Mushin no shin

Mushin no shin. It translates literally to “mind without mind, ” but this fails to capture the nuance of it. Mushin, for short, might best be described as a state of being dispassionate, freeing oneself from all mental and emotional attachment so that one may respond rather than react.

Mushin has a happy home in Zen and other meditative practices, which makes perfect sense. I first encountered it in my martial studies, where it comprises part of Bushido, the way of the warrior. There, mushin is a state of detachedness from ego that allows one to act without fear, to focus on the technique of combat rather than the result. “He who seeks to save his own life” and all. Or, as Mad Max would have it, “Fear is the mindkiller.”

During my days as a concealed handgun instructor, I advocated for mushin, for a number of reasons. First, as the samurai well knew, it is an effective combat mindset for those who achieve it. Second, in civilian uses of deadly force in self-defense, strict adherence to the law is a necessity. Many infractions of the law occur out of a fear response–the civilian produces his weapon before he is justified in doing so, or she fires it without sufficient objective indication (what the law in Texas would call “reasonableness”) of imminent harm to authorize the application of deadly force.

At the time, though, mushin interested me at least as much for its applicability at conflict de-escalation as during the escalation of hostilities. Most of the conflict de-escalation techniques I have been taught, or have personally taught, require stepping back from one’s ego to manage the situation logically and persuasively instead of as a matter of preserving sense of identity and saving face. Now, I am even more interested in that aspect of mushin.

Especially as a parent. Much of the discipline of children is done from a place of anger or frustration. This is understandable–children can be both anger-inducing and frustrating. But being understandable doesn’t make it acceptable. I’m not casting aspersions; I’m just as guilty, and I’ve tried to be introspective, realistic and candid in my own failings and unnecessary power struggles in that regard.

I’ve harped on TBRI before, and this seems an opportunity to do so again. Without calling it that, TBRI incorporates the same principle as mushin into its approach to parenting–if you can’t center yourself and can’t remove your own emotions from the situation, you can’t effectively parent. You are reacting, not responding. And, yes, sometimes parenting feels like the attack-parry-riposte of the duel.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that I have a strong sense of self and identity–and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I work on the assumption that the uniqueness of my personality (what we might call the “writer’s voice” if we want to be formal about it) is interesting enough to keep my audience coming back.

But I also know that I’m at my best as a parent when I put all of that aside. When I focus on my child’s needs, both in the short-term meeting of needs and in the long-term development of character, I develop parenting strategies that do more than momentarily relieve my own frustrations–I build trust and relationship just as I am redirecting, correcting, of flat-out dodging certain behaviors. That’s love, both practically- and theologically-speaking.

It’s a strange thing to think that love sometimes happens best when given from a place of detachment and dispassion, but the strangeness of that comes from a society that tells us that love is a feeling, a fleeting emotion whose high we must chase continually. While we can’t–and shouldn’t–deny the emotional aspects of our relationships, we cannot roll them into intent and behavior and pretend that the mess that results is one monolithic thing. Sometimes love is a choice, and we are called to pursue it even when we don’t feel like it. When we choose to be loving to another when it doesn’t come easy is when that love is most powerful, when it is self-sacrificial.

But there’s a trap here as well, and we shouldn’t get it twisted–we humans have emotional needs that must be fulfilled by our relationships for them to be healthy, positive, and functional. For those persons with whom we intend to travel large swathes of our lives, we ought to like them as well as love them. We ought to feel that emotional pull as well as the conscious desire to seek their good first.

But, as I’ve said, children are often infuriating, even as we also feel loving emotions toward them. But to raise them up in the world, our parenting must be about them and their needs, not about our personal weaknesses or psychological quirks and desires.

We must become like samurai, dispassionate and able to see the situation for what it really is, to–as objectively as is humanly possible–look down the skeins of time for the far-reaching consequences of our own behavior. We must be unattached to emotional needs and distant from fear of particular results so that we may employ the techniques we know to be beneficial, healthy and effective.

Because, while parenting may sometimes be a fight, it’s not one comprised of strikes and parries, of throws and joint locks. It’s not even a fight between us and our children (though we often feel that it is). We have met the enemy, and it is us.

TBRI

I spent last Friday and Saturday attending a simulcast of the “Empowered to Connect” conference put on by the Karyn Purvis Institute of Childhood Development at TCU. The simulcast at our home church was put on by Cultivating Families, a non-profit that is dear to my heart. I hope that you’ll check them out and consider donating.

Dr. Purvis was the creator of a parenting approach called “Trust-based Relational Intervention,” commonly known as “TBRI.” TBRI relies on an understanding of childhood brain development, particularly for those children with capital-T Trauma in their backgrounds, to inform a parenting style that is focused on developing and maintaining attachment between parent and child, helping the child literally rewire the physical changes in the brain related to past trauma so that they can get out of “survival mode” and begin to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors, and teach/enforce positive strategies for all manner of social interactions.

There are a few things I particularly like about TBRI. First, it is very much in line with my idea of parenting through calling a child to increased empathy and understanding of the consequences of actions for others rather than shame- and guilt-based judgment and punishment (see my post called “Toward a Positive Morality.”) Second, which likely makes sense given my first point, TBRI matches closely with what I believe to be good Christian theology–it focuses on building relationships and solving problems rather than punishment and guilt. Third, there is a strong emphasis for caregivers to “do the work” to understand the things that drive them crazy or make them respond emotionally rather than thoughtfully; to sort out our own baggage. Without doing so, we fall victim to the same behaviors we’re trying to help the kiddos work through and beyond. K and I have had several conversations over the weekend of “Oh! That’s probably why I always get angry when X happens, or why I always do X when Y. Now that I’ve named it, we can try to work on it.” Most of the people who’ve been through TBRI training (DePelchin, our foster licensing agency, uses it thoroughly in their own training) report similar experiences.

There’s an example of that process that’s been on the blog for quite some time, in fact. One that arose out of my own reflection about my behavior with our first foster kids (see the post called “Just Give Her the Damn Goldfish!” An amusing anecdote–some anonymous and benevolent person left an industrial-size box of Goldfish in K’s office with mine and our daughter’s names on it after that article was published. I remain grateful and always smile when I think of that!

While it may have been designed for children from hard places and their caregivers, TBRI just makes good sense. It advocates a system for relationships that extends grace to others and encourages introspection to improve one’s own relationships as well as providing proven techniques for conflict de-escalation and for building trust while negotiating interpersonal needs. K and I have tried to implement the techniques with each other, and I think it’s improved out relationship. At the very least, it’s helped us demonstrate to each other our mutual desire to grow closer and to work on the issues that arise between us in a positive, grace-filled and loving way.

I like to joke that I also use TBRI techniques with some of my legal clients, but it’s also true. The techniques I’ve learnt through TBRI training have helped me to help clients understand their motivations, more effectively evaluate their options regarding any particular matter and look to solutions rather than the tit-for-tat that is often common in our interpersonal conflict, legal or not.

TBRI is not a light switch that, once flipped on, completely changes everything. It takes practice to implement, continual self-evaluation and creative problem-solving, and the ability to ask for grace, forgiveness, and a “re-do” when you make your own mistakes. But every time I attend some training on TBRI, I ask myself what it would look like if everyone used it, and I think to myself that the Kingdom of Heaven would be just a little bit closer to Earth if we did.

Since we’re on the topic of raising children, fostering and adopting (or at least in that section of the blog), it seems that an update is in order. K and I have reopened for a placement and have been waiting since late February for the call that will change everything again. At any moment, we could be returning to parenthood again and this section of the blog will become much more lively. I can’t wait.

Just Give Her the Damn Goldfish!

I should have expected that having children would be a study in the human need for control. Our training for foster care on trust-based relational intervention (TBRI), which K and I found very helpful, made sure that we understood that there would be issues of control and authority in raising children (how could there not be?). That said, the intellectual knowledge of the thing and the experience are two things separated by a sometimes expansive gulf.

And so, it should have been no surprise that I’d have to spend some time thinking about my own need for control—both in the microcosm of my relationships with my children and in regards to life in general.

We are not allowed to withhold food from the children as a tool of compliance or discipline—nor do I think that doing so would be constructive, effective or beneficial. But that doesn’t stop food from sometimes being a struggle. There are very few things that we’ve discovered that Bess doesn’t like to eat, which is a blessing in and of itself. Sometimes though, she tells us that she wants one thing and then changes her mind, or gets served something we know she likes and she demands something else. This sort of a struggle is frustrating, to say the least.

There are some things we don’t make available to Bess—we don’t give her soda (she came to us already familiar with drinking straight from the can) and we very much limit her access to sweets (making me quite a hypocrite given my own sweet tooth, but it’s a hypocrisy I can live with). Otherwise, when she’s hungry we feed her and she gets to eat until she’s full. We serve her a lot of fruit, yogurt, milk, cheese and other things, and now that she’s settled in a bit more we’re trying to focus the offerings to be as healthy as possible. But sometimes, she just wants Goldfish, and nothing else will do.

At times like this, my initial instinct is to refuse her. I took the time to make her something else to eat, and she ought to eat that, dammit! Both the training we received and common sense dictate that this is not a fight worth having. So why do I feel a need to “win” that fight rather than avoiding it altogether?

Concerned about my own parenting skills, I started reflecting on this. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about my own need for a semblance of control. Suddenly adding two kids to the picture has thrown everything in disarray—my schedule revolves around them and I have somehow to find the time to make a living and get some writing done. There’s not a great sense of control in my life overall at this juncture—though is there anything but an illusion of control in our lives ever, really?

I think that my desire to win arguments rather than focusing on the important stuff is about me trying to work out my own issues. Our parenting class instructor was wise to tell us to be on the lookout for exactly this sort of thing.

Perhaps above all, I tend to think of myself as someone who is more self-aware than most and, to a great degree, in control of himself to the extent that one can be. This experience has given me doubts about that self-conception.

At the end of the day, though, if I don’t learn from these experiences, I will certainly never have the kind of self-control I think that I do. So, I’m trying (“trying” being the operative word) to get over myself. If it’s not a matter of health and safety or some other significant issue, there’s not much reason for me to fight with Bess about it. Especially not so that I can feel I have some tiny amount of control in my life—there’s simply no there there (to borrow from Gertrude Stein).

When she wants to put on her own shoes, fine. When she wants things a certain way, we can do that. And when all she wants to eat is Goldfish—provided she’s generally still eating healthy—I’m just gonna give her the damn Goldfish. We’ll all be better for it, I think.