Mindfulness. It’s probably THE catchword of the decade and its popularity is only on the upswing. What is it? What does it have to do with childbirth? How can I use it for parenting? How is it different from hypnobirthing?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who developed the hugely successful MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) program in the late ‘70’s, defines mindfulness as: “Paying attention, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment”. Or, in other words, knowing what you’re doing while you’re doing it, or knowing what you’re experiencing while you’re experiencing it. (For a brief explanation from the man himself, you can watch a few very short videos):
What is mindfulness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmEo6RI4Wvs
Mindfulness: Liberation from suffering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o14I-F2iI9U or any of his longer, more detailed videos (there are LOADS of them on YouTube).
Our culture values doing – the more, the faster, the better. In fact, many women say with a sense of pride how they are able to multi-task and get more things done simultaneously. But at what price? And who is suffering from this? Is this what I really want from my life? Why do I feel like my life is just passing me by and I’m exhausted at the end of each day?
Mindfulness is a state of being. Through specific meditation practices, we cultivate awareness of our physical bodies, our emotions and the thoughts in our minds from moment to moment. But mindfulness isn’t only sitting still with our eyes closed, focusing on our breath. Rather, through daily formal (mindfulness meditation) and informal practice (e.g. brushing our teeth mindfully), we cultivate our ability to be more aware of our bodies, thoughts and emotions in our everyday lives. It gives us the ability to be more awake to our experiences, to live more fully and joyfully and, according to many research studies, more healthfully.
We spend a great deal of time thinking about the future (very often this entails fear or anxiety) or stressing over something that has already happened, and very little time being in the present moment. Cultivating awareness in the present moment can help us realize that the past has already come and gone and thoughts about the future are just thoughts. In fact, one of the most important discoveries from practicing mindfulness is that “I am not my thoughts”. This can be extraordinarily liberating. It can help us look at a situation differently and respond with awareness, rather than simply ‘re’acting on auto-pilot the way we always have, which may not be in our best interests. In parenting, for example, it gives us new ways of responding when our toddler has a meltdown, even though we might just feel like having a meltdown ourselves.
Mindfulness Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP) is a formal adaptation of the 8 week MBSR program and combines MBSR and childbirth education. It was developed by Nancy Bardacke, Certified Nurse Midwife and mindfulness teacher who trained with Jon Kabat-Zinn. After 30 years of working with birthing women, she realized that learning to be in the moment not only helped the psychobiological process of labor and birth, it also helped women deal with pain, helped them relate to their partners on a deeper level, enabled them to be at peace with the labor experience they had and helped them parent with awareness and generosity, rather than out of fear, a sense of self-righteousness, or the desire to control. With all that in mind, she developed the MBCP program and wrote a book after teaching it for more than 10 years!
After reading her awesome book “Mindful Birthing – Training The Mind, Body, And Heart For Childbirth And Beyond” (http://www.amazon.com/Mindful-Birthing-Training-Childbirth-Beyond/dp/006196395X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1410520146&sr=8-1&keywords=mindful+birthing ), I studied with her, training together with a dozen midwives and childbirth educators from around the world to teach this potentially life-transforming program. I have also been studying locally for several years with my MBSR teacher, Dr. Dina Wyshogrod (http://www.mbsrisrael.org/), who also trained with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Dina and I went to Rhinebeck, NY, to participate in a professional retreat led by Jon and Saki Santorelli.
While both Lamaze and MBCP courses cover the process of labor and birth, comfort and coping tools and partner involvement in the birth process, as well as preparation for breastfeeding and early parenting, Lamaze classes are more oriented to information as a tool for empowerment, while MBCP classes develop a ‘mode of being’. Only couples (that means BOTH partners) who commit to practicing the meditation techniques 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week for the duration of the course, are accepted to the MBCP course. It takes time and practice to cultivate a mindful state of being. I am aware that not all couples are willing/able to make this commitment.
MBCP classes include the foundational attitudes of mindfulness: Non-judgment, beginner’s mind, patience, trust (as self-reliance), non-striving, letting be, acceptance and compassion. Looking at any of these words, especially in relation to childbirth and parenting, will demonstrate that cultivating mindfulness is not easy. However, the practices – both in class and at home, together with the class discussion (known as ‘inquiry’) of the experience of the practice, help develop awareness for birth, parenting and give us skills for life.
I am often asked about the difference between hypnobirthing and mindfulness training. Hypnobirthing involves practicing relaxation with recordings to help a woman tap into a ‘safe place’ in labor. Mindfulness practices train the mind to ‘be with what is’ which can be very helpful if labor doesn’t go as planned. The woman is able to drop into the moment as it is occurring with awareness and respond to the situation with clarity and wisdom, rather than react with your usual auto-pilot behavior patterns.
Here is a comment by an Ob/Gyn who took my Mind In Labor course (an intensive version of the MBCP course) to prepare for her upcoming birth:
I attended Rachelle’s workshop during my first pregnancy. As an Obstetrician, the one piece of advice about birth I give to any woman who asks is to “go with the flow” – in any birth there are so many variables, so many interacting factors, things can change in an instant… birth (though wonderful!) can be scary and stressful, and is always unpredictable. Which is why I think mindfulness is so appropriate as a tool for birth preparation – it can be used both to manage physical pain, and also to manage the mental and emotional stress of the inevitable twists and turns along the path to delivering a baby. If you can “be in the moment”, you can “go with the flow”. Through my observation of many women in labour, I have come to believe that women who approach birth with the right attitude have better medical outcomes (less interventions and complications), as well as more positive birth experiences.
Personally I found mindfulness extremely useful both during my pregnancy and through my birth. The techniques I learnt helped me keep calm in anticipation of the birth, and also to stay in the moment throughout my labour.
In particular, during labour I found that mindfulness helped me to appreciate and enjoy the time between contractions, so I was able to rest and gather energy to go forward. I also used skills developed during the ‘ice practice’ sessions in the seminar to manage the contractions themselves. Overall I was fortunate to have an empowering and positive birth experience.
While the deeply relaxed state that may be reached through training in hypnobirthing can be very helpful in labor, not all women are able to access it, or labor may unfold in a way that medical intervention becomes necessary for the mother’s or baby’s health. Some women feel a deep sense of disappointment at not having the labor go the way they had planned. The mindfulness attitudes of non-striving, non-judgment and acceptance can be very helpful in making peace with whatever arises.
New mothers often doubt their own instincts, saying that they don’t have any. They want to know which books to read and ask the opinions of other mothers through social media, without realizing that their child is unique and that often the situation is unique. Mindfulness training may give mothers and fathers new insight into their own parenting style, while responding to the best mindfulness teacher – their baby. Gloom and doom thoughts (fears about bad things happening) are seen as simply thoughts, which are not based on reality. The present moment is real. Fear is always about the future, which hasn’t yet happened.
When I teach the mindful communication practice to couples, I am always deeply moved as I notice that, in many cases, they are entering what is often unchartered territory – a deeper, more honest way of communicating. This can have far reaching effects on their relationship as a couple and on their parenting.
The MBCP program also includes a simple yoga practice (mindful movement) which is taught in class as one of the many mindfulness practices and which the couples then practice at home with guided instructions on a CD. This may alleviate the need to pay additional money to participate in a prenatal yoga class.
There are 3 basic intentions to the MBCP program:
- To offer systematic training in mindful awareness using the methodology and meditation practices found in the MBSR program.
- To prepare expectant parents for birth and parenting through evidence-based information and mindfulness-based practices that promote the normal psychobiological processes of pregnancy, childbirth and the early postpartum period.
- To lay the foundation for parenting mindfully.
We know that stress during pregnancy negatively influences the fetus. Mindfulness can greatly help women who have to deal with job changes, moving apartments or inconclusive prenatal test results, to name but a few of the many possible causes of prenatal stress. Preliminary research results have also shown a reduction of postpartum depression in women who practice mindfulness. This article published in the British Journal of Midwifery in 2009: “Mindfulness approaches to childbirth and parenting” explains in more detail the MBCP course and research findings: http://oxfordmindfulness.org/wp-content/uploads/Hughes-et-al-Mindfulness-Childbirth-Final-published-article.pdf
I will end this post with a poem by Rumi, a 13th Century Sufi poet, that may help to convey the learning acquired through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
“Two Kinds of Intelligence” by Rumi
There are two kinds of intelligence.
One acquired, as a child in school memorizes
facts and concepts from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining information.
You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge,
getting always more marks on your preserving tablets.
There is another kind of tablet,
one already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox.
A freshness in the center of your chest.
This other intelligence does not turn yellow or stagnate.
It’s fluid, and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through the conduits of plumbing-learning.
This second knowing is a fountainhead
From within you, moving out.