I now realize was a brilliant idea. Using your hands in thick paint and feeling its texture could activate touch and the awareness of the moment just as the cold water did.
In fact, kids tend to do a lot of things that use their bodies and senses to take them out of their minds this way: jumping in big puddles, turning their faces up to the rain, hitting things with sticks, bouncing into piles of fallen leaves. These are the kinds of exploits that we’re often warning them against—I can hear myself saying, “you’ll get dirty, you’ll be all wet, you’ll catch a chill, you’ll hurt yourself.” But maybe they instinctively know that not only is it fun, but it’s a way of feeling the moment and experiencing life outside the confines of our regular thought patterns.
I learned from that moment at the falls. Using our senses is not merely a way to distract or cover up our feelings. It’s a way to break free by refocusing the body and the mind. No one had to lecture me to change the way I felt, no harsh voice inside me had to tell me to “suck it up.” I shifted from within.
I was still angry when I reached into that water, but it washed the feeling out of me. I noticed my hands, my sense of touch and temperature, and my own body in a way I hadn’t before. And I was able to stop ruminating over negative thoughts, even for a short time--enough time to take in the beauty and fullness all around me.
I promised I’d post about how the 8 and 9-year-olds responded to my mindfulness and contemplation training for a small group of girls at a local elementary school. My daughter participated, which gave me a good sense for how things were going (she can be brutally honest about her opinions!). The program was more successful than I’d imagined and motivated me to keep thinking about how to share these ideas locally and beyond.
I wanted the kids to understand the context for why this matters—and how we can influence how our brains work. We all began by thinking back to the time when the human brain first evolved. What was the world like? The students chimed in with a lot of reasons why humans would be afraid of things like lightning and wooly mammoths and running out of food. (Although one girl’s claim that people were fearful that they would be eaten by dinosaurs had to be quickly discounted!) The students grasped how hard life must have been.
I asked them to try to understand that nowadays, we view the small annoyances and setbacks of modern Western existence as if they were equally life-threatening dangers. And that we can develop bad habits of the mind as a result. I used the example of my response to someone not replying to my email – was my message stupid? Will that person tell other folks that I’m an idiot? Could I be fired from my job because I’m not smart enough? Will I then starve? This kind of thinking is sometimes called catastrophizing. It’s common in my brain and seems to happen to a lot of us.
(If you’ve seen the short film called Inner Workings that is now showing before the movie Moana, you’ll understand that it is a perfect example of what I mean. The main character, a guy whose body we can peer into like in an anatomy textbook, is pulled by the lure of fun things like eating a big delicious breakfast and going swimming or surfing in the ocean. But his brain keeps pointing out all the threatening, dangerous things that could happen to him if he chases fun. These possibilities always lead to an illustration of an early grave in his mind’s eye.)
Next, I explained to the students how to do a personal weather report about how they feel. I liked this idea because it’s such a neutral, non-judgmental way to think about our own emotions. In the same way that you can’t change or control the weather, you can’t always change your feelings—but you can notice them and be aware. I had all the students close their eyes and ask themselves quietly if they felt stormy, rainy, snowy, sunny, cloudy, tropical, etc., in their own minds. My daughter thought this was a useful exercise.
I included a few other metaphors that didn’t register as well with the third graders. For instance, the notion of “surfing your emotions” turned out to be pretty abstract to them. I got a few vacant stares and quickly moved on.
We did a five-minute guided meditation using a recording from the UCLA online center. It focuses on calming the mind and gently breathing, but not much else—just a very simple pause. Most of the girls engaged with it. A few kept giggling, and one said she thought it was creepy. I asked that girl afterwards to explain what she meant, but she wouldn't respond. Possibly it was the recorded voice—which was a sort of monotone. I found it soothing, but kids might not all agree. Next time, I would try to bring in a bell or a block to strike when the meditation time is over. The students would pay attention to an intriguing sound, I think, and I could use my own voice rather than a recording.
At the session’s end, I briefly explained that we could use meditation to develop compassion and loving-kindness towards others and ourselves. The girls closed their eyes and thought of a friend or family member, repeating to themselves, “May she/he find joy and peace.” They did the same with themselves: “May I find joy and peace.”
Feedback on this session has been positive. I’d like to pursue more testing of this teaching soon. More to do in 2017!
The presidential election is over now, and a lot of people I've encountered have been unsettled by it. They are uncertain about our country’s future, and so am I. All around me, parents are struggling to explain the election, and the words and ideas of the president-elect, to their kids.
In this stressful time, practicing mindfulness is more important than ever. That’s true for both adults and kids. After completing the exercises of Stoic Week—many focused on becoming more aware of my own emotional responses to events in my life—I decided that I needed to do more than just work on myself.
So I began to put together a session for children. I plan to lead mindfulness training at a Girl Scout meeting for third-graders in a couple weeks. From there, I will look into other ways to share both Stoic ideas and mindfulness training with grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers.
Here’s a preview of what I’d like to tell students. (The surfing metaphor is inspired by a passage in the book Sitting Still Like a Frog by Dutch mindfulness teacher and therapist Eline Snel.)
A baby cries when she is hungry or wet or tired or just feeling bad. She giggles when she’s happy or something seems funny. It’s all pretty simple. As we get older, our emotions get more complicated. But the good news is that we can become more aware of our feelings.
During each day, we have a lot of feelings, like frustration if we can’t get an answer correct in math, or anger if our friend wants to play with someone else at recess, or joy if we get a basket in basketball.
Some feelings are pretty tough to handle. We worry about people being mad at us. We are upset about having a fight with someone. We think about how we might not be good enough at something in school or in our activities. We remember seeing bullies pushing people on the playground and wonder, what if that happened to us? It’s normal to have worries and feelings that rise up inside us and make us feel bad. But what I’d like to remind you is that YOU ARE NOT your feelings – you just have them for a while. (Or put another way, one of my favorite notions in mindfulness: “Don’t believe everything you think.”)
What if we could imagine that our feelings are like a giant ocean of waves?
Then we could learn how to surf. Surfing is a hard sport because you can’t really change the waves. You can’t make them bigger or smaller. You can’t stop the waves. It’s like that with our feelings. We can’t make our emotions change, nor can we fix or stop the people around us from making us feel a certain way.
But we can practice surfing. You can start seeing your own reaction to problems and issues and you can try to stop and think. You can notice what makes you upset or frustrated. And instead of having an automatic response, take a deep breath. Take a pause, and keep breathing, as you work on building the balance of a surfer.
From there, I'd ask the students to pay attention to their breath, doing a simple meditation.
This, I think, is one way of conveying the essence of Stoicisim. We all need to become skillful surfers of life’s emotions, of its ups and downs. I can’t wait to see how the kids respond!
We all need a philosophy. I’m not talking about a massive belief system or a set of intricate logical precepts that takes decades to build; nor do I necessarily mean religious beliefs. I’m referring to a basic approach to the world, to the phenomena we experience day to day, to the burdens and joys of life as we know it.
That’s why everyone needs a philosophy. To handle our lives in the real world.
And moms—and dads—need this in spades. That is because we are not only responsible for ourselves, but for many years we are in charge of others’ lives. Not just the changing diapers part or the getting dinner on the table part or the driving to piano lessons part. I’m thinking much bigger than that.
It’s up to use what we teach and model for our children. That means extra pressure on us, both because of our added work (and rewards) as parents, but also because of the way we teach our children to live.
I’ve been pretty worried about that over the years. And worry does not help! I wonder: Does my anxiety as a mother rub off on my daughters? Are they learning to be fearful from me? Are they learning to be judgmental or put-upon? To be overly focused on material things? To be considerate to other people? Am I demonstrating how to have the confidence to speak their minds? The list goes on and on. It’s easy enough to just focus on the rat race of school, activities, and achievements, rather than our moral and emotional lives.
It’s only now, when my children are 8 and just-turned-11, that I’ve felt able to come up for air and really examine this moral and emotional side of parenting.
I started this journey towards a philosophy to help myself. I was finding myself increasingly irritable and frustrated, wondering how I’d get through the day and the week ahead when I was so filled with self-doubt, resentment, and fear. I dreaded basic and simple things.
And I could see that my daughters were suffering for it. It’s when they began looking at me and saying, “Mom, are you OK?” out of the blue that I knew something was wrong. My emotions were affecting them. And I didn’t want them to feel responsible for the burdens I felt. It was when I witnessed myself yelling at everyone in my household for leaving the house 10 minutes late for an appointment, how angry I was, how unnerved I became over a miniscule thing. And how responsible I felt for the mistakes my children made—and the frustration and upset that came with that. How could I be placing so much of a burden on myself and those around me? How could I quiet this state of hyper-reaction?
That’s when I began to investigate mindfulness. At the university where I work, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a class about applying mindfulness-based techniques to our emotional lives. It wasn’t a research or academic course, but rather a practicum on how to become more mindful through meditation, exercises, and discussions. I’ll always be thankful for the way this set me on my path to mindfulness, and now to Stoicism.
The class taught me to recognize the difference between what happens, and my reaction to what happens. To understand that things out there in the world do not have to affect me in the way they always had. That I could change my relationship to the events and people around me—for the better.
After beginning this journey, I’ve found that it’s a long one—life-long. But I’m very excited to be on the right path. And I’d like to share that with you, to help you benefit from what I’ve learned along the way.
In this blog, I’ll write about mindfulness. I’ll delve into the way it led me to Stoic philosophy. And in the process, I will explore how both of these things can make a tremendous difference for you, me, and everyone else you’ve ever met, if we just could stop and invest a little time in finding our own philosophies.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.