A daily habit for more joyful parenting
AKA "How meditation finally clicked for me" (A TNF Remaster™️)
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I want you to think about something that’s bothering you.
It could be a problematic client at work, testing your patience. A colleague creating a constant background level of stress. It might be a toddler that won’t eat consistently, or isn't sleeping well. Hell, it may even be a dog who refuses to listen to you.
Maybe it’s something bigger, one of those existential questions, unwelcomely arriving at 2am on a hot summer night. What if I had taken that other job? What if we moved to another country, like we said we would? Are we sending our kids to the right school? Are we teaching them the right way to live? Are we good parents? Are we even good people?
OK. Think about that thing that's bothering you. Notice how it makes you feel.
And then, imagine it was gone. In an instant. Wouldn't that be great?
Today I want to talk about meditation. It isn't the first time. And it certainly won't be the last. I'm going to talk to you about the impact a daily practice can have on your life: to be a better parent, partner, friend, and generally all-around happier human being. I'm going to explain how it changes the way the brain functions and talk you through some concrete examples of how it has totally rewired mine.
Then I'm going to invite you to take part in a little experiment: a 30-day course, 10 minutes a day, where you can start to instil the habit, share your experiences in a community of other dads, and learn from each other (and some of the smartest thinkers out there.)
Sounds good? Then let's get going.
Meditation: What it is, where it's from, and what it does
You probably already know about meditation. It isn’t new, by any meaning of the word: the first documented records can be traced back to India around 1500 BCE, where some of the world’s earliest written words carried the concept of "the training of the mind." Through Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism it spread throughout the East, and it is believed to have influenced rituals around prayer in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. But the practice of meditation itself didn't start to take hold in the West until the 1700s when texts like the Bhagavad Gita and Buddhist Sutras were translated to English for the first time. Then, in the middle of the 20th century, the first gurus started to come from India to the United States, introducing a new audience to an ancient practice: teachers like Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Rama and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the latter rising to fame as spiritual advisor to The Beatles.)
“The man whom desires enter as rivers flow into the sea, filled yet always unmoving— that man finds perfect peace. Abandoning all desires, acting without craving, free from all thoughts of “I” and “mine,” that man finds utter peace.
— Bhagavad Gita, A New Translation (2002)
If I don't need to teach you about the history, you're probably familiar with the benefits too. But—for fellow admirers of peer-reviewed studies—there's no snake oil sold here, with a compelling body of scientific research to back it up. Hundreds of papers have been published extolling the virtues of meditation: it reduces anxiety and stress; decreases negative self-beliefs while improving emotion-regulation; improves attention; positively influences memory, attention and cognitive flexibility whilst reducing age-related cognitive decline; helps inform better choices and overrule cognitive biases; helps you live longer, and age slower; reduces pain and insomnia; reduces blood pressure, heart rate and the likelihood of heart attacks; and increases happiness by rewiring our default mode network and encouraging us to "live in the moment". Let's dig into that last a little more …
The default mode network AKA "your monkey mind"
The default mode network (DMN) is the area of your brain that controls what you think about when you're not actively doing something. (You might recall reading how psychedelics slow down the DMN a few weeks ago.) Think of it as "standby mode" for your brain. It’s related to various types of thinking, but they fall primarily into four areas:
Thinking about one's self
Thinking about others
Remembering the past
Envisioning the future
In short, it's your internal voice, constantly reminding you of that stupid thing you said in a meeting last week (or maybe even last year), chastising you for losing your temper with your kids this weekend, worrying about what other parents think of your parenting ability, or freaking you out as it reminds you that you're not where you "should" be in life by now.
“The habit of spending almost every waking moment lost in thought leaves us at the mercy of whatever our thoughts are. Meditation is a way of breaking this spell.” — Sam Harris, Waking Up
Do you spend time replaying past events that didn't go to plan, thinking about what—and who—caused the problem, and the bad things that might happen because of it? The psychological term for this is "rumination" and it has been shown to be powered by the DMN, driving unhappiness and—in some cases—depression: "Emerging evidence shows that unhappy people are inclined to dwell on their negative life events, focus on their self-emotions and feel self-conscious".
Unruly DMN activity makes us unhappy. And, try as we might to refrain from dwelling on what went wrong, we can’t will these thoughts away. But through meditation, we're able to increase our neuroplasticity, increasing our brain’s ability to forge new pathways. Meditation rewires the brain in a way visible by fMRI scanners, quieting the DMN. And whilst science has proven this only recently, religions like Buddhism have long been aware of this before it was possible to see it on a medical machine. The Buddha called this the "monkey mind": an image conjuring internal chaos, a bunch of primates jumping around, screeching, chattering, up to all sorts of hijinks when we don't want them to. Through meditation we learn to calm this monkey mind and overrule the default mode network.
How meditation helped me ride the waves
Let's go back to that question up top. To think about that thing that bothers you. I have (or should I say "had") many, but one consistent one was "the fucking mess" around the house. All the flotsam and jetsam that comes with children, toys and books scattered like abandoned tents and beer cans on the Monday morning of Glastonbury: all kinds of shit, in every room, every time I walked into it. I could feel myself getting annoyed when—yet again—these two children had managed to desecrate a clean room faster than I’d been able to tidy up the last one.
It's important to call out here—meditation isn't "sitting and doing nothing to destress." That's a mistake I made myself, about 5 years ago. I'd recently moved to San Francisco, and was overwhelmed by pressure in a new job. So I turned to the well-known mindfulness apps. I'd schedule 10 minutes a day, go to a quiet space somewhere, and sit and listen. And it helped—for a while. 10 minutes of calm in an ocean of chaos enabled me to step away from the metaphorical ledge every day. I looked at it as a way to unclench my jaw, allowing me to return home in one piece, and hopefully not bring that negativity home with me. But it's only over the last three years I've realised exactly what meditation is capable of.
"Through meditation we can lead our life so as to become more awake to who we are, rather than trying to improve or change or get rid of who we are or what we’re doing."
— Pema Chodron
Consider, for a moment: you are a boat. There are waves approaching you every day. A sea of never-ending trials and tribulations, as Mr Murphy once put it. You know they're coming—they’re inevitable. So you decide to face them head-on, battening down the hatches, steering straight into them. To feel them crash upon you, take the strain, endure the struggle. But what if there was another way? What if you took a moment. Took a breath. Re-orientate yourself, letting them peacefully pass underneath. That’s what meditation can bring.
Think about how you react to stressful situations today. Something happens. You feel a negative emotion arising: it could be anger, frustration, jealousy, or fear. In an instant, you become that thought. It takes control of the wheel. But with meditation, it's like the TV trope where a character's soul temporarily leaves their body. You are provided, for a split second, the ability to separate the thought and the thinker, to look from above and think "what the hell am I doing?" Once you develop this skill you'll never see the world in the same way again. It will become a super-power—the ability to step back from emotions that previously flooded your nervous system, engaging your fight or flight response. Meditation doesn’t mean casting these feelings away, or pretending they don’t exist: you witness them, honour them, and then act in accordance with what you actually want to do, not just what your programming is dictating. As Dan Harris says, "You can still get angry sometimes. But not as often as you might think you need to."
Back to the messy room. Back then? I'd be getting fired up every time I walked in and witnessed an explosion of toys, and waking up to a chaotic living room was enough to put me in a bad mood if not for the whole day, at least for the morning. But today? I don't care. Of course, it will test me when Bodhi lifts the entire LEGO® Large Creative Brick Box 10698 (with blocks in 33 different colours) and dumps its contents onto the floor, before calmly walking away to find his next victim (as I’m sure he thinks to himself "the more you ignore it, the cooler you look"). But that becomes a chance for me to practice what I've been working on—for over 180 hours—" on the cushion." I can walk into the most chaotic spaces today and feel a complete calm in a way that once seemed impossible.
"I was still conscious of the feeling in my jaw, but my consciousness was no longer engaged with it in the sense of having possessive feelings toward it. I hadn’t let go of my attachment to all feelings, as the Buddha recommends, but I had let go of my attachment to this one feeling. I had realized, you might say, that this feeling didn’t have to be part of myself; I had redefined myself in a way that excluded it."
— Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True
Meditation enabled me to understand where that feeling of tension from the messy room was coming from (with psychedelics and therapy playing a key part too). It gave me the faculty to know “this too shall pass.” It gave me the insight to appreciate that—with two young children—rooms are always going to get messy, and it wasn't going to help anyone if I continued to get stressed about it. It taught me all I needed to know in order to let go of that old feeling. And that’s just one of many examples of how meditation has enabled me to find more joy, and less stress, every day.
Here's a few other things my meditation practice taught me.
Happiness is here, if you want it. I live more "in the moment" than I've ever done before. The amount of time I spent ruminating on past events, or worrying about future problems, is a slither of what it once was. I know that only temporary happiness will be found in a new house, a promotion, or a faster car, so I'm free to enjoy things as they are, instead of chasing what society tells me I should need. Remember: so much of what you have today, you once dreamed of. Take a moment. Soak in that universal.
Change is out of your control. How you deal with it is not. Understanding the concept of impermanence has given me comfort amidst uncertainty. Discomfort arises when we hold tightly to things that will always change.
Patience isn't a virtue, it's a muscle. The more you train it, the more powerful it'll become, and the more of it you'll have to give to your kids. Speaking of which ...
Imagine learning these tools when you were a kid? That's what you can do for your little ones right now. We talk with Padme about how her feelings and emotions can feel overwhelming. How she can learn to care less about what other people think about her. How she can learn to get the "monkey mind" to stay quiet, at an early age. I'm confident her understanding these concepts at an early age will aid her immeasurably as she grows up. She’s even, very recently, started listening to a guided ten-minute meditation at bedtime, which is helping her better internalise the ideas of letting go, and separating the thought from the thinker.
Letting go is a radical act for yourself and others. A big part of the Buddhist teaching around meditation, and intrinsically connected to the concept of impermanence, is the idea of letting go of what doesn't serve you. If we can let go of attachments to people, beliefs and circumstances, forgetting the times we've been wronged in the past, we'll be free to enjoy the moment as it is. This is a great introduction to the concept of letting go.
You can take it with you, wherever you go. You don’t need to bring any kinds of tools or accessories to meditate. Simply close your eyes and begin. And meditation is not just about that time spent eyes closed, focusing on the breath, and trying to clear your mind, but using the insights that discover there in all interactions in your life.
Stimulus doesn't have to lead to an uncontrollable response. You are not your emotions. They're just feelings. They're layers of programming built up from past experiences, traumas and relationships. They're sometimes useful. But ask yourself: is this thing I'm feeling helping me? Or is it harming me?
"Civilization changes a person on the outside. Meditation softens a person from within, through and through."
— Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
Sounds good. Want to start?
It's easy. You can kick things off with an almost infinite number of courses on YouTube, read all kinds of books (Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana is a great place to start) or download one of the many apps you’ve seen advertised and mentioned everywhere, with Calm and Headspace being two of the most popular.
Apps are a useful tool because the benefit of meditation comes from making it a habit, and the notifications and onboarding courses will help you instil this new behaviour. They know if you do something every day for a month you’ve got a good chance of carrying on with it. You might think it smells like a marketing trick, like a cereal that promises to make you thinner if you can only "do this for 30 days!" But if you’re being tricked here, you’re only being tricked into living a more peaceful, joyful existence. If you can get into a daily practice habit (some research says 2 minutes a day is enough) the compound effects will change your worldview fundamentally.
For me, there's one approach and app that has both managed to instil a daily practice and help me completely reframe my relationship with my own thoughts. Something about Headspace and Calm never clicked with me—it felt like using meditation to deal with symptoms, reduce stress, or stop getting angry. But with Waking Up, and Sam Harris' approach to meditation that blends classic thinking with modern developments in neuroscience, psychotherapy and philosophy, I’m treating the root cause. (You can listen here to how his approach differs from others in this space.) Through Waking Up I’ve been introduced to powerful new mental concepts that have pushed my brain to think in radically different ways.
David Lynch once said, “The thing about meditation is you become more and more you.” It’s now been three years of an (almost) daily habit, and I feel more like me than I ever have done. It’s helped me in all aspects of my life, including significantly contributing to how I handle the extreme emotions that arise as a father. When I originally ran this piece, in July 2021, I asked if anyone was interested in taking the 30-day introductory course. A group of dads came together every day, to share their progress through the course. I shared personal thoughts on each day and provided as a way for other dads in the community to talk through their experiences together because it becomes easier to start a new habit if you’re doing it with other folks too. (You can still see those posts, and follow along, by joining the community.)
Then, for some unknown reason, Waking Up stopped its 30-day trial, reducing it to just a week. And it became a much harder app to recommend. Because the app isn’t cheap, with an annual subscription running to $100 a year. And if you don’t complete the first thirty days, you don’t really understand what the course is trying to teach. Thankfully, the Waking Up team came to their senses earlier this year and re-introduced the full trial. So I want to ask you to consider taking the free 30-day "Introduction to Meditation" Waking Up course. Just to be crystal clear: I am in no way affiliated with Sam Harris or Waking Up, and I will make a grand total of $0.00 for each and every person who signs up. I’m sharing this story, and this trial link, because this app has contributed more to my own mental health and ability to be a better dad than anything else out there. And what is this newsletter, if not dads sharing ways to help deal with the chaos of parenting? I’d be neglecting you if I didn’t share this powerful wrench for your fatherhood toolkit.
You’ll need to find 10 minutes a day, over the next 30. That’s it.You can do it anytime, anywhere. A fraction of an hour that even a parent should be able to find. You might do it when you wake up. You might, like me, do it when your sat inside your child’s room, waiting for them to fall asleep. You can even do it sat in bed before you head to sleep. It may work for you. It may not. But I can tell you, from the other side of three years of practice, that if it clicks, it will transform the way you experience every aspect of the world.
All you need to start? 300 minutes. That’s less time than you spent watching those two long-ass Stranger Things episodes. What are you waiting for?
An earlier version of this essay was published in June 2021. But this one is better. What did you think? Your feedback helps me make this great.