Meet Sumi Loundon Kim, Author of Sitting Together
Interviewed by Eleanor Duke
Once we begin to heal our own relationship to ourselves, working with core wounds from our own childhood, then how we parent our children transforms naturally, from the inside out. Our good parenting is an effortless extension of healing the inner parent.
Sumi, what drew you to work with children and families?
My parents, who are both white and who were not raised with meditation and Buddhism, lived in a Zen community in rural New Hampshire in the 1970s and early 80s. I was born into this community and learned how to meditate and follow Zen forms from an early age. In the stages of life that followed, this early spiritual formation guided me through challenging times. In my teens, I continued to practice with the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Over time, I developed strong and nurturing relationships with many of the staff and teachers who live there. When things fell apart with my family in my early adult years, I had a network of older friends who provided a sense of belonging and mentoring when adults in my family could not.
When my own two children (now ages 9 and 11) became preschoolers, I had a deep desire to instill the same values and spiritual skills that had so fortunately been shared with me. I feel that learning a spiritual language of any kind is key to articulating a meaningful and purposeful life, and that the sooner one can learn that, the more fluent, creative, and playful one can be. From my own experience, I knew that spiritual growth needs the soil of community. As such, I started a local meditation group for families here in North Carolina, which in time became a fully-fledged parent and child program called the Buddhist Families of Durham (not very Buddhist, in fact — more of a Buddhist-inflected mindfulness program). In 2010, I scoured the English language world for published curricula, but materials were either outdated, lineage-specific, or culturally-based (since then, there’s been an ever-increasing volume of excellent resources for children, parents, and educators). I began writing my own secular-ish, mindfulness-grounded, Buddhist-informed, values-based lesson plans for this family group, and after four years of doing this nearly every single weekend, I realized I had a body of work that could be organized into a curriculum for others.
Did you ever expect mindfulness to become so mainstream, such an everyday thing?
Definitely not! When I was a kid growing up with meditation, that and everything that tended to come along with it (tofu, organic food, recycling, yoga) was very, very fringe. I’ve been completely fascinated to watch so much of this into the mainstream as I grew up in the 80s and 90s. And yet, in many ways, I think it’s not surprising that mindfulness is appealing to so many from all walks of life. I find that people are desperately thirsty for spiritual nourishment but they don’t want to go or return to institutional, traditional religions. I think that our culture of consumerism, combined now with the stimulating but ultimately ungratifying digital world, leads people to try to find fulfillment in places that cannot provide it. In addition, the breakdown of extended family life, close-knit neighborhoods, and small towns has led so many people to feel dispossessed, uprooted. People try to find community online, but again, that is a two-dimensional experience devoid of human touch, smell, taste, pheromones, serotonin, and all the other components of three-dimensional relationships. So, in addition to longing for spiritual depth, many are searching for belonging. Mindfulness programs and meditation communities speak directly to these needs, providing healing, personal transformation, and friendship.
What do you think is the essential practice of mindful parenting?
The first thing that comes to mind for most of us when we hear “mindful parenting” is that it’s the application of mindfulness in our interactions with our children. This means that we’re listening wholeheartedly, that when we’re at the dinner table we’re not distracted by our devices, and that when we’re with our kids we are fully present, among other practices. I think this mode is useful, but many discover a certain limit on how often and how long they can be mindful — because it’s hard to remember to be mindful! Many of us get frustrated as a result, and then, of course, we get judge-y with ourselves about that “failure.”
The real work and power of mindfulness in connection with parenting has to do with internal mindfulness, not mindfulness of the external alone. This means becoming finely attuned to the thoughts, feelings, judgments, and states of mind that play out as we are in relationship with our children. We might become aware, for example, that we yell at our kids whenever we feel we’ve lost power to control a child or situation (Sharon Salzberg observes that the root of anger is not fear but powerlessness). We become aware of how we are parenting through learned behaviors from our own childhood and from how our parents parented us. We might see that we’ve internalized that parenting. I think it’s easier to practice internal mindfulness because to some extent we’re already aware of what we’re thinking and feeling and we’re naturally invested in understanding our inner world.
One of the most powerful insights I had some years ago was that how I talk to my children and husband is exactly how I talk to myself about myself — and that that inner dialogue was primarily shame-based, severe, and critical. I also saw that my inner voice was an internalization of one of my parent’s voice. I began working with that inner voice in meditation, observing without judgment and with compassion, understanding it, making it conscious, and shifting the inner relationship through metta (lovingkindness) meditation. Once we begin to heal our own relationship to ourselves, working with core wounds from our own childhood, then how we parent our children transforms naturally, from the inside out. Our good parenting is an effortless extension of healing the inner parent.
What kinds of challenges or obstacles do you face in this work?
Families today are intensely busy, and financial and educational pressures add enormous stress — levels unparalleled in previous decades, I suspect. Most parents do not have time or energy to add a substantial meditation practice into their family life. My challenge has been to find ways of meaningfully integrating mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhist practices in very small, easily digestible but nourishing bites.
How do you take care of yourself?
I found that the idea of “taking care of myself” sets up an oppositional division, leading to a constant struggle and thus either resentment (that I had prioritized my children) or guilt (that I had prioritized myself). I had this fascinating moment a few years ago: I had an unusually jam-packed schedule and was feeling completely overwhelmed. At one point, I began thinking about my grandmother, now age 94, and what her life is like. I thought about how no one needs her care, and how her days are very simple, quiet, and fairly isolated. She is perfectly content with this period, I think, but I then imagined myself at her stage of life. I thought, “When I look back at this time in my life, I will see it as full of life, vibrant, engaged. I will treasure that I was needed by two young lives and a partner, that I was integral to their well-being, and them to mine.” This reflection completely changed my perspective on how I was experiencing this family- and professional-intensive time in my life. Dropping a “me vs. everything else” and seeing my life as an integrated whole reframed and thus changed my experience.