In every situation you’ll encounter as a new mom, whether it is chaotic or mellow, there are three things happening. Examine what’s going on for you right now. You are probably having some thoughts, or your mind is focused on reading and digesting this information. You may be having some feelings or emotions. There may be some body sensations, like relaxation, coolness or warmth, or tension. And everything that is happening “outside” of you is being perceived through your senses—the usual five senses of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. There is also a sixth sense that I like to call your felt sense, or your gut feelings or overall bodily perception of things (like when the hackles rise on the back of your neck or you feel at home and relaxed). Mindfulness begins with noticing what is happening in these three realms of experience—thinking, feeling, and sensing.


The third realm of experience is sensations. Sensations include everything you sense— what you are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling—as well as body sensations. You are probably experiencing some sensations in your body right now. A tightness here, a warm feeling there, an ache or pain, a binding of clothes against skin, or a sort of flow of sensation. You are also always breathing, though most people are rarely consciously aware of that unless they are out of breath. But, when you bring your attention to it, you can feel that you are breathing and may be able to feel your pulse or your heart beating.

Whether they are sights, sounds, tastes, scents, or textures, sensations are typically experienced as (1) pleasant, (2) unpleasant, or (3) neutral—neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Some body sensations, particularly during pregnancy, labor, and early motherhood, are extremely uncomfortable, and some are very pleasurable. You are probably catching on now to what I will say about this. Of course, you want pleasant sensations to stay and uncomfortable sensations to stop, go away, or be beyond your notice. These desires are natural and even useful to a certain extent. It’s good that you pull your hand away from a hot stove. But again, like in the realms of thinking and feeling, a lot of unnecessary suffering comes from resisting, struggling against, fearing, hating, or attempting to avoid uncomfortable sensations. Terrible scents, awful tastes, or physical pain can be difficult, sometimes even harrowing experiences. But the unnecessary suffering we often layer on top of the pain is something we can change.


So, if thoughts aren’t a problem, feelings aren’t a problem, and sensations aren’t a problem, what does cause unnecessary suffering? For the most part, it’s resisting, rejecting, or struggling against these three elements of your experience. Or, if these elements are pleasant, trying to make them stay can form the basis of your internal battles. Your efforts to stop, resist, or struggle against feelings, or trying to chase after them or make them stay, can form the roots of addictions, bad habits, and negative interpersonal interactions with loved ones, including your children. An example is a plane flight I took a while ago where a woman was attempting to soothe her crying baby.
Now, a crying baby on a plane, especially when it’s your child, is not an easy situation by any means. You are tired, cramped, uncomfortable, the noise of the crying seems unbearable, and sometimes your fellow passengers are often not only unhelpful but outwardly antagonistic. I felt a lot of empathy for this woman, having been in similar situations myself.

But watching her, I could see how her resistance to the situation were making it worse than it was by itself. She appeared to have reached her limit of emotional tolerance—of the baby’s distress and of her own distress. Her eyes were turned away from the baby’s head, she was bouncing the little guy roughly up and down, and if it’s possible to yell the sound “Shhhhh,” that’s what she was doing. Her body was tense, her purse and baby supplies were falling all over the floor, her hair was wild, and her head swung from side to side. In response to my offer to possibly take the baby for a little stroll, she barked, “No, no, you can’t do anything. There’s nothing to be done.”

Now let me be clear here: as a mom, I have certainly reached my limit of emotional tolerance, whether for my own emotions or those of my daughter, and acted in ways I later wished I hadn’t. So when I say I had empathy for this woman, I mean not only for her situation but also for her feelings of being overwhelmed. I can imagine what she must have been thinking, the story she was telling herself about this situation: “I’ve got to make this stop! Please stop—what is wrong? Is he okay?…Oh God, everyone on this plane must hate me. Please make him be quiet! Why didn’t I use Benadryl like my sister suggested?” and on and on. But I also knew that if she had been able, even for the briefest moment, to recognize that there was absolutely no problem with this baby crying, some of her suffering might have been eased.

How can I say there was no problem with this situation? Such a loud sound in a small cramped space, knowing that her baby was uncomfortable, and knowing that others were also uncomfortable was definitely not preferable. But in truth, the situation was simply that—a loud sound, an uncomfortable baby, some other passengers getting annoyed. That’s it. It was resisting the experience, struggling against it, trying to alter, change, stop, or get away from it, and deciding that it was a big problem that should not be happening that was making it worse. In this case, and in many cases, it’s our idea that difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations are intolerable and must be suppressed, avoided, or stopped that causes unnecessary suffering, more than the experiences themselves.

With mindful awareness, allowing the situation to be as it was without a lot of judgment about it, approaching the whole thing with compassion and acceptance, she might have still been uncomfortable, but she probably wouldn’t have panicked. This is certainly easier said than done. But with practice, over time, this mindset becomes more and more possible.


Excerpt from: MINDFUL MOTHERHOOD: Practical Tools for Staying Sane in Pregnancy and Your Child's First Year (New Harbinger Publications)

Author's Bio: 

Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, research psychologist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, codirector of the Mind Body Medicine Research Group at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco, and vice president of the Institute for Spirituality and Psychology. Her research has focused on mindfulness-based approaches to cultivating emotional balance, the involvement of biology, psychology, and emotion in addiction and recovery, the role of compassionate intent and belief in healing, and the factors, experiences, and practices involved in psychospiritual transformation to a more altruistic, compassionate, and service-oriented way of life. She has published several academic articles and chapters and has conducted numerous presentations at international scientific conferences.

Foreword writer Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D., is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and a psychotherapist, wife, mother, and grandmother. She is author of several books including It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness; Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat; That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist; Pay Attention for Goodness' Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness; and Happiness Is an Inside Job.