Mindful mothering

On Wednesday I gave a presentation on Nonviolent Parenting to the Morris County (West) Chapter of the Holistic Moms Network.  I’ve been working on developing this workshop for awhile and was excited to finally take it out for a test drive, and I’m pleased to report that it went great!  We had an open and enthusiastic group of moms who were really receptive and willing to put themselves out there.

One exercise that went particularly well was when I asked each mom to think of her least favorite household chore, preferably a task she does at least once daily.  (Personally, I can’t stand laundry because unless you do it naked, it’s never done!)  For example, one of the moms said that she dislikes emptying the dishwasher.  Then, I asked them to think of a way they could turn that chore into a mindfulness practice and we all brainstormed ideas for turning that into a moment of calm focus.  Some of our ideas were:

  • Take the dishes out early and notice how they are still warm
  • Notice the weight of the different dishes as you take them out and put them away
  • Listen to the sound the dishes make when they clink together, and notice if different dishes make different sounds
  • Look at each dish and notice how it is clean (or not!) before putting it away

What daily drudgery can you transform into a moment of mindfulness?

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.

My mindfulness journey: The Relative and the Absolute

morningmeditationAs I delve more deeply into my spiritual practice, I struggle more with the idea of “either/or”.  How can we sit in non-judgement when we are taking vows to refrain from behaviors we judge to be wrong such as killing and stealing?  How do we advocate for peace while respecting that other people have their own truths?

My confusion, according to my Sensei, stems from the fact that I am stuck in dualistic thought, and I must strive to overcome the human tendency to organize the world into categories.  It can be uncomfortable to see things as “both/and”.  If something is bad, we fight against it; if it is good we support it.

If it is both…what do we do?  It requires a certain degree of sophistication, maturity, and creativity to hold this tension.

While intellectually I am comfortable with this, on a deeper level I am still clinging to my habitual way of seeing the world.  As it turns out, it is quite scary to let go of my rational mind.  I accept that there is good in the bad and bad in the good, but I want to find, study and understand it and these things are beyond that kind of understanding.

When you follow your breath during meditation, Sensei asked me, what is between the breaths?  Nothing, I answered.  Theoretically, my true nature is between the breaths.

Not theoretically, he answered.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days at my in-laws’ house at the beach where I was able to sit by the ocean each morning.  I watched the ocean, constant flux within permanence, and I wondered: what is between the waves?  Nothing.  Or everything.

The whole ocean is between the waves.

The Identity of the Relative and the Absolute calls to transcend our dualistic understanding of the world.

Within light there is darkness,

but do not try to understand that darkness.

Within darkness there is light,

but do not look for that light.

Light and darkness are a pair,

like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

It’s all there, all the time.  Light in the darkness, darkness in the light; good in the bad, bad in the good.  One does not make sense without the other, but don’t bother looking for it because it is outside the purview of the analytical mind.  This is not the fatalism with which many approach the world, comforting themselves with the idea that everything happens for a reason and one day they may be able to understand their misfortunes.  This is about recognizing the divine spark in all of creation.  We are all, good and bad, sacred manifestations of life.

Each thing has its own intrinsic value

and is related to everything else in function and position…

Do not judge by any standards.

I am nothing and all things; I am a temporary expression of the eternal, a particular accumulation of molecules and energies.  So are we all.  Some of the molecules in my body, maybe, once belonged to the body of Jesus or Thoreau or Rachel Carson; others, maybe, once belonged to the body of Hitler or Pol Pot or Caligula or even a dinosaur or saber-toothed tiger.  We are all waves in the ocean, momentarily surging forward to embody the infinite mystery.

What we’re reading: What Does It Mean To Be Present?

presentI’m a day late on Children’s Book Week but I hope you will forgive me!

I work in the school library on Fridays, and the best thing about that is that I get to peruse the shelves and get an idea of what is new and popular in the world of children’s literature. If I knew when I was starting out in my adult life what I know now I would have been a children’s librarian. Ah, well, there’s still time for that….

Anyway, a few weeks ago there was a new series on the shelf by Rana DiOrio, “What does it mean to be….?” and the one that particularly caught my eye was What Does It Mean To Be Present? Usually I am underwhelmed by books that try to teach children lofty concepts like presence and environmentalism (a notable exception, The Peace Book by Todd Parr, is one of my favorite children’s books ever written ever). I find that they are usually very preachy and over-simplify things to the point of missing the real truth of their subject. I usually prefer story books that get at these lessons in a more oblique way, like The Forgiveness Garden or Max’s Words.

But this one I love. The illustrations by Eliza Wheeler are and adorable and pleasingly understated while profoundly enhancing the concepts for young children. Harry spent a long time studying the page about “focusing on what’s happening now, instead of thinking about what’s next”, noticing how the girl in the picture was half-heartedly working on her school work while gazing longingly at the playground outside. The book shows instead of tells, presenting examples of presence that are meaningful and doable for children such as listening carefully, tasting your food while you eat slowly, practicing gratitude, and enjoying the feel of your dog’s fur. The book is intended for children, but I know plenty of adults – myself included! – who would benefit from the lessons it contains.

We purchased the NOOK Kids Read-to-Me version of the book and my kids love listening to the child narrator whose voice makes the concepts all that much more accessible for them. And if you need one more thing to love about this book, the publisher, Little Pickle Press (founded and run by Rana DiOrio) is a Certified B Corporation with a commitment to social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. (If you were looking to buy a dead tree copy of the book you can order directly from the publisher, or my favorite book seller, Better World Books, which is a Certified B Corporation as well.)

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?

Plant nothing but love

I just completed a twelve-week class with ZENVC, which was amazing and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to cultivate mindfulness and their ability to practice non-violent communication.

One of the other students posted a poem by Rumi in the online classroom called “One Tree”, which I really loved. Here is my favorite line from the poem:

rumi

My mindfulness journey – Frustration and Beauty

Since I believe that mindfulness is such an important part of nonviolence in general and as a parent in particular, I am going to occasionally share stories about my own mindfulness journey and I hope that you will share yours. By seeing how others undertake this process, I am hoping that we will all feel less alone along the way. I wrote this piece in January.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Luigi Torreggiani

Photo courtesy of flickr user Luigi Torreggiani

After a month of regular meditation practice I still can barely keep my body still, much less my mind. I do not feel calm or centered; I feel frustrated. I keep trying different positions, different cushions, but my knees and back ache. I set the timer and give myself a pep talk. “You are resisting. Give it time. If it was easy, everyone would achieve supreme enlightenment.” So far, my time on the cushion has not been spent in deep contemplation, and certainly not in a state of alert relaxation. It has been spent persuading myself to stay there.

Stillness is not comfortable for me. Neither is patience. This is why I’m on this cushion in this cold room in the predawn darkness while my family and my left foot sleep. My need to control, to painstakingly, meticulously craft every moment for myself and the people around me through a flurry of nonstop action, is no longer working for me if it ever did. I know it is time to abdicate authority over my life to something greater than myself, I know it in my bones, yet my zone of comfort is well-fortified by ego and maintained by inertia.

I think about my first car, affectionately called The Tank. It wasn’t in great shape when I bought it, and after seven years of faithful service to me it was clear that it was time for The Tank to retire, but I had worked hard to buy it and I wasn’t ready to give it up. It had given me many miles, many fun road trips. It was ugly, embarrassing even, and increasingly unreliable, but it hadn’t always been that way. Against all reason, I held out hope that one more trip to the mechanic would bring it back to life.

I return to my breath, wiggle my toes and check the clock. Ten minutes have passed. It feels like it’s been ten hours. Armed with a list of things I’d rather do with these rare moments of quiet, I decide to bail.

I am about to rise from the cushion when I’m stopped by a breathtaking scene emerging beyond the window. The sun peeks over the horizon, illuminating the fog while bold calligrapher’s strokes are etched across the stark white canvas of mist. I watch the sun inch higher, the moisture burn away, and the black lines become the limbs of familiar trees before my eyes. I am surprised when the timer rings and my thirty minutes are over.

I want to capture what just unfolded. I try to photograph the scene through the window, I sit on the wet pavement of my driveway, but it is gone. That particular instant of fleeting beauty is unique to the particular vantage point of the zafu on my office floor and a particular moment when the weather and the sun’s position in its ascent are just so.

I think maybe I’ll sit again tomorrow.

I sent this to my Sensei, and his response was, “Keep sitting. Expect nothing.”

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?

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.