“Movement” Meditation: A Tool for Parenting and Work
by Choo Kah Ying
After tinkering with meditation on and off since the 1990s, I have finally crossed a “threshold” to become a regular meditation practitioner over the past four years when I developed my self-formulated “movement” meditation.* Essentially, I spend about 30 minutes each day in a quiet seated position, whereby I engage in deep, slow breathing, while moving my hands gently and pressing on acupressure points in different parts of the body, particularly the head and the face, in what I call a “self-massage”.
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Even after all this time, this feeling of awakening from a mental state of incredible lightness and clarity—a sacred space where all the conventional worries and limitations of reality have been momentarily suspended and rendered into oblivion—never ceases to amaze me. Oftentimes, the most inspired ideas and solutions about personal and professional problems could bubble from beneath the surface, without me consciously seeking it. Such moments of striking clarity is when we come closest to being the most enlightened versions of ourselves. Within this space, we are so connected with our innermost selves that our consciousness grazes our soul.
Over these past few years, I have become increasingly convinced that meditation is a MUST-HAVE practice that can enable every human being to BE the best that they can be and FUNCTION at their optimum. Thus, it seems a real shame to me that meditation, though it has grown in popularity in modern society, is still not widely practiced on a consistent basis.
And to be perfectly honest, this had also been the case for me. Regardless of how calm and serene I would feel after my meditations sessions during the stolen 10-minute segments of “me-time” I would commit to meditation in the past, I could not stick to a regime consistently.
------------------------------------------ So what ultimately propelled me across the threshold, if not for the cognitive and emotional benefits?
Being the mum of an autistic young man who used to express his deepest emotions through aggression...
After struggling for five years with my autistic son’s aggression from the time he turned 15, which led me to move him to the rice-paddy environs of Bali when he was 20, I learnt from an autism specialist that the key to establishing a positive and nurturing relationship with our autistic loved ones hinges on our own ability to regulate our emotions. With regards to autistic individuals, the spotlight is often trained upon them and how they should change. But with this fresh perspective, the spotlight is turned upon the neurotypical parents, other caregivers, and helping professionals.
To connect with our autistic loved ones through the eyes and heart of empathy, we need to maintain our composure and suspend our judgments. And the only way to be able to achieve this state of being is to be able to enter a meditative zone as much as possible. While I was often slack about resolutions pertaining to my self-development, this realization that my self-development could impinge upon the well-being of my son was a major catalyst. As I'd often told people, for the sake of my son, I would move mountains.
While people often associate meditation solely with sitting quietly, my exposure to the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, a global spiritual leader and peace activist, on the practice of mindfulness at any time of the day, regardless of whatever you are doing, gave me a different perspective. As Nhat Hanh pointed out, you can enter the state of mindfulness when you are taking a walk or washing your dishes simply by engaging in conscious breathing and focusing on your task at the same time.
I was excited by the prospect of being able to “summon” the meditative state at any time, which would be helpful in my interactions with my son (whenever I would visit him in Bali). So I began to engage in daily meditation practice in order to “train” my being and body to be responsive "on command" (i.e., by activating deep breathing). The way I saw it, regular disciplined practice would allow me to be effective in “flexing” my meditation muscle as needed.
This was how I initiated my practice of being a regular meditation practitioner. And along the way, I would discover some positive "side-effects". For instance, in this calm state and safe space, creative ideas and solutions would emerge from out of the blue without me consciously seeking them. More significant was its long-term impact on increasing my self-awareness about my emotional state and the mellowing of my temperament. I would come to look forward to my meditative practice as my "emotional spa".
Nonetheless, how I would respond in a potential meltdown situation with my autistic son was still unknown until… Mostar, September 2019.
It was yet another day in what had been a fairly challenging holiday in Croatia with Sebastien, our autistic son. In the wake of the success of the TV show, Game of Thrones, the tourists had flocked to historical sights in Croatia in tour buses and cruise ships. With every place jam-packed with tourists snapping photos of glorious architecture and majestic views, Sebastien's self-regulation by picking up cigarette butts and other types of litter caught many gawking stares that made my husband and me annoyed. I was simultaneously frustrated by the preponderance of smokers and their littering of the grounds with cigarette butts, Sebastien's utter lack of interest in the beauty of the environment (with his eyes pinned to the ground), and the people's indiscreet reactions towards him. Given this challenging situation, I decided the best strategy was to give Sebastien, who was a towering young man of 23, the space to self-regulate with his litter-picking strategy, while observing him just in case he should offend any tourists.
Jerome, Sebastien, and I on Stari Bridge
At Mostar, under the famous Stari bridge, amidst throngs of tourists, Sebastien had wandered near a river, where a fisherman was fishing. Standing a little distance away, Sebastien amused himself by throwing little pebbles into the river. The fisherman called out to Sebastien, but Sebastien was oblivious; he couldn't put two and two together about why anyone would be calling out to him. I hung back, not wishing to get into Sebastien's space as it was an unstable surface covered with pebbles. As someone who had had knee surgery, I would likely fall and hurt myself should I try to intervene physically. Because I couldn't see my husband nearby (lost in the midst of the tourists taking photos), I banked on the fisherman recognizing that Sebastien has special needs.
But to my horror, the fisherman sprung to his feet, approached Sebastien angrily, yelled into his face and poked at his chest aggressively. All the tourists were horrified at the fisherman; to them, his reaction was disproportionate to the situation. Perhaps, some had already noticed that Sebastien did not behave like most young adults his size.
Sebastien immediately turned and moved towards me.
I was rendered into paralysis by the whole situation. Thoughts of panic surged through me. My conscious mind yielded no constructive strategies. By reflex, I was convinced that Sebastien would unleash the trauma of this shocking confrontation onto me. Based on his past reactions, I was anticipating that he would grab me and smack me many times with his fists or the palms of his hands on my face, my head, or my back, as a form of release.
Yet despite the frenzy of emotions raging in my mind, my body remained calm. I managed to brace myself by planting myself as firmly onto the ground as possible. In the past, I would have recoiled away from him or even run away. When Sebastien reached out towards me and grabbed me by the arms with a bruising squeeze that made me wince slightly, I embraced him in a heartbeat. Immediately, words of comfort flowed out of me: “I'm so sorry. The man was not nice. It's okay. You didn’t do anything wrong.” Just one and a half years ago, my resentment at being grabbed roughly would have taken centerstage. But now, all that engulfed me was my empathy for him and the injustice that had befallen him.
Without any prompting, Sebastien softened his grip on my arm almost instantly and apologized, “Sorry, mama.” The tiny meltdown was defused immediately with no aftermath. In the past, even hours after the incident, Sebastien could still be letting out the residual stress by jumping and hitting himself on his head with his fists. While this development can certainly be attributed to his peaceful state in Bali after we found good carers for him, I also knew that my empathic reaction was a contributing factor. At that moment in time, it was important for Sebastien to have garnered a loving reaction from his mother, instead of a judgmental one.
Most significant of all, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I wouldn’t have reacted in this positive instinctive way had I not engaged in meditation regularly. Thus, you can see how meditation can be a responsive tool for parents. Furthermore, with this self-calming tool, literally in the palm of your hands, you can also transfer this calming touch to your autistic loved ones, but only when you possess a positive, calm, and loving intent that is completely focused on their well-being. Having such a powerful positive tool is now what keeps me motivated.
But how is meditation applicable to the corporate world and the cultivation of professionals working in the 21st-century?
Recently, while designing a program to address blockers of diversity and inclusion, such as implicit biases — our preternatural tendencies to associate certain demographic characteristics with psychological and behavioral attributes, it occurred to me that the regular practice of meditation could offer a constructive solution. By surfacing the negative unconscious thinking during our meditation through our heightened mental state of clarity, we can confront them and actively identify ways to counteract them. Over time, through this regular training, working professionals would be able to summon their conscious mindfulness by activating deep slow breathing. In this optimal state, they will be able to not only combat implicit biases, but also function as a deeply self-aware and circumspect human being who can apprehend all situations from both cognitive and emotional perspectives and respond accordingly.
Ultimately, in my endeavor to improve my parenting skills so that I can be a better mother for Sebastien, my autistic son, I have acquired perspectives and skills that constantly challenge me to examine myself and my actions as a human being. Therefore, regardless of how we like to compartmentalize our lives in mainstream society, dividing them between the personal and professional spheres with artificial constructs like "work-life balance" and "boundaries", we cannot deny the fact that we are one unitary self. What affects us in one sphere naturally shapes us in the other. I, for one, have certainly been able to tap into my insights in autism in my dealings with the English I teach students, as well as my work partners and clients in institutional and corporate settings. There is no real division...
Meditation holds the transformative key to an open-minded and open-hearted world.
* Explanatory note: My self-formulated movement meditation has been adapted from the work of Michael Reed Gach’s (1990), Acupressure’s Potent Points: A Guide to Self-Care for Common Ailments, Bantam Books; the writings on mindfulness of Thich Nhat Hanh, a global spiritual leader and peace activist who was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Price; an encounter with a monk who introduced me to energy meditation through focused hand movements; and the application of focused massages on others.
If you are interested in learning more about "movement" meditation as a parent and/or a corporate professional, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org).