Note: I am using the principles, values, and practices of Taoism, and of its martial art Tai Chi. Taoism is not a religion, and I am not asking you to practice Tai Chi. I found a wonderful correlation between what I studied in Taoism and my own deep thoughts around what I believe is essential to practice “right parenting.” Whatever religion (or non-religion) or spiritual path you ascribe to, you will find compatible with the ideas I share with you here. I would love to hear about your experiences with every principle and value I write about.
“The simple reason for relaxation is that it renews us, purifies us, leaves us with a profound feeling of serenity . . .
In it, we are poised in our natural state.”
— Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations
Relaxation, from the Taoist perspective, is the principle upon which everything is based. For us in the West, relaxation is something we do on our day off, or when we get a massage or do yoga. To us, relaxation implies being limp, flaccid, and empty. To Taoists, relaxation implies fulness. As a practice, it can take years to master and it is respected as a difficult discipline. But this is no problem — when you have children, years of mastering difficult disciplines come with the territory.
The word “yield” is often used to signify this principle. Again, it has a very different meaning in Taoism as it does in the West. When we consider the word “yield” as more than just a traffic sign, we picture surrendering to a stronger force — which in the West we often consider to be failure. We yield reluctantly, when there are no other options. To Tai Chi practitioners, yielding is the finest quality we can have. It means flexibility, clarity, faith, and surrender. It gets the maximum positive result from the minimum effort, and thus it is efficient, a much sought-after value in the West. Relaxation is a state of openness, allowing space for listening and receptivity. Taoists consider it a discipline because it takes a conscious intention to learn and practice it.
Relaxation is Essential
Relaxation— yielding to the flow of change — is essential for life. If we wish to continue to be full of life, we must learn to relax and yield, to flow. Like the young tree, we will be flexible and strong, ever-growing, with abundant youthful energy. If we cannot relax, we cannot listen to and truly hear out children, and we miss their messages to us, misinterpret their needs and wishes, and lose touch with who they are.
The Importance of Breathing
Like yoga, Tai Chi begins with slow movement and breathing. The combination of breathing and flow creates strength and flexibility. Breathing slowly and deeply increases our intake of prana — the life energy all around us. Prana is essential to our vitality. It is why we instinctively take a deep breath when we smell rain for the fragrant forest; these natural wonder are laden with prana, and our bodies crave the vital energy produced by them.
Controlled Belly Breathing
Slowing down your movements and breathing deeply are two easy ways to bring yourself into and relaxed and flexible way of being. You can teach yourself to go to these tools when you feel the tension of anger, frustration or fear hardening your heart and stiffening your body and mind.
If you do not practice meditation or deep relaxation on a daily basis, there is an easier method that you can incorporate into your daily routine with little effort. When children come along, you can include them in the practice, either doing it in front of them or teaching them to do it with you. I found with my meditation practice that my children became curious about what I was doing, and that curiosity led to many interesting and intimate conversations about God, nature, life, death, and miracles.
Controlled Belly breathing is a simple and effective practice. For this method to come in handy when you really need it (that is, when your child’s behavior has you one step away from doing and saying things you may regret), it helps to practice it every day, twice a day. It only takes three minutes, so it is easy to fit into your life.
“B” is for “Breathe”
I developed a kind of shorthand to remind me to do it. In my life, much of the time the plans that have not been thought out with my mission in mind do not happen. I label these plans Plan A: My ego plan. It is the immediate reaction to what has been said, or done; to your child’s crying or tantrum, your feelings of exhaustion, regret, being put-upon. The plan that ultimately happens, the response that always works, is God’s plan (or my higher self’s plan, “what would Jesus do?, “what would the Dalai Lama do?” – however you wish to put it). This is Plan B. I can always count on Plan B turning out so much better than Plan A that I learned to bypass Plan A altogether. Controlled belly breathing is a way to get you into Plan B; thus, the “B” is my reminder. “B” is for belly, “B” is for breath, and “B” is for be. This short little practice accomplishes all of those things in three minutes, so that Plan B can unfold immediately.
How to Do Controlled Belly Breathing
- Sit in a chair and lace your fingers in your lap. Relax your body as much as possible.
- Blow out as much of the air in your lungs as possible, and imagine your tension going with it.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose, counting 1-and-2-and-3-and-4, feeling your belly rise as air goes to the very depth of your lungs, expanding your diaphragm.
- Slowly breathe out again, counting 1-and-2-and-3-and-4.
Repeat steps 1 through 4 for three minutes. You will notice a slight natural pause (not holding your breath ) at the upper and lower end of the breathing cycle. Let it be there. Keep your body relaxed, your mind engaged with the counting process and in relaxing your muscles.
Practice Every Day
I suggest you use this technique very consistently, upon waking and right before sleeping, each day for a month. Then you can practice under duress: during a traffic jam, a long elevator ride, waiting in the dentist’s office, on the subway, and particularly when you need a “time out”; when you feel your emotional temperature rising with your partner or children. You can excuse yourself (I like to go into the bathroom) or you can do it right then and there. You will feel Plan A turn into Plan B, you’ll calm down, center and focus your energies, and automatically use better parenting and partnering skills.
When faced with a child who is testing your resolve, relax and yield in the manner of water. Absorb the child’s energy without moving. Sink your strength into the earth with the relaxing breath. Allow the child to bounce off your energy, discovering without harm the nature of your power.
Let everything you have — mind and body, thoughts and reactions, plans and avoidance of plans — sink with gravity into your feet to beneath the earth.
Relax your intention.
Put everything underground where it can support you.
Strewn anxiously through your body, it can only distract you.
This is called sinking power — and it is a good power to develop.
It can help you master all the principles to come.