Doctor Elise Bialylew, author of The Happiness Plan, explains the benefits of parents developing a ‘beginner’s mind’ while trying to engage with their child’s world.
As humans we have a unique evolutionary advantage, with minds that can project into the future, solve complex problems and generate creative ideas that transform what is possible. However, this unique talent comes at a cost. With minds that are free to time travel between past, present and future, we get excessively caught up in future thinking that creates unnecessary worry in our lives.
But, in its most cultivated form, the mind can be a resource for our deepest happiness, and for the flourishing of all humanity – and the planet. We are only just beginning to understand the potential impact that meditation can have on the brain, but what is clear is that mindfulness, when practiced regularly, can lead to long-lasting transformation.
One key attitude in the practise of mindfulness is the ‘beginner’s mind’. This is the ability to bring a freshness to your experience, seeing things ‘as if for the first time’, which allows you to drop your assumptions, ideas and desires, and instead be completely open to your experience. I’m often reminded of this quality by my two-year-old daughter. When I took her to the snow for the first time, she became completely absorbed in her exploration. In mindfulness, we’re invited to bring this quality of attention and curiosity to our meditation practice.
Through beginner’s mind, the fog of ‘ordinary’ starts to lift, and we see our lives with freshness and delight. Rather than seeing what we think is there, we see what is actually there. This new way of seeing opens us to new possibilities as we step out of our self-limiting assumptions, beliefs and habits.
Imagine how bringing a beginner’s mind to just one day of your life could change how you experience your family, friends, work and the many aspects of your day.
Life can get so busy that it’s easy to take the people closest to us for granted, and not be truly present to them. The ‘beginner’s mind’ that we practise through mindfulness reminds us to wake up and experience the preciousness of those around us.
“The fog of ‘ordinary’ starts to lift, and we see our lives with freshness and delight. Rather than seeing what we think is there, we see what is actually there”.
Beginner’s mind helps me cut through the sometimes monotonous daily routine of motherhood and experience precious moments where my full presence meets my daughter’s, and I’m moved to tears. Looking into the deep, dark-brown eyes of this little girl, I’m overwhelmed by her purity and innocence, and the complete miracle of her existence. I’m aware that she is still very close to an original, non-separate consciousness that connects all living things; the incomprehensible intelligence of life is peering out at me, the intelligence that has transformed itself from an embryo into a complex human being.
Children are a potent source of mindfulness. These days my daughter is my main teacher as I navigate the extended, not-so-silent mindfulness meditation retreat that is motherhood. Some nights after book time, I lie with her and we meditate together. I’ve introduced her to the concept of meditation, experimenting with how much she can understand of the practice. We watch a teddy move up and down on her belly as she breathes, and she giggles with delight. Then we do a few Om chants together – there is nothing religious in this chant, we’re just enjoying the sound of singing in unison. We chant, ‘Om, Om, Om,’ as we gaze into each other’s eyes. To enjoy this stillness with a toddler feels almost holy, a rare moment, as we manage to maintain eye contact for a few minutes.
“These days my daughter is my main teacher as I navigate the extended, not-so-silent mindfulness meditation retreat that is motherhood”.
In these moments it often occurs to me that my partner, my parents, all the people in my life and the strangers I walk past in the street are also mysterious living, breathing expressions of consciousness. Yet somehow, as we get older, it gets harder to maintain this wonder about one another, this beginner’s mind. Somehow the complete innocence of my daughter seems to be a direct line to presence and pure consciousness. It’s this exact quality of being that we try to return to through the practice of meditation.
“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love they bloom life flowers.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Here’s an exercise to practice stepping into ‘beginner’s mind’ with your child, amplifying your presence as a parent. This practice can be explored with toddlers as well as older children.
1. Decide on a time of the day when you have 20 minutes and dedicate this time to being fully present to your child and activating your curiosity.
2. Ask your child what they would like to do and follow their lead over this 20-minute period without suggesting other options (assuming of course what they are suggesting is safe).
3. As you engage with your child see them as if for the very first time. Notice the tone of their voice. Notice whether or not they make eye contact. Notice the different facial expressions as you engage in this activity. Notice your tendency to want to suggest something other than what they are suggesting. Bring awareness to your own emotional state: notice if there is joy, impatience, a tendency to think about all the things you need to do, then bring your attention back to your child. Notice all the details of their physical appearance as if you were going to draw them.
4. After the exercise find sometime later in the day to journal about your experience. Reflect on these questions:
- What was it like to engage with your child in this way?
- How was it different to how you normally interact with your child?
- What did you notice about your child?
- What did you notice about yourself?
DR Elise Bialylew is the author of The Happiness Plan (Affirm Press, $24.99) and the founder of Mindful in May, the largest online global mindfulness fundraising campaign that features the world’s leading experts and raises funds for clean water projects in the developing world. A doctor trained in psychiatry, and a mindfulness expert, she’s passionate about supporting individuals and organisations to develop inner tools for greater wellbeing and flourishing.