Mindful Parenting: A Conversation with Brie Stoner
It was so wonderful to connect with Brie Stoner, a mom to two boys, musician, writer, student, and Program Designer at the Center for Action and Contemplation. I asked her questions about creativity, parenting, mindfulness, religion, and spirituality, and as you’ll see in her answers, she’s absolutely full of wisdom.
After you read the interview, check out this beautiful Easter prayer book she co-authored with Richard Rohr. And check out her beautiful website, too, which is “an exploration of God, sex, and the future of everything.” Sounds awesome, right?
I’ve enjoyed digging into your writing and your music. I’m so impressed by the various ways you’re able to express your creativity. To what extent is the expression of creativity, in any form, necessary for living a full life? How might parents—especially those who wouldn’t describe themselves as creative—find outlets for expressing their creativity?
I suppose for me it begins with how I define creativity. When most people use the adjective creative, they associate it with the arts—or worse, with being “crafty” in Pinterest-worthy or Instagram-able ways.
While I’m certainly a fan of Pin-able moments, the term creative to me is something much larger: it is consonant with humanity itself, whether you craft or not! We are creatures who create: in language, progeny, expression, ingenuity, exploration, curiosity. Human beings are endlessly creating.
This makes sense because this is the very foundation of evolution: evolution is constantly on the move, and beckoning us to move with it. It also makes sense because we’re told that we’re made in the image of God, so creativity is part of our DNA.
God, in the midst of evolution, is whispering to us every step of the way: How will you manifest me today? What should we co-create now? Surprise me!
If this strikes you as an entirely playful view of our relationship to God, you’re not off base. Creativity is playfulness. It is the ability to not overly identify with one idea, thought, premise, or circumstance and get stuck in it. Rather, it is the eternal, dynamic, creative flow that some theologians describe as the nature of the Trinity.
My experience as a musician and in dance only confirms this premise of creativity. To be in the flow, you inevitably have to let go of something: whether it be a mental block, an inner assumption that’s impacting your capacity to learn a choreography, an overused chord progression, or—when collaborating with others—your idea of how a song was going to go, versus how someone is adding their own flavor to it.
I’m sure you’ve felt the difference between getting “stuck” and being in “flow,” right? I know that I certainly have a hard time letting go of what I think needs to happen at any given moment, and nowhere does that show up more than with my kids.
Just yesterday I had come off of a long exhausting full day of work and was doing the single parenting juggle, making dinner (burning it), asking about homework, and trying to wrap up a work call. Needless to say, once the kitchen was clean and my creatures were bathed, I was ready to crash. And then, inevitably came the requests:
…but can we please have 20 mins to play with you, mama?
…and then can we please read a chapter of Harry Potter?
…and oh yeah, can I read the book I brought home from school?
This is why I think creativity is so vital as a practice and as parents.
The moment presents itself daily for us as parents when our kids want us to play, to listen, to pause, to be present, and when we recognize these moments for what they actually are—the moments of mirroring their own preciousness, belonging, beauty—and choose to let go of our own agenda, we are always carried by a tide of love that rises within and meets us more than half way.
Suddenly there is more room, more spaciousness, more playfulness.
For parents interested in passing along the Christian tradition to their kids, which aspects of the faith do you think are important to introduce when kids are young? I know this is a huge question, but how do we inspire and not indoctrinate?
I really appreciate how you framed this question, and I think the answer is in the question. For many of us millennial parents, we are trying to shift out of the static approach of religious thinking via indoctrination that many of us received as kid—and all the exclusionary, binary, and harmful frames that comes from it. So I like how you provided the alternative as “inspiring” our kids. The four ways I try to do this with my kids are through nature, history, literature, and rituals.
Nature: Abraham Joshua Heshel said that the definition of faith is to live in awe and wonder, and I often feel like that is my primary task as a parent—to support the cultivation of awe and wonder in my kids.
I’m a huge fan of the French paleontologist and priest, Teilhard de Chardin, whose theology named matter and spirit as inextricably intertwined. He viewed evolution as deeply consonant with the Christian faith. Because of that, I try to spend as much time as possible exploring the wonder and workings of the natural world with the kids.
Richard Rohr often quotes the Franciscan view of creation as the first bible—God’s first “Word.” So I am doing my best to explore this bible—creation itself—with the kids as a primary text to talk lots of things, including death and resurrection, and the nature of love that builds community, be it in chemistry or ecosystems. I use trees as metaphors for how to be present (sending our roots into the ground so we can spread our branches wide), and I try to cultivate in them a general love and protectiveness for all the vulnerable species on our planet as a way to develop a sense of responsibility.
History: I am fortunate to be co-parenting with my ex-husband who is himself a practicing contemplative. He brings in his love of history and social justice as part of the “inspiration.” Thanks to his initiative of taking the kids to the library every other week, our respective homes will often have a smattering of borrowed books of powerful historical figures like Sojourner Truth, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and more.
In my mind, sharing these stories and examples of people I consider to be saints is a bit more relatable and contextualized than the biblical stories.
Literature: Stories in general are a helpful way of cultivating Christ-consciousness. I don’t try to create the connections for them, or superimpose Christ into the characters. It’s more that I feel that some works of literature expand our imaginations and help cultivate a sense that there is more to this world than meets the eye. They teach the power of belief, and introduce core themes of hope, resiliency, and love. C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, L’angle—and, of course, Rowling—are all part of that expanding canon in my house.
Rituals: While my kids are also getting some “traditional” biblical stories and Christian rituals, I have tried to create some Christian rituals and liturgies with them that emphasize their original goodness, innocence, and belonging.
I think we should feel more permission as parents to make our own family rituals around special days—don’t you think? The kids and I have a tradition of placing caterpillar chrysalises all over the house at the beginning of holy week, washing each others feet, anointing one another, and serving each other communion—and then of course little paper butterflies erupt all over the place on Easter.
As we do these rituals, we sing together, we act out parts, we talk about how hard it is to stand up to systems of power, to change, or to trust when we can’t see the outcome. I have to be honest, I prefer our home holy week rituals to going to any church. It’s my way of framing transformation as a process that is difficult, takes courage, and requires change, but yet may just wind up giving you wings.
In your experience, what’s the relationship between prayer and mindfulness? Would you mind sharing what prayer and/or mindfulness looks like and sounds like in your home?
Ha! I love this question, in part because it immediately conjures up some of my favorite memories with the kids, and also because I believe it’s important to think about prayer as what happens on and “off the cushion” so to speak.
Confession—I haven’t been overly prescriptive with them about prayer. I’ve made my practice kind of an open door to them, but not at all a requirement. My own practice is of centering prayer: a twice daily practice of 20 minutes where you gently release thoughts as an exercise of re-collection into the presence of God. It is also a strengthening of that “letting go” I mentioned earlier—a muscle that requires particular strengthening in me.
I’ve described this to my kids in different ways over the years. Søren (now 9) told me when he was emotionally distraught at age 5, “Mama, I have a cheetah in my heart that is running and running around and I can’t get him to lay down and go to sleep.” So I described my prayer practice as what helped me “get my heart’s cheetah to lay down.”
One time when the kids were a little older they asked me to teach them meditation, which culminated with my 3 year old youngest (Rowan, now 6) stealthily pulling his pants off while his brother and I sat with our eyes clothes and he just quietly wiggled his naked butt gleefully in our faces until the bell rung and he was able to reveal his surprise.
Lately, the boys and I have been playing this ongoing “ninjas” imaginative play, where I’m the master and they’re the students. Between defeating goblins and searching for magical stones, I’ve been totally using this as a way to play-teach mediation, being one with the force/energy, etc.—and they’re totally loving it.
I really don’t insist on them doing any kind of prayer or mindfulness practice, however, I just try to teach them about how my practice is helping me and hope that my modeling it is enough for now.
Sometimes Rowan will come downstairs early and just snuggle me while I’m praying—and sometimes he’ll mimic me and tell me he’s doing his “sit.” One day I thought he was just mimicking me, but when the bell rang on my timer he declared, “Mama, I think God is the net that catches our thoughts so that our hearts can get bigger.”
These are the moments when I realize how little we can actually assess how much is getting through to our kids, and how much further they are than we are!
How has parenting shaped your understanding of spirituality?
In all the ways! There is so much that is hard for us to understand about unmerited love until we experience it in how we feel about our kids. I feel that love is the very fabric of our universe, an evolving story of more connection, more life, and more being. And I feel my kids open me up to that way of seeing all the time.
My experience of becoming a parent has been one of continual wonderment through the eyes and experiences of my kids. I remember once, when Søren was a toddler, he was taking a bath and he cupped his hands and giggled as I poured water into them. “Again, mama, again!” Probably by the third or fourth time I felt myself in a sort of magical trance—just me, my baby, and water as the wonder and joy of life.
Not long after that I discovered the writings of St. Bonaventure, and in them he describes God’s love like the great wheel of water that runs through everything. I remembered that bath moment with Søren and it struck me that the water he was marveling at could be the same water cycled through time—comprised of people’s breath, sweat, oceans, rivers, and animals. I kept picturing Søren’s wonder-filled face, and the simplicity of that experience still makes my heart burst.
Parenting has also put me in touch with my own powerlessness in a way nothing else has. When I hand the kids off to their dad, I walk around my own house completely bereft. Like a phantom limb, I miss their bodies, crave their smells, and feel the ache of their absence—and I’ve simply had to get used to the fact that there is no getting used to them not being here.
My kitchen floor—for whatever reason—is the altar in those kind of grief-filled moments, and there I usually collapse and feel the true weight of my powerlessness. Even so, I think it is a sort of practice for me to recognize they were never “mine” to begin with—and I hope this regular excruciating practice of letting go makes me more present to them when I have them, and more spacious in my love to empower them, when it’s time, to move boldly into the world.
As parents, how can we create conditions in our homes that motivate our kids to live in a way that brings joy to them and others?
I’d like to share the words and advice of one of my teachers, Beverly Lanzetta, on this matter. When a couple students and I gathered with her recently we asked her about how she would describe our ultimate goal as parents. Here’s more or less what she said:
“Our role as parents is to protect, nurture, and hold the sacred center—that divine unique expression that they represent—in our children for them, until they are old enough to hold it for themselves.”
I found these words to be so clear and so true, don’t you? So for me, it’s about how I can set up the conditions for that to happen. I think the “how” is entirely unique to each child and parent and family dynamic, but I’m happy to share what I’m working on.
The first thing that comes to mind for me is about the rhythm and pace of our lives. Having grown up in Spain, I am grateful to have a received a slightly different cultural conditioning around time than what we have here in the States. We are horribly obsessed with productivity and stressed beyond repair.
Early on I worked on an agreement with my ex-husband about the kids only doing one sport a season, and one music class—and really (REALLY) prioritizing meal times, down time, time outside, and imaginative play the rest of the nights and weekends.
How can I hope to protect and nurture that divine center in my kids if I don’t have time to really listen to them, play with them, care about what they care about, and explore the world together? I think our culturally normative frenetic pace and obsession with achievement may just be the number one obstacle to us being truly connected to our kids and each other.
The other thing that comes to mind is that I’ve tried to set up my home in such a way that prioritizes “tools for creating” over “things of consumption.” I borrowed this concept from a book called The Tech-Wise Family. In every main space I’ve tried to leave those things available to them that are constructive and creative—instruments laying about, books everywhere, art supplies in easy grasp, random boxes full of old toilet paper rolls, paper clips, rubber bands. The idea being that the more the “creative tools” are available, the more they get used—and hopefully it begins to create a value for making, creating, playing, exploring.
To link back to the first question, at the core of our kids divine centers are little creators of some kind—and I want to support their own participation in the flow of creativity (as synonymous with their spirituality!) as much as possible.
Last thing is something I learned from my dad, who is the world’s best “papi.” He has a tradition with the kids where he tucks them in and he lays next to them and they have “talk time.” He just listens to whatever they want to unload from their day.
I’m realizing that most of the time what my kids need from me is not special practices, solutions, answers, or explanations—but simply to just be there: holding, listening, caring, and mirroring back to them their own wisdom, beloved-ness, ideas, and revelations.
Most of the time they are the ones teaching me. The divine center in them is already there—I’m just a temporary caretaker, and a very sloppy and unworthy one at that.
On my better nights I lay next to them and just let them tell me whatever they want—and I listen, fighting sleep, rubbing their backs, watching their perfect little mouths making words, asking questions with scrunched up noses, and saying things that make me laugh, smile, cry—all the while marveling at this privilege that empties you out, requires all of you all the time, and breaks your heart wide open.
Brie Stoner is a musician, writer, student, and Program Designer at the Center for Action and Contemplation. Her music, which has been featured in national and international television broadcasting, includes the production and composition of the soundtracks for the NOOMA film series with Rob Bell. Brie has published blogs for The Omega Center, The Contemplative Society, and Northeast Wisdom websites, and contributed to an anthology edited by Ilia Delio, OSF: Personal Transformation and a New Creation: The Spiritual Revolution of Beatrice Bruteau.