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Learning the True Value of My Thoughts

Thursday, October 23, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Carla Naumburg wrote about mindfulness, parenting, and her first book Parenting in the Present Moment. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

So, I’m Jewish. And I’ve got a Jewish grandfather who was a classically trained psychoanalyst who looked not unlike Freud. (Actually, he was once analyzed by someone who was analyzed by Freud. In certain circles, that’s a very big deal. Apparently.) I’m also the child of a difficult divorce who grew up to be a clinical social worker, which means I’ve spent more than my fair share of time on both sides of the therapy office. As an academic, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and then writing about what I was thinking and then getting feedback about my thoughts, which I then thought about some more.

What all of this means is that my culture, my genetics, and everything I’ve learned over the years have instilled in me a deeply held belief that my thoughts are terribly important, and that they matter deeply. I have moved through most of my life believing that the ideas bouncing around inside my head truly define me, and that they tell me, and those around me, who I am, where I come from, where I’m headed, what I’m capable of, and how I understand the world and my role in it.

My thoughts are, apparently, so important that they’re worth paying large amounts of money to therapists so we can spend an hour discussing and exploring and analyzing every single one of them.

And so when I stand at my kitchen sink and look out the window at the vines growing over the chain-link fence and think that all I want to do is run away from the tantrums and the whining and the dinners left uneaten on divided plastic plates, it must mean that I am a terrible mother. Good mothers don’t fantasize about leaving their children, do they?

A couple of years ago, in a desperate attempt to become a good mother, I started studying mindfulness. One of the first ideas I learned in my mindfulness-based stress reduction course is that thoughts are just thoughts. That’s it. They’re not reality or anything even close to it. We’ve all got theories about where they come from, but no one really knows. (If you look up “thought” on Google, the first definition that pops up says, “an idea or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in the mind.” Um. Thanks. That clears up everything.)

Perhaps our thoughts are the result of the random firings of neurons. Maybe they’re just the repetition of phrases our parents used to mutter under their breath when they thought we couldn’t hear, or they’re ideas that we’ve had over and over again through the years for no apparent reason. Every once in awhile, they might even be a stroke of divine inspiration. Who knows?

The point is that despite what my grandfather and my education have taught me, my thoughts aren’t necessarily worthy of my attention, and I can actually choose how much time and energy I want to spend on any given one.

That thought (ahem) literally changed my life.

Now, when I stand over my kitchen sink, shoveling chocolate in my mouth and wondering how I ever got myself into this mess (both literal and figurative), I don’t immediately assume that I should hand my kids over to DSS. I try, whenever I can, to remember that it’s just a thought, and I can choose to let it go so I can calm down and get a little perspective.

Let it go. It’s as simple as that, but it’s not necessarily easy. I have over three decades of experience getting all wrapped up in my thoughts as if they were God’s word inserted directly into my mind. But I’m working on it, because the better I get at noticing, and dismissing, my frequently unhelpful thoughts, the more I can stay focused on what really matters.

The thing is, I can’t figure out what that is until I let go of all the ramblings in my brain that don’t matter.

Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker, writer, and mother. She is the mindful parenting blogger for PsychCentral.com and a contributing editor at Kveller.com. Carla's writing has been featured inThe New York Times, The Huffington Post, and Parents.com, among other places. Her first book, Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters, is now available. Carla currently lives outside of Boston with her husband and two young daughters.

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A Bracelet, a Necklace, and a Book Tour

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | Permalink

Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker, writer, and mother. She is the mindful parenting blogger for PsychCentral.com and a contributing editor at Kveller.com. Her first book, Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I’m getting ready to head out on my book tour, and I’m trying to decide what to wear. In addition to the clothes my sister will pick out for me, I’ll be wearing a thick cream-colored bangle bracelet with large black letters that read, “Because I said so.”

The bracelet might seem like an odd choice for someone who just wrote a parenting book, so I’ll start by explaining the necklace I’ll be wearing, a small silver pendant with just one word engraved on it: STAY.

I first heard that word—really heard it—during an eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course I took a couple of years ago. I was learning the basics of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, and a few weeks in, our instructor read us the following quote by the Buddhist Nun Pema Chödrön:

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say "Stay!" "Come!" "Roll over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure .

Although Chödrön was talking about meditation, I immediately thought of parenting, and the ways in which I was “training” my daughters by yelling at them. My desire to stop yelling so often was the reason I had signed up for the mindfulness course in the first place; nothing else had worked. In that moment, when I heard those words, I got a little clarity on why I had developed such a temper (I was never much of a yeller before my daughters were born), and what I might do about it.

I realized that I had no ability to stay present in the difficult, irritating, boring, exhausting, situations that inevitably come up in the work of child rearing. When those hard moments happened, again and again, I just wanted to run away. When I couldn’t do that, I sought refuge in my smartphone or I lost my temper. I needed to learn to stay, and I needed to train myself to do so with kindness, which I had been sorely lacking. I started practicing mindfulness and meditation. It helped. A lot.

And so I wear the necklace, a small and subtle reminder to myself that the work of parenting calls on me to stay connected, stay grounded, and stay as present as possible and as calm as possible when I’m feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, confused, and off-track with my kids.

And I will also wear my bracelet, the bangle that says “Because I said so.” Just to be clear, these four words (which, yes, I have said to my children on more than one occasion, and which I am sure I will say again) are the verbal equivalent of shutting the door on them; pretty much the opposite of staying present.

A traditional Hasidic teaching tells us that we should keep a piece of paper in each of our pockets. One should read something along the lines of, “For my sake the world was created,” and the other should read, “I am but dust and ashes.” We are told to read the first note when we’re feeling hopeless or depressed, and the second when we’re feeling overly brazen or proud. The purpose behind these notes is to remind us not to take ourselves so damn seriously. That doesn’t mean that our ideas and attitudes aren’t important, it just means we don’t benefit from getting overly wrapped up in our own thoughts and feelings and wishes and disappointments. And I feel the exact same way about parenting.

Yes, I wrote a parenting book, and it’s all about learning to stay focused on what really matters. And when I head out to talk about it over the next few months, I’ll be wearing a necklace that reminds me of what’s most important in my relationship with my daughters, and I’ll also be wearing a bracelet that reminds me that sometimes the best I can offer them is “Because I said so.” And that’s OK too.

Carla's writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and Parents.com, among other places. She currently lives outside of Boston with her husband and two young daughters.

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