Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children
By Becoming a Mindful Parent
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2007 Sarah Napthali
All rights reserved.
where am I?
Driving a carload OF rowdy six-year-olds to soccer practice, I am suddenly struck by how surprised I would have been, back in my twenties, to see myself now. The same feeling sweeps over me as I sit at a barbecue with some fellow parents: to think I didn't even know these people a few years ago ... We have all had moments as mothers when we are struck by where we have suddenly found ourselves. We might smile as we marvel at the new world we now inhabit and how far away it seems from our old world.
Sometimes, we miss our old world, we struggle to surrender our former freedoms, our youth and all those evenings, weekends and holidays to ourselves.
Sometimes we look in our mirrors, look at our messy living rooms or at the clock that reads three in the morning, and ask, 'Where am I?'
A Buddhist would provide a short, simple answer: Here, now.
In the present moment
To be open to the wonder of the present moment, to the here and now, is an opportunity available to us whenever we choose it. Resisting the temptation to rummage around in our past, to daydream or sift through details of the days ahead, we reap the benefits of looking deeply into what is. To live in the present is to see our children for who they are in this moment, to notice our surroundings, and to listen attentively to others. It means being aware of what we are saying as we are saying it, of what we are feeling as we are feeling it, and tuning into what each of our senses is perceiving. The Buddha referred to the practice of living in the moment as 'a better way to live'. In his words:
Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
In the very here and now,
The practitioner dwells
In stability and freedom.
We must be diligent today.
To wait until tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
By the time we have children, many of us have become so achievement-oriented, so goal-driven, so addicted to busyness that we lose our ability to relax along with our capacity to notice what is going on in the now. One of the greatest gifts children bring is the way they guide, if not force, our attention back home to the present. Young children live in the present moment, oblivious to the past, unconcerned about the future. They see objects, people and events with fresh eyes, and with wonder. If we choose to, we can take on their viewpoint and see our surroundings as if for the first time. Once jaded, world-weary parents can find themselves lying in their backyards fascinated at the proceedings of an ant colony. If we let them, children can teach us the value of time with no objectives, a skilful kind of laziness free from the need for productivity.
In the book Dharma Family Treasures: Sharing Mindfulness with Children, Buddhist mother Barbara Gates writes about how our children can transform the quality of our awareness:
Before I became a mother I'd always been a dreamer, unaware of much that surrounded me. I would leave the refrigerator door open, crash into people in the market, step in dog messes and jay-walk between cars on busy streets. And I'd felt tied to the unrecognised forces driving me from within to burst without consideration into other people's lives.
Now the tingling sweetness of Caitlin inspires me to cultivate awareness. I know how she thrives when she's truly heard and seen. I know her vulnerability to life's jangling knocks and jolts. And I know her mortality. So, when I cook her meals, when I answer her questions, or cross the street holding her hand, awareness begins to permeate my life.
Part of practising awareness of the moment is noticing the way we judge or evaluate whatever we perceive. We tend to rate everything as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Anybody who has watched their thoughts for any amount of time knows that so many of them carry a judgement about the desirability of the subject of our attention. With Buddhist awareness we experiment with noticing these judgements without buying into them, without becoming emotionally caught up in them. This means noticing, and letting go of, our usual opinions, longings and prejudices in favour of clearly seeing what is.
Of course, it takes practice to dispense with these habits of a lifetime and ideally we practise non-judgemental awareness in meditation. The more we practise nonjudgemental awareness, the more we cultivate equanimity — a calm mind that is not at the mercy of extreme reactions.
Kim, mother of two girls, who I introduced earlier, speaks of carrying the benefits of non-judgemental awareness into her daily life, and finds similarities between her practice of Zazen, the Zen word for meditation, and the act of going for a walk.
I used to over-analyse my feelings around the simple act of exercise: do I feel like doing it? Am I bored? Am I too tired? But now I see my daily walks as part of my Zen practice. I don't worry about whether I want to do it or not. I just assume the 'posture'. As with Zazen, once I'm on my cushion, with my back straight, and my hands in place ... I'm there. It is so beautifully simple and devoid of analysis.
The less I ask 'Am I enjoying this? Am I having fun?' the better. It's not that I'm against enjoying my walk, but in this culture of pleasure and convenience we constantly evaluate our situations and, more often than not, end up dissatisfied.
On the days that I reject practising presence, I need to ask myself a question. If I do not practise awareness of the present moment, then what am I practising instead and is it helpful? I might find myself practising resentment about the amount of housework. I might find myself entangled in angry, repetitive thoughts. Or maybe I'll practise daydreaming and fantasising which, if done to excess, is a form of escapism and rejection of my life as it is now.
If I avoid being present, I might find myself becoming obsessed with my productivity. Life becomes grim-faced as I surrender to being perpetually busy, to always achieving. This is the culture of our time and can become an addictive state of mind. When I find myself on this bandwagon I ask — is this making me happy? More often, I feel stressed. On one occasion I received a wake-up call from a newspaper article in Melbourne's The Age entitled 'Surrendering to the simple joys of motherhood'. Writer Joanna Murray-Smith reminded me of another way to be:
Perhaps the modern mother needs not only a fairer deal, but help in relinquishing the temperament of obsessive productivity. Rather than managing our children, we need to relax into their company, take pleasure from the tiny transactions of baby-days, the pleasures of play. We seem to have lost a capacity for tenderness and time-wasting, obsessed with doing more than feeling, distracted by a society that measures purpose in little boxes and success by how quickly they can be ticked off. Has the modern mother lost the ability to find in her mothering the humour, the adventuring, the mystery of that experience?
I cut out that paragraph and stuck it on my fridge, underlining the words humour, adventuring and mystery.
Alive in every moment
As many parents do, I find myself breaking my life into compartments. Housework is one compartment, time with the children another, and then there's 'my time'. I notice a tendency to count down to 'my time' as the time when I please myself. Even when 'my time' finally arrives, I can find myself in a dither over how to spend it. I can even grow quite stressed at how I will fit everything into this invariably small window of time. On a good day, I wake up to see that dividing my life into sections is no recipe for happiness. After all, 'my time' is such a minuscule proportion of a typical day.
A Buddhist outlook helps me to embrace all the hours in my day as part of my life. Every moment is life. Every moment offers the potential to wake up. Spending such a large proportion of our week on housework and errands, it is important to our mental health that we adopt a skilful state of mind. If we practise Buddhist mindfulness — living with awareness of what we are doing as we are doing it — throughout our day, then no moment is too small for our attention. As Kim wrote in her journal:
At times my inclination is to see the day like a big checklist hoping to get to those parts that I 'enjoy', like my walks or my art. But then I am only really living for an hour a day! With mindfulness practice I am so much more alive, even during the so-called tedious times.
Subhana awakened to the possibility of mindful living after spending time with renowned Zen teacher Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. Sixteen years ago, Subhana organised his national tour of Australia which included a few days in the spiritual community where she lived in northern New South Wales. Subhana recalls:
His whole emphasis is on mindfulness practice in daily life and he opened my mind to the potential to be mindful in every moment in a way that none of my teachers before him had. Wherever he walked it was as if he was in his monastery doing walking meditation. He never rushed. There was no moment that was not his practice. Even when he was about to enter a room, we all knew it was him because the door-handle would turn so slowly.
His effect on children was mind-boggling. We had about eighteen children living in the community then, aged from four to ten, and he insisted on holding the retreat in their midst. I was very nervous about whether eighteen children would behave for him but he ensured they all had meditation cushions so that they could sit for five or ten minutes. And they did!
I remember an amazing scene when he was doing his walking meditation in the fields. Wearing one of those sloping Chinese hats, and flowing robes, he would slowly walk with his arms slanting outwards and all these children would hold onto his arms or parts of his robes. Occasionally he would stop to examine a flower and the children would too. He would walk along the road and the children would actually do half an hour of walking meditation. They were absolutely mesmerised by his presence. The children — and especially the adults watching from a distance — were just in awe of this man.
Subhana's account of Thich Nhat Hanh's effect on children suggests that if we were more grounded in the present moment, it might have a calming influence on our sons and daughters.
In a new place
As mothers we are privileged to be with our toddlers when they experience their first encounters with common objects like mirrors, shadows, puddles, bugs or autumn leaves. If we pay attention, our children reconnect us to these simple wonders of everyday life. The tiniest sound could stop two-year-old Alex in his tracks. 'What's that?' he would ask rooted to the spot, mouth slightly open with anticipation. Nothing else existed for him, his attention was fully consumed. I was intrigued by how long he spent examining a spider in its web. It lured me to scrutinise along with him as I tried to see with his eyes.
Two-year-old Alex bounced on a trampoline smiling from ear to ear shouting, 'Fun. Fun. Mum too.' Up, down, up, down — how could that be fun? I clambered onto the trampoline, started jumping and realised I could only enjoy it by rediscovering feelings from childhood: feelings of freedom and exuberance that adults rarely touch. Later, I reconnected with these same feelings on the swing at the park, when I climbed a tree or played hide and seek.
Alex taught me to adopt what Zen Buddhists call a 'Beginner's Mind' where we come to each new experience as if for the first time rather than with all our old prejudices. A toddler has Beginner's Mind by default because he is a beginner at life. These small people challenge us to take a look at familiar objects and situations as though we had never seen them before.
One Zen practice that cultivates a Beginner's Mind, or a 'spirit of enquiry', is to repeat to ourselves throughout our daily tasks the question, 'What is this?' Two-year-old Alex reminded me of this teaching by asking me 'What's that?' — sometimes twenty or thirty times a day. I see ordinary objects and phenomena afresh if I can adopt his viewpoint. Alex is a spiritual teacher, my own resident Zen Master.
This oft-repeated Zen tale serves as a call to embrace a Beginner's Mind:
A great scholar visited a famous Zen master. While the master served tea, the scholar talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, but, rather than stopping, continued to pour. The scholar watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer keep silent. 'It's overflowing! No more can go in!' the scholar cried. 'You are like this cup,' the master replied. 'How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?'
In Zen Buddhism, wisdom is more about questions than answers. More about openness than certainty. About mystery and wondering rather than knowing. Wisdom is an acknowledgement of not-knowing, an ability to meet each new situation free from bias or any sense of our own expertise. With this definition of wisdom, parenthood clearly made writer John Wilmot wiser, for he said: 'Before I got married, I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.'
One day I sat next to Alex for his very first train trip through the suburbs. He was all attention as the scenery whizzed past and passengers came and went — so much to take in. He was experiencing a new world, where he could hurtle through the landscape in a huge box connected to other boxes. I was surprised that, for once, he sat still: he was in awe. On our return journey, errands done, Alex turned his focus to the faces in our carriage. He examined each one and when he had eye contact he smiled, inducing the passenger to smile back. I enjoyed our train trip so much — adopting his point of view — that we caught the train again the following week. Just for something to do.
Alex, just turned four, makes me read Peter Pan to him every day. For the first few weeks I see the task as something I do for him — there is certainly nothing in it for me. As he continues to request this book each day, I fill with dread when he hands it to me and admonish myself that I keep forgetting to hide it. But then I change my mind. Again, Alex is a Zen Master in disguise trying to teach me the value of a Beginner's Mind. For him, each reading is as if for the first time. He experiences all his feelings anew on each visit.
Rather than think my own thoughts as I read, I decide to bring my attention back to the story and try to understand his devotion. And now I can see clearly: Imagine yourself as a child, flying out your bedroom window with a fun-loving guy who has a fairy for a pet. They fly to a faraway land ... There were fairies living in the treetops. There were mermaids swimming in a lagoon. There were real red Indians in a village on a cliff. There were woods full of wild animals. Best of all, there was a shipful of pirates — wicked ones, with a specially wicked leader, Captain Hook.
Peter Pan lives with the Lost Boys in an underground house — and the story has not even begun. I have started enjoying our Peter Pan time, and I read it with more expression, now that I can see with the eyes of a four-year-old.
Beginner's Mind can make even the most mundane experiences seem miraculous. Driving home alone from Alex's pre-school this morning, I imagined that this was my first experience of driving a car. How strange and awe-inspiring it was. Sitting in a comfortable armchair, and with only slight pressure from my foot on the accelerator, I careen through space, covering distances in one day that pre-automobile peoples would not cover in a lifetime. I imagine how thrilling this would be if I was one of my ancestors doing this for the first time. I am living their wildest imaginings, their science fiction. In my car my body flies through space, taking corners on a whim and with only the slightest movement from my arms. I feel alive in every moment for it is my turn on this fun ride.
Not where you thought you were
Our thoughts, our inner talk, determine the nature of the place we find ourselves in any given moment. Our thoughts can limit us, torment us, trick us and run our lives if we let them. They certainly provide effective fuel for a bad mood. Whether we are dealing with painful memories or fears for the future, we can short-circuit negative thoughts simply by choosing another place for our attention. It is often easier than we assume, to simply change what we pay attention to. How much attention we give to any given topic is our choice. Throughout her husband's health crisis, for example, Kim observed:
I have noticed how the moment always gives us many choices. For example, I could dwell in my own depression or I could play with my kids. I could worry about something, or I could focus on the beauty of the grey sky. I could sit here replaying stuff in my mind that I know makes me feel bad, or I could take the kids to their favourite restaurant for a fun dinner. Up until yesterday, I chose to dwell on the more negative side of the moment. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children by Becoming a Mindful Parent. Copyright © 2007 Sarah Napthali. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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