One sunny day this summer, on a hike in Maine, one of my daughters was complaining. She was complaining about doing a very short hike (about 400 feet) to get a view of Acadia National Park after biking on wide smooth carriage trails with her cousins.
I know. Ridiculous, right?
My insides squirmed. How privileged of you! How dare you be complaining! Don’t you realize how lucky you are?! Lucky to be on vacation, lucky to be in a national park, lucky to be with your cousins and your parents, lucky to be doing something fun and healthy.
More complaining and then some arguing ensued. My emotions ran away with me, there among the pink granite and pines. They hijacked my body and made my blood boil. My daughter’s unhappiness became my unhappiness. I seethed, cresting the hill. I tried to take in the mountaintop, the ocean, and the tiny islands dotting the Maine coast. They were there, but I couldn't see them clearly. My view was clouded by frustration. How could I be raising someone who doesn’t appreciate this?
My sister-in-law, who was on the summit already, looked at me. She shared what a friend of hers says to her about dealing with her children, “Be like a colander.”
“What?” I said, confused. I stared at the tiny boats floating like small toys in the bay.
“Let your child’s emotions, whatever they are, flow through you. Don’t hold on to them. They are her emotions. You don’t have to carry them.”
Whoa. I stopped. I looked at her freckled, sun-kissed face and her wind-tousled hair.
“I don’t have to carry them,” I repeated.
“Nope,” she said, and joined her son and husband at a rocky overlook.
This idea was revolutionary.
So I stopped. I let my daughter walk ahead, and tried to be like a colander. She huffed and puffed on the hike down, complaining to the wind, as I joked with my sister-in-law about the movie "Frozen" (we also may have sung a little bit).
The colander idea clearly links to my current meditation practice. I've been practicing for a while (using the Calm app). Like many people, I have a very active mind, like a hamster on a wheel. When thoughts come in during mediation, I've been learning to note them, as in, “I see you there, but I am not going to focus on you right now. I am going to focus on my breath instead.” Then I say to myself, “I am inhaling…. I am exhaling,” to refocus. I try to picture my thoughts floating down a river. I think, There you are. There you go, floating away. I’ll get to you at some point, just not right now.
While I've been able to do that in practice, filtering my kids’ emotions on a regular basis has been much harder to do. As parents, we are biologically hardwired to feel our babies’ emotions and to help them in times of distress. As they get older, this can become overwhelming and overbearing, not to mention exhausting. Managing everyone’s constantly changing emotions is a full-time job, and I’m pretty sure I want to quit.
So, back to the colander.
I started imagining my colander. What would it look like today? That day, mine was a shiny, sparkly hot pink, made of stainless steel. I have no idea why, but I pictured it like that. Water and emotion flowed right through my hot pink colander.
When I was frustrated later, I pictured it again. It helped me think that I am not my emotions, or the emotions of my family. I don’t have to fix everything.
This can be used with anyone who works closely with children, or any humans actually. We can stay with the discomfort of someone else’s emotions without becoming those emotions ourselves. We can show empathy and be with our kids, students, friends, and co-workers without being sucked down a river of emotions ourselves. This might help us be less tired, less on a roller coaster, and more able to manage our complex, daily lives.
So, when faced with strong emotions from a child, partner, family member, or work colleague, I ask you: What color is your colander?