October 30, 2008

Surrender, Prioritize, and Commit

As mom to a toddling almost-10-month old, I sometimes wish that I could have learned some of motherhood's lessons before I actually had a child. I would have been able to take MUCH better care of myself!

So often I felt like I had too much to do to go to sleep early or sleep in, to work out, write, meditate, or practice yoga. When I let those things slip, I blamed the balancing act of a demanding job and professional travel schedule and various projects and relationships in my personal life. I often felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants...

Fast forward to Kai's arrival. I knew he would need his mom, and I knew he would nurse every 1-3 hours for a while. Anyone who has actually nursed a newborn knows that the big surprise lives in the reality that when your babe nurses intheir first months, it's often for 45 minutes at a stretch. So when Kai nursed hourly at times during the day, that meant I had 15 minute windows to take care of myself and "get things done." New parents often choose between a shower or eating lunch when such windows of time arise, and MUST live with other things falling away, at least for a time.

Mamas and papas adjust quickest and easiest when they do two things:
  1. Surrender to the moment and to their baby's needs without trying to resist or change them, knowing that a time will come for doing other things; and
  2. Identify the one or two things that really, really matter to their sense of self, or feel unbelievably nurturing, and negotiate a way to do them.
To the first point - Babies are the world's best meditation teachers. Years of 10-day silent meditation retreats can't even hold a candle to what Kai has shown me about accepting reality as it is at any given moment. When he's hungry, I feed him. When he's tired, I help him sleep. When he needs cuddles, I give them. And really, even in those moments when I'd rather be doing something else, I don't even consider making the choice not to respond. That choice is off the table.

Now to the second point. What feeds you? The answer may be intensely personal, or it may be somewhat universal. Here are some of the things parents in my classes do for themselves:
  • Extra sleep - when you're working really hard, an extra hour of sleep makes a tremendous impact. Parents often achieve this by trading off an hour in the morning, and an hour in the evening with each another - one parent gets to go to sleep early, one gets to sleep in. If you don't have kids, pick a night each week to head to be early and a morning to sleep late, and don't compromise on that time! And single parents can have a relative or friend come over from time to time to make this possible.
  • Write - one mama I know realized that when her babe woke in the wee hours of the morning, then nursed back to sleep, she herself could actually stay awake for a bit and spend the time writing. This time made all the difference for her.
  • Solitude or Time with friends - Introverts can use an hour or two to themselves for a recharge, while extroverts might need some time with good pals to decompress.
  • Get a weekly massage
  • Head to a yoga class once a week or do a few poses every day
  • Go the gym or out for a run several times a week
  • Meditate for a few minutes every day
For me, the difference between pre-baby and post-baby is truly a matter of commitment and prioritizing when it comes to this kind of self-care. Motherhood gave me no option but to choose what matters most to me. And the all-out focus on someone else most of the time made commiting to my choices imperative.

I rarely compromise on the hour or two each morning of sleeping in that Bob makes possible. Lately, I stay up a little later in order to write these blog entries, because the time for reflection and sharing is really sustaining me. Each evening I work out in our living room with my husband as my trainer, and when I nurse Kai to sleep at night, I often use at least some of the time to quietly meditate.

When we feed our spirits, and that's what we're really talking about here, we recharge that infinite and ever-expanding supply of love that we have and make it much, much more available for the people (tiny or big) in our lives.

I'd love to know how you find the time to nurture yourself, and what you do! Send me an e-mail at lauren dot bellon at gmail dot com, or leave a comment!

October 29, 2008

Gratitude Wednesday

Earlier today I found a few moments to read a recent article by Pema Chodron in Shambala Sun. She described the importance of building gaps into your day, intentional moments for the mind to live outside of the constant flutter and craziness of Everything That Must Get Done. These gaps, she insists, are what give us the opportunity to love and live better than our old habits would have us do.

Also today, I taught the first classes of my new six-week Itsy Bitsy Yoga sessions. I teach 11 classes at three locations, and typically, half the families who register do so during the last week before a new series begins, no matter how early I begin advertising. The lizardy fear part of my brain finds this terrifying and tends to use the days before new classes start as an opportunity to run around in crazy little "We're going to fail!! We're going to fail!!" circles, causing me to snap at my lovely husband and become utterly distracted while spending time with my beautiful son.

Not so today, however. Here's what building reminding myself to breathe throughout my day made me aware of:
  • The steady, hard sound of my breath toward the end of my evening run, quiet and booming at the same time in the freezing, dark air that made it visible.
  • What a gift it is to have so many returning families in my classes, kids and parents who grace me with the opportunity to watch them grow and change.
  • Kai's laughter.
  • The astonishing fact that Bob is doing work he loves, I am doing work I love, and we both get to spend so much time together at home and with our son. We did it. More soon, but through wonderful serendipity, Bob has stumbled into an unbelievably perfect opportunity that gives us confidence we will be able to continue down this path we've begun.
Contributing significantly to my calm of late has also been the free daily personal training that I get from my husband. It's a bit absurd, and perhaps overly obvious, to point out that when I take care of myself, it's easier to take care of myself, but there it is.

So in many of my Itsy Bitsy Yoga classes this week, I'll be asking parents to share what they are doing to nurture themselves.

It's an important question for all of us, whether we do or do not have kids. Tomorrow I'll share a few ideas, from my own experience, and from the wisdom shared by mothers and fathers in my classes, about caring for yourself in the face of responsibilities that are very, very time-consuming.

Learn more about this post's image, crafted by Thich Nhat Hahn.

October 27, 2008

Healthier Halloween? Get Active!

I confess that in years past, Halloween was really just an excuse for me to chow down on leftover Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Kit Kats - the one time of year I went to town with junk food. But as a new mama who works with kids and thinks about their fitness on a regular basis, I'm feeling not-so-good about handing out high fructose corn syrup in a wrapper to the world's littlest folk.

Thankfully, the Mom blogs I follow are filled with tips and ideas for a greener, cleaner, healthier Halloween. Check out Crunchy Domestic Goddess and Boston Mamas for great alternatives to candy that won't get your house egged this year.

But since I haven't seen this anywhere else, I thought I'd share some activities to incorporate into your Halloween celebration to ensure that it's a healthy one. Especially if their junk food intake will increase, make sure you offer more opportunities for physical activity in the days to come. Some ideas to get you groovin' (these go for grownups without kids as well!):
  • Hoof It: Skip the car for your trick-or-treating this year and walk instead. Maybe even use your spooky stroll as an opportunity to start a new family tradition of going for a walk together every night.
  • Spooky Yoga: Do a Halloween yoga practice together. Cat pose becomes Scary Black Cat Pose, for instance. Let your kids go to town inventing new poses based on their costumes, on animals, on whatever their imagination can come up with.
  • Leafy Treats: If you live in New England, celebrate Halloween and autumn with my favorite fall activity, leaf pile jumping! The time spent raking leaves into piles will give everyone a workout. Little ones and big ones alike will delight in the sound and running through and into all the leaves.
  • Pumpkin Picking: If you haven't already picked your pumpkin this year, get your kids outside running around a pick-your-own field. Pick up some squash and roast it and the seeds for a healthy fall treat while you're there as well. You'll help your kids understand where their food, and their jack-o-lanters come from, and everyone will get some outdoor activity as well.
  • Halloween Dance Party: Dance the night away with your costumed kids to Monster Mash, Thriller, and Ghostbusters, and Time Warp! Check out The Complete Halloween Party Album on iTunes or just do a music search for "halloween party" and come up with your own playlist!

October 25, 2008

Never Doing Now

Yesterday I explained my Not Doing Now List. Today, I turn my attention to my Never Doing Now List.

A few of the items currently on this list:
  1. Cleaning the spaces between tiles on the bathroom floor with a toothbrush.
  2. Washing down the porch.
  3. Dusting the tops of ceiling fans.
Funny. I just realized that most of the items on my Never Doing List tend to be related to cleaning. This one works a little differently than the Not Doing Now List. I tend to reserve it for those things that occur to me as 'shoulds.'

So, for instance, I notice Kai looking up at the ceiling fan (maybe I'll do a post soon with some research on why babies and toddlers love ceiling fans and light fixtures so much - I would love to know), then think to myself, hmmm, it's probably very dusty up there. I really should dust it...

But I'm not someone who gets my kicks doing tasks like this. I know some of you out there are, and frankly, I'm a little envious of your spotless ceiling fans and sparkling porches! It really makes far more sense to spend my limited cleaning time on high priorities like making sure all the little fuzzballs and specks of who knows what that Kai manages to locate on the floor are, well, not on the floor.

Never Doing Now lets me acknowledge that a should is something "To Do" but also gives me explicit permission never to do it and frees up valuable brain space from worrying when I might get it done. What could you let go of by putting on your Never Doing Now List?

October 24, 2008

Not Doing Now

A few years back, one of my wise women role models gave me a tip for finding peace with what I thought was the tension between all the ideas that my brain likes to generate and the finite nature of a day - that whole 24 hours thing.

Instead of a to do list, she recommended creating a Doing Now List, a Not Doing Now List, and a Never Doing Now List. More on the Never Doing Now List tomorrow, but in the meantime...I've fallen head over heels in love with my Not Doing Now List.

The concept is not unlike another instruction I once received from a donor I worked with in my former career. He asked whether I'd been to China. When I replied, "No, I haven't had that opportunity," he replied, "You haven't had that opportunity yet."

As a mama, the available hours in a day have had to become even more focused. My Not Doing Now List gives me permission to become completely enamored with an idea while also being realistic about existing priorities. I reserve it for the things that I want to daydream about and absolutely will do, but am not going to focus on at the moment. Items on the list sort of choose their time to move onto my Doing Now List...this blog, for instance, had been on my Not Doing Now List since June. An earlier start would have compromised existing commitments, but by committing to Not Doing It Now for many months, I was able to love it without compromising anything.

A few recent additions to my Not Doing Now List:
  1. Read Naomi Wolf's book Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries
  2. Submit an article for publication to Attachment Parenting International's publication, API Speaks
  3. Organize a Mama Bliss Day, somehow getting massage therapists, manicurists, and other yummy pampering professionals to provide free services to moms for a day, while organized activities were available for partners to do with kids.

October 23, 2008

The Power of Playfulness

Yesterday's post and focus on my inner Buddha turned out to be a good setup for today. The afternoon found me and the littlest bear home alone together, with me low on energy and him right in the midst of his newly discovered baby tantrums. He crawls up a storm and pulls up to standing on his own, but he's just itching to walk and gets really upset that he can't yet.

Since my inner Buddha babe was fresh in my thinking, I asked her for guidance and the answer she gave was obvious and immediate - PLAY. I upped my energy level and several minutes later, bear and I were laughing and making faces at one another on the floor.

For more on the power of play, check out Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD. His ideas have made it sooooo much easier for me to work with kids and parents in my Tykes (2-4 year old) classes and have provided the knowledge I need to be patient with Kai's endless games of I-drop-you-pick-up. From his Web site:
...an award-winning book about nurturing close connections, solving behavior problems, and encouraging children's confidence...Playful Parenting means joining children in their world of play, focusing on connection and confidence, giggling and roughhousing, and following your child's lead.

October 22, 2008

Wise Woman Inner Buddha

The Girl Who Cried Epiphany posted recently about something that one of her wise woman role models shared with her:
Another gem from this woman from Cork was about turning to “the woman at the head of the table,” the noble creature who keeps order over all of the other characters that make up the personality. One needn’t worry about being swept away by the part of herself that is too bossy or too conceited or too insecure when she can trust one woman to sit regally and keep everyone in check with a kind, firm hand. That woman at the head of the table, of course, is the finest expression of yourself, the one with the clarity and the discipline to show your best face to the world.
This got me excitedly thinking about the wise woman I have come to call my inner Buddha. Read on for more about how I discovered her and a simple formula for calling out your own wisdom.

I've participated in a number of 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreats at the Dhama Dhara center in Western Massachusetts (check them out - free courses, including delicious vegetarian meals and good accommodations, entirely supported by unsolicited philanthropy from people who have previously sat a course) speaking only to the assistant teachers and course manager for the duration of the course, and then only about the practice or the facilities as necessary.

During my first few retreats I think I asked the assistant teachers at least one question at every available time to do so. Without realizing it, I was the twenty questions girl, constantly asking for reassurance that I was doing this whole thing "right."

The answers was always the same to me, and to others whose questions I could hear during open question times - return to the practice. Vipassana is all about maintaining equanimity while observing the breath and physical sensations on the body. Not too complicated.

Almost every question we students ask at these retreats fit into at least one of two categories:
  • Our craving for reassurance and validation
    ("I know I'm supposed to just observe sensation right now, and I'm feeling sensation everywhere...is that all right?" comes up a lot)
  • Our aversion to sitting in silence with only ourselves for counsel
A few days into my most recent retreat, I finally saw my frequent question asking for what it was and committed to rely on myself for the answers when questions came up. Instead of letting someone else do it, I told myself to start again, to observe my breath and sensation, and do whatever it took to maintain my equanimity. And I decided to wait until the end of the course to ask any questions, if they still remained with me.

And for the first time I made my own decisions about my own practice. At my most daring, I chose to break the rules and "do it wrong" at one point, which, as it turned out, was doing it right after all.

Quick background - a few days into these courses, once new students have some experience with the practice, three one-hour long sits each day are designated as sittings of strong determination. The idea is to sort of build the muscle that enabled the Buddha to sit down at that bodhi tree with a strong determination not to get up until he was enlightened.

Students are asked to choose a position and to meditate for the hour without opening our eyes, hands, or feet (back and neck adjustments are totally fine). New students usually take multiple attempts before they succeed in remaining still for the full hour.

But what did I do when I attended my first retreat? I powered through it, completely ignoring the teaching that emphasized equanimity in my effort to succeed. I silently sobbed and panicked through the full hour long sit, but damn it, I wasn't changing my position. And afterward, I really thought I'd done what I was supposed to do. I thought so for years.

So back to this most recent retreat. Over time, the strong determination sits became easier, and many had passed by then in simple meditation. But here and there, I would experience an hour like that first one. And one such hour reared its head during this retreat.

Newly tuned in to my inner Buddha, I moved during a sitting of strong determination for the first time ever. Buddha's teachings on meditation focus on developing self-reliance as we discover our own Buddha nature. My inner buddha, it turned out, was an incredibly wise woman. When she sensed that I was about to become unhinged within the confines of my own body even as I sat still for an hour, she gently told me to move. To fail. To be at peace with doing it wrong in order to retain the calm equanimity that was so much more important than proving I could sit still for a long time.

So I did. Because I had muted the voice that always asks for external explanation and direction, I was finally tuned into this amazing woman, this inner Buddha who really is me.

But hey, I'm also a human, and not currently of the fully enlightened variety. I did look for some reassurance from my assistant teacher after the course had ended, telling her that I knew what I had done was the best thing for me and my practice when I did it, wondering if she agreed, and acknowledging that I knew asking her was a demonstration of my craving for external validation and approval. Gentle as she is, she laughingly provided encouragement, saying that all of this is part of walking the path...

When I remember to ask and listen to my inner Buddha, "the woman at the head of the table" sitting regally and keeping everyone else "in check with her firm, kind hand," things go along much more peacefully, and nowhere is this more true than with parenting. When the frenetic do-er voice pipes up in my head, telling me that my son Kai is taking too long to nurse to sleep, or should be happier playing nearby on his own while I do dishes or cook a meal, she is the one who reminds me to surrender to this moment, to connection, and to love. To meet the moment and my child where they are at with what they require of me. My inner Buddha is also my own earth mama - the sagest of sage mothers out there.

So here's today's formula. I don't know for sure whether it will work for you - but it always works for me when I need to hear my own "woman at the head of the table":
  • Get rid of any background noise and set your cell phone to silent. Better yet, turn it off.
  • Find a comfy place to sit or lie down. Then sit or lie down there.
  • Pay attention to your breath. Notice how it feels in your nostrils and on your face. Don't try to change or name its pattern, just pay attention to it like a scientist observing its subject.
  • Ask your buddha if s/he's there. Then ask what you should be doing at this very moment. Then do it. Even if the answer surprises you or is different than what you think it "should" be.
If you try this, let me know how it goes. I adore comments and also e-mails (lauren dot bellon at gmail dot com).

Photo Credit: Zevotron @ flickr

October 21, 2008

The Journey Begins

Before Kai was born, I harbored fear about the sacrifices I expected to have to make.

I thought I would see less of the people I love. I had nearly decided that the random dreams I dream would no longer be an option. In fact, I suppose I imagined that I would have to sacrifice myself on the altar of practical martyrdom.

Turns out my fears were unfounded. Motherhood has made me driven to do what I love, and has given me courage I had never tapped into before. I believe it is imperative that I give my son the gift of a mom who loves everything about her life. I want him to grow up knowing that he has the ability to make choices, to create a life that feels good.

My husband and I had everything worked out. He would be a stay-at-home dad and I would continue to build my career in higher ed fundraising. After Kai was born, he gave his notice at the college where we both worked. When I returned to work from my maternity leave, he came home full-time. And I knew almost immediately that everything we’d planned – the very practical plan we had come up with to keep one of us home, and one of us earning a comfortable living, just wouldn’t work for me.

Fast forward to Kai at nine months. I teach baby and toddler yoga classes, am working as a postpartum doula, and coming closer and closer to the end of my brief consulting career with my former employer. Bob has become certified as a personal trainer and has turned his passion for physical fitness and wellness into a career. Kai is crawling everywhere and threatening to begin walking any day now. In order to live more frugally and more peacefully, we’ve greened things up quite a bit (lots more on this in upcoming posts), gotten outside a whole lot more, and are generally living more actively and healthfully than ever before (also lots more on this to come).

To be honest, we're scared a lot. We know when our spendable savings (we're not willing to touch our longest term savings) will run out, and when we will need to begin earning more than we spend again. That day gets closer and closer. We've added expenses like life insurance, health insurance funded solely by us, and other "responsible" things that do, in fact, go along with being a parent. We try not to let the economy terrify us into paralysis.

Luckily, when one of us gets scared, the other is usually there to provide a gentle reminder that our worst case scenario is a wonderful adventure, a bit of failure, and a retooling of our plans. When we occasionally both get scared at once, we remind each other to breathe, and we slowly begin again, building our confidence and faith and joy in the possibilities that we are creating every day for ourselves, our family, and the world.

It’s fascinating to me that just days before launching this blog, intended to share ideas about living and parenting with presence, and pursuing your bliss not just in spite of being a mom or dad, but because of it, I stumbled on a post over at Christine Kane’s Blog mentioning that when she posts about courage and living intentionally, she gets angry e-mails from parents: “Easy for you to say! You wouldn’t feel that way about taking chances if you had a few kids!”

Since we chose this path of possibility and uncertainty, I’ve encountered dozens of other people doing exactly this. Parents who have been so inspired by the realization that we are all as our children are, little worlds of discovery and possibility. Parents who want to nurture that in themselves so that their children will have a daily real-life example of people who live with passion and creativity and inspiration and love. I’m looking forward to bringing some of their stories to you in the months and years to come!