When someone speaks negatively about you, you usually feel that you need to retaliate. Every time you react, you create certain neural-pathways in your brain. The more you react, the more you strengthen those same pathways, while weakening others.
Overtime you build the habit of always reacting in a particular way whenever someone is negative toward you. These habitual reactions then lead you into more anger, fear, and hatred. Your need to punish whoever is causing you suffering, so you can find some sense of relief, only makes you suffer more.
Although habits are challenging to break, your mind is capable of changing. You can water the seeds of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love in your inner garden. You don’t have to water the seeds of anger, fear, hatred, delusion, and craving. When you are aware of what you are doing, of how you’re thinking and feeling and perceiving, you won’t react as blindly to the events of your life.
When someone is unpleasant, you want to react. You want to cause them the same amount of suffering that they caused in you. Only then, you believe, will you be satisfied, but you never are for long. While it is common to react when you feel angry, misunderstood, unloved, and so on, there is another option.
You can pause instead.
When you pause, you can use those few seconds to make peace with yourself. You can be mindful of your anger, fear, sadness, and uncertainty. You can be aware of what may happen if you do react.
All you need to do is return to your breath.
Counting deeply, notice what is happening: your heart beating, your head aching, your shoulders tensing. When you stop to breathe in and out, in and out, you can transform your destructive energy into compassionate energy.
Every irritation will be a chance for you to come back to yourself.
When you are angry with someone, you are usually more focused on them than on your own feelings. Your house is on fire, but rather than putting out the flames, you want to burn everything down.
If you can find the inner-space to tend to your own anger first, you will begin to feel relief. When you embrace your feelings, when you do not add fuel to the raging fire, you will gain insight into who you are. Then you can make more skillful choices.
You can acknowledge to yourself, “Breathing in, I feel anger. Breathing out, I feel anger.”
You kill your anger when you smile to it.
When you show compassion to yourself, you can turn what is destructive into what is healing. You don’t need to hide from anger or pretend that it doesn’t exist or judge yourself so harshly. Your tender care of your anger will make you a more peaceful person.
Sometimes when your emotions are loud, you cannot hear what other people are saying to you. When you can sit quietly with yourself — neither judging, expecting, nor condemning — then you can hear the world again. You and the world are one.
As you look at your thoughts, you can let go of your thoughts. As you look at your feelings, you can let go of your feelings. You can see what arises and passes.
When you are in a conversation, you don’t need to interrupt, justify yourself, or blame. You can just hear what someone is saying. Even if they are hateful, greedy, or full of wrong perceptions, you can listen to them deeply.
You can help them, even if only through your presence, your loving words, or your small actions. When you see their humanity in yourself, you want them to be free from their suffering.
Through a regular practice of mindful breathing, you can make peace with yourself.
When you are kind to your suffering, you can relieve the suffering of others.
Often when people listen to each other, they don’t really listen to each other. They only hear their own interpretations, opinions, and beliefs.
When you are not calm, when your mind is muddied by thoughts and feelings, then you are not aware. You react to events blindly then, lost in your stories. When you are present, you sink into stillness, connected to your mind-body. Muddy water clears when you are still.
If you feel upset, you don’t have to speak or act out. Return to your body instead. Breathe in and out. Listen to the other person’s perspective without internally commenting on whether they are right or wrong, good or bad. Speak truthfully, but compassionately, trying to understand what they mean.
Will your speech cause more suffering or will it bring harmony to your relationships?
When you make a mistake, apologize. You don’t have to conjure up excuses to justify yourself. Apologies can relieve a lot of suffering in the other person. At the same time, don’t abuse yourself either.
Practice forgiveness so you can let go of your burdens and begin again.
When you suffer, your suffering will affect others.
When you are peaceful, your peace will radiate out from within.
There is already a lot of violence in civilization. You have to be mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, so that you do not contribute to more hatred, fear, anger, greed, and ignorance. Violence only creates more violence. To prevent the next war, you must practice peace now.
In Zen Buddhism, when you walk, you are walking. When you sit, you are sitting. When you are going to the bathroom, you are going to the bathroom. Whatever you are doing — whether you’re sweeping the floor, listening to a song on the radio, or biting into an apple — you are fully aware of what is happening. You are caring for each moment like you’re cradling a baby in your arms. When you’re fully engaged in your life, you’re not separate from what is outside of yourself. You (the subject) and what is out there (the object) melt away.
When you practice Zen, you’re not only practicing on the meditation cushion. Zen is ordinary life. There is no real difference. What happens is happening with no clinging to what is happening. “Forgetting the self is the act of just doing the task, with no self-consciousness sticking to the action.” (Aitken, Robert)
When you lose yourself in storylines, you can return to where you are. You don’t need to beat yourself up, saying, “I’m such a bad person for thinking, for feeling upset, for worrying so much.” Just note that you have drifted away from the present. Then you can come back, over and again.
It’s natural to feel sad and mad, excited and bored, and on and on. You are a human. You don’t need to block out your feelings and thoughts and sensations. You’re not a stone or a block of wood. Instead of seeking distractions, rationalizing, intellectualizing, or forming judgements, watch what is here, now, arising and passing. Breathe and let go.
Anger comes, anger goes. Sadness comes, sadness goes. Peace comes, peace goes. Your shoulders may tense up, your heart may beat faster, your insides may hurt, a bird may chirp on a nearby tree, and two squirrels may chase each other over an acorn. There is no need to hold on. You can smile instead. You can smile to your fear, smile to your happiness, smile to your tears, smile to your indifference.
From looking at your fear, you can see the fear of other beings. Your desire for happiness is like so many others before and after you. Your joy becomes their joy. Your suffering becomes their suffering. When you are peaceful, you want others to be peaceful. Their peacefulness becomes your peacefulness, their happiness becomes your happiness, their suffering becomes your suffering. When someone is in pain, their pain often spills over on those closest to them. Instead of judging them, you can love them. You can tend to them in your heart because you tend to yourself.
“In Zen, we practice to realize what has always been true. We wipe away concepts and hang-ups, delusions and attachments, but as Hakuin Zenji says, ‘Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.’” (Aitken, Robert)
When you can see through your delusions, there is space. Freedom. You no longer need to blindly react. You are simply here, aware of what comes and goes. You see the phenomena of the past, present, and future — interacting, changing together, inside you, around you, inside and around you. Everything is a cause and an effect.
When you are sitting, you are sitting. When you are standing, you are standing.
You are standing on the soil, in the sun, in the air, near the sea, under the trees. You’re standing with the bees pollinating the flowers and the birds eating the worms and the caterpillars crawling on leaves. You’re standing with your ancestors and descendants. You are standing because of the stars that burst millions of years ago. You depend on so many things to be. In every moment, you inter-are with your ancestors, with your feelings, with your thoughts, with a mountain that is two thousand miles away.
Everything is changing with each other.
You are not separate from the rest of the universe. You’re an expression of it — going as far back as the Big Bang, as far back as subatomic particles forming into atoms, and possibly even before that. You’re made up of the sun just as the sun is made up of you. You cannot be without spacetime, without the rain, without the carbon dioxide that you exhale, without the roots beneath your feet. What is out there, what is in you, is an interrelated process.
What you cultivate in yourself is not only for yourself, but for others as well. You are already perfect, yet you have a lot of work to do. Through your lifelong practice, you can let go of what holds you back from seeing yourself as you are. But who are you?
Even if you disagree with Peter Singer’s conclusions, his argument, if taken seriously, will make you question a few things about your own life:
1.) How much am I actually doing to prevent the suffering of the world?
2.) If I have the means to prevent the suffering of others, but I am choosing to eat out at a fancy restaurant every week instead of helping a baby who is dying of malnutrition, am I truly being moral?
3.) Am I doing all that I can to help others, or am I only doing a fraction of my capacity, due to my own self-interest?
4.) What is the right amount of aid that I can give without sacrificing my own well-being? In other words, what is the right balance between what I can do for others without harming myself? How extreme should my generosity be?
5.) What makes the lives of those who live in countries far away from me any less valuable than those who live in my own community? They are as human as I am. I can ignore their suffering by distracting myself with material comforts, but then, I would not be living responsibly, honoring the dignity of those who are mistreated, helping those who need medical care and food and shelter, or harmonizing my ideals with my actions.
We are already at home in this moment. Yet we spend so much of our lives denying what is here. We get lost in all our storylines, believing that we are permanent, that we are separate from other beings in the world.
We chase after ideas of happiness while fearing to lose what we have. We buy a fancy convertible, work in an office with a window, marry our high-school sweetheart, drink alcohol on Friday nights, climb up a mountain, write a book, study for a bachelor’s degree, make money on the stock market, and on and on. Nothing is ever enough to satisfy our growing desire. In the end, no matter how much we resist, we are all subject to old age, sickness, and death. We cannot capture life. It slips through our fingers, drifting away.
Rather than facing ourselves directly, we repress what causes us to suffer. We act out. We project our personal issues onto others. It is so hard for us to sit with our confusion, fear, and loss. It is so hard for us to soften our hearts to our grief.
“When we find ourselves in a situation in which our buttons are being pushed, we can choose to repress or act out, or we can choose to practice. If we can start to do the exchange, breathing in with the intention of keeping our hearts open to the embarrassment or fear or anger that we feel, then to our surprise we find that we’re also open to what the other person is feeling. Open heart is open heart. Once it’s open, your eyes and your mind are also open, and you can see what’s happening in the faces and hearts of other people. If you’re walking down the street and way off in the distance — so far away that you can’t possibly do anything about it — you see a man beating his dog, and you feel helpless, you can start to do the exchange. You start out doing it for the dog, then you find you’re doing it for the man. Then you’re also doing it for your own heartbreak and for all the animals and people who are abusing and abused, and for all the people like you who are watching and don’t know what to do. Simply by doing this exchange you have made the world a larger, more loving place.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We can react to suffering by hardening or softening our hearts. When we are genuine with ourselves, we can look deeply at our sorrow, our fear, our irritation, and transform that energy into compassion. Every moment, we are being tested.
“If we are wholehearted about wanting to be there for other people without shutting anybody or anything out of our hearts, our pretty little self-image of how kind or compassionate we are gets completely blown. We’re always being tested and we’re always meeting our match. The more you’re willing to open your heart, the more challenges come along that make you want to shut it.” (Chödrön, Pema)
There is no true distinction between what is within us and what is outside of us. When we cause other beings to suffer, we are suffering. When we love others, we love ourselves. When we are aware of life, we can use all of life as a humble lesson for our growth.
Our mistakes are opportunities for us to be more vulnerable and honest and kind. An irritating person is our teacher, a mosquito is our teacher, a crying baby is our teacher. We cannot be in this world without encountering the suffering of others. Rather than reacting, we can mindfully tend to where we are and who we are. We are gardeners who are planting seeds of compassion and love and peace. We can turn our compost into a bloom of flowers.
“We make a lot of mistakes. If you ask people whom you consider to be wise and courageous about their lives, you may find that they have hurt a lot of people and made a lot of mistakes, but that they used those occasions as opportunities to humble themselves and open their hearts. We don’t get wise by staying in a room with all the doors and windows closed.” (Chödrön, Pema)
When we understand our own suffering, we can understand another’s suffering as well. We practice not only for ourselves, but for all the beings who have felt pain, sadness, hatred, envy, and anger, because we have been them. We are them.
When we blame and repress and protect our hearts, we alienate ourselves from the world. We stick to limited notions of who we are, categorizing existence into conceptual frameworks. We water the seeds of suffering in ourselves, which harm everyone around us. Rather than moving toward what is true, we resist what is unpleasant. We cling to our expectations and suffer through our ignorance, attachment, and aversion.
“It seems that we do attack our own image continually and usually that image appears to be ‘out there.’ We want to blame men or we want to blame women or we want to blame white people or black people, or we want to blame politicians or the police; we want to blame somebody. There’s some tendency to always put it out there, even if ‘out there’ is our own body. Instead of working with, there is the tendency to struggle against. As a result, we become alienated. Then we take the wrong medicine for our illness by armoring ourselves in all these different ways, somehow not getting back to the soft spot.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We are not separate from nature. We are not separate from other beings. Rather than pushing others away, we can share who we are, even from our presence alone. We often want to escape from being aware of who we are, of where we are, distracting ourselves with TV and drugs and jobs and sex. We miss the sacredness of our ordinary experience when we look outside ourselves for happiness, truth, permanence, and security.
“Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we’re in. Yet if we can experience the moment we’re in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice. One can appreciate and celebrate each moment — there’s nothing more sacred. There’s nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there’s nothing more!” (Chödrön, Pema)
We begin to heal when we stop hiding from ourselves. When we are right here, right now, we are no longer resisting our confusion, our fear, our pain. Our tendency is to cling to certainty while hiding from uncertainty. We waste so many years of our lives running after achievements and rewards and goals, never feeling entirely satisfied.
“This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky — that’s called enlightenment, liberation.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We do not have to eliminate our thoughts and feelings and perceptions. We can accept them as they are and then let them go. Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”
We can kindly be with our vulnerabilities. As we learn more, we open up more. Life is a dance, an ever-changing movement. We are “willing to give, willing to open, willing not to hold back. It is described as letting go of holding on to yourself, letting your stronghold of ego go. Instead of collecting things for yourself, you open and give them away.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We can be gentle with ourselves. We can be curious about the moment we’re in. Our maturity comes from being with what is unfolding, while releasing it. Giving without holding on. We don’t have to judge ourselves as winners or losers, right or wrong, good or bad. Our practice is to be ourselves completely.
“The truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn’t seem to happen by trying to get it or capture it. It happens by letting go; it happens by relaxing your mind, and it happens by the aspiration and the longing to want to communicate with yourself and others. Each of us finds our own way.” (Chödrön, Pema)
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and peace activist. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh” is a collection of his teachings for 365 days. Each of his passages, while short and simple, are meant to be studied with care. For those who practice mindfulness and compassion, “Your True Home” is a book of transformation.
Often when we see people, we don’t really see them. When we hear people, we don’t really hear them. We only know of others through our prejudices, preconceptions, and projections. Our ideas limit us to the ideas themselves, but not to other possibilities. When we are filled with beliefs, opinions and views, we are no longer here.
We must be as still as a lake before a white mountain. When we are upset, we can watch our upset. When we are sad, we can watch our sadness. Instead of reacting, we can notice our breathing, our minds, our bodies, our environments. Then we can be as still as a lake and as solid as a mountain.
We can be mindful of our minds.
We can watch our thoughts and feelings. Coming and going, coming and going.
They pass through us like clouds.
We can look at our perceptions without getting caught up in them. Our minds can open to what is here. Instead of assuming that we know all the answers, we can question ourselves. “Is my perception really true? Do my ideas encompass the entire universe or are they only a fraction of what is happening?” Instead of judging others, we can look within ourselves compassionately. There is no resistance or holding on, only letting go.
When we look into the conditions that make us who we are, we find that we are not separate. We are interwoven in the changing cosmos. We cannot exist on earth without our ancestors. Our descendants cannot exist without us either. We are dependent on the air, the water, the sun. We are dependent on the plants, the trees, the soil beneath our feet. Without the clouds, there would be no rain. Without the rain, there would be no plants. Without the plants, we cannot be here.
There is no birth, no death. Only a continuation of ourselves in another form.
Life is full of suffering, but it is also full of wonder. In our distracted society, we often forget about the simple joys of being on this planet. We can step on the grass and brush past the silky petals of blue flowers. We can sigh with the breeze. We can look up at the trees as they sway together in silence.
We can drive, eat, wash the dishes, and go to the bathroom mindfully. Everything can be a spiritual practice when we are aware enough to notice. From mindfulness, we develop concentration. From concentration, we gain insight. There is no wasted moment.
When we look up at the mountain, we see ourselves. When we look at ourselves, we see the mountain. There is no mountain without our perception, but no perception without the mountain. Both depend on the other to inter-be.
When we trap ourselves in categorizations, we forget our humanity. Then we can only see a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a male, a female, a Republican, a Democrat, a boss, an employee, a father, a daughter, and so on, without looking any deeper. These may be important parts of our identities, but they are not all of who we are. When we can peel away these labels, we can recognize each other as human beings.
We must be careful about what we consume. This doesn’t only apply to what we eat and drink, but to the music we listen to, the television we watch, the newspapers we read, who we spend our time with, and what thoughts we focus on. There are negative influences all around us. We don’t need to consume despair, hatred, fear, and violence. We don’t need to seek out the things that harm us. We can look for what heals us, what nourishes us, what helps us to awaken.
We can help to relieve other people’s suffering as well. If someone has a wrong perception, we don’t need to punish them. We can listen to them deeply, show them compassion, care for them, practice loving speech with them. These simple actions can help us to form harmonious communities and remove discrimination.
Our ideas about our happiness are often obstacles to our happiness. We believe that we’ll be happy in the future when the conditions are sufficient enough, such as when we get a new promotion, when we buy an expensive car, when we get married to the perfect spouse, when we buy liquor on a Friday night, when we hold a diploma in our hands. Our desire for happiness removes us from the present moment. We fear losing what we have and want what we do not have, but do not realize that we are alive now.
Even if we do gain what we desire, it never lasts, and our reality is never the same as our expectations. To be truly happy, we have to let go of our ideas of happiness. We have nothing to attain but ourselves.
We can treat our in-breath and our out-breath with tenderness. In meditation, we are not straining to show how much we can endure from our sitting. We are caring for ourselves as if we are holding a baby in our arms. We cradle our anger and happiness and fear and disappointment. We are lovingly aware of our joys and sorrows.
We don’t need to meditate in a cave or on a mountain top. There is nothing to attain. We already are who we want to be in the future, but do not realize it. There is nothing lacking in us. When we can be at peace in the present moment, feeling the warmth of sun on our skin, tasting the juice of an apple, listening to the birds in the leaves, we have already arrived. Nirvana is nothing more than the sound of rain.
“No-Drama Discipline” breaks down discipline from a holistic perspective rather than from an attitude of strict punishment. Based in neuroscience, Daniel J. Siegal, a clinical psychologist and UCLA professor, and Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist and founder of “The Center for Connection,” examine the healthiest ways to discipline children, so they can grow into mature adults.
Whenever a child misbehaves, we need to learn about why that child is misbehaving. Rather than blaming the child, we can look at what caused their actions and how they reacted. It is easy to become frustrated and angry, taking a child’s behavior personally. Rather than acting from our own punitive habits, however, we should pause and reflect.
(1) What made the child feel that way?
(2) What are the reasons for his or her actions?
(3) What lesson can we give based on what happened?
The goal of discipline is not to punish or give a consequence to bad behavior. As caregivers and teachers and parents, we want to teach a lesson. We want our children to be caring, loving, responsible, self-controlled, and compassionate human beings.
Whenever a child does something we do not like, that is a chance for us to teach them a specific message — about honesty, caring, responsibility, bravery, and so on. But how can we best communicate our lesson in an effective way?
To be effective, we need to understand our child’s age and developmental stage. We cannot expect children to act like little adults. Not even adults will be perfect all the time. We must also understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to discipline. Children are unique and may not respond to a specific technique. Even the same child may react differently based on their mood and the given circumstances.
Children generally don’t act out because they are cruel, sadistic, or want to aggravate us. They usually misbehave because they haven’t learned how to properly regulate their emotions and desires and impulses.
We can guide a child through their struggles, helping them connect their feelings to their behavior. Instead of reacting with a harsh punishment, it is important for us to attune to the child’s needs, to see the situation from their eyes, to listen with compassion, and to look for deeper causes. What is the meaning behind the thrown object, the meltdown in the grocery store, the teasing on the playground?
“It’s easy to forget that our children are just that — children — and to expect behavior beyond their developmental capacity.”
As caregivers, parents, and teachers, we need to be a calm presence in our children’s lives. Rather than sending a child into isolation (time-out) for a long period of time, which abandons the child when he or she is already out of control, it is necessary to guide a child back from their strong emotions, teaching them to regulate themselves.
We need to set boundaries. We need to let the child know — with calmness and consistency — what is acceptable and what is not. Even a well-regulated child will test our rules. Trying to lecture, or explain, such boundaries is not ideal when a child is distraught.
“We need to help develop our children’s upstairs brain — along with all of the skills it makes possible — and while doing so, we may need to act as an external upstairs brain along the way, working with them and helping them make decisions they’re not quite capable yet of making for themselves.”
What we do repeatedly shapes our children’s brains. Our responses to them, whether we yell when they break a toy or embrace them when they are sad, builds their internal architecture.
How they feel about themselves, how they communicate with their peers, how they handle challenges later in life, develops through our interactions with them, when they behave and misbehave. We are training them from our engagement, from our attitude toward their actions, from our language, day after day after day.
“When we discipline with threats — whether explicitly through our words or implicitly through scary nonverbals like our tone, posture, and facial expressions — we activate the defensive circuits of our child’s reactive reptilian downstairs brain. We call this ‘poking the lizard,’ and we don’t recommend it because it almost always leads to escalating emotions, for both parent and child.”
We can engage a child’s higher brain, helping them to calm down and to be more reflective about who they are. Through connecting with them when they’re sad, upset, and not listening, we can establish a nurturing presence. Even when we help children label their emotions, their higher brain activates and their lower brain is soothed.
Children are not computers who will follow our commands all the time. They are constantly changing, developing people. We can consistently communicate with them that we care, that we will support them even when they make mistakes, that we are there for them. When they are distressed, we don’t need to react harshly and punish them. We can establish that we are always there for them, despite their actions, leading them toward integration.
We want our children’s upstairs brains to grow.
“One way to think about it is that we’re helping our kids develop the ability to shift between the different aspects of what’s called the autonomic nervous system. One part of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic branch, which you can think of as the ‘accelerator’ of the system. Like a gas pedal, it causes us to react with gusto to impulses and situations, as it primes the body for action. The other part is the parasympathetic branch, which serves as the ‘brakes’ of the system and allows us to stop and regulate ourselves and our impulses. Keeping the accelerator and the brakes in balance is key for emotional regulation, so when we help children develop the capacity to control themselves even when they’re upset, we’re helping them learn to balance these two branches of the autonomic nervous system.”
“Purely in terms of brain functioning, sometimes an activated accelerator (which might result in a child’s inappropriate and impulsive action) followed by the sudden application of brakes (in the form of parental limit setting) leads to a nervous system response that may cause the child to stop and feel a sense of shame. When this happens, the physiologic manifestation might result in avoiding eye contact, feeling a heaviness in her chest, and possibly experiencing a sinking feeling in her stomach. Parents might describe this by saying she ‘feels bad about what she’s done.’ This initial awareness of having crossed a line is extremely healthy, and it’s evidence of a child’s developing upstairs brain. Some scientists suggest that limit setting that creates a ‘healthy sense of shame’ leads to an internal compass to guide future behavior. It means she’s beginning to acquire a conscience, or an inner voice, along with an understanding of morality and self-control. Over time, as her parents repeatedly help her recognize the moments when she needs to put on the brakes, her behavior begins to change. It’s more than simply learning that a particular action is bad, or that her parents don’t like what she’s done, so she’d better avoid that action or she’ll get in trouble. More occurs within this child than just learning the rules of good vs. bad or acceptable vs. unacceptable. Rather, her brain actually changes, and her nervous system gets wired to tell her what ‘feels right,’ which modifies her future behavior. New experiences wire new connections among her neurons, and the changes in the circuitry of her brain fundamentally and positively alter the way she interacts with her world. The way her parents help this process along is by lovingly and empathically teaching her which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t. That’s why it’s essential that we set limits and that our children internalize ‘no’ when necessary, particularly in the early years, when the regulatory circuits of the brain are wiring up. By helping them understand the rules and limits in their respective environments, we help build their conscience.”
We don’t need to embarrass children or scream at them. That message teaches children to be reactive, to be scared of those who are supposed to care for them, confusing their need for a secure attachment with a threat. Whenever a child is misbehaving, that is an opportunity for a child to learn a lesson. Their behavior shows where they are developmentally, what they need to work on, and what specific skills they should practice.
When a child misbehaves but isn’t attuned to, their emotions may escalate. We can connect with the child, and redirect them, before their behavior becomes destructive.
“Through connection, we can soothe their internal storm, help them calm down, and assist them in making better decisions. When they feel our love and acceptance, when they ‘feel felt’ by us, even when they know we don’t like their actions (or they don’t like ours), they can begin to regain control and allow their upstairs brains to engage again.”
“Imagine the last time you felt really sad or angry or upset. How would it have felt if someone you love told you, ‘You need to calm down,’ or ‘It’s not that big a deal?’ Or what if you were told to ‘go be by yourself until you’re calm and ready to be nice and happy?’ These responses would feel awful, wouldn’t they? Yet these are the kinds of things we tell our kids all the time. When we do, we actually increase their internal distress, leading to more acting out, not less. These responses accomplish the opposite of connection, effectively amplifying negative states.
Connection, on the other hand, calms, allowing children to begin to regain control of their emotions and bodies. It allows them to ‘feel felt,’ and this empathy soothes the sense of isolation or being misunderstood that arises with the reactivity of their downstairs brain and the whole nervous system: heart pounding, lungs rapidly breathing, muscles tightening, and intestines churning. Those reactive states are uncomfortable, and they can become intensified with further demands and disconnection. With connection, however, kids can make more thoughtful choices and handle themselves better. What connection does, essentially, is to integrate the brain. Here’s how it works. The brain, as we’ve said, is complex. (That’s the third Brain C.) It’s made up of many parts, all of which have different jobs to do. The upstairs brain, the downstairs brain. The left side and the right side. There are memory centers and pain regions. Along with all the systems and circuitry of the brain, these parts of our brain have their own responsibilities, their own jobs to do. When they work together as a coordinated whole, the brain becomes integrated. Its many parts can perform as a team, accomplishing more and being more effective than they could working on their own.
So that’s what connection does. It moves children away from the banks and back into the flow, where they experience an internal sense of balance and feel happier and more stable. Then they can hear what we need to tell them, and they can make better decisions. When we connect with a child who feels overwhelmed and chaotic, we help move her away from that bank and into the center of the river, where she can feel more balanced and in control. When we connect with a child who’s stuck in a rigid frame of mind, unable to consider alternative perspectives, we help him integrate so that he can loosen his unyielding grip on a situation and become more flexible and adaptive. In both cases, connection creates an integrated state of mind, and the opportunity for learning.”
When a child is so overwhelmed that they cannot listen, it is not time to teach them a lesson. It is only time to connect, to be there with them, to care, to be empathetic and loving. Only after they have calmed down can they be taught.
At the same time, we should never spoil a child. There must be clear expectations and boundaries to follow. A child’s every fleeting desire should not be satisfied indiscriminately. Connection with children is about giving them what they need, not what they desire. Indulging children, lavishing them with rewards, protecting them from all their struggles and pains, teaches them to be entitled overtime. What a child needs is love and attention. They need to learn to be happy with what they have, to grapple with difficult challenges, and to master themselves.
“Ultimately, then, kids need us to set boundaries and communicate our expectations. But the key here is that all discipline should begin by nurturing our children and attuning to their internal world, allowing them to know that they are seen, heard, and loved by their parents — even when they’ve done something wrong. When children feel seen, safe, and soothed, they feel secure and they thrive. This is how we can value our children’s minds while helping to shape and structure their behavior. We can help guide a behavioral change, teach a new skill, and impart an important way of approaching a problem, all while valuing a child’s mind beneath the behavior. This is how we discipline, how we teach, while nurturing a child’s sense of self and sense of connection to us. Then they’ll interact with the world around them based on these beliefs and with these social and emotional skills, because their brains will be wired to expect that their needs will be met and that they are unconditionally loved.”
Children’s feelings need to be validated. When their feelings are not accepted, when they are minimized, belittled, and criticized, they will become reactive instead of reflective.
When we tell children to stop feeling upset or else (“don’t talk to me until you’ve calmed down”), children are really being told that they are not loved until they act in a specific way. If they don’t act in the approved way, then they will see themselves as unworthy.
We can acknowledge a child’s storm of emotions without approving of their misbehavior. We can help the child identify what they are feeling, guiding them away from their reactivity. Firstly, though, we must be there for the child, letting them know that their misbehavior isn’t necessarily a judgement of their worth.
When a child is having a tantrum, they will not listen to an adult lecture about what they did wrong. They will feel attacked. Their cortisol will rise, their heart will beat faster, and adrenaline will flood their bodies. They will learn to tune the adult out. Even when the adult is explaining the rules logically, a child will not emotionally be able to listen. They’ll feel hurt, angry, disappointed, and so on, reacting through their lower brains. An upset child is on sensory overload. They need us to listen deeply to them rather than argue, scold, or lecture. We must give children enough time and space, so they can feel comfortable enough to express how they feel.
Then we can reflect back what the child told us. This shows children that they are understood and helps to defuse a charged situation. When a child feels listened to, validated for how they feel, even if their behavior is not accepted, they will respond more openly.
Once children feel receptive, they can then learn the appropriate ways to deal with their emotions. Helping children through their difficult periods — whether from nodding and listening to their struggles, to identifying what they feel and why and what they can do to change — engages their higher thinking functions and deactivates their reactive brains.
We can be more adaptive with how we engage our children, approaching our discipline from an open, compassionate perspective, rather than a punitive one.
Children need a lot of help to grow. Their brains are changing, developing, at different stages. They are highly vulnerable to their environments and need consistent boundaries. They need love and acceptance. They need to not be judged for who they are, but rather, feel they can come to us for safety and security and guidance.
Discipline is not a lecture, a punishment, or a consequence.
It is an opportunity for us to learn, connect, and communicate together.
“Mindfulness requires letting go of judgement, returning to an awareness of the breath and the body, and bringing your full attention to what is in you and around you. This helps you notice whether the thought you just produced is healthy or unhealthy, compassionate or unkind.”
When we breathe mindfully, we communicate. We know we’re breathing in, breathing out. In this awareness, we are in tune with our body-mind, with feelings and thoughts, with the environment.
“Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”
When we’re mindful, we’re free. When we’re consumed with anger, anxiety, and fear, we’re trapped. Instead of holding on to our storylines, and avoiding the present, we can release our suffering and return home, again and again.
A lot of our thinking comes from dwelling on the past, controlling the future, imagining scenarios that have never happened. We worry so much. We worry about ourselves, about what other people think of us, about meaning, about money, about everything that we can. We get caught in our ideas, talking, talking, talking, thinking, thinking, thinking. Distracting ourselves with constant amusements and dramas.
Instead of realizing that our perceptions are only perceptions, we mistake them for reality.
When we mindfully breathe, we can return to where we are.
“It’s enjoyable to breathe in, to breathe out; it’s enjoyable to sit, to walk, to eat breakfast, to take a shower, to clean the bathroom, to work in the vegetable garden. When we stop talking and thinking and listen mindfully to ourselves, one thing we will notice is our greater capacity and opportunities for joy.”
Mindfulness lets us open up to our fear, our pain, our sorrow, our love. We don’t run away from life. We become aware of life, nurturing the present, letting go of what causes us to suffer.
We are no longer afraid to be with ourselves.
“We can just continue to follow our in-breath and our out-breath. We don’t tell our fear to go away; we recognize it. We don’t tell our anger to go away; we acknowledge it. These feelings are like a small child tugging at our sleeves. Pick them up and hold them tenderly. Acknowledging our feelings without judging them or pushing them away, embracing them with mindfulness, is an act of homecoming.”
When we know our own suffering, then we can learn to see the suffering of the world. Exploitation, discrimination, racism, poverty, homelessness, war, and so on, cause a lot of suffering to us and those around us. We cannot help others until we look at our own sorrow and fear, pain and anxiety, depression and anger.
We need to listen deeply to ourselves. Only then can we release our burdens. Only then can we stop the destructive patterns that we’ve inherited from our ancestors, from our parents, from our past.
“If a lotus is to grow, it needs to be rooted in the mud. Compassion is born from understanding suffering. We all should learn to embrace our own suffering, to listen to it deeply, and to have a deep look into its nature. In doing so, we allow the energy of love and compassion to be born.”
To be effective at communication, we need to know ourselves. Then we can practice mindfulness, deep listening, and loving speech. Other people may complain, insult us, manipulate, whine, and judge. When we listen deeply with compassion, we can look at people as they are, and not be stirred up emotionally. We can love them without judging them, care about them without giving in to anger and resentment.
As we listen, our purpose is to help others to suffer less. We want ourselves to suffer less too. Instead of judging and blaming, we can be mindfully aware.
When we are not mindful, we will not see our own suffering. Then we will make everyone around us suffer as well. We may believe that we know the people around us, such as our family members and friends and colleagues, but maybe we have never truly listened to them. Maybe we’ve never truly listened to ourselves.
We must be skillful with how we communicate. Do we use words of kindness, compassion, and truth, working to reduce another person’s pain and anxiety? Are we gentle or harsh in our tones? As we begin to understand more about ourselves, we can understand others. We can listen and speak kindly and choose the right words for the right situation.
We can use peaceful language instead of abusing, condemning, judging. We don’t need to exaggerate. We don’t need to speak one way to one person and another way to another person, attempting to manipulate. Our truth can be gentle, consistent, and loving.
Not everyone has the same perception or understanding. When we talk, we can adapt ourselves to each person, learning about how they think and feel. Not everyone will be receptive to the same stories, the same messages, and the same knowledge.
Our speech should be used for well-being and healing. When our speech causes ill-being and suffering, then that is wrong speech. We can make those around us feel loved through our presence, through our gentleness and care.
As we look into ourselves, we know that we’re not perfect. We have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. We feel pain and joy and compassion and fear and anger and on and on, just like everyone else.
We don’t have to judge ourselves as bad, because we have positive qualities too, but we don’t have to swell with pride either, because we make mistakes too. No one sees us for who we are in totality. They are only partly right. We don’t see everyone else for who they are in totality either. People may have many experiences, feelings, and thoughts that we will never be aware of.
When we feel angry, we neither need to act nor suppress our anger. Anger may have a sense of urgency to it, but when we act, we often escalate the situation.
Rather than falling into the same habitual patterns, we can treat our anger with tenderness. We can embrace our energy and breathe and let go. Even a small pause can be beneficial.
We can ask ourselves whenever a thought arises, “Is that thought right? Are we really sure?” Instead of committing to a wrong perception, we can slow down and question our certainty.
Unless we can communicate mindfully with ourselves, we cannot improve the quality of our relationships. With mindfulness of suffering, compassion arises. When we see the suffering in others, we want to help. We cannot force others to become who we want them to be, but we can change ourselves.
When we are compassionate to ourselves, our desire to help our communities grows.
Our love grows.
Our lives are interwoven. We are dependent on each other for survival and well-being. If our communities can listen to each other, communicating with loving-kindness and non-judgmental awareness, we can systematically change our civilization.
We are often caught in a dualistic trap of desire, aversion, and ignorance. We make judgements about life, categorizing events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, right or wrong, moral or immoral.
We desire what seems attractive and pleasurable, while we avoid or resist suffering, pain, distress, confusion, uncertainty, and hurt.
Then we ignore what doesn’t stimulate us, what seems uninteresting and boring. In many cases, we ignore what is too hard and painful to accept. Distracting our minds from what is.
Through tonglen practice, we can change our relationship to desire and aversion and ignorance.
Rather than being averse to pain, clinging to comfort, or ignoring what we don’t like, we can be mindful of ourselves, of all the energy in our bodies, without judgement, without attachment.
We can work with our suffering through being present. Instead of categorizing experience as good and bad, right and wrong, pleasurable and painful, we can simply be with what is.
When we drop our storylines, we can become friends with our pain and not cling to fleeting pleasures.
Then we can transform ourselves from our awareness of a changing, nuanced life.
We can inhale our suffering and exhale our joy. As we breathe, we can wish others to feel our joy and to not feel our suffering.
Rather than hiding from our sorrow and pain, we can directly engage with it—not in following the storylines of our sorrow and pain, or in justifying why we feel or think in a given way, but in seeing the energy behind everything.
When we look into ourselves with honesty and compassion, we can extend our view to others.
It is so easy to believe that we are the only ones who feel anger and pain, fear and depression, and so on, but we are not alone. Other people feel like us too.
Rather than reinforcing old habitual patterns of alienation and isolation, we can remind ourselves that we are all human and dependent on each other.
When we feel sadness, we can connect to the sadness of others, when we feel happy, we can connect to the happiness of others.
Our lives are the perfect material for our compassion. The more we focus on our patience, the more we realize how impatient we are. The more we focus on our anger, the more we discover how often we become angry. Every moment is a teacher, helping us to become better humans.
When we breathe in, we can imagine ourselves inhaling thickness, darkness, heat, heaviness, claustrophobia, or pain.
When we breathe out, we can release all that dark energy, transforming it into cool, bright light.
We can take in what is hard and let it go.
We can use our friends, our family, our troublesome associates, anyone, as material for our practice.
When we suffer, we can wish for others to not suffer as we are suffering. When we feel happiness, we can wish for others to feel happiness as we do. Through our practice, we can compassionately connect to all of life.
From “taking and sending,” we can awaken our compassion.
Instead of hiding from our suffering, we can learn to embrace it. We can visualize ourselves taking in pain, then sending out tenderness and care.
We can take in what is dark and send out the light. Through this daily practice, we will soon find that the distinction between what is given and what is taken, the inner and outer, life and death, good and evil, blurs.