Shortly after returning to work following the birth of my eldest son, I awoke to the sound of rain.
I could hear it pattering against the windowpanes and splashing on the roof of the girls’ dormitory where I lived and worked as a school counselor. My mood soured immediately. Returning to work meant leaving my three-month-old son in the campus day care center—a painfully ambivalent experience to begin with—but today would be my first attempt at negotiating this new routine in the rain.
I stomped around our tiny apartment, dreading the inconvenience of trying to keep myself and my infant son dry while hauling a purse, lunch box, laptop, and umbrella out to the car. I silently (or perhaps not so silently) cursed the weather, the fact that I “had to” work at all, and, just for good measure, my gelatinous postpartum belly that now had to be squeezed into office-appropriate clothing. When it was finally time to leave, I anchored my son on my hip, gathered up all of the day’s paraphernalia, and headed outside.
The walk to the car wasn’t long, perhaps 50 footfalls. Still, I moved as quickly as possible (surely with a scowl on my face), in an effort to avoid the rain. About halfway down the walkway, I heard my son start to giggle. I’d largely forgotten about him, lost as I was in my own grumpiness.
Turning my head to see what had captured his fancy, I noticed that he had extended his chubby little arm outside the protection of the umbrella in order to feel the droplets of rain on his fingers. He was gazing up at the top of the umbrella—mouth open in a wide smile—clearly delighted by both the unexpected colors of the umbrella as well as the sound of raindrops bouncing off the waterproof surface. How am I staying dry? I could almost hear his little mind marveling at the scene. Is this some kind of magic?
I took a deep breath. Even trained therapists can use a reminder once in a while about the power of our thoughts and their influence on our emotions. Because I considered the rain an inconvenience, I felt irritable and put out. My son, on the other hand, viewed the rain as an absolute wonder. As a result, the weather became a source of delight and fascination.
Rain is just rain; it’s the meaning we assign to it that determines its emotional impact.
I’ve returned to this story often, both in my work as a therapist and in my personal life. Most recently, my son—now 14 years old—was scheduled to attend the boarding school where his father (to whom I am no longer married) works. I began stressing about this eventuality a full year before it went into effect. I exchanged testy emails with my ex about how the custody schedule would change, who would pay for what, and how I would be compensated (as if one could be compensated) for giving up my child.
I worried about how we would maintain our relationship, despite the fact that the school is only 45 minutes away and I would still be able to see him regularly. I felt trapped between my desire to have my son at home and the opportunity for him to receive a world-class education at virtually no cost.
When the time came, I tried hard to be the proud parent and to focus on my son’s excitement and the opportunities ahead of him. I remembered the lesson he had taught me all those years ago as he stretched his hand away from the protection of his mother’s umbrella in order to experience the world through his own unique lens. I would miss tucking him in at night and hearing his voice around the house, his up-for-anything attitude infusing the rest of the family with energy we didn’t know we had.
But I also knew my son was in for the adventure of a lifetime: peers who, like him, were bright and motivated and kind; a school culture that eschews screen time and drugs and instead encourages service and face-to-face interactions; the independence that comes from looking after oneself at such a young age. To be sure, there were losses and gains, but I knew I had the power to choose where to turn my attention. In the end, boarding school is just boarding school.
While I initially used my umbrella story to increase clients’ understanding of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), in recent years I’ve come to appreciate it as a great example of mindfulness as well. One can focus, without judgement, on the immediate sights, sounds, and sensations of rain, or one can live in an anxiety-producing future in which one’s clothes might get wet or a walk to the car could prove slightly precarious. A mother can glory in the pride on her son’s face as he sets a personal record in a cross-country race, or she can fret over the moment later in the day when she’ll have to say goodbye.
Both will happen; both are true—the record setting and the leave-taking—but, with mindfulness, each of us can choose the moments on which to focus our attention.
The next time you’re aware of having labeled a circumstance as “negative,” see if you can suspend that judgement—just for a moment—and instead take in some other aspect of your present experience. That might mean paying closer attention to ambient sounds, noticing the color variations in a single leaf, or taking a deep breath and being fully aware of your abdomen filling up with air.
Decide to pay attention to that which engenders curiosity, if not joy. It won’t make the negative aspects of a situation disappear, but it can have a powerful impact on your moment-to-moment experience.
Let me know how it goes.