If we parents and caregivers thought it was hard to keep up a regular meditation practice in normal times, it sure got a whole lot harder with the radical changes in home life brought by the pandemic. Yet, meditating in these conditions is not only doable, it can be an essential sanity-saver.
I’m not talking about trying to do the impossible, where the impossible means dedicating an hour of your day to sitting in complete silence. This is about meditating with the circumstances we’re in.
There are plenty of opportunities for practicing while at home with others in residence. Here are some tips.
1. Put devices away or on airplane mode for dedicated periods when you’re with your children or taking a moment to meditate. Removing this one distraction automatically increases the availability of attention for meditation or for being fully present with others. You’ll be surprised what a difference this makes. If you’re using your device for a guided meditation, turn notifications off.
2. Dedicate caregiving or household work to be a meditation session itself. Whether sweeping, folding laundry, or chopping onions, drop thinking ahead to the next activity or reviewing the past one. Become fully attuned to what’s happening through your five senses, as well as to attendant thoughts and emotions, as you perform your work. Feel your connection to your home environment. Choose one routine as your Meditation-in-Motion and do it consistently across the days. Add or change to another when you’re ready.
3. From “me-time” to “we-time” meditation. Our image of me-time comes from a period when we weren’t responsible for others. Me-time back then meant we could be alone and had the time to choose something that addressed our personal well-being. For most caregivers, this style of me-time is nearly impossible. However, we can choose to redefine “me” as well as what we feel nourishes us. When “me” becomes “me with my toddler” and the activity becomes “enjoying watching them as they eat, roll, and squash blueberries at the dining table,” then we have ample me-time as caregivers. Our image of meditation, especially as the ultimate me-time, can undergo the same reframing. Similar to the “chores meditation” above, when you’re with your loved one, drop thinking about what’s ahead or ruminating about the past. Become fully aware with all five senses. Be attuned to your thoughts and feelings, as well to those of your loved one. Release any agendas, especially ones for that other person. Perhaps choose just one routine—whether diapering, bathing, or feeding—to practice as a We-Time Meditation.
4. Actually meditate, but lower expectations to, like, 1 minute and maybe up to 5 minutes. It’s OK to do it on the spot spontaneously when the opportunity arises, whether that’s on the couch, standing with coffee at the window, sitting on the back steps—it doesn’t matter if you’re cross-legged on a cushion. Letting go of all the formal accoutrements of meditation practice might lower the barriers to actually doing it: no need to set a timer, benchmark the duration, pick a specific time of day, dedicate a spot, ring a bell—none of that. Don’t even worry about finding a guided meditation on an app. Just quiet yourself down, bring some stillness to your body, and follow your breath a few times. Keep it light and easy. You’re just taking a moment to touch in and maybe reset. If you have conditions at home that are supportive of these more structured elements, include them as you can.
5. Meditate with your loved one, depending on their inclination. With little kids, bedtime metta, or lovingkindness, is great. You can read your child storybooks on mindfulness and then invite them to try the practice described in the story with you. Hugging meditation, cloud meditation, and walking meditation are all great ways of meditating with others in your home. Meditate while watching your loved one fall asleep.
For more complete instructions on how to practice meditation as a parent or caregiver in normal times, but equally applicable for weird times, read How to Meditate While Raising Kids.
What Parent-Meditators Have Been Doing
To give you a sense of how parents with an established meditation practice are meeting with pandemic conditions, let me share four examples.
Paloma said that prior to the pandemic she had been fairly loose with her meditation practice. When schools moved to online learning in March 2020, her son was suddenly home full-time; she eventually took him out of school altogether and began homeschooling him. To her surprise, even though she had far less time than before the pandemic, she actually became much more disciplined about maintaining a daily, dedicated sitting practice. Why? Because with the constant demand for her attention in the days that followed as her son’s educator and parent, as well as working from home and being the household manager, this practice became a foundational anchor that determined the quality of her presence.
On the other end is Franz, who previously had a very regular zazen practice. The pandemic hit, his 10th grader’s school closed, he worked full time at home, and the schedule went from orderly to. . . not exactly chaos but close, making it very hard to schedule anything, including meditation. “What I found, though, was that I took advantage of irregular and shorter opportunities for meditation,” he said. “I now see that this formlessness of my meditation echoes the formlessness of my current life.” Much of this loosening has been refreshing, he reports, providing more connections between the cushion and daily life.
In the middle is my sister Isa, mother of a newborn, 2- and 4-year-old, working full time, with a husband who is a frontline hospital doctor and father. She meditates for five minutes a day. “I think my meditation streak is a self-health/self-preservation thing. While this is probably my healthiest maternity leave yet, it’s still exhausting and takes a lot of mental energy,” she told me in an email. “Taking the time for meditation really allows me to focus in a way that I’m not able to the rest of the day, and I feel better for it.”
As for her older sister Sumi, a so-called specialist in mindful parenting, I’ll share this. A few months ago, my boss asked the staff what new things they were learning during isolation. One was learning Dutch; another grew a garden. Me? I said I had learned to lower my expectations. And then to lower them again. And again. Until basically I had no expectations or standards. Dust bunnies gathered, the kids had too much screen time, I read three volumes of Outlander (steamy!), and I didn’t have the energy to keep up the meditation routine I’d had before (maybe I should have read less Outlander). At some point, I even let go of the expectation that I should meditate regularly. Rock bottom, baby.
And yet in retrospect I may have been meditating more than I thought. Taking a moment to relax on the sofa without intentionally doing so I would find myself forgoing reading or thinking to instead attend to my body, breath, sounds, the space around me. Sitting in the kitchen to chat with my daughter as she did dinner cleanup, I would just “drop in” to being there—present, grateful, and connected. The giant shift in daily patterns, which has the odd combination of both much less activity (no sports, driving to lessons, etc.) and much more work (supporting the kids with online school, dishes, meals, and yet more dishes and meals), has facilitated a kind of “active retreat” home environment. In this context, meditation has become softer, more relaxed, integrated, and real. As I have let go of a programmatic practice of meditation, I have actually started meditating more spontaneously and naturally.