Hemant Bhanoo left a career as a software engineer at Google to devote more time to mindfulness. He currently balances his role as SIYLI’s VP of product and strategy with fatherhood. Mindfulness, as Hemant says, teaches us “to accept reality as it is right now, not as we wish it to be”—a powerful reminder for all of us, regardless of whether or not we have children. In this blog, he shares what’s changed about his practice since becoming a father, the unexpected benefits that have resulted from those changes and how he models mindfulness for his children.
How did you first learn about mindfulness, and when did you start your own practice?
My first memory of meditation is from when I was 10 or 11 years old. I remember sitting down cross-legged with my mother behind me and her poking me in the back to get me to sit straight.
My mother had many books on Hindu spirituality and meditation and was on her own journey, so it’s something I stepped in and out of while a teenager and in college—in addition to the start-a-band-in-a-friends-garage variety of teenage expression. But it wasn’t until 2007 when I did my first 10-day Vipassana retreat that I arrived at my current mindfulness practice. I was blown away by the depth of experience and insight.
Now that you’re a father, how has your practice changed?
The story of my practice is intertwined with parenthood. Although I was first exposed to Vipassana in 2007, it wasn’t until the beginning of 2011 that I started a daily practice.
My wife was six months pregnant with our first child, and I was convinced that life as I knew it was about to end, which ended up being true. So I pleaded with her to let me attend another Vipassana retreat. After returning, I had about 100 days left before her due date, so I committed to two hours of practice a day until our daughter was born.
Ironically, fatherhood has actually given me plenty of opportunity for practice—and I don’t just mean that as a euphemism for “I get frustrated a lot!”
When my daughter was born—and the same with her little brother more recently—I would meditate while putting her to sleep on my lap. I’d change diapers and then meditate at night while my wife was nursing her to sleep. And I’d meditate again when I was woken up by crying in the middle of the night and unable to sleep once everyone else was peacefully dreaming.
Now that she’s older, I meditate in the kids’ room until they fall asleep at night and again when her brother wakes up at night—bless his heart.
Until she started sleeping through the night, I abandoned the idea of having a rigorous and consistent time for practice. But when that switch flipped, I came back to sitting every morning at 5 before the family woke up.
I did decide that an hour in the evening took too much time away from the precious few moments that my wife and I have alone, so I didn’t try that for more than a few months.
Every few years, I try to arrange things so that my wife has help at home—thanks to my in-laws!—and I get to go on another 10-day retreat.
Right now, I’m patiently waiting for my son to hit that magical sleep-consistently-through-the-night point so I can resume my morning sit.
Were there unexpected benefits that came as a result of changing your your practice to accommodate fatherhood?
Kids demand nothing more than your entire presence. How little and, yet, how hard to do. For all of my attempts at formal practice, the real work is in integrating that into life. I tend to fall back on decades of practiced habits of checking email incessantly, being distracted while playing with them, losing my temper, etc. When they are little, they will let you know the moment your attention wanders. In that sense, they have been my greatest teachers recently.
Are you teaching your children mindfulness? If so, how?
Yes and no. I’m very aware that they are likely to hate and resist anything I try to teach them. And this gift is too precious to suffer that fate.
When my daughter was really young we played this game when she got sad, where I’d try to find the place in her body that was feeling sad. That worked for a few months.
I went to a Wisdom 2.0 three or four years ago where there was a parenting track. And my takeaway from that entire day was that transmitting this stuff to your kids is really straight forward and ridiculously hard—you just have to do the work yourself.
So that’s what I mostly try to do—model the work myself, call myself out when I fail, which happens several times a day, and resolve to try harder.
What’s been really funny is hearing from her teachers. Sometimes they’ll do a mindfulness practice in class, and my daughter will pipe up and talk about how her dad teaches this stuff and explain something about it—which is one of those awesome moments where you might think they aren’t getting any of what you’re modeling, but then you realize something is actually seeping through!
It’s also humbling to remember that I practice to be more like my wife,who’s not a meditator. Often, early in the meditation journey, we develop this ego: I’m better than so-and-so because I meditate. Well, my wife is a constant reminder to me that, while these practices are incredibly powerful, they’re ulitmately just tools. Using them doesn’t say anything about who you are.
Do you have any tips for other people who want to introduce kids to mindfulness?
I recently did a little workshop for the teachers in my daughter’s elementary school, and the first thing I admitted is that I have no clue how best to translate these teachings to kids.That said, I believe the most valuable gift you can give your children is to be a role model for a life worth living.
So I commit myself to being the best version of myself that I can be, strive to be better each day and attempt to leave only positive ripples in my life. Hopefully, my children will take away what they need to know.
What advice could you offer other parents who want to maintain a practice?
After I first did Vipassana, I often felt paralyzed by the idea of doing two hours a day. I felt like if I didn’t do two hours, I might as well do nothing.And then I realized that every moment of mindfulness is a step in the right direction in this long journey that we’re on. So I resolved to do the best I could in the time I had.
Then I realized that I was actually slacking off in the name of doing the best I could. So I had to make a renewed commitment to maintain a regular practice. It was a reminder to strike that balance between self-care and concerted effort.
Again, I don’t feel qualified to give advice because I’m bungling through it myself. But sitting makes me a better husband, a better father, a better person—and is my inspiration to keep at it.
*This is the sixth blog in a series that shares the stories of SIYLI staff and their mindfulness practices. Read the other blogs: “Loving Kindness: Two Years and Going Strong,” “Unexpected Rewards,” “Merging Mindfulness with Technology,” “Cultivating a Mind Where Ideas Find You” and “Use Your Strength for Love.”