“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain
We recently returned from a 16 day adventure to Mexico. I would not call it a vacation as we had our now two year old son in tow. As some friends have shared, traveling with a kid is just parenting in a different location. True. But it was more than that. For me, this was the most time I had spent with my family since maternity leave. It was a beautiful time of connection and intimacy, vulnerability and exertion.
We fell in love with Guadalajara while looking out from the 15th floor of our rented condo. We watched the construction of a new building as Augustine yelled “cement!” (a new word) in the cutest way possible and were engrossed by the constant stream of cars, busses, and motorcycles circling the Glorieta de Los Ninos Heroes on Avenida Chapultepec. We rode our first carousel at a carnival during Dia de Los Muertos and enjoyed morning swims in a beautiful (and perfectly shallow) saltwater pool at our airbnb in Puerto Vallarta. We were entertained by humping dogs at Boca de Tomatlan and caught hermit crabs on the beach in Nayarit. Augustine learned how to say si, hola, and gracias and got way too many compliments on his hair and eyes.
But as Anthony Bourdain’s beautiful quote reveals, travel is not always pretty. There was a lot of parenting on this trip. A lot of tiring communication and requests for understanding. Many big emotions. We explored, but also surrendered our individual desires scheduling our days around our son’s nap and visits to local playgrounds. Towards the end of our trip the three of us also shared the helplessness and discomfort of Montezuma's Revenge. It was heartbreaking to see my son refuse food and at times ridiculous as watery stools and diapers were no good match. Overcoming this small bout of illness brought us all together though and reaffirmed my ability as a parent to stay calm and love unconditionally.
Augustine could have cared less that we were in another country. As with all young children (and adults…) they thrive on undivided attention (presence) and love. And without the distractions of work I was able to provide that. Not all days were perfect and some days were draining. But as I make progress on becoming a more conscious parent and spouse (more on that book in a future post) this trip was an opportunity to practice - to accept and enjoy life as is, to relinquish control, and practice patience.
Now the challenge is how can I continue to provide my family these gifts with the competing priorities and demands of the real world? Much research points to mindfulness. The more we practice mindfulness in our day the more we can begin to bring that awareness into our everyday life and in our interactions with the ones we love. One simple practice is to take in the good. Mindfulness also helps us shift away from the ego (the “I”) that creates resistance in life and in parenting. I am working on this. Gratitude is another powerful ally in our efforts to maintain loving presence and strengthen our relationships.
That is another beauty of travel – you see, taste and experience things you want to incorporate in your life and you realize what you can leave behind upon your return. It was a gift to leave work for so long and to grow alongside my husband and child. It was a gift to participate in the family-oriented culture that we love so much about Mexico. Where else in the States can you go at night and see young people, old people, parents, kids and babies sharing the streets? It was a beautiful and exhausting adventure, but I wouldn’t have changed it. Thank you Mexico for your beauty and wonder, for your culinary inspiration, and for bringing me and my family together.
And Happy 2nd Birthday Augustine!! Thank you for being another launch pad and partner in our growth and evolution. And thank you Albert for paving the way.
Been inspired to write about presence lately as my son (and husband) reminds me when I am not daily. Its a challenge to attain, but a worthwhile endeavor as it benefits both the giver and receiver. Presence let's us thrive. Do you struggle with presence too? Let me know what you think!. #topnotchwellness
“If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give them is your presence" ― Thich Nhat Hanh
There are hundreds of books on how to optimize the relationship with your child and foster their development. Even more on healthy relationships and sustaining long lasting love. But there is one fundamental element to being with your child, life partner, family, and friends that cannot be read - it must be practiced. It is called presence And it's harder than it seems.
Presence occurs when we are grounded in the moment. To be present, we need to detach from our to-do's, expectations, judgements, and thoughts of the future or past. Sharing presence is a magical thing felt by both parties. It's essential for children to experience as they grow and in reality is vital for us all. Beneath our many layers we adults are in need of presence too. We need to be understood and seen. To be taken in without exception. All relationships thrive from presence.
In an age of instant information, constant feedback, and the "hit" of social stimuli our moment to moment awareness is constantly pulled from the present moment. Tack on a career that commands your attention it's easy to feel attention fatigue. This is a part of normal life -- lets take a moment to acknowledge this with self-compassion. But there are some straightforward avenues to pursue and practice presence.
Put the phone away (or develop family tech etiquette). Smartphones are an integral part of our life. They have brought so much convenience and prosperity, but heavy use of smartphones is linked to greater risk for anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Demonstrate your own mindfulness by putting down your phone during meals or whenever someone needs your attention, especially a child. Come up with family rules on acceptable use of technology and screens (great ideas here).
Practice Gratitude. Gratitude practices help us to be in the present moment, seeing what there is to be grateful for and focusing on that, rather than on what’s missing or still left to accomplish. Find ways to ritualize gratitude to embed this important habit in your life.
Use your five senses. Coming to your senses is a grounding exercise. Deter from any thoughts or anxieties. Stop, breathe, and take a moment to notice what's happening in this moment. What do you see/hear/feel/taste/smell? Ask your child to join you in this practice of mindfulness.
Listen with your eyes — When someone asks you a question, look at them and listen to their words. If you are truly too busy to stop and look at them, ask them to wait until you can fully listen. This is a constant struggle for me (and one that my husband constantly remind me of) and it can truly pay off. We all - especially children - want to be heard. Receiving full and undivided attention is to be loved.
Savor Mealtime. Eating together can be a mindful moment, even if it's just snack time. It has other benefits, too. Studies show that children whose families regularly eat dinner together benefit in many ways, from improved eating habits to better physical and mental health. Eating together regularly contributes to sense of belonging, of being safe and grounded.
Cultivating loving presence plays a key factor in providing emotional support to another, which is protective for health. As we all know health is our greatest gift. So take a moment today. With your child, with your loved one, your friend. Take a moment and be there. Sit in awareness rather than moving onto your desired destination or task. Listen with your eyes. Without judgment or expectation.
As Dr. Rick Hanson mentions in his book Just One Thing, practice is key. It's about rewiring our brains for the good. A fascinating topic worthy of a post itself that I have written about before. For me, it's often a rhythm of becoming conscious of my unconsciousness and finally bringing my attention back to that moment, offering the gift of my presence (more on this in a future post). Our minds will often be distracted, but we can always return to the moment. Its challenging and uncomfortable, but achieving this mindful state of presence is a worthy endeavor as it positively impacts the well-being of its giver and receiver. Presence lets us thrive.
There are some great lessons that children can teach us, and even at 4 months of age my son is teaching me one: the power of emotional agility.
On a daily basis infants experience several emotions – happiness, surprise, fear, interest, frustration, pain – often in the space of a few hours and sometimes minutes! What I notice, however, is that their emotions are not held onto - they are fluid. I mean, have you ever seen an infant hold a grudge or stay upset after its needs have been met?
I on the other hand am not always so fluid with my emotions….and I know I am not alone.
How often do we disagree with a friend, family member or spouse and hold onto that emotion of frustration or disappointment or hurt for hours, sometimes days? How common is it for us to dwell and ruminate about how someone reacted to us at work, how we behaved in a certain situation, about something we said or wish we had said and so on? In the river of life there is a continuous stream of emotions, but we don’t always let them flow (especially the negative ones).
The flow of our emotions can often be obstructed and slowed to a trickle; sometimes the flood gates are opened and a torrent rushes through us. Emotional agility is the ability to fully feel and accept our emotions, while remaining flexible and able to move away from beliefs and feelings that keep us stuck in the past.
So how can we increase our emotional agility?
To become emotionally agile, we first need to give ourselves permission to experience and feel what we are feeling. Research shows us that avoiding our feelings can impact our health – diminishing our wellbeing and creating symptoms of stress like headaches. One study conducted by psychologists from Harvard found that suppressing emotions may even increase the risk of dying from heart disease and certain forms of cancer.
So whatever emotions are welling up within us - positive or negative - let us feel them! Our emotional agility depends on us feeling these sometimes difficult emotions, but also involves us letting them go since studies have demonstrated a link between unhappiness and dwelling on negative emotions and events.
Another way we can let our emotions flow is to define them. It sounds odd, but research shows that when we can differentiate our emotions using an expanded emotional vocabulary we are less overwhelmed by stress and are less susceptible to unhealthy emotion-regulation strategies such as binge drinking and eating or aggression. This same research reveals that when children are taught this broad knowledge of emotion words their social behavior and academic performance in school improve.
Write it out
I’ve previously written about the health benefits of journaling. With regard to emotional agility, research shows that people who write about emotionally charged episodes are healthier both physically and mentally. Writing allows us to gain new perspectives on what our feelings mean (or don’t mean!) and can remind us that emotions are temporary and fleeting and not essential part of our being. Using phrases such as “I have learned,” “It struck me that,” “the reason that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand” can help detach yourself from your feelings, which can free you from rumination and lets you move forward.
A mindfulness practice often includes the practice of equanimity, or non-judgmental awareness and acceptance, which can also enhance our emotional agility. Maintaining an intentional, non-judgmental awareness toward our thoughts and emotions remind us that it’s okay to have negative feelings and thoughts, that we don’t have to fight them or judge them and that we can let them go.
In a mindfulness practice the breath is an essential tool, which can help us manage difficult emotions. Taking a breath triggers our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, reducing our blood pressure, muscle tension and getting us out of the fight-or-flight state that emotions can often provoke.
Whether it’s a small disagreement with your spouse or a yearlong grudge toward a family member or friend, unresolved conflict negatively impacts our physical health. The good news: studies have found that the act of forgiveness can lower the risk of heart attack, improve cholesterol levels and sleep, and reduce blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. Start today and offer compassion and empathy to those who have wronged you and to yourself.
Take in the good
A final way to enhance our emotional agility is to take in the good. I wrote about this last month and in prior posts and it remains a savvy brain-science way to actively improve how we feel, helping us become more resilient, confident and happy.
Sure my 4 month old may not hold onto negative emotions because he is still forming his long term memory, but he is still a role model for us all. Ruminating on the negative usually just causes unnecessary suffering. May we all get to the root of what we’re feeling and express it to ourselves via writing and to others. May we take deep breaths when our emotions overwhelm us, forgive one another and intentionally savor the good in life - even the simple things like someone holding the door open for us. Or as my husband’s Grandpa used to say - success was going to the toilet, every morning.
*The term emotional agility was inspired by Susan David, PhD.'s book. If you'd like to take a quiz that measures your emotional agility check out her website!
Hello and welcome! My name is Andrea Notch Mayzeles. I am a Certified Health Education Specialist, Mom, and Master of Public Health dedicated to the path of well-being. As a wellness professional I am committed to continued learning and am here to share research, recipes and musings on health, psychology, personal development, and parenting. I hope you enjoy!