One daily habit to make fatherhood easier
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream
The New Fatherhood explores the existential questions facing modern fathers, bringing together the diverse community of forward-thinking dads who are asking them. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. My aim is to make this one of the best emails that you get each week. You are one of the 1,997 dads (SO CLOSE!) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own one here.
I want you to think about something that’s bothering you.
It could be a problematic client at work, testing your patience. Or a colleague that's contributing to a constant low-level of stress. It might be a toddler that won’t eat consistently, or isn't sleeping well. It might even be a dog that won’t listen to you.
Maybe it’s something bigger, those existential questions that keep us up at night. What if I had taken that other job? What if we moved to that other 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. Feel it.
And then, imagine it was gone. In an instant. Wouldn't that be great?
Today I'm going to talk to you about meditation. It isn't going to be the first time. And it almost certainly won't be the last. I'm going to talk to you about the impact that a daily practice can have on your life: to be a better parent, partner, friend, and generally all-round happier human being. I'm going to explain how it changes the way the brain works, 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 we'll start to instil the habit, share our experiences, and learn from each other (and some of the smartest thinkers out there.)
Sounds good? Let's get going.
Meditation: What it is, where it's from, and what it does
I know you probably already know about meditation. It's not new to you. Honestly, it's not new to anyone: the first documented records can be traced back to India around 1500 BCE, where some of the earliest written words carried the concept of "the training of the mind." Through Hinduism, Buddishm and Taoism it spread through the Eastern world, 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 (who rose to prominence as the spiritual advisor to The Beatles.)
"Civilization changes a person on the outside. Meditation softens a person from within, through and through."
— Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
If I don't need to teach you about the history, you're probably familiar with the benefits too. But—for any fellow admirers of peer-reviewed studies—there's no snake oil getting sold here, and a compelling body of scientific research backing it all up. There have been hundreds of papers 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 it increases happiness by rewiring our default mode network and encouraging us to "live in the moment". Let's talk about that last one some more.
Introducing 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. Think of it as "standby mode" for your brain. It’s related to various types to 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 that voice inside your mind, that is 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 approach to parenting, 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 keep going over past events that didn't go to plan, thinking about what—and who—caused it, and what bad things might happen now 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 these things, we're can’t simply will these things away. But through meditation, we're able to increase our "neuroplasticity", which dictates the ability of our brains to forge new pathways. Meditation rewires the brain in a way that is visible by fMRI scanners, quieting the DMN. And whilst science has proven this only recently, Buddhists have been aware of this for a long time, before innovations in medicine made it possible to see it on a screen. Buddha called it the "monkey mind": internal chaos, a bunch of primates jumping around, screeching, chattering, and getting up to all sorts of hijinks when we don't want them to. Through meditation we can learn to calm this monkey mind, and overrule the default mode network.
“Learn to be calm and you will always be happy” — Paramahansa Yogananda
How meditation helped me ride the waves
Let's go back to that question up top. The thing that bothers you. I have (or should I say "had") many, but one consistent one was "the fucking mess". All the flotsam and jetsam that comes with children, toys and books scattered like abandoned tents and beer cans as field empties 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 know that 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 feeling a lot of 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 that helped me step away from the metaphorical ledge everyday. I looked at it as a way to unclench my jaw so I could get home in one piece. But it's only over the last two 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, as a boat. There are waves approaching towards you everyday. A sea of constant trials and tribulations, as Mr Murphy once put it. You know they're coming. They're inevitable. So you batten down the hatches, and steer straight into them. Feel them crash upon you, take the strain, endure the struggle. But there is another way. You can take a moment. Take a breath. Re-orientate yourself, and let them peacefully pass underneath. That’s what meditation can bring.
Think about the way you react to stressful situations today. Something happens. You think "I'm pissed off." Then, in an instant, you become that thought. You become angry. You lose control. But with meditation, it's like that TV trope where a character's soul temporarily leaves their body. They look at their physical form and think "what the hell am I doing?" This is a skill that once you develop, you'll never see the world in the same way again. To be able to take a step back from the emotions that start to flood your nervous system and pre-empt the fight or flight response. You don't cast these feelings away: you witness them, honour them, but then act in accordance to 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 into a room full 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 can sometimes test me when Bodhi lifts the entire LEGO® Large Creative Brick Box 10698 (in 33 different colours) and dumps it's 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 the last 18 months—and over 120 hours—"on the cushion." I can walk into a the most disorderly 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 my self; I had redefined my self 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 (therapy played a fair part too). It gave me the ability to know that it was a feeling that would pass. It gave me the insight to know that, with two kids, rooms are always going to get messy, and it wasn't going to help me if I continued to get stressed about it. It taught me all I needed to know in order to let go. And I'm happier every day as a result.
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.
Here's a few other things my meditation practice has 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 happiness won't be found in a new house, a promotion, or a better car, so I'm free to enjoy things as they are, instead of chasing what might come to be. Remember: what you have today is what you once hoped for. Take a second. Soak in the moment.
Change is out of your control. How you deal with it is not. Understanding the concept of impermanence has given me comfort amid uncertainty. Discomfort arises when we try to hold onto things that we can't accept will 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.
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, you'll be free to enjoy the moment as it is. This is a great introduction to the concept of letting go.
Take it with you, wherever you go. Meditation is not just about that time spent eyes closed, focusing on the breath, and trying to clear your mind. It's about using the learnings and insights that you find there and applying them to all the 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 and relationships. They're sometimes useful. But ask yourself: is this thing I'm feeling helping me? Or is it doing the opposite?
"One of the take-home lessons of Buddhist philosophy is that feelings just are. If we accepted their arising and subsiding as part of life, rather than reacting to them as if they were deeply meaningful, we’d often be better off. Learning to do that is a big part of what mindfulness meditation is about. And there are lots of satisfied customers who attest that it works."
— Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True
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 across your Instagram feed since the lockdown started: Calm and Headspace being the two biggest ones.
These apps are useful, because the benefit of meditation comes from making it a habit. They know if you do something every day for a month you’ve got a good chance of carrying on with it. For those of you who are in the creative industry, it smells a bit like a marketing scam, like you can see the wizard behind the curtain: "Do this for free for 30 days and change your life!" But in this instance, all you're being tricked into is being happier. If you can get into the habit of a daily practice (some research says 2 minutes a day is enough) the compound effects can change your worldview fundamentally.
For me, there's one app that managed to instill a daily practice where others failed. I've spoken before about Waking Up, and how Sam Harris' approach to meditation has managed to blend classic thinking with modern developments in neuroscience, psychotherapy and philosophy. You can listen here to how his approach differs from others in this space. Through Waking Up I’ve been introduced to powerful mental concepts, pushing my brain into thinking in radically new ways.
David Lynch said “The thing about meditation is you become more and more you.” I feel more like me than I ever have done, and it's helped me to become a better dad. So a few weeks ago I asked those of you in The New Fatherhood community if you'd be interested in taking an introduction course together. You did. So that gave me a thought.
We're going to run a little experiment here on The New Fatherhood. We're going to take a 30 day "Introduction to Meditation" course together. 10 minutes a day. That's it. A slither of time that you'll be able to find. We'll aim to get it finished before kids in the UK and US break up for summer holidays, so you've got the best chance of it becoming a daily habit. We'll use the Waking Up app—because, after trying everything, I think it's the best tool out there—and you'll get a code for a free month when you sign up. We'll then use The New Fatherhood community as a place to talk about the process together, because it's always easier to do something like this if you're doing it with some other folks too . I'll take the intro course again too and will share some insights related to how these things help me as a father. I hope, after reading all of this, you’re convinced. If you want to get involved, sign up here.
This button will take you to the subscription page for The New Fatherhood. On subscribing, you’ll be invited to join the community, where the course will take place.
“The thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi is said to have written, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
— Robert Wright, Why Buddhism Is True
In 1995 the Nintendo 64 was delayed by 6 months. Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, Zelda and more—and personal hero of mine—told reporters at the time "A delayed game is eventually good, but a bad game is bad forever."
Two reasons I bring that quote up:
I am in no way trying to say that this newsletter is even approaching the cultural significance of Super Mario 64, one of the greatest games of all time. But at least now you know why you didn't get it yesterday.
Did Cyberpunk 2077, a game that managed to be both delayed AND bad, finally ruin Miyamoto's pearl of wisdom? A discussion for another time …
That's it for this week. This was a long one, and I want to give it a little space to breathe. Thanks as always to Selman Design and Tony Johnson. Money should never be a barrier to becoming a better parent. So if you want a subscription, but truly can't afford it, reply to this email and I will give you one, no questions asked. I actually stole this idea from Waking Up who offer the same thing — so you can get both for free, if you think meditation will help you. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.