Nothing seems as fleeting to me as the moments of my child’s life. Because his smiles, tears and spontaneous embraces are so much connected to passing stages of development, each lovely moment is tinged with wistfulness. And because my caring and attachment are so deep, my own dark moments arise with an intensity that often leaves remorse in its wake. In Everyday Blessings, I heard a compassionate call to engage in the full truth of parenting, in its heavens and hells, and to use these moments as spiritual practice. “The challenge,” the authors write, “is to see if we really can embody, fully, the life that is ours to live, with the children that are ours to nurture, right here, right now . . . and now, and now, and now, each moment, day, and night a new beginning, as we move through light and through darkness.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and founder of the famed Stress Reduction Clinic there, brought the practice of mindfulness to mainstream medicine and into public awareness through his previous books, Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are. Now, as a father and husband, he joins his wife Myla to bring mindfulness to parenting and to affirm the path of the householder as a practice saturated with opportunities to wake up.
As parents of three children, aged 21, 17 and 13, the Kabat-Zinns have had many wake-up calls, and they speak about them here with courageous honesty. To know that Myla Kabat-Zinn could so thoroughly lose it with her daughter—and then with simple honesty, no excuses, acknowledge her error not only to the child but to the world—makes a parent feel better about the inevitable shortcomings of trying to fill this role that always asks us to be “our best selves.” The authors point out a way back home when our worst selves have been revealed.
The primary tool the Kabat-Zinns offer parents is mindfulness, “moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness.” It is a “method and a framework” that can enable us to shift into the glory of the moment or to interrupt habitual reaction long enough to discern a helpful response.
This collection of reflections on parenting left me feeling as if I had passed a weekend visiting Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn. In individual yet cohesive voices, they open the doors to their family and their hearts. While the book focuses on parenting as a spiritual practice, using the tenets and practices of Buddhism as its foundation, the Kabat-Zinns do not refrain from strong comments that reveal how political, indeed revolutionary, are the choices we make when parenting in a culture so unsupportive of children and families. Recognizing that “we all have to make our own individual decisions about what is best for our children and for ourselves,” they reveal without apology the choices they have made for their family. Among these are natural childbirth, the family bed, extended nursing, abundant holding and carrying, lying with children at bedtime as they fall asleep, family meetings, and carefully monitored media exposure. Although the salutary value of each of these elements of childrearing has been amply substantiated, they remain so sparsely applied in our culture that it takes courage to stand by them—and energy. The Kabat-Zinns acknowledge how much time and commitment the assessment, application and reassessment of such choices take—as well as the fulfillment that accompanies them.
The authors’ encompassing spirit of parenting joins stories of “everyday blessings” with the moment-to-moment awareness of Rumi, Yeats, Eliot, David Whyte and other poets, including an 11-year-old friend. Using the Arthurian legend of “The Loathely Lady” and a tale of Tatterhood, the impish girl of power who shatters convention, they introduce “the key to mindful parenting”: acknowledging and supporting the sovereignty of children. Sovereignty, the authors say,
“can be thought of as deeply connected to the Buddhist concept of Buddha Nature, which is another way of saying our true self. . . . [A]ccording sovereignty to a child in one moment makes room right then and there for his or her true nature to emerge, to be seen and silently celebrated. In this way, self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-confidence, and trust in one’s own true nature and path take root, develop, and mature in the growing child.”
Like a quiet, penetrating wind, the call to mindfulness this book repeatedly sounds has woven its way into my parenting. While in the toughest moments nothing seems to help, perhaps more often now it is sooner rather than later that I remember to be aware of my breath. And in the tender, fleeting moments, I hear the authors’ voices whisper: Don’t let this treasure pass unknown. I find myself looking forward to beginning yet again.
“Any moment together . . . is a new chance to be present, to build trust . . . to accept [our children] as they are, and to honor their sovereignty.”