A little while ago, I had the pleasure of attending an AMCHAM workshop on mindfulness with Dr. Steven Hickman. Dr. Hickman heads the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness, which is among a handful of institutions leading the way on research into the application and effects of mindfulness practice. I caught up with Dr. Hickman and asked him to elaborate on what mindfulness is and, more specifically, how it might benefit parents living in the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. Here’s what he had to say…
How would you explain mindfulness to a parent in simple terms?
“In its basic form, mindfulness is simply being aware of our experience as it arises in the present moment. I define it as ‘moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental, awareness’. We all know what mindfulness is (from noticing when we are fully absorbed or engaged by our experiences) but there are tremendous benefits to actually cultivating the intention to be MORE mindful more of the time, and overcome our habitual ways of being where our attention is divided or completely focused on the past or future. Most of the time we are only partially aware of our experiences, and while this allows us to multi-task, it also puts us in danger of doing things habitually or on ‘auto-pilot’ that may not be the best or wisest choices.”
Is mindfulness understood better by experiencing rather than explaining?
“Ultimately, mindfulness is ONLY understood experientially because any descriptions are removed from what it actually is. It's like food: you can have an amazing menu that is beautiful, descriptive, evocative, etc. but you still wouldn't eat the menu! The only way to know the experience of eating the food is, strangely enough, by actually EATING it!”
How might mindfulness benefit a busy parent? How can they implement a regular practice?
“A busy parent is often running on “auto-pilot”, reacting to things as they come up with little awareness. Think of all the times in a busy day (as a parent or just as a citizen, employee, spouse or friend) when we do or say things we regret later. We didn't intend this to happen, but because we weren't fully present, we ended up doing something out of reaction or habit or conditioning, that wasn't appropriate for the situation. As parents, this often comes in the form of getting angry or frustrated or impatient. It doesn't mean that things might not be worthy of attention, frustration, irritation, etc. but that with a little reflection, what was probably called for was a less extreme response. We talk a lot about responding versus reacting. With mindful awareness, we can watch our own reactivity arise and fall away, and ultimately choose a more skillful response to situations simply because we are paying attention.”
“To implement a regular practice, the best way is start small and look for support. Even an intention to practice mindfulness or meditation or yoga for 5 or 10 minutes EVERY DAY can have its benefits, and the practice will grow when you notice the benefits. Support can most often come in the form of a mindfulness or meditation group or class. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is the most widely taught and studied mindfulness intervention and it is available in a few centers in Hong Kong, or even online through a company called eMindful.com. Having a sitting group that meets regularly to meditate together, or even folding a short meditation/focusing exercise into the beginning of existing meetings of other groups can be a good way to do this too.”
Is mindfulness useful for kids as well?
“Extremely helpful for kids, and it's helpful to remember that kids (and adults for that matter) are naturally mindful beings. It is our experiences, conditioning and habits that take us away from this natural way of being. Mindfulness is best introduced to kids in simple, short practices that foster attention, focus, calm and clarity. The best visual example I can think of to teach mindfulness is to show them a snow-globe as analogous to the mind. When we shake it up everything is swirling around and we can't see anything or focus on anything. We all know what that feeling is like in our own minds. Then, the only way to bring clarity and calm is to pause and let the globe and the snow settle. Then we can see things as they are. It takes patience and a willingness to pause, but that’s what we are hoping to foster in kids when we consider teaching them mindfulness! “
What are some mindfulness resources that parents and kids might find useful?
“Parents would benefit from reading the book Everyday Blessings by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, in addition to any books by Jon on the topic. There is a teen-focused manual called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Teens by Gina Biegel that is quite nice. Here is a link to a great storehouse of links and resources on mindfulness more generally that might help as well: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness”
For further information on Dr. Hickman’s work and the Center for Mindfulness you can visit them on the web here.