Zen mom, overextended mom

Central Tibet, 17th Century, Rubin Museum of Art

This picture on my home altar because it is not only beautiful but because I feel very connected to the imagery.  Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, is my favorite bodhisattva insofar as one can have a favorite bodhisattva.  I guess if I was Catholic, and she was too, she would be my patron saint.  Her name means “The Lord Who Looks in Every Direction”.  In Japan she is known as Kannon which means Watchful Listening, or “The One Who Sees and Hears All”.

From the Lotus Sutra:

Living beings are beset with hardships,
And oppressed by limitless sufferings.
The power of Kannon’s wondrous wisdom
Can rescue the world from suffering.

Undefiled pure light,
The sun of wisdom that breaks through the darkness
Is able to quell calamities of wind and fire
As it shines on all worlds.

Compassionate substance: the thunder of precepts.
Kind intent: a wondrous great cloud.
He rains down sweet dew and Dharma rain,
Which extinguish the flames of affliction.

I love the idea of rescuing the world from suffering simply by offering compassion.

But here’s the thing.  When I first sat with this image, I didn’t see it.  For a long time, I saw something more like this:

No matter what I did, it wasn’t enough.  If I had 1,000 arms I should have had 1,001.  Either I was saving the world single-handedly or I was failing.  The harder I worked, the more I began to feel like this:

(You don’t see me in the picture; I’m the half dead animal on the side of the road.)

I became exhausted, resentful, overwhelmed.  In my efforts to embody Infinite Compassion, I was pushing it away.

But as I sat with Avalokiteshvara, I noticed that she isn’t running around, frazzled, putting out fires.  She isn’t shape-shifting, trying to be all things to all people.  She is seated, centered, focused and wise.

She is simply, beautifully, herself.

John Daido Loori says,

One of the characteristics of Avalokiteshvara is that she manifests herself in accord with the circumstances. So she always presents herself in a form that’s appropriate to what’s going on. In the bowery, she manifests as a bum. Tonight, in barrooms across the country, she’ll manifest as a drunk. Or as a motorist on the highway, or as a fireman, or a physician. Always responding in accord with the circumstances, in a form appropriate to the circumstances.

In other words, I am just one of Avalokiteshvara’s arms.  I am in a particular place at a particular time, and my job is to realize my Buddha nature within the context of my particular form: Suburban(ish) Middle-Class Mom.  My manifestation is just as valuable as any other.

My work is not to do it all, but simply to do what is in front of me, right here, right now.

Over time, I began to notice something else.  The bodhisattva is not surrounded by tired, poor, tempest-tossed huddled masses.  She is surrounded by Buddhas.  Her work is not only, or not necessarily, about serving the wretched refuse.  Her work is about living from her own Buddha nature and recognizing the Buddha in everyone else.

Despite slight variations, all the Buddhas are basically the same.

There is not one that is more deserving of, or in need of, compassion.  Each person’s needs look different, and they are all equally valid.  I am not failing to manifest compassion because I sit in a warm home with a full stomach while I deal with first-world problems like car repairs and whether Harry should go to preschool or not.

The problems that my peers and I face may be less critical than those of others, but they are no less valid.  Perhaps our disconnection from community and spirituality leaves us more in the need of Infinite Compassion.  Perhaps it is in touching the Buddha nature in each other that we will begin to responsibly use the power we have to affect the lives of others and the health of our entire planet.  Perhaps I’m exactly where I am supposed to be.

On compromise

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

As part of my Certificate in Nonviolent Studies, I’ve been studying the conflicts going on in places like Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.  In almost every radio and podcast interview I’ve heard, the following question is asked:

What will it take for the two sides to reach a compromise?

I have studied the Ukraine conflict most closely, so I’ll use that as an example.  Naturally these things are always much more complicated than what you hear on the news, but in a nutshell the problem is this: ethnic Ukranians want to become more closely allied with the EU, while ethnic Russians living in Ukraine want to maintain close ties with the Kremlin.

Within this context, what would a “settlement of differences by mutual concessions” look like?   Either you are of Ukranian heritage or you are ethnically Russian.  Either you are from the city in the west or from the countryside in the east.  Either you think the economic future of Ukraine lies with the EU or you think security will come from Russia.  These things are mutually exclusive and stable.  Concessions may lead to a cease-fire, but they are unlikely to lead to a decrease in hostility.

As long as we frame this issue in such either-or terms, compromise seems impossible.  But maybe it’s all about perspective.  Looked at in a different way, maybe the chasm isn’t quite so wide.

Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing.  All Ukranians, whatever their ethnic heritage, want economic security, freedom and self-determination.  While they may have differing opinions as to how this can best be accomplished, the dispute is in the details.

What is true writ large on the global stage is also true in the microcosm of our personal relationships.  We all want the same thing out of life.  We want to feel cherished, important, worthwhile, safe, happy.

While we may choose to employ vastly different strategies for getting these needs met and we may not understand the choices other people make, we ultimately aren’t so different.

I have this conversation with my 8-year-old daughter all the time.  There is one girl at school who really rubs her the wrong way.  This girl always wants to be the center of attention, always has to one-up the other children, always has to be an expert on everything.  While I understand why Bess finds this annoying, and I don’t expect them to be BFFs, my daughter has to learn how to get along with all kinds of people.

So we talk about it.  We discuss how, just like Bess, just like all of us, this girl wants to feel special and loved.  Obviously she has decided or learned that the way to get her emotional needs met is to seek attention and approval from others by any means necessary.  We may not like or understand the behavior, but certainly we can understand the motivation.  That’s not to say that one must be willing to be a doormat.  If this girl is doing things that are hurtful or dishonest then it is okay, even necessary, to speak up.  But even though she is frustrating, doesn’t she also deserve our compassion?

And after having had this conversation eleventy thousand times, gradually, my daughter is gaining the skills she needs to compassionately deal with difficult people while demanding respect from them.

The world isn’t made up of right and wrong, me and you.  As long as we think it is, we will continue to have all sorts of unresolvable conflicts.

But when we see that the world is actually made up of 7 billion other people who are just like me these conflicts become manageable and compromise becomes truly possible.  Maybe all those people don’t look, talk, act, eat, or worship like me, but they are just like me in the ways that count

The New Story

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

I have had the great good fortune to be accepted into the Metta Center’s Nonviolence Studies Pilot Program – yay!  Our first assignment was to consider the paradigm shift that be required if we are to achieve a nonviolent society and to write our own New Story.  Here is mine:

My 90-year-old grandmother recently called to discuss a documentary she had seen on PBS.  “They said that all the corn is cross-contaminated with corn from other fields, so there’s no point in spending all that extra money on organic food.”

I launched an explanation of GMOs, pesticides, sustainable farming, farm workers’ rights, animal welfare, human health, and the fact that it takes more calories to ship a strawberry from Mexico to New Jersey than the strawberry is worth.  I may as well have changed the subject to the weather (sans mention of global climate change).

I can hardly blame her for her point of view.  She grew up on a farm where she pumped water from a well and carried it in a bucket.  She washed, hung and ironed the laundry for her family of nine by hand.  Every meal was prepared “from scratch” without microwaves, cold food storage, an electric or gas oven, or even Hamburger Helper.

I often say that she is from the Better Living Through Science Generation.  The washing machine meant that laundry took a couple of hours instead of a couple of days.  New cleaning products meant less time spent on her hands and knees scrubbing floors and bathtubs.  Medical advances all but eliminated diseases like smallpox and polio.  Her telephone and medical alert system allow her to continue living independently.  She is by no means “rich” but she lives a life of comfort she never could have imagined as a girl.

She simply cannot fathom why I would create unnecessary work for myself by line-drying my clothes or canning my own pickles.

To my grandmother, who watched her husband, brothers, and sons go off to war and who now lives in a middle-class suburb of New York City, it looks like violence is steep declining.  The women’s rights and civil rights movements have been successful.  The world is full of democracy and no one need fear a midnight knock from the KGB or the SS.  Human rights and international aid organizations build more wells and medical clinics every day

These points are hard to argue, yet they gloss over a great deal of complexity.  While she, like many others, is surrounded by items manufactured halfway across the globe, she has very little knowledge of the lives of people a few miles away in cities like Newark or Camden, never mind the people in China who made her slippers.

Violence is largely more subtle now, making invisible unless you go looking for it.

There may be laws to protect people from discrimination, but centuries of systemic, habitual oppression cannot be easily cast off in the oppressed or the oppressors.  The Iron Curtain may have fallen but people from former Soviet-Bloc countries who are ill-equipped to compete in the global marketplace now live in poverty.  The period of European colonialism has ended, but it has been replaced by neocolonialism which simply uses money instead of guns to wield power.  Americans reap the benefits of outrageously expensive medications while children are orphaned by AIDS or die of diseases that cost pennies to treat.

Violence against humans is just the tip of the iceberg.  Sitting at the zenith of the Industrial Age that has given us washing machines and cell phones, we can see the exorbitant toll it has taken on the natural systems that maintain us.  We use increasingly destructive means to extract resources,  diminish biodiversity daily, manipulate our food systems with chemicals and genetic modifications, all in the name of turning a profit but without a clue as to the effects on our health in the present or our ability to exist into the future.

Lest I leave the impression that my grandmother is an enemy of nonviolence, I will share my youngest uncle’s favorite story about her.  When he was maybe six years old, she took him to visit her sister in Paterson, which was once a thriving industrial city but had begun to descend into urban decay.  They stopped for ice cream on their way home, and while they sat at the counter an African-American man came in and sat a few seats away.  My uncle was nervous and asked if they could leave; in response she sat next to the man and started chatting about his children, where he lived, what he did for a living, and what he liked to do with his spare time.  She never lectured about racism or equality.

She simply respected the dignity of each human being she met.

I see myself as part of a growing movement towards sustainability and harmony, and my grandmother played a huge part in starting me on this path.  My hope is that I will find the grace to live the message of peace and love that is in my heart to show my own children – indeed, everyone I meet – that we have a choice.  We can make world into a place of beauty and nonviolence.

What is the legacy you hope to leave?  What stories about you would you want your grandchildren to tell?

The future of the world passes through the family

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

The future of the world…passes through the family. ~ Pope John Paul II

Actually the full quote is, “The future of the world and the church passes through the family.” Though I’m not concerned with the future of the church (all due respect to those who are), the recognition that the future is determined by what goes on in our homes is extremely compelling.

Compelling, and a little intimidating.

I chose parenthood and entered into it with the benefit of personal, marital and financial stability. I actively prepared for it and continue to make it my priority. Still, I feel unequal to the task of nurturing two future changemakers. I make mistakes every day. I lose my temper and raise my voice. I work more than I should, and spend less time with my kids than they deserve. I don’t feed them enough fruits and veggies, and sometimes we have pizza three times in a week.

But at least I have a road map when it comes to my own family; I have an idea of what I want to accomplish. My obligation to my own family is clear to the extent that my goals are clear. What is significantly less clear to me is my obligation to the community at large. It is not my responsibility – indeed, not my right – to tell others how to live. Yet I have a deep conviction that our world would be a much better place if people developed a more peaceful approach to life, and I want to facilitate that shift.

If I want to see non-violence in the world, how can I support other families as well as my own?

I work hard to practice non-violence as I understand it. I encourage my own children to do the same. But we are just one small family, and while our family is important I want to do more.

On my home altar, I have the above message from Thich Nhat Hanh: Peace in oneself, peace in the world. On the one surface it seems obvious, hardly worth stating even, that peace on a large scale begins with individual people making individual choices that support peace. But this is one of those teachings that has layers of meaning that are peeled away the more you sit with it. Taken to a deeper level, peace is more than the absence of overt violence, and cultivating a peaceful heart has more subtle and more profound effect than simply refraining from causing obvious injury to another.

Recently I was listening to a lecture by MIchael Nagler on non-violence and mirror neurons. Neuroscientists have found that we have neurons that behave the same way when we do something as when we watch someone else do it, which helps explain why we feel nervous when someone checks out the strange noise in a horror movie and we cry when we see a Kleenex commercial.

I understand this as an anatomical or physiological underpinning of “vibes”. When I am around someone who is stressed out, I feel stressed. Spending time around someone who is angry leaves me feeling a bit angry myself. But when I am with someone who is peaceful and centered, I take a bit of that with me. My own state of mind is impacted by the people around me.

But it works the other way, too: we impact the states of mind of others. In this way, we can promote peace with everyone we meet without saying a word. If we walk in the world with peace in our hearts and minds, others people’s mirror neurons will reflect that and they will feel a bit more peaceful than they otherwise would have. The more we elevate the level of peace in ourselves, the more it is elevated in the people around us, and around them, and around the world.

How will you boost the peace factor in the world today?

The $64,000 Question of Attachment Parenting

courtesy of flickr user kenleyneufeld

courtesy of flickr user kenleyneufeld

I talk about Attachment Parenting a lot. I lead an API support group, and I’ve given talks to numbers of moms’ groups locally and internationally.

I’ve noticed that when I give my talks, someone pretty much always asks some permutation of this question: “I hear what you are saying, I’ve read lots of books, and I love the idea of AP. But still when my buttons are pushed, I can’t help but react out of habit by [yelling, or guilting, or punishing, or whatever]. It is so frustrating! How do you DO it? Tell me how to BE an Attachment Parent!”

I have come to think of this as the $64,000 Question of Attachment Parenting.

This has been my answer in the past:

  1. Really, you never DO it in the sense that you never achieve perfection. Or at least I haven’t. Give yourself some love because the fact that you are working to create a home environment that is in line with your values of mutual respect and love is really awesome.
  2. AP is not a set of techniques but a way of living and interacting with other people in general and our children in particular. (I always feel like a loser when I give this answer. People want to know what they should do and I’m not telling them! They came for answers, and I’m giving them nothing!) Playful parenting and talking so our kids will listen and all the rest are tools we keep in our toolbox and take out when we think they will help us connect with our kids. They are ideas we can use to help us connect from moment to moment. They are not “Attachment Parenting”.
  3. It takes time. For awhile, you will learn about AP and sill continue to react out of habit by yelling or punishing or whatever. Then one day you’ll be in the middle of a habitual reaction, and you’ll stop yourself. Finally one day, your child will do something that would normally set you off and you’ll do something calm and connected and loving and brilliant and the seed of a new habit will be planted and it will feel great. (And then five minutes later you’ll do something out of habit again and realize how much work you still have in front of you.)

As I’ve gone on my own journey – through life, through marriage, through parenting, and through Attachment Parenting – I’ve come to realize that all this can be summed up in one word:

MINDFULNESS

Attachment Parenting, and non-violent living, is a commitment to be mindful of our own habits and triggers, of our child’s (and spouse’s, and friends’, and the guy standing behind us in line at the grocery store’s) habits and triggers, and of how those two interact. It is a parenting/life philosophy that demands of us the willingness and the ability to look hard at ourselves so we can create space between stimulus and response in order to come closer to those around us.

In NVC, they call this the difference between reacting and responding.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this does not come naturally to me. My habit is to react, but I am working very hard to cultivate the ability to respond. Through hours spent in meditation, and hours spent studying Nonviolent Communication, I have been able to more clearly see my habits of mind, which create my habits of behavior. Slowly, I have been able to push open a crack of light where I can stop defining myself by my reactions. Instead of “I am frustrated”, more often I think “Right now I feel frustrated. This too shall pass”. It may not seem like a big difference, but I assure you, it’s huge. Life changing, even.

The next time someone asks me the $64,000 Question of AP, I will have a better, or at least a more efficient, answer. I will say:

The key to successful Attachment Parenting is introducing some sort of mindfulness practice to your life so that you can begin to recognize your habits and replace them with something new.

Do you have a mindfulness practice? Has it affected your relationships? How?

On motivation and ego

Photo courtesy of flickr user JasonUnbound

Photo courtesy of flickr user JasonUnbound

Yesterday I met with two moms who are going through the process of becoming Attachment Parenting International leaders and will soon be co-leading the Skylands API New Jersey group with me. (Hooray!!) We spent a lovely couple of hours at the county library chatting about all things AP while three of the kids played and the infant slept.

Together we laughed about how we give babies voices, like when he is crying and we try this and that and the other thing and finally get the crying to stop, and we say something like, “Finally! I thought you’d never figure it out! Just because you’re cold when it’s 75 degrees doesn’t mean I need to be dressed like an Inuit!” We mused about whether or not there is a word for that.

If anthropomorphism is attributing human characteristics to a non-human animal or entity, what is the term for an adult putting words into a baby’s mouth?

Because I have nothing better to do, or because the nerd in me loves an entomological challenge, I gave this a fair amount of thought. I think the term would be pedomorphism, or the retention by an adult of juvenile characteristics. But I’m open to suggestion.

So then I started to think, what would the word be for describing the reverse situation, attributing adult characteristics or motivations to a child? After all, it happens all the time so we really should have a word for it. A baby cries and we describe her as being impatient. A toddler has a tantrum and we describe him as manipulative. A preschooler wants to wear a bathing suit to school in February and we describe her as stubborn. The second we sit down to read our child asks for a snack and we describe him as inconsiderate.

Of course, none of these things is true. They are simply being children, driven by ego.

But we tell ourselves these stories, and it puts distance between us and our children. We interpret their age-appropriate behavior through the lens of adult emotions and motivations, and we get angry and frustrated. That’s not to say that we aren’t responsible to teach them consideration, honesty, patience and flexibility. Of course we introduce these characteristics in an appropriate way over time so that eventually they grow to be adults who are kind and pleasant to be around. But words like “manipulative” and “inconsiderate” are loaded, and they make a lot of assumptions.

Children are simply trying to get their needs met. Nothing more, nothing less.*

I wonder what would happen if, when we see these judgements arise, we do a little rephrasing. Instead of “She is being manipulative”, we tell ourselves “I feel manipulated.” What is that about for me? What is the story? Maybe I am thinking something like, “She doesn’t trust me to meet her needs, and that’s why she is manipulating me instead of being honest. I’m a bad mother.” Or maybe it’s something like, “She does not care about me at all. I do so much for her, and all she cares about is what she wants.” I could be, “Everything has to be a struggle with her all the time. Why can’t she just take no for an answer?”

Try it, and let me know how it goes.

*Of course, this is true of everyone! But ideally with age comes maturity and consideration….

1MM4NV

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings nearly two months ago, we are still in shock and looking for answers.  Who is at fault?  Parents?  The mental health system?  Weak gun control laws?  What can we do to prevent something like this from happening again?

Naturally, the issues of gun control and gun violence is front and center in the conversation.  The organization One Million Moms for Gun Control has gained huge popularity, and based on the numbers turning out at rallies and marches across the country, their message has struck a chord.  I’ve been watching the news of their influence and growth with great interest.  What can I say?

I’m a sucker for stories about moms on a mission making waves.

I can’t say that I am in favor of gun ownership.  I can’t fathom any legitimate reasons for a civilian to possess an assault rifle.  I would not knowingly allow my children to play in a home where there are guns.  I just don’t get the fun in shooting another living thing.  I don’t like it when Harry pretends to use a gun (though the fact that he continues to do so despite the decidedly anti-firearm culture in our home is a topic for another post, or maybe a book….)

I understand the immense appeal of the idea that passing laws regulating gun ownership would make our children safer.

 I wish it were so easy, except guns aren’t the problem and stricter gun control laws aren’t the solution.  As they say, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  Admittedly, a gun makes the difference between killing one or two people and killing 28, but people have been committing murder since time immemorial with fists, rocks, knives, fire, water, and all sorts of other implements.

Improving the mental health system in our country gets much closer to the heart of the issue.    Certainly, efforts to keep guns away from clearly unstable people couldn’t hurt.  However, the vast majority of gun crimes are not committed by people who would be identified as mentally ill, never mind the hundreds of accidental gun deaths that occur in the US each year.

Where does that leave us?  Do we just sit back and wait for another Sandy Hook, Jonesboro, Virginia Tech or Columbine?

Obviously not.  But the question begs to be asked:

What is up with Americans and their guns?

Our per capita gun ownership almost double that of the next country.  Americans own almost six times as many guns as Indians (second on the list of total civilian gun ownership), despite the fact that the Indian population is nearly four times that of the US.  A look at the twenty-five nations with the highest gun violence rates shows the United States right up there with South Africa, El Salvador and Albania.

In a 2005 Gallup Poll, 67% of gun owners cited self-defense as their motivation.  Granted, people gave multiple reasons and there was some overlap.  But seriously – 35 million Americans trust their neighbors that little?  Is it just me, or is that outrageous?

Why are we so afraid of each other?

Focusing on gun control is like giving someone with a broken leg an Advil.  It might help a bit, but it doesn’t even begin to address the real problem, and it creates yet another division between right and left, red and blue.  So I propose a new mother’s movement:  ONE MILLION MOMS FOR NON-VIOLENCE.  Instead of lobbying our representatives for new legislation, we go into our homes, our schools, and our communities and treat each other with love and respect.

Instead of fear and fighting, we can choose trust and love.  

We can all commit to finding solutions to our problems that may not be ideal, but that respect everyone’s needs.  This will not be easy.  We do not live in a culture of cooperation.  Maybe it’s the spirit of rugged American individualism, but most of us operate from a worldview of scarcity and competition.  But we need to recognize that this is a choice we make, and we can make another choice.

Who is with me?

My personal war on “Attachment Parenting”

Image courtesy of Flickr user christyscherrer

Image courtesy of Flickr user christyscherrer

I am an Attachment Parenting International leader.  I’ve read the books.  I’ve studied the research.  I believe wholeheartedly in Bowlby’s theory that a baby human needs to have her primary attachment figure(s) nearby in order to ensure survival, and the extent to which she is able to accomplish this goal defines, to a large degree, her ability to have stable relationships throughout her lifetime.

I just don’t like the term “Attachment Parenting”.

Only recently did I figure out why it bugs me so much.  One clue came from a recent article in the Huffington Post, “Why I Am a Detachment Parent”.  While the article is riddled with hyperbole, the description of attachment parenting as “masochism” really struck me.

I have found AP to be the easy way.  Who wants to be tied down to the house during nap time every day when your kid could just sleep in a wrap while you go about your business?  Why deal with a baby screaming for a lost pacifier when you could pop in a boob?  If some parents are over the top, that is less about Attachment Parenting and more about the parent.  AP is about meeting the needs of all family members – including, but not limited to, the children.  Parents’ needs are important too, they are just not more important than the needs of the child.  I am baffled by the proud assertion of parental detachment.

It all became clear to me when I read a quote from the Dalai Lama:

“Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.”

When most people hear the word “attachment”, they don’t think of Attachment Theory.  Most people  I’ve met, even those who identify themselves as AP,  have no idea what that is.  “Attachment” connotes codependency, clinging, smothering, and that is a big turnoff for many people.

But there is a third choice in between attachment and detachment, and that is equanimity.

I think it’s obvious that all healthy parent-child relationships involve some degree of attachment.  Otherwise, why bother?  But instead of being attached to a particular outcome for the child or the relationship, we accept what is true now for this child in this place and time.  I want certain things for my children but I work to accept, to the best of my deeply flawed ability, that they are their own people with their own lives to live.  I hope to have close relationships with them as adults, but all I can do for them is offer them my unconditional love and presence and tell them that they are fundamentally valued and cherished, and then let go.

When Bess was a baby, she wanted me and only me all the time.  She would not take a bottle, she would not sleep for more than 90 minutes at a stretch, and she cried frequently at high volume.

Yes, I lost sleep.  Yes, it was outrageously stressful.  But you know what?  It passed.

Now we have a great relationship where she is willing to talk to me, and I am able to help her.  (We shall see what happens during the teen years…)  She trusts that I am there for her even when the timing is inconvenient or she has ugly things to say. Would we have had the same kind of relationship if I were a 7 am to 7 pm parent?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  And Harry, who was parented the same way, is totally different.  It’s just the way they came into this world.

This begs the question: if not “Attachment Parenting”, then what?

Equanimous Parenting is really hard to spell.  Respectful Parenting?  Peaceful Parenting?  They’ve been used.  Mindful Parenting?  I think Humane Parenting comes close.

I’m currently leaning toward “Nonviolent Parenting”.

I like “Nonviolent Parenting” because it goes so much deeper and speaks to a fundamental starting point of a deep and abiding love for all beings without judgement.

Do you have a good alternative to the term “Attachment Parenting”?  Do you think we need one?

You are already perfect

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AlicePopkorn

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AlicePopkorn

During last week’s dharma talk, the sensei at the zendo I have been attending shared a quote.  I wish I could remember it exactly, but it was something like, “We do not sit zazen to attain enlightenment.  We sit zazen to express our innate enlightenment.”  In other words, the purpose of sitting zazen is simply to discover the perfection, the spark of wisdom and compassion, that is already within all of us.

You know how sometimes words come together in just the right way, so that something you’ve heard a million times suddenly makes sense?  This was one of those moments.

I grew up in the Lutheran church, and I’m sure it’s no different from other Christian traditions in that it teaches Original Sin. We are born sinners and we need to work to overcome our sinful nature.  In the words of Martin Luther himself:

But what, then, is original sin? According to the Apostle it is not only the lack of a good quality in the will, nor merely the loss of man’s righteousness and ability. It is rather the loss of all his powers of body and soul, of his whole outward and inward perfections. In addition to this, it is his inclination to all that is evil, his aversion against that which is good, his antipathy against light and wisdom, his love for error and darkness, his flight from and his loathing of good works, and his seeking after that which is sinful.

Yikes!

But what if we replaced Original Sin with Innate Perfection?  What if we are actually good people trying to find ways to express our goodness?  How would it change the way we see ourselves, the way we see other people, the way we relate to each other, the way we operate in the world?  How would it change the way we raise our children?  What if we saw our jobs as parents not to break our children of their tendency towards badness, but to nurture the expression of their inherent goodness?

It would be an interesting experiment to notice how often in one day we chose to operate from a different paradigm.  What would that kind of day look like?

  • When we get cut off in traffic, instead of thinking, “What a jerk!” we think, “Wow, that person is really in a hurry!  I hope everything is okay.”
  • When we feel taken for granted by our children, instead of thinking, “They don’t appreciate all the work I do for them!” we think, “I’m so glad that my kids feel like they can count on me to take care of them.  I guess I’m doing something right.”
  • When someone at work snaps at us for no reason, instead of getting defensive and snapping back, we say, “It seems like something is bothering you.  Do you want to talk?”
  • When we meet someone new and he starts listing his credentials and accomplishments, instead of thinking, “Egomaniac!” we think, “It sounds like he’s looking for some respect.”
  • When we are feeling manipulated by a friend, instead of thinking, “Does she think I don’t see what she’s doing?  I’m not an idiot!” we think, “It seems like she feels like she can’t trust me enough to be honest with me.  I wonder what that’s about for her.”
  • When someone bumps into us on the street, instead of thinking, “Hellooooo!  There are other people on this planet, you know!” we think, “Wow, it looks like she has a lot on her mind.”

Try it.  I dare you.  Take one day, and assume positive intent and inherent goodness in everyone you meet.  Let me know how it goes.

What does breastfeeding have to do with feminism?

exclusively breastfed on demand

One of my (exclusively breastfed) babies

I recently found a new (new to me, not new new) blog, Mom, JD, where I read about an article by Elisabeth Badinter called “The Tyranny of Breast-Feeding: New mothers vs. La Leche League”.  It is not available online unless you want to spend $17 for a year’s subscription to Harper’s, so don’t bother looking.  I got it at the library.

Given that the article contains the words “despotism of an insatiable child”, it is no surprise that I agree with very little in it.  Mostly it is a history of La Leche League from the perspective of someone who believes that LLL’s real motive is to repress women and that it has co-opted the authority of organizations such as WHO and UNICEF in a global conspiracy to promote their women-repressing agenda.  Using quotes from extreme militant breastfeeding supporters, Badinter argues that LLL is full of uncompromising lunatics who support an “ideological shift toward…dedicated motherhood”.

Badinter’s indictment of breastfeeding culture does not jive with my experience.  I spent five days in the hospital with my first, and there was no lactation consultant available.  The nurses strongly encouraged me to bottle-feed when I found nursing difficult.  I have been chastised for nursing in museums and doctor’s offices.  I have been relegated to a bedroom to feed my babies during family gatherings.  When I spent a week in the hospital for a heart issue, I could not get a breast pump from the maternity floor to relieve my engorgement.  An “orthodoxy of nursing”?  Hardly.

I loved nursing because it made early motherhood so very much easier.  Sterilizing nipples, mixing formula, adding another thing to my grocery list, packing bottles every time I left the house…not my cup of tea.  With Harry, I got way more sleep than I would have otherwise because when he was hungry, all I had to do was roll over, lift my shirt, and go back to sleep.  (With Bess it wasn’t so easy, but that’s a long story.)  I had an ace-in-the-hole when my babies were sick or crabby.

But every situation is different.  I worked from home so it was easy to nurse on demand.  I could take a break whenever I needed to, and I never had to deal with pumping or low supply.  I recognize that I had a pretty sweet arrangement.  While I am an ardent supporter of breastfeeding, I know that it doesn’t work for everyone.

I do, however, believe that it is the height of hubris to believe that humans could manufacture a formula that is equal to breastmilk, which was shaped by millennia upon millennia of natural selection.  I believe that males and females serve different functions, and that even as 2,000 years of civilization has expanded our choices and our expectations, it has not changed our essential natures.  My feminism is primarily about choice, and that includes the choice to stay home with one’s children in lieu of working for pay.  If that makes me a “maternalist feminist”, then I will wear the label proudly.

In the end, LLL and its supposed anti-feminist agenda is a red herring.  Badinter’s readers catch a glimpse of the real issue in a quote from the International Pediatric Association: “this right [to breastfeed] is associated with another, the right to benefit from adequate maternity leave and a re-adaptation to the world of work.”  BINGO!

Badinter’s claim that “thanks to bottle-feeding, couples can share roles” is, frankly, absurd.  It is women who endure the discomfort and indignities of gestating and producing new human beings.  It is women’s bodies who expand, contract, and pulse with hormones.  A few midnight feedings can hardly be considered sharing.  It’s not about breast vs. bottle, people.  It’s about people who give birth (women) vs. people who don’t (men).  Instead of insisting that women fit into the patriarchal system that was designed by and for the benefit of men, maybe it’s time we start restructuring the system so it works for all women regardless of how they want to feed their babies should they choose to have them.