We’re delving a little deeper into the topic of mindfulness with none other than the Mindful Mama, Hunter Clarke-Fields! We discuss Hunter’s journey from being triggered just as often as the rest of us, to using mindfulness techniques to center herself so she can parent more effectively. She even walks me through an impromptu mini-meditation!
You can buy Hunter’s book, Raising good humans: A mindful guide to breaking the cycle of reactive parenting and raising kind, confident kids on Amazon or at your local bookstore.
Click here to read the full transcript
Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo podcast where I critically examine strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. In this series of episodes called Sharing Your Parenting Mojo, we turn the tables and hear from listeners. What have they learned from the show that’s helped their parenting? Where are they still struggling? And what tools can we find in the research that will help? If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths We Can Safely Leave Behind, seven fewer things to worry about, subscribe to the show at yourparentingmojo.com. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us. Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast and we’re here with another sharing your parenting merger episode today with Hunter Clarke-Fields who is the author of the book Raising Good Humans: A Mindful Guide to Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting and Raising Kind, Confident Kids. Welcome, Hunter! It’s great to have you here!
I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me, Jen.
So do you want to tell us just a little bit about who you are and what is your work in the world?
Sure. I’m the Mindful Mama mentor. I do the Mindful Mama podcast and I wrote the book Raising Good Humans. And I basically help parents stay calm so they can have stronger, more connected relationships with their children. And I’m really interested in changing generational patterns, like shifting through the old harmful stuff we don’t want to pass on.
Yeah, there’s some of that, isn’t there? Okay so you’ve always been a mindful parent, right? When your daughter was born, you were immediately mindful and…
Oh, yes. First, they just shout out of my ears,
…and that’s what I thought you’re going to say okay, so tell us how that really happened.
I discovered mindfulness when I was younger, I had already always kind of suffered from extremes of ups and downs. And I would kind of fall into I guess I was like a highly sensitive kid, I’m highly sensitive person. And I would fall into these pits of, you know, just felt like I couldn’t handle life every week, or every couple of weeks or so throughout my whole life. And I just thought, this is the way life is, in fact, my father once told me, he was like, rubbing my back after I’d been crying and crying. And he said, this is Hunter. This is just your artistic nature. And this is the way life is going to be for you. And I was like, Wow, thanks. So not helpful. But he was right. And I started to read about mindfulness as a teenager kind of desperate for some relief. And then, about 10 years after that, I finally started doing my own meditation practice. And lo and behold, it is much more effective if you actually do it than if you read about it. And it really transformed my life and I, you know, it’s interesting because you’re, you’re sitting and, you know, once one starts a sitting meditation practice, you know, you, you start to realize, like, Oh my God, my brain is going everywhere. This is impossible. I can’t do this.
And I had all those things, but I kept going. And I sat for two or three months. And around that time, I remember thinking, like, I just sit here and think of the whole time like, nothing is happening, this isn’t working. But I looked back at the rest of my life. I realized I hadn’t fallen into any of those pits that I’d fallen into for 27 years of my life at that point, and it was incredibly game changer for me as far as this equanimity. So then when I was pregnant, then I remember being sort of big and pregnant with like, sitting with my meditation group, like I’m going to be this great parent. I’m going to be so calm. You know, look at my baby is like meditating with me, this is going to be amazing. And, you know, the reality of course was like, much farther from that my practice, you know, fell off a bit, obviously with newborn times. And it was just incredibly hard as so many of us find it just like, you know, physically, mentally, emotionally, incredibly taxing. And I really struggled. And then when my temper really started showing, you know, then I was like, well, I just need to sort of return to my really dig in deeper into my mindfulness practice and also learn how to speak how to respond with my child. So I saw that I really needed sort of these two things that I ultimately teach now, which is mindfulness and to be able to lower our stress response and learn how to be less reactive, access all the different parts of our brain. And then what do I say then?
Yeah, and you mentioned it, you slipped a little word in there equanimity. I wonder if you could expand on that a little bit. Because I think It has so much relevance for parents, right?
Oh, sure. So before I had been doing my meditation practice, it was really very, very up and down for me and, and that’s kind of the opposite of equanimity, right? Like equanimity, we’re able to kind of, as we practice mindfulness, as we create space to hold all the different feelings that arise, you know, I still have all those different feelings that arise. What happens is that I’m more able to create space to hold those on less like kind of pushed and pulled around by the intensities of my feeling. And mindfulness gives you this ability at some point to be able to observe it to say, Oh, look, this irritation is arising. Here’s the sadness. I can see that and I can kind of hold space for that. And so it’s your less like, whoo, you know, like more, just, you know, gentle surf.
Yeah and people who have been listening for a while or maybe have been through Tame Your Triggers workshop, when we talk about a lot about, you know, what pushes you outside of your window of tolerance and into fight or flight or freeze. And yeah, if this is one tool that we can use to help to keep us within that window of tolerance so that we’re more able to respond in a way that is helpful to our child and helpful to ourselves as well. So I’m curious about the distinction between mindfulness and meditation. I do have a meditation practice. It’s maybe not as formal as advanced practitioners are but I do meditate every day. And I’m curious about your thoughts on, firstly, what the distinction is between the two. And secondly, is it helpful to have one without the other and how do they kind of fit together?
Okay, sure. Well, so mindfulness is it’s an ability of practice of intentionally placing your attention into whatever’s happening in the present moment, it could be your breath, your child, your feelings, the sounds in the room, so you’re placing your attention on present moment with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. So you’re saying, oh, okay, what is here if I pay attention to right now, what do I find here? So that’s the practice of mindfulness. We can practice that in so many different ways. I can practice mindfully having a podcast interview.
Yeah, I’m doing it right now.
Yeah we’re very attentive, we’re listening to each other. We’re looking and aware in this present moment, right? You can practice mindfully washing the dishes. If you’re practicing mindfully watching or listening to this, you’re maybe you know, disregarding like other distractions and just being fully present, and practicing to do that because our brains sort of pull us away into the future.
Yeah , I’m thinking about the things I need to be doing and what did I forget to do before we got on this call and just saying, Oh, yeah, I see that. And that’s not here right now. And we are here right now.
Yeah. Sort of practice of coming back again and again and again and again. And meditation is there’s many different kinds of meditation. And meditation can be a way to practice mindfulness, I kind of think of it as the gold standard for practicing mindfulness because you just, you sit or you lie down or you relaxing on the Lazy Boy, whatever you want, and you do nothing else but bring your attention back to the sensations and the way you feel in the present moment without other things kind of pulling at your attention. So you can practice all kinds of different meditations. But that’s a way to practice mindfulness. And it’s been shown by research to be incredibly valuable and, and I think of it as a kind of a parental superpower.
Hmm, okay, so then there’s two avenues to, to that the parental superpower avenue and the research avenue. I wonder if we could cover research first and what has the research led you to believe about the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation.
It’s pretty interesting what they’ve shown in Johns Hopkins, they did a meta study of like 47 different studies and it showed that you mindfulness meditation practice increases sense of well-being, decreases depression, decreases feelings of anxiety, helps our sleep. It has a lot of incredible benefits. And one of the biggest things that’s so important for parents is that it reduces our reactivity, because it just kind of gives us a little bit of space between stimulus and responses, kind of how I think that works. And it’s really, really interesting. They’ve done a lot of MRI studies with the brain. And they’ve shown that after an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation, usually an MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course that it’s really fascinating. So you’ve talked obviously about the stress response in those triggers, and the stress response or originates in the amygdala which are kind of two almond shaped pieces in the low in the near the brainstem. And that’s kind of our like, oh crap response in the body like alarm bells and the brain studies. The scans have shown After an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, that those actually shrink in density in their grey matter. And that the density of the prefrontal cortex which is like our higher order brain, we’re all that, you know, our thoughtfulness, empathy, verbal ability, all that, you know, problem solving, higher order thinking stuff actually grows more dense, and grey matter and the connectivity increases and changes too. And the, the connectivity of the amygdala to the rest of the brain actually, like shrinks. So it’s pretty amazing. Like you actually see these physical changes in the brain. And it’s interesting for people kind of experiencing that. A lot of people don’t realize themselves, maybe what has served shifting change in their lives. But my clients tell me a lot of times they say, their partner has said to them, oh, you’re calmer, you’re like much more chill these days and they don’t realize it. They can’t see it yet, but then they can their partner sometimes can see it’s pretty cool.
Yeah, that reminds me of an anecdote. I can’t remember which book it was in, I think it was one of in one of Phillip Moffit’s books, and he was talking about a loving kindness meditation. And for those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s the idea of sending loving kindness, sending good thoughts out to somebody in the world. It could be somebody you start with somebody who you have an easy relationship with, and maybe then somebody you have a neutral relationship with. And then eventually, somebody you have a difficult relationship and even to yourself sending these thoughts to yourself. And the book was telling a story about how somebody had been sending loving kindness thoughts to a person at work that he had a very, very difficult relationship with and did not get along well with, they didn’t see each other for a period of months of months. They saw each other again, and the other guy says, whoa, you seem so different. And of course, you know, just by saying in our minds, you know, I wish you happiness. I wish you comfort I wish you peace. Nothing changed for the other guys. But our perception of our relationship to that person shifted, which is the point of the loving kindness meditation and, and by directing it to yourself, your perception of yourself self shifts as well. And yeah, we may not even see these things happen. But isn’t it fascinating how other people see them in us?
Yeah, and I think our, our children’s sense that like they get this, they first they get their sense of grounding and that connection from their relationship, their attachment relationship to us. And they can sense and feel everything that’s kind of going on with us. You know, it’s very palpable to them. And it’s really interesting to teach people to, like, shift what’s happening in themselves. And sometimes that’s enough for their children to like, shift their behavior to have them just have this sense of more relaxation, more kindness for themselves, that can really shift the whole dynamic of the whole house sometimes.
Mm hmm. Yeah. And we’re so conditioned to think ‘Well, I think I was here first and I was doing fine. And now my child’s here and this is not going well, and it’s my child’s behavior that’s at the root of this, right? And if they would just change their behavior, then things would be so much easier. My life would be easier. Our family life would be easier.’
If you would just listen to me, I would be okay.
Yeah. And what we instead see is, instead we shift ourselves and our reaction to that situation and maybe even turn it from being a reaction to creating a space that allows us to choose a different action.
Yeah, and that’s where that mindfulness really comes in really well because you’re practicing, like, kind of, you’re sitting down daily, and you’re practicing with yourself. You’re practicing curiosity rather than judgement. You’re practicing saying, I wonder what’s going on here, you know. So, this attitude of kindness and curiosity is really important. Because then it allows you to then say, okay, bring this curiosity in other parts of your life like I wonder what’s going on for you. I wonder what’s really going on here? You know, is it more than just what this behavior is? And isn’t there something past my irritation underneath all of this stuff?
Yeah. So let’s make this super practical then for parents who are listening and are thinking, Okay, this sounds kind of a bit, a little bit out there a little bit woowoo, but I’m willing to try it, I’m willing, good. Just give it a shot and see if it might have some benefit. Where would you advise people who are completely new to this to start?
Well, I think that it’s a great start is to kind of start educating yourself and learning about it listening to something like this or watching something like this is a great idea, learning a little bit more about it. But yeah, you know, there’s this perception that mindfulness is like this kind of, like woowoo thing for yoga teachers, but or whatever, you know, you’re sitting like this and you’re just going to feel so blissed out. And the truth is that no one feels blissed out like the second they do a meditation practice. There’s a lot of stuff that comes up your mind is like a monkey, they even have a thing called in the Buddhist tradition of noble failure, which is because it’s so normal and common to fail at being able to bring your attention to the present moment that, you know, there’s this term for noble failure. So I just want to put that out there before I say how to practice because sometimes we go into we say, Oh, it’s easy to practice. And it is easy. It is simple. I guess I would say it is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s a simple thing to start. And it’s a hard thing to practice and continue. So I recommend people start with something really, really small, like a three minute or a five minute guided meditation. So you just find yourself a nice corner in your house. If you can create a space where you feel comfortable, where you’re not going to be distracted. First thing in the morning is optimal. But you know, maybe not for everybody. Some people find other times to practice.
I do it right before bed. I find it really settling.
There you go. And then You make yourself a little space. Sometimes you could put a little candle or a little picture and inspirational quote there just something to kind of. I talk about the space because the space helps to trigger and remind our habit, you know what we’ve intended. And then you can sit down and there’s so many wonderful guided meditations. I recently did like 24 five-minute guided meditations on the Mindful Mama podcast for the pandemic times to help people lower their anxiety. And there’s a tons of resources where you can find that but I think that’s like a great way to start, but you want to think of it as so you’re building a muscle, right? You’re building a muscle of non-reactivity. You don’t just go to the gym and do triceps and be like, Okay, I’m done with that. I’m good. Like, my triceps is great now. Like no like that doesn’t happen. It’s something that you have to decide to you want to have be able to have this skill build this muscle for the long term. So maybe you look back in like two months and kind of see how it’s going. But you want to build that muscle because that non reactivity muscle is so powerful, you know, it’s like, if you think of like your child’s tantrum like that as this is like the Little League World Series, okay? This is like the big game. If you have a child, you’re not going to put your kid in Little League and say you’re just go to this Little League World Series game and play, you’re going to be great, good luck. You don’t do that. Because you know that your child needs practice needs to know what they’re doing needs to build that muscle memory. And so it’s the same thing for us. It’s something that is a practice. It’s something that you’re going to have some noble failure with. But in the long term, it’s incredibly powerful for helping us not only with our parenting and our kids helping us to be less reactive, but ultimately with all of our relationships and just our own self-understanding as we move through the world.
Mm hmm. Okay, and so let’s break that apart a little bit. For somebody who’s never meditated before a year, we’ll put a link to this series of five-minute meditations. What am I doing in that five minutes? What am I supposed to be doing and what am I actually doing?
Okay, so we’re going to do a little mini practice so that we can understand what we’re talking, okay? So what I’m going to invite you to do is you can sit comfortably if you like if it feels good, soften or close your eyes. And you’re just going to, we’ll just start with a deep breath in. And a long, slow exhale. And then I’m going to ask you to pick an anchor to bring your attention back to the present moment. And for most people, this can be the feeling of breathing, maybe the feeling of the air coming through your nose. For some people, that breathing doesn’t work so well, it makes us a little anxious, so maybe you can feel the feeling of your body sitting in a chair or your feet on the floor, the feeling of touch. So are you able to sense one of those, Jen?
Awesome. So just for the next breath, just see if you can like a spotlight shine your attention 100% on that feeling. So, feeling the breath coming in through the nose or that feeling of touch… …and feeling it come out. Alright, good. So many of us are able to for that one breath be really 100% fully present and it’s wonderful. We can already calm down our fight, flight or freeze response. But let’s see if we can try it for three breaths. Okay, so I’ll count out some time. We’ll just start with this first breath. And you may have been successful in following your breath for three breaths. Or you may have found that you found your brains went somewhere else, right? And for most of us, our brain goes somewhere else really, really quickly, it’s off. And that’s okay. That’s your golden moment. And when you do that moment, that’s when you’re like doing your tricep-dip. And that’s when you’re building that new pattern and new muscle in your brain to bring it back to the present moment. It’s not a failure. It’s just when you’re doing that rep. And so it’s so common for, we’re not trying to stop our thinking. We’re just trying to build the muscle of awareness in the present moment. So thinking will happen. If you sit for five minutes, you might have 700 different moments, we are going back your attention. And that’s totally normal. And that’s fine. But it’s basically in the beginning. Mindfulness Meditation is about building concentration and bringing our attention into the present moment, as best we can, using an anchor kind of like a metaphor I like is that like training a horse, a green horse to ride on a path. And the way they do that is they just after you know, they gently just pull that, you know, imagine riding a horse through a path, you just gently pulling the horse wanders off, you just gently pull it back, you just gently pull it back again and again and again and again, until it eventually learns to sort of follow this path. As we get more comfortable with meditation. There are other practices of being aware in the present moment that are less about concentration on one small thing a little bit more about open awareness. But it’s good to start with that concentration.
Yeah, that you can come back to focus and just so that people who are listening can understand what my experience was, as I was going through that. Yeah, for a single breath, not difficult at all. For three breaths, I’m sitting here at my desk, and one of my right arm is resting on my notebook. And you can actually see it’s getting red right here where I was resting it on the edge of my notebook. And suddenly that started to be the thing that floated to the top of my mind. Oh, my arm hurts. And so what I’m then thinking is okay, yeah, arm hurts a little bit, arm hurts a little bit, and then bringing it back to my ref. And if I was doing it for longer than it might be what should be on the shopping list that I forgot to write down? Or What did I forget to do today that I should have done today? Or, oh, I said something to somebody that I wish I hadn’t said, and how do I deal with that? And then your key point, I think, is that that’s not a failure. It’s so we have this idea in our minds that, Oh, well, if I was good at meditation, I’d be able to concentrate 20 minutes and my mind would never wander and I’d be amazing. And then all of my problems would be solved. But actually, it’s the process of seeing that of feeling my arm getting achy, of seeing these things happen and acknowledging those. Oh, yeah, that’s there. And then coming back to the breath. That’s the key thing to practice in those early days, right?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, and I’ve my brain goes to planning so many times, and you might find You know, especially in the beginning, if you’re not using a guided meditation that will remind you, you’ll just sit there and you’ll think for the whole, if you just set it for five minutes, you’ll just, you’ll think the whole time and that’s, that’s okay. You’re still actually kind of getting benefits out of it. One time, when I was sitting with my meditation group, there was a monk who came down from the monastery. It’s a group in the tradition of the Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh, and a monk came down. And so during that time, we did 20 minutes of sitting meditation, 10 minutes of walking meditation, another 10 minutes to sitting meditation. So 40 minutes of meditation all together, and then we’d shared about our practice afterwards. And he shared, and I thought it was really interesting. Here’s someone who’s professional, he’s a pro at this. And what he said was, he said, I said, during this practice, I think I had about a good two minutes of clarity and I was like… Huuuh?! That’s what I’m going for?! Oh my God! You know?!Like it was just such a relief. To hear that it really is really not about becoming a good meditator. Like that doesn’t matter. Becoming a good meditator doesn’t matter. What matters is the effects in your life, how you’re able to then be more present. You know, for me, it really comes down to there’s a quote that is really like a guiding light for me. And it’s from Thích Nhất Hạnh, that teacher, and he says that when you love someone, the best thing you can offer them is your presence. How can you love if you are not there? Yes, the present moment is the only time wherever available to connect with each other in the real world and here and now with our family and the people we love. If our brains are always in the future, generally, or somewhere else, then we can never be there and and some people hear that and they say, Oh my god, I have to be 100% present. No, no, that’s not going to happen. You know, you don’t have to become like the Dalai Lama. Not going to happen. I mean, actually, I think there’s research that says, like, you know, maybe it’s like, you know, 10 to 30% of the time, if you can really be like, there with your kids, you know, there’s a lot of time where you’re just cooking the kitchen, or you’re doing other things, and you guys are kind of hanging out side by side, you don’t always have to be fully present, but you want to be able to, when you you know, you want to be able to have that ability when important times come.
Mm Hmm, yeah. And that’s why we’re doing this right. We’re not doing it so that we can get good at meditation or say that we’re good at meditation or whatever that is, the benefit is in what implications that has for the way that we live our lives, right? Because if our goal is to build relationships with the people around us that we care about, that has to be done in the present moment, there’s no other moment to do it and, and if we can use mindfulness and meditation to exercise that muscle, by ourselves, then when we find ourselves in these difficult moments, and I always of you know that difficult moments are the moments that matter the most. And when my two-year-old was writhing on the floor with a tantrum over something that seemed insignificant to me, I’m thinking, it doesn’t matter. All the museums, we go to all the outings we go on and think she learns about and this is how I respond to this moment is so important. And if I can choose a different response, then you know, ‘Get him off the floor and..’ …something that requires her to change her behavior, but that instead acknowledges her feelings and uses it as an opportunity to show her, I love her even when she’s having a hard time. And that’s what’s happening. She’s having a hard time she’s not doing something for the sake of winding me up. That is why we’re doing this so that we can make these choices in those moments and have a more deep connection with our families, right?
Exactly. And that takes being able to access our whole brain, you know, and, and one of the important parts about that, like the brain research is that you probably explain this, like how about fight, flight or freeze stress response, how it literally kind of like hijacks the brain, it bypasses your logical higher order thinking brain so that you can be instantly reactive. And so if you can start to shrink that if you can start to lower that like instantaneous reaction, and give yourself the space to have all those thoughts of like, what is my real intention here? And how do I want to respond and to be able to choose? That’s amazing. And there may be times where your kid is like writhing on the floor, having a miserable time and you lose it and you’re you have a bad parenting moment, and you just can’t handle it because your stress response is through the roof and who knows what’s going on in your life. And at that moment, it’s really important to remember that you’re not alone. As much as like, I teach this stuff. I’ve had those moments, right? Terrible mom, and Jen has, and we practice to get to those better moments. And it’s really important. There’s another peace of like when we have those moments. We don’t respond in the way that we want to. The peace of self-compassion is so important, you know of, instead of being harsh and mean and judgmental to ourselves, practicing internally what we want to practice with our kids ultimately, externally, which is, you know, honey, it was hard. You tried your best saying, we’re talking to yourself as you would a good friend, and that ultimately will help you to, to try something that’s a little outside of your comfort zone, maybe that Jen suggesting you try this thing to Tame Your Trigger, and it’s a little weird for you a little outside your comfort zone. If you try it, and then you fail and you’re mean and nasty to yourself inside, you’re going to say, forget that. I’m done with that. And you’re not going to try again. But if you try it and you fail, and you’re kinder, you give yourself that soft landing. The research actually shows that, you know, you’re able to try again, you’re able to grow and change, you’re able to step outside of that comfort zone more easily when you’re kinder to yourself and what I see is that, you know, what’s inside is what’s going to come out, you know if that inner voice is so mean, ultimately, that’s going to come out, you know, you can think I can be nasty mean, B.I.T.C.H. to myself all the time. And I’m just going to be so nice and kind. That’s like very wishful thinking like you’re living your child for at least probably 18 years, that mean voice is going to come out sometimes. So it really is, behooves us, it’s a really very valuable practice to start to practice self-compassion along with that mindfulness practice that you’re going to start next week. Or right after this.
Yeah, let me start at one breath practice today and go from there. So thanks so much for coming on and sharing all of this with us. I wonder if you can tell people where they can find you. We’ll put a link to your five-minute meditations on the episode page. Are they all linked in one place? Or how do we go about doing
We’re working on kind of getting them all linked. They’re all in the podcast feed. So the Mindful Mama podcast, anywhere you listen to podcasts, you can find all the in the feed and everything’s uh, the book raising good humans and the podcasts and all of those and other resources, I have some free resources there as well are at mindfulmamamentor.com.
Awesome. Thanks so much, Hunter. It was great to speak with you.
Thank you, Jen. So nice to talk to you too.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show at yourparentingmojo.com to receive new episode notifications and the FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Leave Behind and join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group for more respectful research based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you. I’ll see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.