One of my recent posts mentioned Rudolf Steiner’s “six basic exercises,” and I thought I would expand on them a bit in relation to parenting. I am taking inspiration from an essay by Signe Schaefer in More Lifeways. I find that these exercises are wonderful, challenging work, and that our children are truly our teachers when it comes to inner growth.
The first exercise relates to thinking. Often parents find themselves easily distracted, and our powers of mental concentration are challenged daily by the ever-changing demands of children. Steiner recommended that we take a small everyday object (e.g. a button or paperclip) and try to focus our attention completely on it. Sounds easy, but it’s quite difficult to maintain complete attention for any length of time. Over many days we focus on the form of the object, as well as its manufacture, in a measured, conscious way instead of merely fleeting impressions. We also observe our own thought processes to discover the times and ways we become distracted. This exercise not only helps us become more conscious of our thinking, it also helps us gain a sense of self-control and confidence, so easily lost when faced with the complexity of modern parenting.
The second exercise relates to our will forces. This is another realm in which parents can be easily distracted: I was about to do the dishes when I realized I needed a clean dish towel, but on my way to the linen closet I noticed the cats needed clean water, and then the kids came into the bathroom asking for a snack, so we returned to the kitchen to find the dishes still filling the sink! So we choose a small unnecessary act (in my last post the example was touching my earlobe at 11:45 am) and endeavour to remember and complete it each day. This exercise helps parents strengthen their sense of inner resolve, and helps us feel less on “auto-pilot” or discouraged by lack of follow-through.
The third exercise involves our emotions. We are often unable to remain calm in the face of the baby who won’t stop crying or the siblings who won’t stop fighting. To begin this exercise, at the end of the day we review our emotional responses: when were we “out of ourselves” and not fully present because of strong feelings? When did an emotional response lead to unintended consequences? Were many of these responses habitual? Eventually we seek to have these insights in the moment instead of in reflection; this helps us stay centered and present, so that we can face our lives with equanimity.
The fourth exercise urges us to find something good, true, or beautiful in any situation. So often we become focused on the negatives in our days: the whining children, the burnt meal, the rude customer at work. Challenging ourselves to guide our thinking and feeling consciously toward the positive when faced with the negative helps us be find balance in our judgments. We can learn to see the beauty in the messes the children make while playing and the strength of will in the argumentative neighbor.
The fifth exercise helps us become more open and receptive to the future and new experiences. We may find ourselves relating to our children’s perspectives with scorn or antipathy: the boy who loves to hit and break things, the girl who must eat each kind of food in the meal separately. At the end of the day we can ask ourselves when did we shut down to new ideas? When did we discard someone’s opinion as too far from our own? Did we experience a moment when our actual experience differed from our habitual expectations? Working in this way we can begin to work with the gift of open-heartedness that our children bring to the world, and be open to our own capacity for growth and renewal.
The last exercise is to bring the other five exercises together into our daily lives. If we practice the exercises faithfully for a time, we can begin to see them interweave and enliven us. One image is that of the five-pointed star: each point is important itself, but put together they make a radiant, living image. Over time we might find that we have become more conscious, centered, tranquil and in harmony with our surroundings. We can face our days as parents with love, positivity, openness, and objectivity, and model such behavior to our children. As Signe says at the end of her essay, parents and children “are truly on a path of mutual development: their needs for care ask us to grow, and our love and attention nourish their unfolding.”