Parenting is one of the most rewarding and demanding practices that one will undertake in this life. It makes a very demanding guru seem like a piece of cake. If your guru or teacher says to you, “Get up at three in the morning and do your bajans, prayers or zazen,” you usually get up. But if you don’t feel well you can sleep in and say you’re sick. After all, what is he or she going to say? You can get away with it. But when your child wakes up in the middle of the night, sick and throwing up, you have to get up and care for her. It doesn’t matter if you’re exhausted from a very full week, or are sick yourself, or were up all day taking care of your other child.
I have looked into my own heart to figure out why I became a parent. I was successful as a teacher and certainly living a wonderful life. Being a dharma teacher is a great job to have because you get to meet really nice people who are on their best behavior in beautiful places and circumstances, and talk about love and things that are basically noble and profound. You feel like you are doing something valuable (whether it’s true or not is another question).
But before becoming a parent there was some sense of a lack in my own personal life. I felt that if I continued to teach and travel, that something else would get dry in me. This may not be so for other people, but I sensed that while I would continue to develop skills as a teacher, I would also lose contact with something that’s more alive within, something that has to do with the heart. So having a child came from this deep desire to keep my heart open. Certainly, being a parent is a very hot fire a lot of the time. Also, I think I became a parent because I like challenges.
Yet I don’t want to make this decision sound too thoughtful and conscious. It wasn’t. It was really something from the guts and the heart. It came from being in love with someone and saying, “Well let’s try this one.” But it’s really a big ride. When you take the ticket you go for twenty years. Older friends say the problem is not the “empty nest syndrome,” it’s the “empty the nest out and they come in the back door” and want to live a little longer and get you to support them into their thirties.
Somehow, consciously chosen or not, having a child is mostly an expression of love. It has continued to deepen the intimacy and connection in my marriage. For me it was pretty amazing because I’d never had a sexual life where we tried to do what sex is actually connected with—making babies. It was a really powerful thing to make love and have the intention be to have a child; really quite extraordinary, mysterious and wonderful.
When the baby was born it was awesome. You cannot be at a birth and not have your heart touched in some way. The pain and the beauty is amazing. At Caroline’s birth I was exhausted because it was a three-day labor for my wife, and I tried to stay fully with her. There was this glow as the baby was born but at the same time I was checking her out and saying, “Are you the right one?” “Is this my child?” “She looks like my child, but who is this person?” “What will she be like?” For anyone who has had children, its very clear that they are not blank slates. They have their own personality, agenda and karma from the very beginning.
As baby grows, as she walks, looks around or just smiles, you experience a sense of wanting to take care of her. It is so ingrained in us it must be cellular. Who can see a baby crying or some child that’s hurt and not want to respond? In some ways it speaks to the innate goodness in all beings that there’s that kind of response to children. The natural response of our hearts is to care for someone that’s hurting or in need.
There is a mixture of pleasure and pain as you look at a baby and say, “I don’t want her to suffer.” Caroline’s just learning about “hot.” The other day she went over to a candle and said “hot,” and went to touch the flame, we pulled her hand away and said “No, no hot.” She put her hand in anyway and it burned her fingers—not badly—just a little bit. She cried. Then her face changed to outrage. Why should it hurt? If it’s not the candle or the stove it will be the heater. Yet what can a parent do? Life is pleasant and painful. From the beginning you realize that you can’t fully protect anybody. You can love them, but you can’t protect them. Eventually, everyone has to openly engage in the world that is light and dark, up and down, sweet and sour, pleasant and painful.
In the beginning of parenting there is a tremendous sense of surrender. Once I lived with a woman who had two children. I got really jealous of the children. I wanted to be with her and have her attention. The children were jealous of me too. After a day in preschool they wanted mommy’s attention and kept pulling on her. “Stay here, read to us, play with us.” It was a real struggle for a number of weeks over why we couldn’t go out. I said, “Let’s get more babysitters. Why do they have to get up so early and then bounce on the bed at six in the morning.” In the end there was no contest. I finally just gave up and raised the white flag of “I surrender.” They come first. There was no question about it. I was defeated. It wasn’t that I didn’t want what I wanted. It was just really clear who came first. There is a tremendous amount of surrender to parenting and a kind of love that people otherwise rarely touch in their lives.
A good friend of mine had four daughters and a son. Her youngest daughter had a brain tumor when she was thirteen years old, and needed an operation. She came out of her operation as if she had had a really bad stroke: unable to walk, unable to speak, unable to feed herself. Her mother was Hawaiian and grew up in an Asian culture where, when someone’s in the hospital, you go and camp in the hospital with them. She camped in the hospital for three months with her daughter, until she could bring her home. She said, “I spent every waking hour for two and a half years bringing her back so she could walk and speak and eat and read. I knew somewhere in my heart that she hadn’t died, that she was still in there and could be brought out. I would pick up her hand and put it down, pick it up again until she could speak, and help her walk.” You couldn’t pay somebody for that. This tremendous capacity which we have to love another person is evoked by having children.
We also have a tremendous capacity to hate, or to feel frustration. Already I have a very deep understanding about why child abuse happens. Here Caroline was a wanted baby and I consider myself someone who’s got a decent amount of equanimity and awareness and still when the baby is colicky and crying, and just won’t stop, what am I going to do? It’s not just one night but nights and nights. And then you think of people in a poor apartment where it’s cold, not so comfortable, there are five kids and the latest one is just crying and screaming for two months and is colicky and won’t stop.
I remember teaching at a conference one day, with a whole roomful of people. In the room there was a young child that was really fussy. He started to scream and throw a tantrum. Finally the child was quieted and taken out and then one of the women in the room (obviously a professional mother) said, “Don’t you remember the time when you just wanted to take them and throw then out the window and it didn’t matter how many floors down it was.” And every mother in that room laughed. Every mother in the room laughed because they all knew that somehow their children had taken them to their very edge of sanity.
Parenting is a place of tremendous surrender and giving. You just give. You get back sometimes. Sometimes you don’t get anything. Then they become a teenager and they don’t seem to care about you at all. All they seem to want is to do is be free and leave. “But I raised you and I did this and I gave you that.” And they say “See ya, so long.” If you’re lucky, they say “See ya,” before they disappear. What did I get from my giving? What you get is what you gave.
When you look at the path of perfections in Buddhism, generosity, patience, surrender, virtue, attention and equanimity are all major components in the practice. For a start, parenting is a tremendous field in which to cultivate giving and surrender and patience and loving. It is really a practice if you can do it in even a somewhat mindful way. Perhaps those of us who are involved in becoming more aware are also relearning certain things that are known in simpler cultures but have been forgotten in the busyness and ambition of our Western society. We’re trying to relearn what it means to be part of a village or a sangha or a community and to raise our children in a way that’s more caring and less ambitious; more patient and less greedy. Still it’s hard. You give up a lot of yourself. If you think that sitting in meditation comes first, you really have to reorient. There’s a lovely book by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh called The Miracle of Mindfulness and this is the first question he addresses, speaking to the parents who say they never have enough time for themselves. Until you can make a shift and see that your time with another person is also your time for yourself, you will be frustrated. Somehow you must learn to take that time with another person as your practice, as your own place of opening. Otherwise you will be frustrated all the time.
So in parenting there’s dana, which means giving, patience and surrender. Next there’s sila, the step in practice which means virtue. As a parent there are all kinds of ways to work with virtue. In the beginning it’s simply learning how to say no to somebody and setting appropriate boundaries, saying no an awful lot of times and learning that it’s really important that you’re able to say no. People don’t like to say it. I feel uncomfortable saying no to anybody. It really becomes very obvious with a child. You don’t have to thing about it. . . “NO, cut that out . . . Stop it . . . Don’t go in the street . . .” Of course you can find skillful ways to do it which don’t undermine their exploration and self-esteem but still it must be said. Your whole sense of self changes as a guardian, as a caretaker for another person, as a parent. So at first there’s a kind of sila of setting boundaries. But in a much deeper way as the children grow older, life makes you look at your own values. What are you going to teach them? You’re a daddy or you’re a mommy. Are you going to teach them to play football or knit or whatever your image of what a young man or young lady is supposed to learn? You look at those parts of your values. Even more, it makes you question what kind of school they’re going to, what they are going to learn. You see the blessings of our culture: its variety, its choices, its richness that your children will inherit. And you see as well the curses, the difficulties, the consumerism, the kind of superficiality, the shallowness. Just turn on the TV. Have your children watch TV for awhile. Do you want to do that to some young person?. . . Have them watch TV? So what do you teach kids? And how do you educate them? Raising children really makes you look at your values.
And, of course, every step of the way is a compromise. There’s no perfection in this game whatsoever. If you’re a bad parent, then they will probably go to therapy and work it out. If you’re too good, then they go to the therapist because they’re unable to separate. They’re too connected with you. There is no way you can win at the game. And in a way that’s perfect. Because the perfection is that you realize that the child’s not supposed to be a certain way or that you’re not supposed to be a certain way.
I remember Kalu Rimpoche, an old Tibetan lama, coming to visit friends of mine with a two-year-old child. They asked him, “Would you please tell us about how to raise him so he will be spiritual and wise, a compassionate child and fine person.” And this eighty-year-old Tibetan lama just shook his head and said, “No, no . . . You have the wrong idea.” He said, “He will be whoever he’s going to be. If you want to raise somebody properly, raise yourself. You can do your own practice with a sincere heart and let him feel that from you.”
Somebody said that parenting is one of the few things that’s left in the world for amateurs. We get training to become drivers. We get training to be teachers. We get training to be counselors. Then there’s this basically impossible task of trying to be kind and wise and helpful, set limits and teach your child how to be a fine human being and we get zero training for that. We’re really amateurs. If you can keep a beginner’s mind, wisdom can truly grow. You don’t know what your child will be like when he is born. You just get him. And you don’t know what he’s going to be like as a grown up. You have a fifteen-year-old and you don’t know what career she will take. You have a twenty-year-old and you don’t know what kind of marriage he will get himself into. She’s a little child and you don’t know what mischief she will get into. It’s really a process of learning how to deal with the unknown, holding your breath, waiting and seeing what happens.
Caroline, who likes to eat Cheerios for breakfast, can really teach me how to live in the moment. She can sit down with her Cheerios and line them up or put them on top of one another or spear one with her little finger or look around . . . put it in her mouth . . . chew it . . . take it out and see what happened to it . . . then stick it in to my mouth to see if I like it . . . then pull it out again and spend twenty minutes experimenting on all the properties of a Cheerio. Then she’ll put it down and be done with it and experiment with the spoon. This tremendous capacity to be in the present moment reevokes that spirit of the child in ourselves. I love going out with Caroline and looking at a tree, introducing her to it, “Wow, that’s a tree. Look it has leaves and moves in the wind and there’s lots of them all around, different kinds. They smell different.” We adults forget. We take trees for granted. When I walk down the street with Caroline, I remember: “Oh look. There’s dry leaves. They crumble and crunch.” We forget that the world is tremendously interesting. We lose a certain mystery. Maybe that’s the best thing about children. They keep us awake, seeing the world in a fresh way.
Not only do you learn the samadhi of being very present with your attention, but also you learn the other special practice called, in Sanskrit, sampajanna, which means to be able to do many things mindfully at once: like change a diaper, hold the child still and get some other clothes, or take care of two or three children—one who’s pouring things on the floor and one who’s running around and the other who needs to be fed while you’re also trying to answer the phone that’s ringing. For me it’s been a very different kind of meditation, that, of walk when you walk, eat when you eat. Kids know how to do that. Eat when you eat and play with your Cheerios when you play with your Cheerios and so forth. But being a parent is more like the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn who was sitting at the table at the Zen Center one morning eating his breakfast and reading the morning paper. A student came up to him and was very upset said, “How can you do this, Roshi? Here you teach us to just eat when you eat, walk when you walk and sit when you sit and now you’re eating and also reading. What kind of example is that?” He looked up and laughed, “When you eat and read, just eat and read.” Keep it simple.
A friend of mine, a poet and a faculty member at Naropa Institute, is a wonderful teacher and a successful business woman, having started a company that makes millions of dollars. She also spent many years in India. Right before our baby was born, I asked her “What do you think about having children and family?” And she said, “You know, it is the one thing in my life I really don’t regret doing at all. It brought me the most satisfaction, the most happiness and the most joy.” Being a parent connects us with the earth. It brings us back to the trees and to biology and our bodies and to our hearts. I think of what Mother Theresa said, when I interviewed her:
If the world is to end nuclear war, if we’re to stop the arms race and its madness that we find around us, it’s not just the politicians who must do it but it’s each person in their own family in their own neighborhood. If you can’t learn to love your own children, and your neighbors, the people who live next door to you, how do you expect the world to change in any way that will bring peace for us?