Mental Health & Wellness

in Salamanca, SpainPhotos courtesy of the Eleven O’Clock Dad

So you’re starting a meditation practice. With a child. Yes, this is possible. And bravo to you! You’re in for a treat. And so is the child who’s about to benefit mightily from learning to quiet his or her mind.

Of course you’re wondering, But how will he/she sit still long enough? Ah, that’s the rub. Below are three keys for creating a successful meditation moment with your child. Likewise, I’d love for you to share yours, if you’ve got a few that work well for you.

First key. Create a quiet, comfortable, distraction-free space. This means no. Other. Noise. Literally. Goose and I do his meditation in the morning, early, before phones begin to ring or texts begin to arrive or other family members begin to be up and doing. Because kids are easily distracted anyway, front loading the experience so it’s interference-free can mean the difference between a profoundly quiet moment or a total bust. We also opt for early morning light rather than artificial light of any kind. Something about the time before sun-up works perfectly for us. Though I have a particular position I like for my own practice, with Goose, we simply sit side by side on the couch. He crosses his legs pretzel style and keeps his hands relaxed, palms up, on his thighs–a way to signal his openness to the creative energy he desires to connect with.

Second key. Breathing matters. Really matters. As his guide, I start the meditation by having him breathe in deep, right from his gut, then hold it for a couple of seconds, just to pull air deep into his body. Since I practice Japa, which involves making a slow “Ahhh” sound on the exhale, I’m teaching him to do likewise. As he breathes out, he simply says “Ahhh.” The sound doesn’t have to be generated with the voice; it can be whispered and still be a powerful lever for focusing and quieting the mind.  I’ve been surprised to see how quickly he falls quiet and still with breathing as the initial mechanism. I pause frequently throughout the meditation to guide his breathing.

Third key.  I provide the mental infrastructure for the meditation, and I do this by narrating a story–one of my own making. My objectives are simple. First, I want him to identify through an empowered ‘self’ (he’s the main character!) going on a brief but intriguing journey of some kind. Second, I want the journey to be vivid enough that he feels he’s there, experiencing it. Third, I want him to feel deeply empowered in both mind and heart once we conclude the exercise.

Our first time, I had him imagine that he was in a Redwood grove, where he free-climbed a giant Redwood tree. Could he do that in real life? Nope. Can he do it in a meditation exercise? Absolutely. Moreover, when we finished, he confessed to being amazed at how real it felt–how much like lived experience. But then that’s the power of a good practice: you can go places in your mind that you’d never be able to go otherwise. And the feeling of doing the impossible proves real enough, potent enough, that you’re transformed–maybe just the tiniest bit, but you are.

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Already, Goose describes the benefits of going deep into a quietly imagined moment in which he is both journeyer and hero. He says he feels calmer, that he trusts himself more. In these meditations, he is a kind of Odysseus, scaling mountains, seeing through the eyes of Bald eagles, diving deep as he searches for sea creatures, venturing into mountain caves in search of rare gems, and finding–wherever he wanders–that real power always resides within.

In a time when gadgets rule the day; when each new form of digital wizardry dazzles and distracts, the wisdom of going deep into oneself might seem like a less-than-impressive place to find the Answers. But one of the greatest benefits of any meditation practice is the way learning to empty your mind in order to refocus it in more intuitive directions actually connects you to the real locus of your power. For every practitioner, that locus feels a little different, but it’s there, and tapping into it unlocks hidden but rich reserves of very real strength.

Being a 21st Century Kid is a fraught business. Why not navigate it knowing how truly fit you really are to do so?

Jaén, Spain

Stay tuned for thoughts about how to craft the perfect meditation narrative!

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Silas happy with ballooon_5215 Photos courtesy of the Eleven O’Clock Dad

Answering to the name of “Goose,” the youngest member of our family frequently struggles with a problem common to many otherwise healthy eleven year olds. I call it the I Stink At Everything Syndrome, and it manifests thusly.

One. Said eleven year old scores two goals for his team during a soccer game, let’s say. During the second half of the game, when he is put in as goalie, the other team scores two goals. The only post-game thoughts of which this boy is now capable include self-torturing variations of “It’s like I didn’t even score in the first half!” or “Gah!!–how could I have let those balls get past me??” or “I stink as goalie . . . WHY did coach leave me in for so long??”

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Two. Said eleven year old is required to write an essay for a testing exercise at school, let’s say, an endeavor that results in an outbreak of self-doubt and accompanying self-flagellation likely to mortify even the most pitiable Dan Brown character (i.e., Da Vinci Code’s crazy monk).

Three. Said eleven year old notices that a couple of neighborhood friends have congregated for some outdoor playtime–without him. Ipso facto, this means that he has permanently fallen out of favor, that our doorbell will never ring again, that some vague conspiracy has begun whose stated goal is “Leave Goose Out Of The Fun, Forever.”

I ask you: what is a mother to do?

Well, I’ve pondered that question long and hard, and I’ll tell you what doesn’t work–like suggesting that such patterns (failing to catch soccer balls arcing over your head, for instance) are merely temporary. Wow, big mistake. All this does is reinforce a child’s certainty that his mother doesn’t have a clue what it’s like to be the victim of an unhappy fate. Another thing that never works?–suggesting that there might be some valuable take-away or learning that could put everything into meaningful perspective (completing an essay on a topic you loathe, for example, which then serves as a lever for teaching you that you actually can do hard things, and do them well). The fact that a mother has logic and wisdom on her side doesn’t make a lick of difference to a kid who has convinced himself that his is the Worst Life Ever. And finally, one thing that really doesn’t work is suggesting that perhaps the neighborhood chums aren’t deliberately leaving anyone out; they’ve just gotten something going, and now it’s, well, going. It happens all the time, I pointed out one day not too long ago. Nobody’s fault, I added. Go join the game, I urged. (Note: advice like this is often met with The Stare, which communicates a child’s contempt for motherly wisdom as surely as if he’d said, “Could you BE any thicker?”)

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And then, recently–maybe a month ago–I took up a meditation practice. I’d gone in fits and starts over the years–flirted with it, in other words. But I’d never been consistent. So it was with the most profound sense of humility and delight that I realized: If a mother can a) quiet her mind long enough to connect with her bliss, and b) do it for upwards of thirty days, why couldn’t she teach her eleven year old to do it, too? Stranger things have been attempted, am I right??

Silas ambling with balloon_5210

And so, maybe a week ago, I began in earnest, my primary objective being to stage a moment of effective meditation with/for Mr. Goose. Starting out, I had three very simple goals. One, teach him how to breathe and how to attend to his breathing. Two, help him experience the bliss of escaping from thinking patterns that sabotage healthy self-esteem and well-being. Three, like it well enough to want to do it again.

The good news. He not only liked it, he LOVED it! The equally good news. His sudden fascination with the art of quieting the mind promises to keep my imagination busy and my skills sharp for many weeks to come.

Tomorrow: three crucial tips for a successful meditation session with your child.

Silas walking along with balloon_5207

Check out the post from which these photos were taken, featuring Goose with an abandoned, yellow balloon in the town of St. Remy, in Provence, France.

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On top of my dining room table, where I used to write, sat a small, paper car. My then eight-year-old son received it one night when the two of us went out to Ruby’s Diner together for some Friday night cheer. He quickly lost interest in his prize, but the thing was too cool (and, truth be told, too pretty) to throw away, so I kept it parked next to my computer, where I could admire the creativity that went into its design. On the bottom of the chassis were directions for the assembly: fold, tuck, fit the tabs into the slots. Easy, breezy! Finished, it was a miniature Woody—spearmint green, with wood paneling on the doors and the tailgate. But what really struck me about the car was both how Ready-to-go! it looked, and how perfectly, utterly useless it was.

Before I got good pharmacological help for a radioactive (the word “severe” doesn’t quite describe it) anxiety and depression back in the fall of 2008, I was a Paper Woody. To everyone who knew me, I looked so cheerily Ready-to-go!  On the outside, I appeared well put together; all my visible parts seemed to be in polished, working order. But if you’d pulled up the hood and peered inside, you’d have noticed the missing engine. And if you’d checked the fuel tank, you would have found it empty. And if you’d looked closely, you would have noticed that my wheels would not turn, not for love or money.  When I was ill, the only thing with any appearance of ‘real’ was Me-as-shell, a hollowed-out car.  It felt like, if someone had wanted to, they could have gathered me, crushed me into a tight paper ball, and tossed me into the garbage without even breaking stride.

A fancy Woody I seemed.  But I was going exactly nowhere because I had absolutely zero traction–zero–and I could not rouse myself. Could. Not. Rouse myself. Depressives often use metaphors to describe their anguish. Mine was ‘quicksand.’ Picture it: shiny car, sinking into the muck, which squeezes out light and air as it swallows.  Hard to go anywhere in quicksand.  No, forget ‘go’:  hard to survive when you’re in quicksand.

Five years later and worlds away from that time and that self, I now find that I’ll often notice individuals who look to me like Paper Woodies.  I might see one in the grocery store, her shiny mask slipping momentarily as she waits in the check-out line, where no one else notices the pain that settles on her face for an unguarded moment.  Or maybe when I’m stopped at an intersection, where, in another car, a woman stares ahead at nothing, her expression that unmistakable combination of Hollow and Desperate. I find myself wishing I could talk to them, tell them I get it.

Someone did that for me, actually, back when I was made of paper.  An observant friend, herself a former sufferer, knew what she was looking at, and she helped me connect with a great doctor—a pharmacologist and diagnostician extraordinaire who talked me not only through my medication options but also through their chemical properties in order to help me figure out what might be the right place to start.  I appreciated it, that he talked to me like I still had a mind fit enough for a real chemistry lesson.  More than that, I appreciated that, from Day One, he believed me when I told him I thought my brain was a little broken.

Medication set me on a new path. So did deciding to write about my journey, which became an opportunity to reimagine what it meant both to be medicated and to be well. After all, therapeutic medication and earnest self narratives share the same goal: to relocate the lost You, the once Vibrant Person who began fading to dust when those testy brain chemicals started making life difficult.

Whether you are a Paper Woody or just love one deeply, you ought to know this: there is no shame in reaching out for help. In fact, nothing in my lived experience has felt more true. Had I not gotten help, I don’t know who I’d be right now. I don’t know what the landscape of my family would look like, though I can guarantee you it would be bleak. Nor do I know what the ultimate cost would have been to my sense of self-worth, an already fragile thing corroded by mental illness. I am an advocate for good treatment. After all, the help I got saved not only me but my family: if Mom’s not well, nobody’s well.

If you’ve ever joined me for talk of family, teens, travel, culture, you may have thought my life was charmed.  It’s not.  Most people have no idea how hard I have fought for my health and my happiness.  I guess that’s why I decided, post-Spain, to shift the conversation for a moment, so I could address the theme of mental wellness, a thing so essential to successful mothering that it seems like a foregone conclusion.  But the truth is not just that the mental health of a Mother impacts her family.  That’s obvious, isn’t it?  What’s also true is that Moms have the right to feel and to be mentally healthy, and when they don’t, too often they hide it–perhaps because they mistake unwellness for weakness.  I did that, for a long time.  I wore my coloful Paper Self around, never hinting to anyone close to me that up around my ankles, then my knees, then my hips, then my chest, the quicksand was thickening, threatening to swallow me whole.  I feared that if others knew what I felt, they would judge me, that they would view me as Deficient.  And so I kept silent.  And suffered.  It’s a common tale, and the fact that it’s so common mystifies me now.  I ask myself, Why did I care more about the (often uninformed) opinions of others than about the health of my own mind?

I can be gentler with myself now, in retrospect.  I realize that I was as much a victim of misinformation and misconceptions as I was my own illness.  And I worried about the financial cost of treatment, not appreciating fully that the cost of languishing in the quicksand was far higher than the cost of getting well.  One night, I sat the Eleven O’Clock Dad down and said, basically, “You have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into your business enterprises.  I believe I am an enterprise worth funding.”

Every Mother is an Enterprise Worth Funding.  Every single one.  And for Moms who struggle with depression and anxiety or any combination of ills that damage mind and self-worth and eventually soul, a contribution to her fund–with acknowledgement, support, love, friendship, and meaningful help in all its forms–is also a contribution to the family that counts on her for its own wellness.  The only reason I could ever be the Eleven O’Clock Mom?–I got better.

If you’re that woman in the grocery store check-out line; if you’re that woman at the intersection, I get you.  I believe you.  I was you.  Yes, the quicksand is real (even if it’s invisible to everyone else).  And yes–resoundingly!–you deserve the help that will allow you to address whatever it is that has caused you to sink, whether it’s chemical, situational, whatever.

Think of me as your Eleven O’Clock Sister, if you want.  Your fears, your suffering, your story:  all of it is safe with me.

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