The heartbeat of parenting—and life—is erratic, arrhythmic.
At 5:15 a.m. my son wakes me up. After a blur of breakfast, assembling lunches and a lightsaber battle with my kindergartner, I head back upstairs to meditate.
I began meditating regularly a year ago, when I returned home after a weekend away. In the cape of calm that two days away had given me, I suddenly could clearly see how reactive I’d become, jumping into my kid’s uncomfortable emotional states right along with them.
It was time to try the habit I’d been procrastinating—the one that the most peaceful people I know have in common—meditation.
Lately the meditation I return to over and over is called Working with Difficulties.
I lie down in my bed and set up the meditation to play on my phone.
A gentle voice tells me to pick a spot on my body that feels pleasant or relaxed. I usually choose my feet. Zoning in, I feel a slight tingle where my skin meets the mattress. My mind wanders to the half-written essay that’s plaguing me or the bills I keep forgetting to pay. I return my thoughts to my feet, to the cool slick of sheets beneath my heels.
A few minutes later, the voice instructs me to shift my attention to a place on my body that feels uncomfortable.
I usually focus on the space just below my sternum. This is where I hold my fear and anxiety, my sadness and love. Often I notice a warm pool of panic or a knot of concern just beneath my breastbone. When I shift my focus to this vulnerable spot, my breathing usually goes shallow, my muscles tense. I take a big breath, letting the warm air soften the fear or hurt.
A minute or two later, I slide my awareness back down my body to my feet. This time, in contrast with my chest, I note the absence of worry. The way my heels almost hum.
The meditation continues this way, and I shift back and forth from the comfortable the uncomfortable. But next, while keeping most of my energy on my relaxed feet, the meditation instructs me to direct some of my attention back towards the more difficult area.
When I first started practicing this meditation, this part made my brain cramp. How can I focus on the relaxed sensations in my feet, while also offering attention to the heart of my uncomfortable emotions?
With time and repetition, it’s gotten easier. I’m learning how to hold space for both. I can feel deflated but still notice the bright green of the forest outside. I can have a headache while remaining aware of the electric heat that sparks when I press my palms an inch away from each other.
And I can feel immensely frustrated with my kids, while (sometimes) remembering that it will pass.
Fast forward to 7:45 a.m. My six-year-old, apparently energized from his fruit and yogurt, emits a piercing squeal. He runs back and forth down the hallway like a caged ocelot. My three-year-old daughter follows his lead, running away and cackling as I attempt to get her dressed. “Badoongy face!” she hollers, pressing her face up to mine until she’s one big blur.
Warm anger rushes down my body. My son hangs his arms from the stairway banister.
We have 20 minutes until the bus comes and the kids haven’t brushed their teeth or gotten dressed.
“Stop!” I yell. I drop the clothes that I’m trying to get my daughter into.
I try to cling to the meditation that I did a mere hour ago. I breathe, attempting to recall the art of holding ease and discomfort at the same time. I remind myself that a few minutes ago, the kids and I were rolling around the den floor together, snuggling and giggling. In another five minutes, one of them will probably make me laugh. Or they’ll hug each other before my son dashes onto the bus, and I’ll melt in their sweetness.
Parenting, at least with young children, provides a constant opportunity to practice embracing ease and frustration simultaneously. It brings bright orange bursts of love followed by flares of anger, frustration or boredom. Often these disparate emotions flash within moments of each other.
The Working with Difficulties meditation helps me comprehend that flow on a physical level. The balance shimmies and shakes—sometimes I spend entire days feeling like I’m mostly swimming upstream against a fierce current of meltdowns and demands. Other days overflow with hugs and heart, giggles and gratitude.
But most days hover somewhere in between.
Along with giving me a tool to navigate the bumpy road of parenting, the meditation also urges me to accept the more difficult parts of my own personality. The impatient, restless, frustrated parts—the ones that have me sometimes whispering to myself: you’re a bad mom. The parts that torture my heart. These mingle with my softer parts as a human and a parent—the affectionate, loving, playful parts. The easy parts, the ones that often go unnoticed, like my sturdy, unaching feet.
These parts live together, inside me. Inside my children, and inside us all.
Meditation—and in particular, the Working with Difficulties meditation—reminds me to envision the whole picture instead of zooming in on one challenging part—a kid who won’t get dressed, or a tantrum that will likely pass as swiftly as it began.
It helps me float up above and take in the landscape of a difficult moment with greater perspective, seeing not just the challenge but all that lies around it, too: the soft skin and snuggles, the mundane tasks, the whistle of my own breath.
The moments, hard and lovely, that strung together, become a life.
Meditation from UCLA Free Guided Meditations