Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mindfulness, Happiness, Raising Children

American Public Media on mindfulness and happiness...

Even if you're tickled pink, you're not as happy as people in, say, Denmark. This week, a study revealed that Denmark is the happiest place on the planet. The United States is 16th. Zimbabwe is the glummiest of the glum. What seems to make people happy is economic growth, democracy and social tolerance -- that's from the World Values Surveys. The surveys have been conducted for the past 26 years.

But Weekend America's Bill Radke is more concerned with family values -- his daughter Susanna turns 17 months this weekend, and he's questioning his own need to see her smile. This year, I've been doing a monthly series about being a first-time parent, and the values I hope to pass on to my daughter. She's turning 17 months old now. This month's segment is about sadness. As I've been doing this series, the question that keeps coming up is: Which values are going to help my kid be happy? That's been my test -- forget conventional wisdom, is it going to foster my daughter's happiness? Of course, I've just been taking it for granted that good old American happiness is a noble goal.

My guest today does not think it's a noble goal. He thinks the American pursuit of happiness is "a rather destructive goal that can lead to a pretty attenuated life." His name is Eric Wilson and he's an English professor at Wake Forest University and the author of the book "Against Happiness." And he's a father too -- his daughter is 6.

Eric is inclined to melancholy. When he was a boy, his parents encouraged him to lighten up. Stop over-thinking it. Be happy. That's something he never says to his little girl. "I try very hard not to talk her out of the rough spots of life," he says. "I try to make it clear that it's okay to feel pain. This is a normal part of life. We shouldn't try to convince ourselves that the pain isn't really there. I guess the best way I can put this is, I want her to be realistic."

Eric told me that recently his daughter was interested to learn that his favorite color is black, while hers is pink. He told her he likes like black because, "I like to brood. I want to sit in dark rooms and think. I like twilight." She seemed bemused, not really understanding. But she soon announced that her favorite color is black, too. I asked Eric whether he feels conflicted about this. "Well, my great intellectual hero is Hamlet," he said. "But his black garb didn't do him much good. I think I'll try to encourage something like chartreuse in the next few weeks and we'll see what happens."

He was being lighthearted, but it was a challenging conversation for me. He was saying that sadness, discontent and anger are healthy responses to an unjust world. It's unhappiness that inspires us to change the world. But the thing is, I've been unhappy. And I have felt it drag me down. I was sort of hoping to protect my kid from this poisonous idea that the world is somehow "wrong."

So I asked Eric: How do you know you have to get upset about the world in order to change it? Couldn't you accept the world as it is and then say "And here's another idea!" He answered: "I think in some ways you've hit upon a real tension in the book, a tension I was not aware of when I was writing the book. On the one hand, there is this sense -- and it's something of a Judeo-Christian sense -- that the world is fallen, it's botched, it's corrupt. But on the other hand, there's another way of looking at the world which tends to be a little more Eastern... And I think it is sort of what you're talking about. You accept the world as it is. It's a wonderful dance between creation and destruction, death and life, and that's what it is. There's no reason to get upset about it."

Hmmm...Eastern ideas. Buddhism, Taoism -- what do they have to say about unhappiness and raising children?

There's a place in Miami Beach called the Institute for Mindfulness Studies. "Mindfulness" is a central Buddhist teaching and it basically means "awareness." When something happens, your brain generates a story about it. When you get caught up in that story you lose awareness of the present, of reality. Of the child who's standing in front of you.

The director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies is Scott Rogers. He wrote a book called The Mindful Parent. He also has a little girl and he told me about something that happened after his mother died at the age of 70.

"I was sitting at the kitchen table and thoughts of my mother had come into my mind, and I was beginning to get a little sad. And my daughter Rose saw that and came over, and began to cry and she gave me a hug and it was a very tender moment. I think that if my daughter hadn't been there, I would have sat at the table with these thoughts that had begun to arise about the sadness: "She was so young." "I never got to go with her to Italy." And of course, it's just my mind doing its thing. And because I was there and I wanted to be there for my child and I wanted to be able to talk with my child about this experience of loss, what naturally arose was how grateful and how wonderful it was to spend so much time with grandma."

But it seemed to me that his regret about not having gone to Italy with his mother was painfully beautiful -- and true. I asked him whether he felt like he lost anything by not dwelling longer in the beauty of that sad truth.

"There's something compelling about staying with a feeling state that is tender," he says. "I think regretting not going to Italy -- which is a bit of a tricking of the mind because it's not happening and it's not going to happen -- creates the question of whether or not moving there (regretting) is present and genuine, or whether moving there is a trick of the mind to create, ultimately, a sad state that need not arise."

Last weekend, I got together with a friend of mine and her 14-year-old daughter. This young lady was livid at how her preferred presidential candidate was being treated. She was thundering about it: "Why doesn't he fight back just as dirty?" I told Scott Rogers that story and he told me that even politically-engaged anger is stuck in the past: "Look what Bush did. Look what the Democrats did." It's all been done.

The question is, what is she doing now to create the world that she wants?

"We can spend a lot of productive time ranting and raving," Scott said, "to soothe this not-liking-what-has-already-taken-place. Or we can craft it and articulate it and move forward in a way that does something about it."

I pointed out that this 14-year old's mom seemed proud, as if she thought, "Yeah she's caught up -- this is the anger that gets things changed in the world!"

He answered: "We love it when our children are inspired. And she's right! I think the question is, we have a lot of people who are inspired to make change. And then they can go in different directions based on how they do that. Some are productive and some can go astray."

So far, my 17-month-old daughter's anguish comes from not being able to put a puzzle together. My instinct is to right away help her with that puzzle -- stop those tears. But what about the other puzzles? A whole life ahead of her where things won't fit the way she'd like?

I agree with Scott Rogers that the mindful person understands that our frustration with the world comes from us, not the world. But he and Eric Wilson believe something in common: Just because my daughter's unhappiness is in her mind doesn't mean it isn't real. Together, maybe she and I can recognize anguish. And appreciate it as a welcome guest -- who knows when to leave.

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