Do you ever feel like your head might explode because you have too many thoughts and worries spinning around in there? When your mind is overloaded, it’s hard to make your best parenting decisions. I want to tell you about a simple tool that can help you reel in those runaway thoughts, so you can focus on the moment.
There was a day when my son was upset and everything I said seemed to escalate the issue. The next day was a big transition back to school, so all of these things – and more – were occupying my mind when I accidentally dropped a hot tray of homemade chicken enchiladas.
Instead of erupting with expletives or melting down in tears, I decided to test out a lesson I had learned in a mindfulness class. I paused for a moment and recited this little verse to myself: breathing in I calm my body, breathing out I smile. Those were the first two lines of a gatha called “Following the Breath” by renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Amazingly, that 10-second exercise helped me take a break from the situation and switch gears.
Poetic Reminders to Pay Attention
As exercises in both meditation and poetry, gathas are recited during routine daily activities to encourage mindfulness. Whether you’re brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, drinking a cup of tea, or caring for your kids, there’s a gatha to help you tune into the moment. Gathas can also help you face emotions, such as anger or sadness. These gems heighten our awareness, allowing us to experience more peace, calm and joy instead of running on auto-pilot.
The Magic of Smiling
Thich Nhat Hanh knows that smiles are powerful. They show up in many of his gathas. The idea of smiling in the midst of a stressful time may seem strange, but even a little hint of a smile activates a bunch of feel-good messengers in your brain – dopamine, endorphins and serotonin – that work towards fighting off stress. A smile can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and even lift your mood.
How to Use a Gatha
Since they have a poetic structure, gathas are easy to remember (at least in part). Pick one that resonates with you and either memorize it or post it where you can see it.
- As you silently recite the first line, breathe in;
- As you silently recite the second line, breathe out.
- Repeat until the gatha is finished.
As you continue with your activity, you’ll notice you’re more aware of what’s in front of you.
Two of My Favorite Gathas
- Following the Breath has become a go-to for me. Sometimes I only recite the first two lines to myself (as with the enchilada spill), but that’s enough to make a shift.
Following the Breath
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
- Entering a Room is a wonderful way to become aware, instead of marching into a situation without thinking. For example, if you’ve ever had to ask your kid (multiple times) to get off the screen, this gatha can help you think again and enter that room with a fresh – and calmer – approach. Or, if you have an important IEP meeting at school, you might use this to relax and gather yourself before you walk in.
Entering a Room
Entering this room, I see the present moment.
I bow to the room and breathe.
I vow to enter with calmness and awareness.
– Barbara Ann Kipfer
A Few More Gathas
Here are a few more gathas (by Thich Nhat Hanh) to give you an idea of how they apply to everyday activities and emotions.
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment.
and to look at beings with eyes of compassion.
Turning on the Water
Water flows from high mountain sources.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life.
My gratitude is filled to the brim.
Brushing Your Teeth
Brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth,
I vow to speak purely and lovingly.
When my mouth is fragrant with right speech,
a flower blooms in the garden of my heart.
This cup of tea in my two hands,
mindfulness held perfectly.
My mind and body dwell
Sin the very here and now.
When Feeling Anger
Breathing in I feel my anger.
Breathing out I smile.
I stay with my breathing
So I won’t lose myself.
If you’re looking for another theme, there are many more gathas by Thich Nhat Hanh listed on this site – or make up your own to suit the situation!
Which one will you try?
Images – crane: Shutterstock; partial smile emoji: Apple