Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting
Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Hyperion: New York, 1997
394 pp., $29.95 (cloth) 

In Everyday Blessings, Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn compare parenting to an arduous meditation retreat spanning a large part of their lives. Their children have been their Zen masters, long nights of nursing have been their sesshins. They want to reaffirm the worthiness of raising children as a spiritual endeavor. In a culture where fewer and fewer parents are able or willing to be fully engaged, the Kabat-Zinns’ assertion that parenting is a “sacred responsibility” comes as a powerful admonition.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is best known as the originator of a form of stress-reduction and awareness training derived from Buddhist meditative techniques, and this book offers an extended argument for the necessity of just such a practice for parents. For, of course, the danger of extended, daily involvement with our children is that emotional exhaustion and physical drudgery will get the best of us. How can we maintain an authentic, spontaneous relationship with our children? That is the Kabat-Zinns’ primary question.

But the book is a disappointment. It feels hastily written, with many undeveloped two- to threepage chapters, a mishmash of Rumi and T. S. Eliot quotes, the requisite retelling and analysis of a fairy tale (supplied by Robert Bly, no less), and regular nods to other best-selling authors on the New Age workshop circuit. And in spite of the book’s subtitle, The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, it is “inner work” that the Kabat-Zinns never explore in depth.

Late in the book Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “I gradually learned to control my own fiery temper,” but at no point does he share with us stories about that anger-where it comes from, how it flares up, what its effect on the family has been, and in what specific ways it has resolved itself. While the Kabat-Zinns repeatedly urge parents to free themselves of the conditioning of their own childhoods, they write nothing about their own experiences as children, nor do they impart specific issues that they struggled with in their family. They share a few anecdotes but never invite us to fully know their children or their relationships with them. It may be a sign of mindful parenting that they protect their children’s privacy, but without concrete examples, much of what they write ends up sounding distant and didactic.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has been frequently absent from the home, and, I inferred, Myla has been responsible for a large part of the actual child-rearing. While I suspect their daily practices of parenting have differed, it’s not acknowledged. Myla does reveal that, like many full-time mothers, she has had little opportunity for any formal meditative practice. Interestingly, the most intimate, present passages in the book are hers.

“As I felt my milk let down, a wonderful haziness descended on me, and everything else became less important. I let go of the things I had planned to do, and instead let myself be pulled into the present moment, into being totally with my baby …. No matter where we were, a quiet space could be created just by climbing onto my lap, nestling into my arms. Their experience of the world was grounded in the body-in their relationship to me and my body, and in their experience of their own body, nursing, being held.”

Rarely, however, is the writing this personal or lyrical. I couldn’t help but wonder what Everyday Blessingswould have been had Myla written it on her own, had she trusted the importance of her own mothering, without having to attach her husband’s successful mindfulness program to it.

Mindfulness, defined as “moment to moment awareness,” is repeatedly identified as the essential ingredient in good parenting. But as an actual practice, it is only touched upon. There are a few short chapters on breathing, some exercises in the appendix, and order forms at the end of the book for Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness tapes. But the book offers little practical help for parents seeking guidance. Without a specific practice, the support of a community, or the guidance of a teacher, I wonder if “moment to moment awareness” might not dissolve into self-consciousness and further self-delusion. How we remain “aware” of the moment, yet fully engaged and authentic within it, is an issue the Kabat-Zinns do not address.

Nevertheless, I feel I should applaud anyone who so wholeheartedly asserts the importance of caring for children. I regret how superficially the Kabat-Zinns address complex issues, and I regret the lack of art in much of the writing, but, ultimately, I nod my head in agreement with their intention and concern.

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