As the blowers blew what was left of the football pinata and hundreds of pieces of small candy violently flew around the car wash bay, this was going to be tough to explain to Charlie. So, Macy and I headed to the grocery store, and we went to the bakery to pick up the Bronco’s cake that Charlie carefully picked out from the cake book a few days prior. There, the woman in her nicest voice told us they had run out of Bronco’s kits, so she used the Rockies kit and made it a baseball theme cake instead. She acted like this was no big deal. Spike number 3.
Even the expression on Macy’s face insinuated this was a really big deal. When she realized the enormity of the situation, she said she’d call another store to see if they had a Bronco’s kit, they could quickly put on a cake. While she made that phone call, Macy and I raced across the store to the floral department to pick up the helium balloons. There we waited while the sweetest and slowest elderly man ever blew up the helium balloons, one at a time. His arthritic fingers were not equipped to tie ribbons on balloons, and the process was painful to watch. Another spike.
Eventually, I jump behind the counter to help him tie the ribbons on the balloons, and we raced back to the bakery with my bouquet of balloons in hand. There the woman was writing out the directions where we were to pick up the Bronco’s kit and suddenly I hear what sounds like gun shots coming from behind me. Spike! When I turn, I realize the gunshot sound was merely the balloons rubbing up against the sprinkler system on the ceiling of the store, popping and dropping one by one.
It was about this time that Macy pulled on my shirt and whined, “Mom, I’m hungry! Why is this taking so long?” This was now my baseline. When our brains look like this, we can’t calm down, and we don’t know how to pay attention because the part of our brain responsible for those skills is completely offline.
Today I want to share tools that bring our brains back into balance, tools that keep the spikes from going so high and that bring us back to baseline more quickly. Mindfulness could be one of the single most effective ways to help us all calm down, pay attention, and be thankful. I define this practice, mindfulness, as paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It’s thousands of years of old knowledge that, new science is demonstrating, can improve your relationships, your performance at work, your parenting, your health, and your happiness in general.
Mindfulness strengthens those neural pathways in our prefrontal cortex, making it stronger, more efficient and easier to use. Mindfulness doesn’t just decrease stress and increase pleasure for you, it leads to profound benefits to the people around you. In one study out at the UCLA, parents practiced mindfulness for one year and noticed significant improvements in their parenting skills and their interactions with their kids, even though no new parenting practices had been taught to them. Over the course of the year-long study, the behavior of their kids changed as well. They got along better with their siblings. They were less aggressive. Their social skills improved. All their parents did was practice mindfulness.
Our research shows that when we can teach children the skills of mindfulness, they demonstrate significant improvements in their ability to pay attention, their ability to regulate their emotions and their development of empathy. This creates a brain that’s more resilient to stress, more efficient as a worker and a learner, and most importantly, a happier brain.
Today, or tonight, I would like to share three simple practices that can bring profound improvements in your day-to-day life. The first is mindful breathing.
Mindful breathing is simply bringing your awareness to your breath. It looks something like this. Seems simple enough. It also could be the single most effective way to calm the stress response in the brain teaching us how to calm down. You can sit on a cushion, in a chair, or even lie on the floor and dedicate 5, 10 or ideally 20 minutes a day to bringing your awareness to your breath. If your mind wanders off, which it will, simply notice and return to the breath. That is all. If you feel like your day is too busy to practice mindful breathing, try this: each time you’re at a traffic light, put your hand on your belly and count how many breaths you take while you’re there. Every time your phone rings, take a long, slow, deep breath before you answer it. And when your child is struggling, offer them a three-breath hug. Simply embrace and take three deep breaths together. It feels as good for you as it does for them.
Mindful listening. The practice of mindful listening teaches us how to pay attention. When we practice mindful listening, we stimulate the reticular activating system in our brain, the RAS. The RAS is responsible for filtering through all incoming stimuli and determining which stimulus is the most important to focus on at that time. At work we have to filter through thoughts about what we forgot to do this morning and what we need to do later in order to focus on what we need to get done right now. In a classroom, kids have to filter through a ton of information: noise from other classrooms, distracting classmates, humming lights and the buzz of the air conditioner. When our RAS is working efficiently, we are able to focus on the tasks, the situations and the people that are the most important.