First weeks with Tosia have been absolutely home-focused. All the time outside was reduced mainly to shopping or other household matters. However there is one activity I managed to continue for the last eight weeks – an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) training course, which I have completed today. Basically this training introduces participants to secular meditation practices, which in turn help one to become more aware of body sensations, thoughts and feelings. And with such awareness, it is said and I support this view, we are in a better position to take conscious decisions instead of act automatically and often against our best interest.
My inspiration to take up an MBSR training course was obviously Tosia and willingness to be able to spend time with her more mindfully; being fully present, when we are together. But what I took out as a main lesson was much more powerful…
Often when we discussed our daily meditation practice and experience during the training, we referred to the notion of an onion. An onion has many layers which grow one above another once the onion is getting older and more mature. Each layer is a bit different in color so that eventually, looking from outside, there is no way you can see the very core of this vegetable and one can only assume it is still white. But what about a detailed shape, size, smell, etc? To get first hand sensual experience of the onion’s core, you first need to peel off all the outer layers. Similarly, the practice of meditation serves as a subtle way to get back through all these outer thick layers of our various life roles, or in other words behavioral conditioning, to the core of our true self, ie our emotions, thoughts and body sensations and dependencies between them. And I cannot stress more “our”, since outer layers represent conditioned behavior we developed in a process of socialization, which basically means adaptation to multiple norms and expectations learnt from our parents, teachers, spouses, bosses, colleagues or even our own children.
The power of behavioral conditioning
The revelation that occurred to me was when I realized my role in this process. Primary conditioning happens in infant years when our babies learn the world by observing reactions of their parents. They are literally baby onions, who will soon start grow new layers. And since infants are not reasoning yet, their learning process organically happens with their whole bodies. They absolutely recognize their parents emotions connected to certain neutral facts or situations and first react with body sensations. If our emotions are pleasant, they will seek for more, if unpleasant, they will start to avoid a particular experience. For example, if I, as a dad, constantly complained about diapering while doing this and genuinely hated it, Tosia would soon connect this emotion with diaper change itself. Which will condition the whole experience, so that even if somebody else changed her diaper, she might still negatively react to the experience. Another example may be a reaction to water. If me or my wife Natalia saw water as something dangerous and we were constantly stressed out about bathing Tosia, she might develop a negative attitude to water in general. Obviously there are lots of factors that play role in behavioral conditioning but it does not change the key fact. The emotions my little Tosia will feel from me or behaviors she will see in connection with a particular experience will condition her own attitude and behavior to a certain extent. Hence, I and my wife Natalia are absolutely responsible for these first new layers that our baby onion Tosia will grow.
Helping hand from positive psychology
Now, knowing the above and feeling the burden of responsibility, what can we do about it? Well, what may help is a little bit of knowledge of positive psychology, a discipline which finally tries to answer the question of what makes people happy and how to achieve happiness, contrary to traditional psychology focus on mental illnesses and malfunctions.
Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, described in a simple way, how people generally interpret what happens to them, using well-known concepts of pessimism and optimism. A pessimist would describe a negative experience rather as something which happens all the time, in every situation and due to his/her personal fault. At the same time the same pessimist would describe a positive experience merely as temporary, connected only to this particular situation and being a result of external factors, outside of his/her control. An optimist would rather interpret both situations exactly in an opposite way. But Seligman does not stop there. He clearly argues, based on multiple research evidence, that optimists are more determined, decisive and persistent. They believe they will often succeed and that failures will only be short-term. Finally, they also live longer! Their optimism inspires them to achieve success. It sounds like it pays off to be an optimist.
And yet, does that mean that Monty Python’s group were right when singing “always look on the bright side of life”? Perhaps you also recall that this song was sung by crucified Jews in a classic “Life of Brian” movie. Indeed, that would be an ultimate example of optimism, if we take it literally. I bet that this is exactly why so many of us doubt in the power of optimism. However, the trick lies in how we understand the concept of optimism, because Seligman was absolutely far from connecting it with unjustified positivism. For Seligman optimism is nothing more than less frequent usage of negative thinking in interpretation of life events, and not a silly smile on the face no matter what happens.
More about Seligman’s work and his famous questionnaire to be found here.
Parents’ possible choices
Alright, so if we now know that our dear babies will condition their behavior merely by observing us day after day and we also know that it pays off to be an optimist in life, perhaps one can conclude, that parents who are optimists are best positioned to raise successful children. Well, perhaps it would be true in many cases. But hey, what about parents who are pessimists? Let’s first make a remark about parents, who believe that pessimistic interpretation of life events is the smartest choice at all times, even against what the research shows. If this is what they want to believe, let it be.
The group, which is more interesting, are parents who realize the moments, when they are pessimists (for example, when they interpret a bad open water experience) but they would not like their kids to feel and think the same. What options do they have? Well, there may be lots of by-passes to solve this problem. Perhaps the other parent will simply take kids to their first swimming lesson.
But for me the most challenging, beautiful and inspiring way forward is to look closely at our pessimism and face our fears eventually, especially if this is something we have been putting off for years now. There is no better moment, nor more noble cause than seeing our kid growing as confident, self-aware and simply happy human being as a result of our new more optimistic perception.
And if you doubt that you can change how your brain is wired and how you think, because you are too old, or because this or that.. well… Neuroscience teaches clearly, it is possible. Our brain is still like a play dough. We are able to change, even if it will take a while.
So as for me, I will continue with my mindfulness training. After all, long-term attention span is a beautiful skill to give to anyone, and especially my little Tosia. 🙂
Let’s see what happens!