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A moveable feast

The Dad Next Door: A Moveable Feast

Once you start paying attention, you’ll begin to notice everything.

Most adolescents are the opposite of zen. Our 12-year-old’s frisky young brain races around at 90 mph, turning from one thought to another so quickly that half the time we have no idea what she’s talking about. She’s always three steps ahead of us, sussing out the situation and gaming her next move.

It’s such a contrast to when she was little. As a toddler, she was completely in the moment. Once, on a visit to the zoo, she ignored a huge lion strutting and roaring a few feet in front of her because she was fascinated by a piece of masking tape she found stuck to the railing. 

The greatest gift

Our prefrontal cortex is our greatest gift and our greatest curse. On the one hand, it allows us to plan and anticipate and organize our lives in ways that no other creature can even hope to duplicate. On the other hand, it pulls us out of the present and wastes our time ruminating over a past we can’t change and a future we can’t really predict. 

The word mindfulness is overused these days, to the point of becoming a cliche. It makes you think of celebrity websites that promote sustainably grown yoga mats and seven-day intestinal cleanses. Surprisingly, though, evidence for the benefits of mindfulness practices (such as meditation) is quite strong. Studies have shown lowering of blood pressure, decreased levels of stress hormones, improved sleep, and reductions in anxiety, depression and chronic pain. 

It’s a basic and needed skill

Given those benefits, why don’t we teach mindfulness as a basic life skill to our kids? The biggest reason, I’m guessing, is that most of us are crap at it. Once your monkey mind is full of carpools, mortgage rates, spreadsheets, and dentist appointments, it’s hard to clear out space for anything else. Apparently, waiting until you’re a frantic parent to learn mindfulness is a flawed approach. But if we find it hard to quiet our minds and focus on the present, imagine how difficult that must be for the monkey minds in our children’s little monkey bodies.

I don’t know if people have had much success teaching meditation to kids, but it seems like a tough sell. Most of the time, it’s hard enough to get them to sit still for dinner. If your kids, like mine, seem like unlikely Bodhisattvas, maybe we should try a different strategy. 

Occupying a moment fully

I teach a class for students who want to write their memoirs. One of the biggest challenges is getting them to focus on a single, precise moment, and to occupy it as vividly and completely as possible. The best way to do this, I’ve found, is to have them describe what they’ve experienced through their senses. 

Our senses have direct connections to the oldest parts of our brains. They bypass the prefrontal cortex and take a shortcut to the reptilian brainstem. Ever see a lizard sunning itself on a rock? Totally zen.

I Spy revised

So this is my thought. What if we took the I Spy game, which kids seem to love (though for adults it has approximately the same effect as Ambien) and adapted it to different senses? Imagine going on a walk with your kid — in the woods, or a park, or just down a city street. You take turns noticing something with your senses and giving a clue to what it is. Instead of the first letter of the word, you use a descriptive vowel or adjective, and then the other person tries to guess what it is.

I spy with my little eye: something shiny, or floating, or neon-pink. I hear with my little ear: something tapping, or scraping, or babbling. I smell with my little nose: something yeasty, or burning, or sweet. I feel with my little skin: something slippery, or rough, or pulsating. Try to choose sensations that bring you a little ping of delight. Suddenly, the walk isn’t just a means of getting from point A to point B. Now it’s a feast for the senses. 

Truly seeing

Once you start paying attention, you’ll begin to notice everything. Splashes of color and light all around you. Bird song in the trees, or someone a block away practicing the trumpet. The tickle of the wind on your neck, or the glide of your tongue on the back of your teeth. The smell of fresh bagels, cut grass, or some night-blooming vine you can’t even see. 

Every sensation is a tiny gift. It’s a moment that you occupy more completely and experience more vividly. It’s a portal to the priceless, unrepeatable now. And it’s always there for the taking, if we just pay attention. 

Jeff Lee practices strolling meditation in Seattle, WA.

More Dad Next Door:

The Dad Next Door: Fahrenheit 451

Dad Next Door: Just Say No

Dad Next Door: Ready in the bullpen

About the Author

Jeff Lee, MD

Jeff Lee, a family physician, lives, works and writes in Seattle.