Taking it Slow: An Interview with Kerry Horton Bennassar
Kerry Horton Bennassar is a painter and artist living in Topanga Canyon, California with her husband and two young boys. Kerry discovered the mindfulness practice before she was married and attends retreats a couple times a year. Kerry began a small family Sangha at their home that meets once a month for children to practice ringing the bell, sitting mindfully for a short time, singing some happy songs and sharing a meal in mindfulness.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Kerry for the past eight years and am always stunned by her unwavering patience and compassion for others, especially children who she honors and sees through their moods, behaviors and styles to the core of who they are. When describing Kerry these words come to mind: fun, clever, articulate, loving, selfless, generous, kind, compassionate, creative, strong and steadfast. She shares the dharma with everyone she meets. —Leslie
DM: To become a mother is to enter a dharma door. What did you experience after passing through the door of motherhood? What changes did it bring?
KB: I believe having a newborn is the most awe-inspiring lesson in patience you can imagine. A new baby is the best teacher imaginable for every day practice. Patience, kindness, compassion, and slowing down are some of the most important things when dealing with a new human being. As my children reach different stages in their lives I find myself staying slow and compassionate. This is my practice.
DM: At what point along your parenting journey did you begin practicing mindfulness and meditation?
KB: I was so grateful to have had this practice before I found my husband, Javier, and had a family. To have a stable relationship with Javier before we brought children into the world was an important foundation for having a family. But I also think that having a practice means nothing unless it is put into actual every day use in dealing with children and a partner. We can have a bookshelf full of books about Buddhism or compassionate parenting but if we’re not actually living the life it’s not really very useful. Of course, when I do stumble as I’m parenting, I love to open a book from my bookshelves to a random page and read a bit.
DM: How do you weave mindfulness into your day with your boys?
KB: The main thing I do is just slow down. A very simple thing we do in our family is to take things slow. We try to schedule just enough things, but not too many things in our life. Our family has chosen to follow the path of life learning, which is similar to homeschooling, but we are not “doing school at home” so I prefer the term life learning. We slow down by not having to rush to get to school at a certain time, which, when Nico was in preschool caused a lot of stress. “Where are your shoes? “Where is your jacket? Getting breakfast, getting out the door. We belonged to a parent run co-op preschool and thank goodness they had playtime in the garden before class started. I didn’t feel it was right to get angry and cranky with children because if I was not prepared to leave on time. So I would mindfully hurry to get to preschool! Javier and I realized when we discovered life learning that it would work for our family. We are so grateful to have discovered this way of life. I realize that it may not be the preferred path for some families, and we do live on one income, but simplifying life allows us to live with less income.
DM: How has this changed as they’ve grown older, compared to when they were small?
KB: We still have a slow life and I try to leave time to get where we need to go so we’re not rushing to an appointment or a class. I remember one time when I left the kids with Javier and I was rushing to get to a yoga class on time. It was the strangest feeling and I laughed because it was an oxymoron to be mindfully speeding. I make a very conscious effort to drive mindfully, but not fast.
DM: Let’s talk about self-care. It’s so important for mothers to make time to care for themselves. We spend so much energy caring for our families and if we aren’t careful we can experience significant burnout and exhaustion which in turn affects our energy-levels, our health, our moods, our hormones, our peace of mind and the energy of everyone in our household. What do you do to care for yourself? And how does self-care fit into the larger context of family?
KB: My number one secret to nurture self-care is to go to bed at a reasonable time. This simple act of giving myself enough sleep helps me to be patient and kind with my family. There are so many things on the Internet, movies and even books to read late into the night, but I realize on those occasions that I have stayed up late that I’m just not so present, relaxed and nourished the next day. So sleep is very important.
DM: Do you have a regular mediation practice that fuels you as a woman and mother?
KB: It is very important for me to sit in the morning and also to enjoy my tea before my boys wake up. I like to feel centered and whole to start the day. I also attend a Sangha on Saturday mornings.
DM: Do you have a parenting mantra?
KB: “Take it slow.” Javier and I call it “Caribbean parenting.” Sometimes we will hum a Bob Marley song so the other parent can hear it when they are getting frustrated or suffering a bit when things are getting hairy, as parenting does!
DM: Can you share a specific story about your children and how they’ve embodied the mindfulness practice that you’re modeling?
KB: I realize how much this practice has influenced my children in such a beautiful way. One time some children at a park were not being kind to some worms that had come up to the surface after the rain and Nico and Jaz came to me so upset that the boys were hurting the worms. I asked them, “What did you do?” They said they told the boys not to hurt them, that the worms have brothers and sisters and they’re important for the ecosystem. One boy told them, “Well, there are thousands and thousands of them so who cares?” My boys were feeling really sad and needed support from me. I slowly walked over to the group and squatted down with them and we talked to them a little bit about the worms and how important they are for our soil and the environment. Jaz kept coming up with different facts about how we are all part of Mother Earth.
Another time my youngest boy at age seven grabbed a meditation cushion and yelled, “I’m so mad I’m going to meditate! He opened the door and slammed it and sat outside to meditate. I peeked through the window to see him sitting outside. I asked him later, “How was that?” He said that he liked listening to the birds and that he liked to “do his Buddhism outside.” This hasn’t happened since that one occasion, but I realize how amazing it is that he could use that tool as a way to take some time and sit and listen to nature.
DM: How does your family practice mindfulness together?
KB: One thing that helps us is that we practice flower watering. We each have a flower in a glass or a candle and the person takes it and places it in front of themselves and they get to say one specific thing that each person in our family did for them this week that made their life more beautiful. I just want to add that it doesn’t always go smoothly! I can think of a few occasions when flower watering turned into an argument because one person wanted to thank me for my delicious blueberry pancakes that I make for them, and the other kid said, “I was going to say that! You can’t say that!” Or other arguments happen because one boy wants to go first and the other wants the vase with the flower or the candle which is our “Talking Stick”. We take a lot of time to do this.
We also try to hold family meetings and I take notes so the children feel that they are really heard. Just the act of feeling heard eases a lot of tensions or hurt feelings in our family. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about untying knots before they become knots on top of knots which are very challenging to untie.
The boys see Javier and I untying knots in front of them which is a wonderful lesson because there can be conflict sometimes in a relationship with someone you love. It’s important for the boys to see that there is conflict but then the struggle can be resolved. People can make up and hug even if they are having a challenging time. Family meetings, too, can easily dissolve into an argument between the kids so each person holds the talking stick so as not to interrupt each other and everyone has time to be truly heard.
DM: Thank you for sharing your beautiful practice with us, Kerry. I really love how you integrate mindfulness into the fabric of your family tapestry.