Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tiger Mother & the Lotus Heart

When tiger parents teach mindfulness aggressively to their children as a means of ambition, they fail to realize what monastics have known for thousands of years: true power arises when discipline is combined with the soft gentleness of a lotus heart.

When leaving one of my family mindfulness workshops in Silicon Valley, I overheard a father saying to his 6-year-old daughter, “We’re going to go home and you’re going to sit for fifteen minutes absolutely still. And if you can’t sit still for 15 minutes, you’re going to sit for another 15 minutes and then another - until you can do it.”

It’s a common and dangerous misconception. This father was very sincere during my workshop and easily accessed the deep calm of mindfulness practice. He had good intentions for his daughter but an entirely wrong approach to mindfulness instruction. Fortunately I caught the moment and was able to clarify for him what mindfulness is and is not. I reassured him that my assignment of 30 seconds of daily practice for his daughter was more than enough time for such a young child. If carried out, his plan could have damaged his daughter’s self esteem and given her a deep hatred of mindfulness, which should always be a safe space for personal growth not yet another measure of failure in our standards-obsessed culture.

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whom Martin Luther King, Jr. once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, emphasized how to properly ring a bell when I studied meditation with him in France in 1997. “We invite the bell to ring,” he said. “We do not strike the bell.” This quality of gentleness captures the correct relationship to ourselves and others during mindfulness practice. We invite our children to practice mindfulness. We create a safe space that they are grateful to experience. There are teachers and parents who are “bell strikers,” who teach mindfulness almost as a form of punishment, hissing, “Be mindful!” when actually a soft ring of the bell and gentle modeling of correct practice is the only effective delivery system.

Tiger parents want the best for their children but perhaps their definition of success is too narrow. We need to ask ourselves, what is most valuable in life: success, happiness or health? Most people would answer happiness or health yet tiger parents push their children so hard toward success that health and happiness can be compromised. In my mindfulness work with families since 2011, I have witnessed children under extreme academic pressure who have health problems like ulcers and tearing out their hair. I’m not talking about children born into poverty. These are middle and upper class children who are considered gifted or who have learning disabilities. Tiger parents too often decide that academic success is more important than their children’s mental or physical health even though without health, a person has far less value in the workplace. This excessive effort to achieve success creates imbalances with serious consequences.

One of the most important qualities of a mindfulness teacher is patience with oneself and others and a willingness to let things unfold rather than forcing progress. This is never clearer to me than when instructing children with learning disabilities or emotional problems. Parents of children with special needs often suffer intense stress. I do not judge them and do my best to support them with my mindfulness instruction. Unfortunately adults reacting with stress and impatience to a child’s condition create stress in the child as well. Scientific research tells us that stress exacerbates learning disabilities as well as emotional problems. This means that when adults are unable to accept unconditionally a child’s current state, their aversion ironically sabotages potential solutions. If they could accept a child’s current difficulties with calm and patience, the child’s stress would diminish – a good first step in the right direction.

Despite our modern culture, we have an ancient dysfunction in that we often cannot accept our own or another person’s imperfections. At the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece, there were no silver medals only gold. Communities shunned any athlete who came in second. I see this intense aversion to imperfection in modern advertisements, in the social comments people make about others in unfortunate situations. We are attached to superiority, to placing first. In contrast while Buddhist monastics strive for personal refinement, they practice intense discipline with an attitude of gentle kindness rather than aversion to imperfection. In this context, there is no attitude of superiority or inferiority, both of which are considered forms of mental illness. Because of this inherent kindness towards self and others, the Dalai Lama was unable to comprehend the concept of self-hatred, which seems much more universal in industrialized nations. 

When we adults want to eradicate rather than accept with kindness children’s imperfections, we make them fear the places where they fall short of expectation and plant seeds of self-hatred in their little minds that make it very difficult for them to then face and find solutions to their difficulties. I like to offer an antidote to self-hatred in the form of a mathematical analogy:

Neither is true

The Japanese cultivate Bonsai trees, beautiful symbols for the process of gradual self-refinement. The tiniest snip here and there, the smallest adjustments. This is what the path of enduring change looks like. True perfection is actually attention to imperfection that is interested, patient and creative. There is attention to detail as well as to the big picture. Refinement is a work of joy, not aversion. It is an art form.

Parents and teachers often want instant solutions, a silver bullet, for problems and this is unfortunate because a fast solution often means it won’t hold. Deadline pressure only increases stress in children who become impatient with their own process rather than learning the power of patience. In reality the smallest improvement - the smallest increment of change - will also be the most enduring form of change. For the 6-year-old girl, that increment is 30 seconds of daily mindfulness practice. When that becomes easy, add another 30 seconds. With that level of incremental change over a long period of time, that little girl will easily sit for an hour a day by the time she is a young adult. Having increased her discipline so patiently and gently, she will have cultivated a mindfulness practice that will bring her no harm, only protection. Can we commit 15 years to achieving a goal or overcoming a challenge? Can we be so patient? When we want instant success right now, we often fail to see the right course of action. We pick the fruit before it ripens. We spoil our lives with impatience and its sister emotion, discouragement.

Patience, acceptance and incremental change are all part of moderation, a key tenet of Buddhist philosophy. It is through moderation that we are able to find the right balance of success and giving, effort and rest. For ambitious nations, moderation can be a difficult concept to grasp. In the late 90s when I was practicing meditation in Burma completing 91 days of silent retreat, I forced myself to practice sitting meditation for 3 hours at a time believing I would progress faster. One day my teacher told me that sitting more than one hour at a time was unnecessary, that walking meditation is just as valuable as sitting meditation. It was an ah-ha moment for me. I realized I was being ambitious and aggressive rather than patient and receptive. It was a call to gentleness.

It’s funny to think of now, my younger self sitting there with all of that unnecessary effort: where was I going? More importantly, where are we all going? Excessive striving may yield financial wealth but how much money equals true happiness or true security? Our ecosystem and stress levels (and stressed health) are asking us to slow down, take less – only as much as we need instead of as much as we can grab. Is our drive for perfection and excess driven by fear or a need for superiority or a need to belong? If it is, can we take time to stop and find a middle way through our choices? What would our world look like if we made decisions based on moderation rather than stress, which is a form of fear?

The stress, forcefulness and urgency we subject children to while educating their minds is also unnecessary. Excessive ambition and stress zaps energy and health for everyone involved: students, teachers and parents. In contrast, discipline practiced with patience preserves energy and creates greater endurance.  It reminds me of a biblical passage: “those with faith… will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31. Patience and commitment to slow evolution, to the long road of our lives, is the greatest expression of faith.

Mindfulness is about paying attention to ourselves, to others and to the world around us. When we pay attention, we progress through challenges with the right amount of effort. When we become out of balance or overly stressed, we are able to correct these imbalances by adjusting our choices – not in a one-time spectacular New Year’s Eve resolution, but in a daily practice of subtle pruning and nurturing. We become the Bonsai tree. We become a work of art.

Children with learning disabilities can teach us about acceptance of imperfections as we work to improve ourselves. Instead of pushing children with learning disabilities to be exactly like everyone else (as quickly as possible), we can help them shine in their own unique way. If honored for who they are rather than being measured against a harsh standard, they may discover entirely new ways of doing things. When we create a safe space for ourselves and our children and pay attention together, we notice more and more options and solutions. We become open and creative rather than restrictive and fearful. When we have the discipline to face our difficulties and the gentleness not to take those difficulties so seriously – when we trust our lives to unfold - the impossible slowly and gradually becomes possible.

Copyright 2014 by Ellen McCarty.  All rights reserved.