Buddhism for Mothers of School Children
Finding Calm in the Chaos of the School Years
By Sarah Napthali
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2009 Sarah Napthali
All rights reserved.
Mothers of schoolchildren can have a tense relationship with time and, in some cases, an obsessive attachment to using it efficiently. One of the greatest injuries one can commit against a mother is to waste her time. Any form of time-wasting feels painful and sees our stress levels soar: traffic, red lights, queues, a stalled computer, even a minute of idle conversation. It is worth being aware of our relationship with time, especially of the costs of being overly attached to using it efficiently. Does our relationship with time mean, for example, we have less time for connection with our children, family and friends? Does it affect our whole capacity to relax and be content, even when on holiday? How does it affect our general mood and attitude to others? Do we create more pressure on ourselves than there needs to be?
The Buddha did not sit down to meditate under the Bodhi tree intending to devise a list of stress-management techniques. He was far more ambitious than that for he was on a quest for nothing less than liberation from suffering. That said, mothers can lead quite stressful lives and practising Buddhist teachings offers a way to attack the stress at its various sources. To lead less stressful lives we need to create conditions of balance in our lifestyle, refusing to become perpetually driven, refusing to sacrifice our lives to the culture of busyness. We explore the topics of balance and the avoidance of extremes in the next chapter, but there are many other offerings from Buddhist teachings to help us reduce stress and this chapter presents a smorgasbord for you to choose from.
The first step in dealing with stress is in acknowledging that, despite all appearances, it comes not from 'out there' but from inside us, in our response. While we can work on changing or controlling our external conditions to some degree, the way to bring about a lasting reduction in stress is by working on how we habitually respond to the events of our lives. We can always put a temporary bandaid over a stress breakout — drink some alcohol, watch telly, pretend it's not happening — or maybe we can look more deeply as a means to dropping our less helpful reactions.
Be with the stress
One aspect I have noticed about my own experience of stress is aversion, a rejection of the stress I feel. I notice the presence of stress and instantly panic: no, you can't be stressed, you must be calm, you must appear cool and laid-back. I might then try to suppress or deny the stress. Or I am harsh on myself: I feel guilty for being stressed, or even angry at myself. Clearly, such a reaction to noticing stress only compounds it.
Yet a simple Buddhist approach is perfectly available to me. I can pause and slowly say, 'Stress is here now,' and leave it right there. I do not need to reject, suppress, deny, ignore or distract. I can simply be with the stress.
The Buddhist approach deals similarly with anger, sadness or restlessness. We can simply say, 'Anger is here now,' or 'Sadness is here now,' or 'Restlessness is here now,' and then be with it. This quality of being requires of us not only compassion but also curiosity. What is anger actually like? What is sadness, restlessness or stress actually like? How do they feel in my body? What does it feel like in my mind? How long does it last? Does it change in intensity? The answer to the last question, in every case, is Yes — of this we can be sure. None of these mind states are permanent, no matter how intense they feel at the time. They are only transitory mind phenomena which we do not need to believe or trust.
Importantly, we can be with our feelings of stress compassionately — that is, with some compassion towards ourselves — rather than adding our usual harsh judgements that try to dictate whether or not we should feel the way we do.
I once met a self-described 'stress prone' mother who told me that when she meditated she would sometimes say to herself, 'Settle, Petal.' While my first reaction was to laugh at her corniness, on reflection I understood the gentleness in her words, so motherly and nurturing. Such a level of compassion for self is worth cultivating, both during meditation and throughout times of stress. I apologised to the mother for laughing.
We try to cultivate curiosity towards our feelings of stress, asking ourselves, 'What is going on here?' Of course, when we are extremely stressed, we find that we don't particularly care what is going on. We might feel so frustrated that we have no energy left to turn inward. Still, we can always reflect back later and ask, 'What was going on then?' Senior Buddhist teacher Christopher Titmuss even goes so far as to say that curiosity is the most important quality of all to bring to Buddhist practice.
Not adding stuff
For many years, Camilla found the morning routine of preparing three children for school extremely stressful. She started paying closer attention to her mind throughout this process and discovered fear and many thoughts:
If we are late then:
I'll feel like an incompetent mother.
I'll be seen by parents and teachers as a hopeless case.
I will let down three teachers and three classes full of children.
I will feel cranky about failing to achieve a simple task that millions of mothers around the world perform daily.
These thoughts also arose for her:
My children don't even care if they are late. I am the only responsible person here.
My children are purposely trying to provoke me.
If we're late once it will happen every day.
This rushing and battling happens every single day!
Camilla was able to ease up about the whole morning routine when she saw clearly how much drama she was adding. Laughing, she wonders why she ever expected her children to care about being late: 'They're kids! Do I really want them to behave like up-tight adults?' As a regular meditator committed to mindfulness — the practice of purposely 'remembering' the present — Camilla is impressively capable of seeing both what is happening as well as the possibility of letting go of any thoughts that lead to suffering and stress. Mornings are still hard work as she teaches her children to take more responsibility for the process, but these days she is no longer so stressed about them.
An invaluable question we can ask ourselves when we feel stressed is, 'What am I adding?' Everything we go through in life is made up of a pure experience plus all the things we tell ourselves about the experience. Buddhists strive to perceive the pure experience, free from biases, drama, clinging and our need for a positive self-image.
In A Path for Parents, mother of two schoolchildren Sara Burns describes how she brings Buddhist teachings to daily motherhood. In this case, to preparing dinner:
The Buddha suggested that two 'arrows' hit us every time something happens to us. The first is the event itself, the second is how we react to it ... One example for me would be walking into the kitchen to cook, feeling tired and wishing someone else was there to produce a delicious meal and look after me ... But on top of this I could unconsciously pile secondary arrows, along the lines of, 'It's always the same,' 'This is never-ending,' 'I'll never have enough sleep,' 'No one cares for me,' 'I can't cope.' These arrows pile on the pain making the situation much worse and taking me even further from my simple desire that my children and I are well fed and happy, from confidence that I can do what is necessary, and from the possibility of a more creative response, such as cooking what I like for once instead of what my children like.
So next time we feel overwhelmed, consider the arrows. What is the first arrow? The event itself? And what are the subsequent arrows, or the thoughts we are adding that only inflate the stress? You will probably also see your beliefs of what oughtto be happening and, if you are spiritually switched on, the possibility of clinging to these beliefs a little more loosely or letting go altogether.
With our tendency to think too much — to analyse, deconstruct, reconstruct and ruminate — we deny ourselves the simplicity of pure experiences. We conduct post-mortems on past conversations, study the deeper meaning of a remark someone made in passing, evaluate our performance at the parent meeting or compulsively plan the future rather than enjoy our day. Why not live more of our lives with an openness to the present moment, instead of being mired in our heads, entangled in thoughts that only 'add' to what actually happens?
REACTING TO DIFFICULTIES
As I mentioned in opening this book, the Buddha taught in his First Noble Truth that there is suffering, stress and unsatisfactoriness, that is, dukkha. So it follows that life can be difficult. Parenting, in particular, is by its very nature difficult. Interestingly, once we accept and deeply understand that life can be difficult, then life, and parenting too, become significantly less difficult. By railing against the difficulty and allowing it to make us angry or anxious every time it arises, we are being unrealistic and multiplying our capacity to suffer. Can we imagine how much more relaxing life would be if we could expect and accept difficulty?
We harbour an irrational attachment to perfection and the availability of instant solutions. Western travellers often note how unflappable the locals seem in Third World countries when a three-hour train delay is announced, when none of the public phones work, or when crossing a road teeming with chaotic traffic. To a large degree, it is a matter of what we are used to, and in the West we believe the chorus from advertisers that we need suffer no discomfort, that there is a quick solution for every trifle. Yet wealth is not the answer to stress: philosophers have long observed that the excessively rich, arguably those in a position to stamp out every irritation, are likely to struggle even more with anger management than others.
When we wage a war against difficulty in all its forms and insist on our right to a smooth-running life, we can only end up frustrated by a losing battle. It sounds too obvious to even articulate but I will never be able to construct a life exactly to my liking. Yet if I look at my frustration throughout a typical day, this is exactly what I seem to have set my sights on. It is not that a Buddhist approach is about being passive in the face of difficulty or giving up. It is a matter of not allowing ourselves to become so emotionally caught up as we go about solving our problems.
Mother of two, Kerry, claims her main reason for trying to practise mindfulness and for squeezing some meditation into her week, is to provide perspective on all that happens throughout her day: 'when my practice is strong and I'm relatively present, it makes such a difference to my reactions. It's easier to accept setbacks and obstacles. I see them as normal and take them in my stride.'
The fact that life is difficult need not stop us from enjoying it. The Buddha is often misquoted as teaching, 'Life is suffering', but this is a grave mistranslation of his First Noble Truth, which is rather: 'There is dukkha, which is to be deeply understood.' A large part of understanding dukkha is seeing how we make most of it up, how we actively create it for ourselves through our habitually unskilful approaches to facing our difficulties. We protest against difficulty and we add what needn't be there.
Why am I so surprised when my day does not run to plan? Why am I so taken aback when people behave in a way I did not expect? I feel disbelief when the washing machine breaks down or when my computer misbehaves. We think we understand the Buddha's apparently simple teaching, that everything is impermanent, yet feel outraged to see this truth unfold in our own lives. So I must ask myself in times of stress, why should I alone be exempt from the universal law of impermanence?
One Zen practice is to meet each difficulty that arises with the gentle, non-judgemental words, 'And this.' So we cultivate a mind where, if milk is spilled at the dinner table, we say quietly to ourselves, 'And this.' We are running late for school: 'And this.' The school secretary phones to tell us our child is sick: 'And this.' We receive a speeding ticket or parking fine: 'And this.' It might sound like a far cry from our habitual way of reacting, yet with awareness of our options in any moment we can choose to calmly say, 'And this.' Such a reaction constitutes a 'letting go' and an end to any unnecessary suffering in our situation. This is what it means to 'wake up', a possibility available to us in any moment. If we feel ourselves incapable of saying, 'And this,' then we have an opportunity to investigate why and see what we are clinging to.
If we can expect that after taking reasonable care there will still be injuries, illnesses, breakages, spills, we feel less disappointed, less thrown by the inevitability of difficulty and imperfection. Any object we lose was impermanent all along, so maybe next time something breaks — a plate, a vase, a window — we could even consider feeling grateful for the time we were able to use it. Such a response is another example of letting go of habitual, unskilful reactions and 'waking up', a way to gain access to the freedom available in any moment.
If over the next few days you have any experiences of 'waking up'— experiences where you let go of any habitual tendency to snap, yell or panic — create a brief pause to examine your feelings.
The Third Noble Truth is: 'Suffering can end and that its end is to be realised.' That is, we need to pay close attention to the times when we have successfully managed to let go of craving or aversion. The deeper our experience of the peace of breaking free, the more motivated we feel to replicate the experience.
Be aware of our 'shoulds'
We tend to cling to fixed ideas about how our days should turn out, about how others should behave, about how we ourselves should behave and how our lives should be. Then when life does not unfold according to our beliefs, we feel stressed, irritable and frustrated. Consider how much stress we have caused for ourselves by some of these beliefs:
My children should take responsibility.
My friends should make an effort to keep in contact.
I should be more patient.
My husband should appreciate me.
It's sunny so I should be outside having a good time with all my friends.
Such aspirations are by no means 'wrong' or 'bad' and we could never stop them from arising in our minds, but the act of clinging to them — believing in them and insisting we fulfil them no matter the price — only creates anger, guilt and frustration with ourselves, our situations and with others.
Our aspirations become the voice of our inner dictator who pushes us around and does not care about our feelings. The overuse of 'should' in our thinking indicates unrealistic expectations and a reluctance to accept what is. We can still identify problems and strive to solve them, but inserting a 'should' is less than gentle, and usually harsh and judgemental. It signals an attachment to a view, and the Buddhist approach is to let go of any rigid clinging to views of how our situations should be. We need to notice our tendency to identify with our views — seeing each of them as 'my view', defining, but also limiting, who I am — and dare to hold our views more loosely.
On one occasion, Camilla gently confronted me for using 'should' too often. She was questioning my tendency to start sentences with, 'As a Buddhist I should be more ...' During our interview I asked her to explain her attitude to the word 'should'.
Everyone knows what they should and shouldn't do yet this is clearly not enough. In my view, obsession with 'should' leads to repression and in some cases extreme and even deviant behaviour. For mothers, it leads to guilt, which in turn creates a need to protect the self from judgement by others and ourselves. I've noticed that when 'should' has been too dominant in my life I'm more likely to criticise others as a way to avoid facing my own shame.
Before coming to Buddhism I was really trapped in that moral world of should and shouldn't, right and wrong. Notions of 'should' rely on my being a 'self' with complete control over my behaviour. Now, with Buddhist teachings, I'm finally seeing how important conditions are, for the Buddha taught that nothing happens in a vacuum: everything is utterly dependent on numerous causes and conditions. All my behaviour comes from preceding conditions, both within and outside me.
So say I'm tired and worn out, a child needs my attention and I lose it. I could say that I should not snap at that child but that would be ignoring the myriad conditions at play leading up to that moment, some of which I can control, many I can't. There are likely to be many to investigate but even if I can see the main ones, then I at least see matters more realistically as part of a series of never-ending processes. And that is more constructive than just feeling ashamed of myself.
So these days I find myself asking, 'What has caused this?' or, 'What preceded that?' or, 'Why is this coming up?' Rather than focusing on the fact that I snapped at the kids I can just apologise, explain that I was tired and move on. Perhaps more importantly, I can then take steps to change the conditions that led to the yelling. For example: going to bed earlier, being more present when I'm with the children, taking more care of an uncomfortable body or watching my thoughts and what I am telling myself. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Buddhism for Mothers of School Children by Sarah Napthali. Copyright © 2009 Sarah Napthali. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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