Sunday, January 12, 2014

I'm back

Wow. That was quite a hiatus,wasn't it? I am looking at the little "last blogged" date stamp and suddenly, realize it has been almost two years since I wrote anything substantive for this blog. In those almost two years, quite a bit occurred. My husband and I bought our first home. I got pregnant again and had another miscarriage, only this time at 15 weeks, after having heard the heartbeat. Then a few months later, my mother died. She passed away shortly after I found out I was newly pregnant. That pregnancy came to fruition, and I now have a third beautiful boy, almost 6 months old, born almost exactly a year from the date I learned I had lost the previous pregnancy. I hope you will forgive my absence, but the highs and lows of joy and grief kept me from sitting down to write. I have been meditating, and contemplating. And I hope to be able to begin sharing some of my thoughts again with you all. Wishing you all peace.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

giving up our stories is hard to do

Can you notice when you are acting due to a thought or story you made up about your child, rather than acting in response to what is actually occurring? Particularly when we are at our limit, we can begin to believe the storyline over things as they really are. The more you can notice when you do this, then take a breath and reconnect to what is happening, actually happening, the easier things become. Even when they are hard.

My children were sick all weekend. My husband was working. He has been working every weekend the last month, as well as late nights. I am at my limit. And I was at my limit tonight when they both repeatedly asked me for comforting, at the breast and with snuggles. I just wanted to get dinner in the oven. I didn't have much to do, I hadn't been able to attend to anything else all day outside of playing with them and snuggling/nursing them, changing them, caring for them in the many ways we do when they are ill. I just needed five minutes to get one thing done. They needed me. They felt bad. They needed mama's touch, mama's milk, mama's lap. I didn't want to give it to them anymore. Their cries that they felt sick, that their tummies hurt, that they wanted me - it all felt like way too much. Instead of taking a breath, and acknowledging that indeed, this felt like too much, and working with the energy of that, I began to go off on a storyline, voicing my frustration and resentment. I began to exaggerate in my mind, project my own fears and sadnesses onto them. And I began to speak to them out of that muddled dream. Luckily, I noticed. I heard my words and saw my little ones' faces. But it took a few minutes.

It took a few minutes. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it takes a few days. With some storylines and emotions, it can take a few years, or more. The important thing is that at some point, you notice. You stop. You take a moment to look, and you see that what you thought was true, well, it really isn't. "Life is always kinder than the story we tell about it." I know I am always mentioning that Byron Katie quote, but my goodness, it is apt.

It is only when we can let the whole thing go, watch the shadow unravel, that we can actually stop perpetuating suffering, both our own and others'. The important thing is to notice. Then you can open back up to things as they are, really are. I always say to my meditation students that even if they just notice one time during a meditation session that their attention is not on the breath, and then bring their attention back to the breath, even just once, well - they have meditated. It just takes one time. Over and over and over again.

So. Tonight was one of those times. Noticing that I had allowed myself to be carried, once more, on the wave of story - carried away from the present moment, and into my projections. And behaving badly because of it. I noticed. I came back. I picked up my two crying boys, and I apologized to them. I got warm cloths, and laid them on their tummies. I held them. I nursed them. I hugged them. I asked my husband for help when he got home, even though I knew he was stressed and tired as well. I realized I couldn't attend a meeting I had been planning on going to this evening. That commitment, nagging at the back of mind, had also fed my little tirade. I let go of what I had planned and embraced what needed to occur.

The boys are sleeping now, as is my husband, who is also sick. My kitchen, no, my whole house, is a mess. The cats need to be fed. I need to wrap a birthday present for my youngest and finish a felt crown for him, as it's his second birthday tomorrow. I feel that I am about to come down with this illness too. But still so much to do here. It's ok. And it's hard. I can just acknowledge that, and not add any of the other stuff to it. I don't need to write a whole story of how it should or could be, or why it is hard or whatever. Just breathe. Just be here. Then it isn't hard, or at least, not so hard, anymore.

Friday, February 10, 2012

on patience

"Being angry and wanting to be peaceful all of a sudden doesn't usually work. If we're about to blow up, the best thing to do is just sit there, settle, breathe. The best technique may well be patience." - Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

I have been contemplating the paramita of patience all week, as the facebook page for Parenting as Path attests. Patience (or ahem, a lack of patience) is a daily theme for me, felt more keenly with the care of young children. The teachings on patience in the buddhist tradition are rich, and often focus on the quality of forbearance, which I don't find necessarily useful. It is a word that has such negative connotations, with more than a hint of martyrdom. I prefer to see it as acceptance, radical acceptance, as teacher Tara Brach describes it. Being present to what is occurring, and instead of trying to manipulate, change or escape it, to relax, let go and open.

It can be so hard to do this with our children, particularly when they are pushing our buttons, not doing what we want them to do, or testing boundaries. Who knew that simply attempting to get a young toddler ready to go outside to play could be such a stressful experience at times?! Or getting your child ready for school, or to do their homework, to go to bed, or to be integrity with their curfew? So many things can trigger our impatience, but I have found that fundamentally, impatience has to do with an unwillingness to just be there, leaning into what is happening in the present moment, no matter how uncomfortable it is. When I am impatient with others, it is almost always because rather than opening to what is occurring, I am stuck in the past or projecting myself out into the future. How exhausting. No wonder I get snippy.

Cultivating patience with our children means that we notice when we are relating to them from the past or from the future rather than the now. We notice when we are speaking from anxiety and a sense of what should be happening, and then let it go and open to what is actually occurring. It means leaning into the discomfort, the fear, the aggression - leaning all the way until we can open to the still, tender spot that is always at the center of even these painful emotions. Cultivating patience also means nourishing ourselves so that we have the space to relate skillfully to others. Maybe this means going to bed earlier so you have more energy in the morning when things are more intense getting everyone ready for school. Or perhaps it means taking the time when your children are napping to rest yourself, or eat a nice snack, or watch an episode of a show you like. The other day, our schedule got really wonky and my children would not nap. My husband was working very late, so I knew I would not get any break until they were asleep that night. I was a bit at my wits end, as I can't get much done or relax when they are both up and grouchy from being overtired. I drew a bubble bath with some soothing lavender oil, and put them and myself into it. I let them splash and play while I also got to relax a bit. Then I let them help me make butterscotch pudding, which we ate together after our dinner. The kitchen and bathroom ended up being a total mess, but it was worth it. The bath and the pudding cheered all of us up and helped us enjoy the rest of the day together, although we were all very tired.

Part of being patient is being resourceful, creating space even in the most claustrophobic situation. That is why the recommendation for times when you are feeling impatient is to stop, get still, and just breathe. By bringing our minds back into our bodies in the present moment, we open to the vast space that is always available to us. It can be difficult to do this when we get caught up in impatience, feeling justified to keep pushing rather than stepping back. But the more we can just take a step back from our impatience, resynchronize our bodies and minds, the easier it will be to accomplish what needs to be done. I think another important aspect of this all is having confidence that you can do it - that you can actually let go, open and relax. That you can be patient. Sometimes, we get on such a roll with a habitual pattern that we begin to distrust we can do anything differently. I am here to tell you that you can! Every habitual pattern can be transformed. Every time we let go and relax, we are weakening the hold impatience has on us and our families.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

opinions don't help our children

It is only with the heart that one can see
rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
- Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Sorry for my absence. 2012 has gotten off to a bit of a rocky start - some juicy challenges and opportunities have arisen, including attempting to purchase our first house, and these things have kept me busy. But the parenting path doesn't pause for obstacles, it just intensifies, doesn't it? There is so much I have been contemplating, so many things to write about. What has been on my mind this week though is opinions. Specifically, the opinions we harbor about our children. And how these get in the way of having a positive relationship with them.

"Is she a good baby?" This is a question we hear often, sometimes from the moment our child is born. The question is asked by strangers, friends, close family, in-laws. I always respond with "every baby is good." People take this response in different ways. Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes they say, hurriedly, "oh, of course!" And other times they explain further: "oh, I just meant does she sleep. I just meant, does he eat well. I just meant, does he do what you say." And so on. People respond to us when we say, no he/she is not sleeping much, not eating solids, not potty learned - "oh, that's bad. What are you doing to change that?" I guess what they really mean to say is, "is she easy? does she conform to your wants and needs, rather than to her own?"

The view we carry is that all beings are primordially, fundamentally good. Goodness is their, and our, essential nature. But even on a relative level, children and babies are good. The behavior we tend to label as "bad" is merely behavior that does not conform to how we think things should be in that moment. Maybe our child (or, ahem, our friend's child, or, even worse, our grandchild) is not sleeping as we think they should, is not eating as we think they should, is not speaking, playing, listening, interacting with others and on and on, as we think they should. On the flip side, when they behave as we think they should, we praise them for being good. "You ate all your dinner - what a good boy." "You didn't come into mommy's bed all night - what a good girl."

This habit of putting our opinions on our children, of labeling their behavior, does them and us no favors. It allows no space for growth and no space for compassion. It closes down connection between us, and creates in its stead disconnection and a feeling of being judged, of not being accepted. It also makes it harder for us to teach and guide our children to behaviors that are helpful for them. It is hard to see what would really help them learn when we are coming from a place of making them wrong or right.

An example of this is how we relate to our children's emotional outbursts. In the vajrayana buddhist tradition, emotions are considered to be energy. Emotions are neither good or bad - although they do have wisdom. Anger for instance - anger has the wisdom of clear seeing. We lose that clear seeing when we constrict the anger into aggression, when we add the story to the anger that we are right about something or someone. When we can open to the energy of anger, to its wisdom of clear seeing, and drop any story line we have attached to it, well then we can act skillfully, responding accurately to what we have seen with clarity and compassion.

Whether or not we are able to work with our emotions so that we can access their enlightened aspects and express their wisdom rather than their neurotic qualities - this all depends on how we relate to them. If we relate to our emotions in unskillful ways, then we behave in neurotic ways that harm ourselves and others. To behave skillfully begins with accepting whatever we are feeling without judgement. In order to teach our children to access the wisdom of their emotions, we also have to accept them (their emotions) without judgement. Then we have to take the additional step of accepting their behavior without judgement as well. Whoa - that sounds like I am giving them an excuse to behave in any way they want and do whatever they want, right? No, not at all. Our job as parents is to help our children relate to their energy in a skillful, compassionate way. In order to do that, we need to drop our opinions about it.

We tend to label behavior as being "good" or "bad". Can you try to see your children's behavior as just behavior? As energy expressing itself? Sometimes the energy is brittle, tight, and unhappy. Sometimes the energy is joyful and free flowing. Sometimes it is loud and overwhelming. Sometimes it is sharp, and wants to jab at us and the world. Sometimes it is quiet and soft, and needs warmth and gentle nurturing. It is all just energy. It isn't personal, though it can feel that way, and we often respond out of that personal sense of hurt or displeasure, embarrassment or resentment. When we can see their behavior as energy expressing itself, then we can respond to it cleanly. We can provide boundaries so the energy does not harm them or others. We can teach them how to self-regulate when they are upset. We can notice when we make a bigger deal over something than is helpful. We can notice when our expectations of what should happen are getting in the way of accepting what is. We can cultivate gentleness. We can stop telling ourselves and them that something is wrong, we can open to what is right. We can accept that whatever is happening is already a passing dream, changing and impermanent. Once we make sure they and others are safe, we can also practice just sitting with their energy.

Sometimes, when our children's energy is very wild and chaotic, like in a tantrum, it can be very hard to just sit with it. It is scary for them and for us. We have a tendency to just want to make it stop - and who can blame us? It isn't pleasant to be around a tantruming toddler. Sometimes both my toddlers tantrum at the same time, and well, part of me just wants to teleport the hell out of there. But when I notice my own discomfort with their emotions, I can relax and just open to them, hold them, just be with the raging until it passes. The calmer and gentler I can be with them, the more quickly they tend to calm down. The more I acknowledge what they are feeling, rather than try to convince them they are feeling something else, or that they shouldn't be feeling that way, the more they are able to just release it and move on.

We have to model this ourselves. When your own energy of anger gets sparked, how to do you relate to it? What do you do? What do your children see? If we have the tendency to yell at our children, we cannot expect them to speak gently to us. If we hold onto our emotions, stuff them down, judge them - our children will eventually do the same.

Notice when you label your children. Notice when you label yourself and your own emotions and behavior. Through cultivating mindful body, speech and mind around and with our children, they will learn to work with their own emotions. They still will not always do what we would like them to, or behave in the way they "ought to", but neither will we. It is part of the joy and pain of being in this human body - we make mistakes. If we can embrace those mistakes with acceptance and love, we will all flourish.

Friday, December 30, 2011

new year aspirations

Bodhichitta is essentially a quality of warmth, an experience of our connection with all beings and with all things. It's said traditionally that it's expressed as a wish or an aspiration, initially expressed as a strong longing or wish that nobody suffer, and that we could in some way in the course of our lifetime, as much as possible, help to alleviate suffering in the world. - Pema Chodron

One more day left in 2011, and to be honest, I am happy to see the back of this year and ready to greet the new one. In these last days of the dying year, my mind turns to aspirations. Not resolutions - I've written about that trap before. When we make resolutions, we are often setting ourselves up to fail, to repeat the constant cycle of aggression and suffering rather than cultivating seeds of gentleness and compassion. Aspirations are powerful because they are more open ended - we are not so much attached to a particularly specific result, but to a slower, more encompassing transformation in our lives or patterns. Our personal patterns and the patterns of our family.

What are your aspirations for yourself and your family in the coming year? For your parenting path? The fundamental aspiration of bodhichitta, as Pema Chodron describes above, is to cultivate our fundamental warmth and connection with all things, and prevent and alleviate suffering. This aspiration seems a powerful one to continue to return to on the parenting path, so that even at our most stuck, our most habitual, our most overwhelmed, we can breathe, touch our hearts, and return to some kind of gentleness. The gentleness has to begin with ourselves. We cannot be consistently gentle and compassionate with our children, our partners, our friends, strangers, unless we can be so with our own basically good selves.

My own aspirations for the new year are gentleness, compassion, understanding, and mind of no complaint. The last one has to do with continued mindfulness of speech, whether spoken or written, and refraining from complaint and negativity. On a more subtle level, I have the aspiration to continue to work with my thoughts, noticing when they are complaining or negative thoughts, and holding those thoughts with gentleness and compassion, rather than pushing them away or justifying them. I feel that by continuing to return to these aspirations, I will be nurturing the seeds of basic goodness in my family.

What are your aspirations? Whatever they may be, I wish you all a beautiful year to come, full of joy and sweetness.

Monday, December 19, 2011

gentleness during this season

During this time of year, it can be easy to put our children into situations where they are set up to fail. Where there is too much stimulation, too much going on, too much forced affection, too many expectations. Because of our own hope and fear in family and friendly gatherings, we can meet our children with a lack of understanding and compassion when they act out or do not conform with how we or others think they should be behaving during these times.

An important part of mindfulness during this season is to continue to cultivate gentleness and understanding towards our children. We can look at our schedule and see where things need to be dropped in favor of providing some quiet time for our family. We can provide some extra nurturing to ourselves and our children to bolster everyone for interactions with groups of family and friends. We can stay aware of our own expectations - are we projecting lots of hope and fear onto a situation? Are we being influenced by how others may be viewing our children, rather than viewing them from a place of basic goodness, compassion, and awareness of what their experience of the gathering, the gift, the person actually is?

Rather than reacting with disappointment and aggression when our children do not act as we think they should during this time, can we continue to cultivate gentleness, by acknowledging our own fear or sadness around what has occurred and out of that soft spot, helping our children by reassuring them, cuddling them, acknowledging their difficulty, their discomfort, and letting them know it is ok to feel what they are feeling?

My own family will be attending a Christmas gathering where I know my children will be overstimulated and will most likely, not be at their best. I am laying the ground this week by continuing to find spaces for us to pause and reconnect with the ground of goodness, to join our bodies and minds in the same place, to be gentle, gentle and again, gentle. There are lots of opportunities during the holiday times to really work skillfully with what is, to be aware of the story line we are creating around situations, and to cultivate our appreciation and compassion. This may actually be the greatest gift of this time!
Wishing everyone a mindful and peaceful season.

Monday, December 5, 2011

mindful holiday

This is the time of year when many families around the world are preparing for winter holiday celebrations. It is a time when speediness, busy-ness and materialism can overwhelm us and fill what we expect to be a happy time with aggression, depression and stress. It can be easy to have our minds stolen away by anxiety, desire, poverty mentality, and disappointment during these days. We can put so much pressure on ourselves to create the perfect holiday, to give our children everything they want, to reciprocate with family and friends. Our to-do lists seem endless, and our mind and body are often in two different places.

In the United States, it can often seem that a kind of never ending, naked materialism has taken over what has traditionally been a time when we cultivate and honor a radiance that cannot be dampened even by the darkest days of winter. Whether celebrating the inextinguishable lights of the Temple, the brilliant love of the Christ child, or the liberation of the Buddha - or simply the light of the returning sun on the shortest day of the year - this time has traditionally not been about buying X-boxes and knick knacks that will soon be discarded. In my own sangha, we celebrate Children's Day, a day when we honor our children for their constant reminder of goodness, even during dark times. Whatever we celebrate, these holidays all reflect the unchanging luminosity of our own basic goodness that shines in every moment, no matter what the weather or mood.

How can we honor our goodness and that of our children during these days, rather than giving into our confusion? How do we stay mindful and aware, when things are swirling and we have so much to do? How do we continue to cultivate appreciation, rather than create more wanting?
Following is a list that is helping me and my family to stay mindful and connected to appreciation during this time.

First, of course, is practice. What has helped me is to find a time each day, morning or night, where I can practice some sitting meditation, no matter how briefly. This clears away my discursiveness and joins my mind back to my body. Throughout my days, when I notice my mind is somewhere totally separate from the present moment, without judgement, I bring it back again. I take a breath.

Secondly, I continue to let go of "the perfect holiday", whatever that may mean. There is no such thing, and everything is perfect anyway! There can be the impulse to try to attend every holiday event, do every holiday craft, bake every cookie and so on! If our tree isn't like this, the holiday is ruined. If we don't see those lights, the holiday is ruined. Whatever - it is different for all of us. But to let go of externals, to let go of how the holiday "should" look, creates space for the true magic of this time to occur and be noticed. It is different for every family, but I encourage you to look at your "must do" lists this season, and see what is really doable and enjoyable. Young children in particular do better with spaciousness, so to clutter each day with an outing can be overwhelming for them as well as for you. Sometimes we discover that even cherished traditions or events are either too much right now, or no longer really resonate with our family. Be brave and let them go! The space created will have its own gifts.

During this time, I continue to contemplate what nurtures goodness and appreciation, and attempt to focus on creating traditions that align with that. For instance, although I am buddhist, I find Advent calendars to be a lovely way for young children to connect to the magic of this time as well as a helpful channel for their anticipation - an energy that can quickly turn to grasping if left to its own devices or fed in the wrong ways. I made our own calendar and filled it with pictures of birds, elves, stars and other animals. They are enjoying opening a picture each day, though it can be hard to open just one. It is an interesting dance of patience and impatience! I have found this to be a lovely, grounding ritual to begin our mornings with, and each day we are also doing a small craft or baking session that produces a present to give to friends or family. Again, it is different for every family, but what traditions, either from your own lineage or another, resonate with you and your children, and remind you of goodness and appreciation? What traditions encourage generosity and reflection? I recommend focusing on those - just be careful what you choose, as young children will expect them to be repeated the following year!

In terms of gifts, our full undivided presence and attention are the greatest ones that we can give to our children. Notice if you have the impulse to overwhelm with material items. Is there another way you can share your love? Can you spend an afternoon sledding with them, baking cookies to enjoy together and give away, looking at the seasonal light displays? How much do our children really need? How can we celebrate these days without encouraging materialism and grasping? I leave this to you to contemplate for your own family. For us, we give only a couple of toys, and try to focus on spending time together doing special activities, most connected with crafting or being in nature as a family. For me, buying gifts can actually be an awareness practice - before buying something, we can look at 1) what is motivating me to get this? 2) what will the impact be on our family? 3) what is the impact on the earth? 4) is there something else, simpler, more connected, that I can give instead? 5) will this gift create more wanting in the recipient, or does it satisfy a more profound need?

There are many opportunities during this time to encourage the seeds of generosity in our children. Baking cookies to give to others, making cards together to mail, letting a little one put some money into a Salvation Army can. On Children's Day at our center, we will be bringing food to bless and give to a local food pantry. Just as there are countless beings suffering, there are countless ways to ease them, and children often have an intuitive grasp of how that can be done, although our own modeling will be a great influence.

Ultimately, we can use this time of year to create deeper connection and appreciation in our family rather than stress and discord. We can use this time to nurture our goodness rather than simply feed our fleeting desires. I wish everyone a beautiful season, one of compassion, peace, love and unshakeable confidence in basic goodness.