How do you meditate as a new mother?
After years of a daily meditation practice, Adiba knew that becoming a new mother meant the way she practiced would have to change. She shares her experience of how motherhood presents a wholly different path to meditation, integrated into the very act of mothering.
Before my daughter was born I had a daily meditation practice, sitting undisturbed once and sometimes twice a day. At a basic level, the practice kept me grounded, gave me a sense of calm and allowed me to access a level of awareness that helped me regulate myself throughout the day – at least some of the times. I knew this practice would change after her birth as my time would tune into a newborn’s rhythm and requirements, and I didn’t have an answer as to how I would keep myself centred without a regular practice.
After she was born, people asked me if I still meditate. My answer is a slow, qualified ”yeeesss..”…I do…just not with the solitary undisturbed format, the sitting for 20 minutes kind. In some ways, motherhood has been the most intense opportunity to practice meditation.
I share here my experience in the last 2 years since my daughter was born, of how I found opportunities to practice meditation without putting aside extra time for it. It is not an example or template for anyone to follow – we each have different experiences of motherhood, with different preferences, demeanours and resources. At most it might just allow a glimpse into how it was for one new mother. And most of these would apply just as much to involved fathers.
I would encourage anyone with this question to firstly ask themselves what meditation does for them that they would like to continue to have as a new mother. Is it the calm you feel, or the peace within your body, the self-awareness or just the time to yourself? Keep this in mind because it will help you stay open to experiencing these states with whatever life brings.
1. Watching and comforting whatever arises
I sometimes feel that being a new mother is a perfect time to learn to mother not just the child (or children) but ourselves too (and hopefully no one else in the family). There is a basic teaching of many meditation traditions – to watch whatever arises without judgement, and with compassion. So much will arise for you as a new mother… from the moments of joy to the utter exhaustion, from the self-doubt (am I doing this right?) to every other doubt (how will she breathe if her nose is blocked, she’s only 2 days old?!). When I felt panicked, or sad that she is crying for 2 hours with her colic at 2 months, or felt a flash of anger when she would wake up just as I was nodding off, or fed up that poo has somehow found its way to my forehead…I tried to have one part of me watching me experiencing all this…the witnessing part…and sending lots of love to the distressed part of me for whatever I feel. It’s ok to feel these things..even the self-blame and self-judgement for feeling them are allowed, but not taken as the truth…and just as a mother watches and holds a child through their experiences, this is a time when we can mother ourselves, watching, accepting and comforting. We instinctively do this for our babies – meditation guides us to do this for ourselves..
There is a story in the Upanishads about the human mind resembling two birds sitting on a branch. One bird is the part of us that is feeling, thinking, sensing…and the other bird is the observer in us, tenderly watching us doing all the feeling, thinking, sensing.
I can’t think of a better time to practice non-resistance, indeed total surrender, than when you care for a new human being. Your time will not be your own, things will not go according to schedule, plans will be thrown to the winds and however you had envisioned the next 5 minutes, days or weeks …it will probably work out quite differently. Surrendering, knowing and accepting this, is the only healthy choice. Resistance and rigidity will lead to self-created frustration and high blood pressure. A new human being negotiates life on her own terms, and our job is to make her acquaintance with life as smooth as possible. If she doesn’t get the sleep, food, clean and attention when she needs, she will unintentionally make our lives very difficult with her discomfort. And as every new parent knows, just when you think you’ve got her on a schedule – there’s the new sleep regression, or cold, or countless other developments. We might not have an ounce of energy left and our bodies might be shutting down with sleep….it doesn’t matter… if there’s something she needs, we accept how we feel and we carry on. We might be lucky enough to have support, but none of us will escape the need to tend to the chaos of urgent demands at the most inconvenient of times. What better time to practice letting go of resistance to what is.
None of us will escape the need to tend to the chaos of urgent demands at the most inconvenient of times. What better time to practice letting go of resistance to what is.
3. Flow state
When we are fully, 100% immersed in an activity, with all our attention absorbed by it, we sometimes achieve a flow state. It’s the state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described in his book Flow like this:
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity…The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
In the flow state there is no more mind chatter, no awareness of anything except what you are deliberately involved in. Mihaly interviews peak performers to study this state – mountain climbers, ballet dancers, chess players. I humbly venture that being with my child is at moments a great opportunity to achieve this flow state. There have been moments when my entire experience of the moment was the feel of my daughter’s little hands, my eyes matching hers, my attention following her thousand facial expressions within a minute as she’s just discovering her facial muscles..I don’t know what Mihaly would make of it, but what I felt matches what he calls the flow state. It is humbling to be able to feel this level of awe, gratitude and love. Sometimes during night feeds I would almost feel a guilty pleasure for having this moment all to myself with her when the rest of the world is asleep and all else is quiet.
Meditation is a practice that helps us on our journey to achieve this state of complete presence and oneness with the moment …sharing these moments with your baby may sometimes be the same practice.
4. Loving kindness
There is a form of meditation that is called Loving Kindness meditation, an ancient practice with roots in Buddhist traditions, where we mentally send positive energy and kindness to ourselves and others. Scientific studies of monks who practice this type of meditation extensively show that it strengthens the neural connections for positivity ..they are generally happier than others. Being a new mother was (and still is) an opportunity for me to practice loving kindness on the go..towards my child and towards myself. We are usually the last to ever wish ourselves well..but there isn’t a more important time to extend kindness to yourself than when you are mothering a new baby. When you feel the love and send kindness and soothing to your baby, take the next opportunity to send yourself kind energy. You can extend this to others in your life and all beings…babies have a way of lowering our defenses, so use this opportunity to send all the loving energy you can muster…to everyone, and most of all to yourself. Your baby will feel it.
5. And finally...breathe...
We breathe, it’s just what we do. As soon as we bring our attention to this automatic activity, we practice becoming present. We practice meditation. And sometimes when it all gets too much, we breathe deeply, deliberately, for a few seconds or minutes…to help centre ourselves. No matter what life brings, this is one meditation we can do anywhere, any time.
I hope these glimpses have helped show how life with a baby presents opportunities (albeit sometimes challenging ones) to practice meditation on the go. You can care for yourself while you’re caring for your child, just with the gentle gesture of witnessing and self-compassion. You don’t have to sit by yourself to meditate. If you can that’s great, but I didn’t have the time for most of the first year of motherhood.
Children learn to regulate their emotions and grow a sense of their intrinsic value by being soothed, attended to and comforted by a caregiver who is self-regulated. Being a new mother has stretched my experience of joy beyond what I was able to imagine…it also keeps testing my limits of patience and understanding… self-regulation sometimes flies out the door. It’s ok…just like with the thoughts that carry our attention away from the moment…I try to notice it has happened, how the emotions are running wild…I understand that it’s ok, my feelings are valid..and if possible I spend a few moments to soothe myself…then return to attending to my child.
There are many ways to care for yourself of course, such as spending time with other loved ones, walking in nature, exercise, doing whatever else you love. The type of mindful awareness I’ve talked about here is something that doesn’t need much extra time and is integrated into the very act of mothering.
Note: if you are suffering from persistent low moods or distress, always consult a doctor.