If this is your situation, you have my sympathy. I’m writing this as someone who was interrupted approximately every 3 ½ minutes during a carefully scheduled half hour set aside for spiritual practice yesterday. Solitude can be hard to maintain in the face of bathroom emergencies and an urgent need for snacks or conflict mediation. So, what to do?
I believe strongly in working with the growth material with which I am presented. It became apparent to me fairly quickly yesterday that it was not going to be a good day for silent meditation. That left me with two choices – either I could get upset about it, or I could accept it with good grace.
Everyone who tries to parent consciously practices a kind of karma yoga, whether they are aware of it or not. We are, with varying degrees of acceptance or resentment on any given day, on a path of service prompted by love. It’s there every time we wake to comfort a crying baby in the middle of the night, and during those interminable hours spent standing around a freezing cold playground. It’s there every time we give preference to the needs of a child over the cries of our own ego.
Life as spiritual practice
Yesterday, I gave into the inevitable, and with a few deep breaths came down from the metaphorical mountain and back into the fray. The challenge was to do it with good grace, reminding myself that as Eckhart Tolle writes, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but our thoughts about it”. I responded to each child’s need in turn, dispensing hugs, snacks, correct spellings, and then I got caught before I could move on: “Mum, will you play Lego with me?”
Lego as mindfulness practice
I’m not averse to Lego, and I’m certainly not averse to playing with my children. However, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the whirl of all that must be done, and tell myself that I’ll have time for play later. I’ll play after the laundry, the dinner, the phone call that must be made, the article that needs editing. It’s too easy to push away the present moment for the to-do list.
Anyway, the earnestly pleading eyes caught me, and down I sat to submit to the instructions of a young master builder. And here is what I discovered – Lego is excellent mindfulness practice.
Building in the present moment
I know that Thich Nhat Hahn, the great teacher of mindfulness, has written about doing the dishes mindfully, and that is undoubtedly an equally worthy practice, but Lego! As a parent assisting in Lego construction, you must remain entirely in the present moment, because you have rarely an idea of your goal beyond the most general terms. You have no idea what it is that you are trying to build beyond the fact that it is a vehicle of some sort and will probably have several turbo jets and at least three blasters.
Appreciating the impossible task
You are presented with an enormous tub, full of multi-coloured blocks of varying sizes and shapes (ours is a repurposed baby bath, just to give a sense of size) and informed that your task is to find “one of these little round bits, but it has to be orange and it has to be the one with the round top, not the flat top.”
You enter the present moment entirely, seeking, sifting, enjoying the colours, the smooth plastic texture, the intriguing shapes of the odd bits. Your attention must be diffused, your gaze soft; if it’s too focused, you’ll never find anything.
You breathe, you become aware of your posture as you sit cross-legged on the floor. The stiffness in your shoulders becomes apparent. The feeling of the wooden floor against your bare feet is pleasantly warm. Every movement becomes conscious, deliberate, slow. Nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. You relax.
Letting go of attachment
The piece may be there, it may not. It may have been sucked up by the vacuum cleaner last week. There is absolutely no point being attached to the outcome of this exercise. All you can do is accept what is, internally and externally. Just be present fully.
You sift, handful by handful, while remaining aware enough to catch a flash of orange from the far corner. Eventually you find success, a glimpse of orange plastic nirvana. “Thanks,” says the master builder casually, “now I need one of these blue two-piecers, but it has to be the light blue, not the dark blue.”
You release attachment to your achievement and move on, over and over again as many times as it takes. A bit like life, really.
Another quote I’m fond of from Thich Nhat Hanh states “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers”.
And yes, this is the other way in which playing Lego with a child is a wonderful exercise. Apart from teaching us about the cultivation of a mindful attitude within ourselves, it teaches us about mindful attention to another.
While we as parents spend a great deal of time taking care of our children, those moments when we sit in silent absorption with them, engaged on a joint project, working together, can be few and far between. This is especially true if there is more than one child on the scene. And yet, these times are precious.
Sitting building Lego, I become aware of how methodical my child is, how he arranges the pieces in such an organised way. He is clearly working to a plan in his head of which I am ignorant, but of which he is certain and confident. I notice the delicacy of movement and increasing complexity of thought and motion. I see how he loves explaining to me how the different pieces fit together, what this arm will do, or how tall that tower needs to be. He is blooming, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, like a flower in the light of my undivided mindful attention. And suddenly I am tremendously glad and grateful that my meditation was interrupted today, because this moment feels so exquisite and precious that I would hate to have missed it.
Even those of us who consciously cultivate a spiritual practice can be guilty all too often of creating an artificial boundary between our practice and the rest of our lives. There is no boundary, there can be no boundary. Every moment in which we are consciously present, consciously breathing, consciously loving and engaging, is a moment of spiritual practice. Those hours spent sitting in silence are not an end in themselves, they are a training, a reminder of what we are trying to bring to every other moment of the day. Sometimes we succeed, and realise it, and the realisation is exquisite. And then, of course, we release it and move on because that’s just the way life is.
Are you wondering how you might bring mindfulness practice into your daily life? Start right now. Breathe in slowly, breathe out slowly. Feel the breath moving through your body, feel the air on your skin. Notice how your body feels. All you’re doing is breathing, but you’re doing it with intention and that’s the beginning of mindfulness.
There are lots of wonderful mindfulness resources available online. Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle are two great authors with whom to begin. If you’d like to explore how you can begin to live more in the present moment and less in distraction and stress, you can also contact me for an appointment. I’d love to hear from you.