Thursday, December 30, 2010

mindful resolutions

Blogging is lighter than usual due to the winter festivities. As the new year of 2011 is almost upon us, I found this article today worth reading. Many of us torment ourselves in true samsaric fashion this time of year with making resolutions to do things better in some way. I guess I just want to chime in with the gentle reminder that things as they are, including you, are already basically good. I think to hold in your mindstream certain aspirations can be helpful, but only when embraced with gentleness and confidence in your own buddha nature. Even when we haven't showered in a week, haven't cleaned up the detritus from the holiday presents, are eating sugar cookies for breakfast and our children are still naked at noon, we are still basically OK, and so are they. Mindfulness is a process, a series of many steps, backwards and forwards and this way and that. It isn't anything we can wrap up in a shiny bow and point out to others. It is a slow, gentle wearing away of habitual patterns and learning how to open again and again and then again.

In other words, no quick fix. And it is perfectly perfect in that way. So when writing a list of resolutions, be easy on yourselves. Aspiring for more mindfulness, more compassion, more gentleness - very useful. And you are already perfect buddha mama and perfect buddha daddy. And it goes without saying of course, that your little or big ones are perfect buddhas as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

the gift of presence

Just a nice link to a little article on giving our children what they most desire - ourselves, present and authentic. Authentic because we are really just right here, right now with them. I would only add that by practicing mindfulness with our families, we are more able to be fully available to them. The more we can notice when we are not truly present with our children, and then bring ourselves back, the more this gift will be part of our daily lives with our families.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

true gifts

"The point is to look properly. See the colors: white, black, blue, yellow, red, green, purple. Look. This is your world! You can't not look. There is no other world. This is your world; it is your feast. You inherited this; you inherited these eyeballs; you inherited this world of color. Look at the greatness of the whole thing. Look! Don't hesitate - look!" - Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

We had our local Children's Day celebration, and it was a lovely time. The King and Queen dolls seem to approve, no? And my toddler was happy with our "Pin the Tail on the Dragon" game.

It was a very simple celebration, and small, and just right. There was great richness and vividness to it, in the colors, the songs, the jokes, the food shared in community. It was a wonderful little opportunity to share our basic goodness with one another, through the celebration of our children.

This has been a hard month for me, with lots of illness, doctor visits, emergency room forays (everyone is ok, although my toddler now has a dermabonded laceration on his forehead), lack of sleep, and so on. I have had some rough moments when I have felt I can't possibly give anything further. What has helped me is to pay attention, just continue to pay attention to what I am feeling, and who I am being. I have been allowing myself to touch my exhaustion, and my overwhelm. When I touch it, and don't judge it, but just look at it and allow myself to feel it without indulging in lots of thoughts around it, I can see that it is already changing, dissolving, turning into something else. That allows me to move forward, through it, and carry on with what needs to be done. It's been hard at times, but I am still here to tell the tale, so it has been working. Sense of humor has been helping as well. And the support of my sangha, both the sangha of practitioners and that of other parents who give me their warm encouragement and are generous enough to laugh with me and share their own challenges.

What has helped me most of all though, is gentleness. The gentleness that arises from dropping any judging of my experience. This gentleness has allowed me to open further to myself, my partner and my children, when my first instinct has been to get harder, withdraw and lash out. Not that I don't slip sometimes, but that is all part of our practice too. We stumble along, but we keep coming back - back to our breath, to our bodies, to our hearts, to our gentleness. This is why our teachers call this practice warriorship.

Basic goodness is always here, available to us in every moment. It just needs the gift of our attention for it to shine out. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche exhorted, all we need to do is simply look. Look! This great feast awaits us. The phenomenal world is so full of simple magic. Our children are attuned to it, as they are better at paying attention, better at simply being in the moment and allowing it to present itself to them in all its richness.

I wish us all a feast this solstice. It is a feast of our neurosis and of our clarity, of our aggression and of our compassion. Spicy and sweet. Happy and sad. Full of beauty. Completely real and ever changing. Spacious and open, like our minds.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Children's Day or preparing for the solstice

"Children's Day provides a special opportunity to express appreciation for and with our children."

Rather than celebrate Christmas or Chanukah in our household, we celebrate the joy and goodness to be found, even in the darkest times, with the Shambhala holiday of Children's Day. This link provides information if you are interested in finding out more about it. It is a holiday that connects us to the winter solstice while celebrating the joy and magic of our children.

We decorate our meditation center's shrine and our home shrines with pine boughs, twinkling lights, candy and toys, all offered to the King and Queen dolls, representing the masculine and feminine principles of skillful means and compassion, energy and space, father and mother. These dolls sit in the place of honor on the shrine. Some people purchase beautiful Japanese King and Queen dolls, while others make their own out of gingerbread, or paper, or felt, or perhaps pine cones - whatever is at hand and that is inspiring.

I love filling our home during this darkest time of year with light, warmth and the gifts of food, connection and kindness. My toddler can't ignore the omnipresent Santa Claus and the festive decorations in our USian city, and I, personally, really enjoy the example of generosity, community and celebration that is at the heart of these winter holidays. So, we are teaching our boys that Santa is a bodhisattva of generosity, that this is the time of year when we celebrate light amidst the darkness, and enjoying the pleasure they take in the various decorations, carols and lights. There is much magic to be found in these outer forms, and I don't want to deny them the joy found within.

I do however, wish to cultivate in them a mindfulness of consumption - to not mistake materialism for happiness. They are very young, so the concept of asking for gifts has not entered their mindstreams yet. They have very generous grandparents, who we have gently asked to give only simple gifts of natural toys, or to contribute to music lessons in lieu of a physical item. This works for now, although it is hard to contain their generosity. I am sure once the children are in school, influenced by peers and popular culture, we will have new challenges. I am hopeful that by nurturing a sense of contentment and appreciation for the richness inherent in every thing, they will be better able to discern between fleeting wants and actual needs when they are older, as well as able to use this time of year to connect to generosity. This Children's Day we will be collecting food items to donate to a food pantry, and when they are old enough, we would like to spend time around the solstice volunteering together as a family to help those less fortunate than we. We have also made it a tradition to put out food for the little creatures that inhabit our neighborhood - birds, squirrels, rabbits and so on, reminding ourselves that all beings want to be happy and free of discomfort.

However you choose to celebrate this season, there are so many ways to practice opening to others, by giving without the expectation of reciprocation or even appreciation, by practicing generosity with the pure aspiration of simply making other beings happy. We can use the season to cultivate friendliness towards ourselves and others, connecting to our gentleness and soft hearts rather than getting lost in the busyness of what we think we must do. We can be aware of own needs, keep things a bit simpler, and continue to let go of expectations and rest when we need to amidst all the "things to do". I have been trying to find time every day as we approach the solstice to just pause and connect to the present moment. When I can't meditate formally, I do this in the form of a short walk outside, or just sitting while my children play or nurse and taking some deep breaths, raising my gaze up and noticing, then gently letting go of whatever is arising in my mind. This helps create some space during a time when our lives can become quite claustrophobic with all the running around.

How do you work with mindfulness during this season? How will you be celebrating the solstice? Wishing you all peace during these shortening days, and that basic goodness, which "shines like the sun" as our teachers remind us, illuminates the dark.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

protect them from fear, expose them to cold

This is what a wise dharma friend who works in Chinese medicine once told me when I was worrying about bringing my then newborn son outside on a snowy day. As a November baby, I had lots of opportunities to expose him to the cold of an upstate New York winter while still at a tender age. And I have had countless opportunities to expose him to my own fears.

The path of parenthood is littered with fear and neurosis at times. New fears spring up daily, as the world can seem a very threatening place when caring for such vulnerable beings. And then there are the old fears, some buried very deep indeed, resurrected from our own childhoods and adolescence by seeing our children experience phenomena and other beings, with everything that can entail.

We can't protect our children from the world. What we can do is nurture in them both confidence in and curiosity about themselves and other beings and the world they live in. When we voice our fears to them or in front of them, that can cloud their own seeing. I don't mean we refrain from warning them not to touch a hot stove or not run into the street or not to drink and drive. But we can keep those warnings direct and pithy, and take action around them, rather than projecting the possibility of catastrophes or unnecessarily elaborating on imaginary dangers. Mindfulness of speech is our skillful means in this practice. We need to start with our own inner dialogues as parents, noticing when we are engaged in fearful or anxious thinking and gently letting it go.

We can encourage our children to explore the world and the people in it while holding them in our awareness. "Give the cow a wide meadow" is a common teaching for beginning meditators - it is a reminder to not be too tight with our meditation practice, which can lead to claustrophobia and difficulty in sitting. The same can happen with our parenting; when we notice things are too tight and we all are feeling overly anxious, we can give our children a wide meadow to explore in, while making sure the boundaries that surround it are secure. Protecting our children from our discursive, fearful thought patterns is a powerful way to secure those boundaries for them, so they experience the world with greater sanity and clarity.

Chogyam Trungpa taught that the world is basically good, and fundamentally trustworthy. This can be hard to have faith in at times, when so many dangers seem to surround us. But the more we can perceive things with clarity, unclouded by our projections, we can discern what will harm and what will nurture. We can bring the well wrapped baby out for a winter walk, or teach our teenager how to drive safely. We can do these things simply, without internal or external fretting and doubts. I think the more we do this, the more the goodness of the world will be revealed and our trust in it will increase. And perhaps we will learn to trust ourselves more as well.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

be grateful to everyone

"If we were to come up with one word about each of the troublemakers in our lives, we would find ourselves with a list of descriptions of our own rejected qualities, which we project onto the outside world. In traditional teachings on lojong it is put another way: other people trigger the karma that we haven't worked out. They mirror us and give us the chance to befriend all of that ancient stuff that we carry around like a backpack full of granite boulders." -Pema Chodron
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (Shambhala Library)

We are celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the United States, and so I have been contemplating this particular lojong slogan. It is a tough one. It is so tough that I often feel that if I was truly successful in following its teaching, I might actually wake up. Can I really be grateful to everyone? Not only that, but can I really be grateful to every circumstance that arises, no matter how challenging?

It is easy to appreciate the good things in our lives, the people and circumstances that make us happier. But to appreciate the other stuff - the people and situations that only cause us trouble and agita - well, that seems to take some practice. "Be grateful to everyone" is a radical way to live. It requires you to open up and let go when you would really prefer to close down, lash out, be right, hold onto a preference or opinion, and maybe just crawl into bed and stay there all day. It requires me to thank those circumstances and those sentient beings that I find difficult, distasteful or distressing. Because without them, I would have no opportunity to see where I still get stuck, caught up in this illusion/delusion of "me" and "mine". I would ultimately have no path to walk, nothing to transform. The difficult people and circumstances are the friendly reminders to me to wake up. They are the constant feedback telling me which way to go on the path, what I still need to make friends with. They show me where I still create suffering for myself and others.

In his teaching on this slogan, Chogyam Trungpa says some truly radical, ego shattering things. He also says a very small thing that always sticks with me: "if there is no noise outside during our sitting meditation, we cannot develop mindfulness". Our usual modus operandi is to try and protect ourselves from the noise, to shut it out. We want to try and wrap the world in bubble wrap rather than relate to the phenomena that arise constantly to disturb our peace of mind. But if we are really committed to manifesting our basic goodness and to getting unstuck, we need that noise, and we need those people - you know - those people that make us want to run away and wrap ourselves in bubble wrap. As I gather with family this week during the holiday, I will be holding this slogan sharply in focus. Our families are often so hard to be grateful to, especially when all gathered together with the expectation of having a celebratory day. So many buttons can be pushed during this time together. It is a good time to practice our mindfulness, especially with our children watching. A good time to practice gratitude for the troublemakers we know in our own inner circle - who hook us into our habitual pattern, into our old karma.

This is ultimately a friendly practice. It doesn't mean that we allow people to abuse us or walk all over us. If we need to set a boundary, then we do so. We can do that out of compassion for ourselves and our troublemakers, and not out of aggression. We do it out of gratitude. They are teaching us how to take care of ourselves, and by extension, others. This slogan can be contemplated on a daily basis, and I have found it invaluable in my own life with small children. There are times when I don't feel particularly grateful to my children even, and it is in those times that I bring this slogan to mind. It helps. I see where I am stuck. I see where I am not very friendly to myself and others. Slowly, I let go. Gentleness grows. Appreciation dawns.

So this Thanksgiving, try this slogan out for size when you feel like grabbing the turkey leg and running out the door. Or when the children are screaming in the car, when the person behind you in traffic cuts you off, when your mother-in-law makes her passive aggressive comment about your parenting, or whatever. Happy Thanksgiving, and as always, be gentle.

Friday, November 19, 2010

being present makes you happier

A great little article today in the New York Times about a scientific study measuring people's happiness when their minds wandered. I find it interesting that ultimately the author dwells more on staying busy than the power of being present in whatever one is doing, and he does not touch on meditation practice. But in any case, worth a read, and a good reminder of what it costs us when we are not present.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

letting go, again

"It is better to do nothing than to waste your time." - Sharon Salzberg

"Every morning, look in the mirror and repeat three times: "It's not about me." - Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Ah yes. These are the lessons I am still, always learning. I am always finding myself holding on so tightly to something or other - a project, a person, a storyline, a hope or a fear. I guess ultimately I am holding onto myself the very tightest - this illusory, shifting, changing self I call "me". Because I still make everything all about "me".

There is a traditional teaching on generosity that says if you are having trouble giving to others, start very small. Start by passing an apple from one hand to your other hand, back and forth, back and forth. Once you can do that without resistance, try giving the apple to someone else. I feel lately like I am starting very small when it comes to letting go. Leading up to Halloween for instance, I spent many late nights crafting a very cute costume for my toddler, a Thomas the Tank engine made from a box, poster paint, cardboard, glue and some other odds and ends. It looked awesome. When I first showed it to him, he ran around our apartment with glee and wanted to wear it immediately. Flash to the big night of trick or treating, and he adamantly refused to wear it. He screamed and tried to destroy it when it was placed on him. And I found myself beginning to fight him - trying to force him to wear the silly thing when coaxing wasn't working. When fighting him didn't work, I neurotically voiced my disappointment, using a line learned by heart in my own childhood "I don't know why I even bothered going to the trouble of making this for you!" Hearing me, my father who was present agreed, saying "Exactly right!" or something along those lines. And that's actually what stopped me in my tracks. He was the perfect mirror, reflecting back to me the frustrated resentment I was letting leak out onto my little one. I just stopped, walked into the other room and took a very deep breath. And then I started to laugh. Why did I care so much that he wore the costume? Had he even asked me to make him this train? He had only the barest notion of what the evening was celebrating. I was the one who wanted to make the costume. I was the one who wanted him to wear it. I was the one who wanted others to coo and praise him and me for the cuteness I had created. How ludicrous. How unnecessary. How silly to expect a certain outcome from a two year old. How painful to expect a certain outcome from any being, or for our particular agenda to work out in a particular way. How very much against the flow of life to insist on that particular agenda when things as they are say no to it.

So I let it go. I stopped wasting my time and my toddler's time. We dressed him in his winter coat (it was freezing), stuck an engineer's hat on him and off we toddled to receive refined sugary treats from strangers.

It was such a small thing to let go of, but it helped me realize how busy I still keep myself wasting time. I am always so busy with my projects, trying to mold reality into something more to my liking. And this causes me so much suffering, and causes those around me to suffer as well. It wasn't wrong to spend so much time and energy on my son's costume. It was just unhelpful for me to expect a certain reaction from him and others when presented with it. And it was really unhelpful for me to try and change that reaction into what I wanted it to be. It made me angry. It made him unhappy. Any space that existed around the gift and the night quickly contracted into neurosis and tears, because ultimately, I was making it all about me and what I wanted, and not about him and what he wanted. When I was able to see what I was doing and just let it go, the space opened right back up and we went on to enjoy our evening.

Almost every day I catch myself busy wasting time, trying to deny things as they are. I find myself pushing my projects onto my children. Whenever I start getting really frustrated or anxious around them, I need to stop and just look at what is going on. What am I up to? Is it really important that we go to the museum today? Is it really important that we not be late to this playdate? Is it really important that I spend 12 hours making the elaborate Thomas the Train birthday cake that will be forgotten in 2 seconds? Most of the time, the answer is "no". It's not crucial. We can relax, let go, and see where we really are and what is actually needed. We go to the playground instead. We call the other mama and tell her we are running a bit late today. I make a simple layer cake and let my son decorate it with animal charms from Red Rose Tea boxes. How happy he was when we presented the cake to him and our guests. How in love he is with the charms. How relaxed I was not having stayed up until all hours molding a train from cake and fondant. It can seem like doing nothing. And it is doing nothing, in the sense of not doing our habitual patterns. Not so busy being us. Better to be present to what is actually happening and respond authentically to that present in all its richness or chaos or boredom or whatever, than to waste our time trying to push it away, cover it up or force it into our very narrow expectations of how things should be.

This letting go takes practice, but the more I do it, the happier I seem to be.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

honoring our children

I just read an interview with the wonderful children's musician Raffi (forgive me, but I can no longer find the link to it) where he discussed his "Child Honouring" organization, dedicated to, in his words, "a vision, an organizing principle, and a way of life - the children-first way of sustainability." I found the covenant and principles he wrote in fulfillment of this vision very inspiring, and very much an expression of basic goodness and the importance of cultivating this goodness in our own heartminds and homes. Raffi has presented these principles to no less a bodhisattva than the Dalai Lama, who wholeheartedly agreed with the view and activity contained within them. I was really excited to read and contemplate his vision, as it seems so much in accordance with mindful parenting.

I see Raffi's vision as such: that through the recognition of our children as whole, sentient beings deserving of respect, love and happiness, we can begin to create households and larger communities that nourish them and within which our children can flourish. This endeavor seems central to creating a more sane and compassionate society and world. If we do not strive to respect and care for our children in a way that honors their goodness and wisdom, how can we manage to honor the adults in our life? Or the countless other beings who populate our world?

If you have a moment, please read his vision here. You will see that "Conscious Parenting" is prominent among the principles.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

birthdays and their lessons

"If we don’t understand impermanence, we don’t have a sense of immediacy. Without a sense of immediacy, we remain under the influence of the protracted illusion that we are eternal. In other words, we become very comfortable in our habits."
- Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

"They grow up so fast", people say. "It goes so quickly", kind strangers murmur at me in grocery stores, on the street, at the museum. "Before you know it, they'll be all grown up and you'll wonder when they will visit", this one from a middle aged man who passes us on a cold, autumn walk. "Appreciate it while you can." He adds, and sighs.

My eldest turned two this week. What more piercing example of impermanence than to see our children grow before our eyes? To change from this:

to this:

in lightning speed. How can you even pretend this living, changing thing is permanent and fixed?? What these strangers are really saying is "things change - be present." "Be present" they implore me. "Don't miss your life. Don't miss their lives." So I try to be present. To pay attention. To pay attention to them, and to the moment by moment unfolding of their little lives. "Appreciate your life", say the buddhas.

So, to my little big boy, thank you for teaching me the truth of impermanence. For giving me a definite reason for immediacy when I get too settled in my old habits. For making me appreciate my life. Here are some things I appreciate about the unique expression of buddhahood which you are:

The way you are so proud to have picked apples off the tree I lifted you up to, so proud that you then ate the entire half bushel in one week. How apple then became one of your first and most oft repeated words.

Your unexpected love of Halloween decorations, even the ghoulish ones. This has led me to enjoy a holiday I previously chose to ignore.

Your love of the wind, an element that I always associated with discomfort, but that I now associate with excitement and wild joy.

Our walks together, which are full of pauses and explorations of the sidewalk, pinecones, squirrels, birds, flowers, leaves, dirt mounds, rocks, cars, people. Because of your unbridled curiosity, I need to allow at least 30 minutes to travel three blocks, but our neighborhood now seems like a very large, friendly world.

The way you smell flowers so deeply, so passionately, and with such enthusiastic "Hmmm!" and "YuMM!" as though their colors and scents were nourishing the deepest parts of you.

Your love of trains and trucks and cars and all kinds of vehicles I previously knew nothing about. I have become an expert in all things vehicular due to your tutelage.

So many things, but most of all, the opportunity to wake up, again and again, no matter how many times I forget to just be here with you and your brother and your unfettered basic goodness. You have taught me more in the past two years than all my years of practice.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

bowing as the cure for the pain

“The cure for the pain is in the pain.” - Rumi

We celebrated Halloween this past weekend at my parents' house upstate. My elderly mother is ailing from late stage, multi-symptomatic Parkinson's Disease, and is being cared for very inadequately by my elderly father. I haven't been visiting as often as I would like since my youngest was born this past spring - the four hour trip is hard for us, and it is difficult to care for my children while also caring for my mother and father, and vice versa. Whenever we visit, the house is in complete chaos: emotional, physical and familial. It is very hard to not get pulled into that chaos, and lose one's mindfulness. I find that the difficult circumstances often lead to the unfortunate flowering of seeds of aggression - there is just so much fear and sadness in the situation, that it is hard to open to what is. Especially when the ancient family dynamics and neurotic habitual patterns are in play.

Sometimes my awareness is strong enough that I am able to see the pattern and pause, step away, not engage in the old scripts we have been acting for so long with one another, exacerbated by my mother's illness and my father's overwhelm. But this weekend, I really failed at it. I engaged in silly arguments with my husband, my father and my sister who was present. I literally cried when my toddler refused to wear the Halloween costume I spent all week working on for him. I gave into exhaustion and despair. I felt totally undone by the reality of the situation and instead of opening to it, touching my sadness, I just behaved like a big, stressed out grump.

How appropriate that during the time of year when evil spirits are said to walk about, I was overcome by my own ghosts and demons. Lately in my parenting, I have seen so clearly the places where, if I fail to bring my awareness to them, the neurotic patterns I have inherited from my family rise up and get projected onto my own babes. I have seen clearly the places where I hesitate, an old fear gripping me, preventing me from being in compassionate action, and I have seen where I want to just vomit out all of my own stuff - my fear, my resentment, my rage, whatever- onto my little ones. It is in those really claustrophobic moments, when I feel all the karma from my own past and mind hurtling out of me towards my children, that I am beginning to just bow to it and to them. I literally find myself stopping mid-sentence, and bowing to my toddler. "You are my perfect guru" I tell him repeatedly. When I am feeling paralyzed by fear, I kiss my baby and say to him "You are my perfect guru" as I wipe his nose. Something in me relaxes when I voice this. Something stops running away from my own mind and turns instead and bows - bows to my stuckness. Bows to the demons and the ghosts. And the bowing leads to them melting away.

What I realized this weekend is I need to bow to my family of origin as well, if I really want to stop the flow of karma. If I really want to end this lineage of neurosis, and not inject my children with the old familial poisons, I need to bow down to them. I need to touch the pain. Open to it, even though I really don't want to. It is too scary, too raw and, it feels at times, absolutely devastating. Sometimes instead of bowing, I would really prefer to just be really angry and right about what a toxic environment I grew up in. But I realize, that is just a thought, a story, a delusion. It isn't so solid, so permanent and monolithic. The more I open to my pain, the more holes seem to grow in it, the more it loosens and I can see through the cracks the moments of basic goodness and nurture that my parents and family gave and give me. By bowing to them, I offer up my heart, and recognize their hearts as well. I recognize their buddha nature, their goodness. I recognize their struggles. I recognize that they suffer, greatly. Then I can help. Instead of arguing with my father, I can move the carpet that keeps getting stuck under my mother's wheel chair. Instead of arguing with my husband, I can help him roll that carpet up and bring it to the basement. Instead of snapping at my sister, I can apologize to her and recognize she is really sad about my mother dying. I can touch my own sadness about my mother dying instead of covering it up with all that aggression and fear. And I can begin to work with my tangled feelings around that, and begin to unwind them and let them go.

As the great yogi Milarepa wrote:
Previously, I was confused by delusion, And staying in the dwelling
of ignorant confusion,
I perceived gods who help and demons who harm as real...
With the realization that confusion is groundless,
The water that reflects the moon of awareness is clear of murkiness.
The sun of luminosity, free of clouds,
Clears away the darkness of ignorance from the edges.
Deluded confusion disappears.
The true nature arises from within.
The precious thought that perceives demons
Is the wonderful clarifier of the unborn bias.

Bowing to our demons- what a powerful practice for the Halloween season.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

sangha part 2

"Finally, we take refuge in the sangha, the people who are on the path with us. Those who are in the sangha are warriors, because they are trying to overcome samsara. Members of the sangha support one another and care for one another. They are not perfect, but they inspire us because they are people who want to deepen their practice of mindfulness, awareness and compassion...We realize that there are other people around who are going through the same thing. That gives us a feeling of encouragement."- Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

It was lovely to read the comments that some of you left when I asked for some companionship a couple of weeks ago. It was so encouraging. So often on the path of parenting and of awakening one can feel a bit lonely. Lonesome. Alone. A bit like, "does anyone else go through this???" Which is why it is so important to connect to other parents who are also walking, running, stumbling, dancing, wailing along this crooked path. Particularly in this age and culture when we often do not have the proximity or support of blood relations in raising our children up. It becomes absolutely necessary once you have a child to seek others out, even if previously you were the last person to do so. Having a child forces one to exit any self-imposed seclusion - you have to begin to extend outward into the world, because that is what your child naturally needs and wants to do. In order for our children to thrive, their world needs to expand ever outwards, and that necessitates that our world expands as well.

I have always found it wonderful how children of a certain age and temperament will say "hello" to almost anyone and anything. They do not make distinctions. I have exchanged beautiful smiles and laughter with many a baby only to look up at a scowling mama or daddy - lol! Chogyam Trungpa once said that the dharmic person says "Hello" in a crowded elevator, even if he or she is the only person to do so and gets no reply. Babies are true buddhas, aren't they? They don't need anyone to tell them to connect!

However, in terms of who we surround ourselves and our families with on an intimate level, I think we can make some necessary distinctions. The Buddha taught extensively on the importance of good companions on the spiritual path - going so far as to say that having admirable companions was "the whole of the spiritual path". I think we often become aware with our children that who they are close friends with is very important. It is also important for us as mindful parents to be conscious of the people we gather with, to make sure that their friendship is nourishing to us and our families, that it encourages us rather than depletes us or discourages us.

This doesn't mean we close our hearts to other beings, or don't befriend people who are suffering, or don't say "hello" to everyone. I think it means that we are mindful of who we choose to invite into our private spaces, who we choose to share our struggles with, who we ask for advice, who we hire to nurture our children. I think it can also help us begin to discern when we need to set a compassionate boundary with our families when they question or undermine our parenting choices.

What I look for in a parenting friend is kindness, gentleness towards their children and others, some sense of integrity to their word, open hearts - if they demonstrate basic sanity in how they manifest in the world. Or if they are trying to be sane in how they manifest in the world.

Ultimately, we can view the entire world of beings as our sangha, and relate to them all as our teachers, treating them with friendliness and compassion. But on the relative level, the more I surround myself with friends who are working with some sense of awareness, some sense of mindfulness in the world and in their parenting, the more encouraged I feel on my own path. The world we live in is often dedicated to eradicating mindfulness and compassion. Let us build and strengthen our community of family and friends so that basic goodness and the magic born from awareness are what our children are surrounded by.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

excellence of bodhichitta

There is a lovely article in the latest issue of the "Shambhala Times" by Ani Pema Chodron about bodhichitta. Worth a read if you have the time!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

what to accept and what to reject

"Nobody else can really begin to sort out for you what to accept and what to reject in terms of what wakes you up and what makes you fall asleep. No one else can really sort out for you what to accept - what opens up your world - and what to reject - what seems to keep you going round and round in some kind of repetitive misery." - Pema Chodron

We got our computer room painted. Or I should say, the back bedroom where our computer resides had paint dropping off the ceiling, so after many entreaties, our landlord finally came in one cold Saturday and painted it an institutional green color, then closed the windows tight and left. So we have been airing out the room for the past week, exhausting out the chemical gasses with fans and open windows in chilly fall temperatures. Which means that I have been unable to blog and unable to go online at all, which, in a way, has been great.

While blogging is something that I would like to cultivate as it helps keep me on the path of mindfulness and compassion, being online in general is something I really really need to cut down on, or reject, to use dharma terms. We don't have a television, so I use the computer as my source of mindless (as in makes me lose all mindfulness/awareness) entertainment. This kind of indulgence or cultivation of mindlessness in turn makes me feel sluggish, resentful, unmotivated and just squashes my lungta, or chi. Even worse, when I am online, my children want to go online also. My infant wants to know what is magnetizing me in the middle of a playtime and my toddler really wants to watch a Thomas the Train video on the web. And how can I say no to them when I am there, glued to the screen, scrolling through my email? I may only spend five minutes doing that, but that is enough for my children to become distracted. So the mindlessness spreads, as do its attendant symptoms.

As a practitioner of mindfulness, I have often been admonished by my teachers to be aware of what I am cultivating in my heartmind. Am I watering the seeds of compassion and wisdom or am I watering those of ignorance and aggression? This awareness of what we are cultivating internally can extend out into our external lives as well. What are we putting our attention on, what are choosing to bring into our day to day lives with our children? Is what we are bringing in encouraging sanity, clarity, compassion, and joy in their lives? Or is it watering the seeds of distraction, dissatisfaction, anxiety? Are we encouraging their nourishment or their ill health? What I have found is that if something in our daily lives is nourishing us, it gives us energy, connection and contentment. And if it is not nourishing us, it leaves us cranky, drained and checked out.

When I was pregnant with my children I was very conscious of what I was eating, as whatever I ingested would enter into their growing brains and bodies as they waited within me, readying for their births. Now that they are in this realm, I sometimes am not so conscious of what I am feeding them in terms of daily nurturing. With small children, a habit can be acquired extremely quickly, as they cling to routine and sameness. Hence, my toddler now expects a cookie from the corner Italian deli every Tuesday after library storytime- all due to the fact I had to buy lunch there two weeks in a row and the deli man kindly offered him a cookie when he saw my son was impatient. And if he sees me on the computer, he expects to be able to watch a video.

These aren't big, terrible habits. But within them I see the seeds of habitual tendencies that can lead to closing up rather than opening. And I see as one of my main jobs as a mama to be the tender encouragement of opening to the world and other beings. So this week I am beginning to focus on what I can accept into our world that will assist us in this opening, and what I need to reject. What leaves us energized and what leaves us checked out? I made this list of things to accept and cultivate. I think it really helps to look at these kinds of lists as things that nourish us and help us in our sanity, rather than things we should be doing:

1) daily meditation and contemplation: for me with two under 2, this means having my toddler ring my meditation gong in the morning, doing a short morning chant and letting him and my infant play in my lap while I sit quietly for a few minutes. If they are not having it, then just the gong and the chant is enough.

2) keeping the radio, music and videos off until after naps in the afternoon, when we can use them for a transition time of about 30 minutes. This is a hard one for us, as my toddler is really habituated now to waking up and watching a video as I check my email. This means mama is no longer online until the children are asleep at night.

3) saving treats like cookies, cake etc. for special occasions or at the most once per week. This is also hard as I am a former professional baker and chocolatier. Which means I still bake, a lot. Ahem.

4) continuing to cultivate mindful speech around my children and with others. This also means speaking with gentleness. This too has been hard lately, as my toddler has been entering the defiant stage known as the terrible twos.

5) going to bed at a decent hour. This means mama as well. Being offline this week really helped me with that as my old tendency was to stay up to all hours surfing the net while my children dozed.

It is interesting to note the pull towards those habits which do not nourish, but keep us distracted and closed down. I have noticed it all week - the pull to the computer in the poisoned paint room! Look at what it took to keep me out - noxious fumes! What are your lists? What do you want to cultivate in your daily life with your children, and what to you want to reject? As with all things on the path, just remember to relax with it all, to be gentle with yourselves, and keep walking along.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Hello fellow travelers along the path of waking up through our parenting,

This is a crazy week here in our household, with my husband working many late nights and I am feeling rather tired and overwhelmed. I have a couple of topics I have been contemplating and that will be sharing with you all soon, but in the meantime, if you are in the mood, it would be so lovely to hear from you in my comments section. The importance of sangha, or community, on the path is crucial. To know that there are other people stumbling along besides us, sharing in the same challenges and the same victories - it is just such a precious thing, and so heartening. If you are feeling a bit brave, or maybe a bit shy, (but ready to be brave), then please share in this space a bit about yourself and your path of parenting. It would mean so much to me. I am sure it will help give me some of the energy I need to sit back down at the keyboard and share with you all!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

appreciating ourselves

"A great deal of the chaos in the world occurs because people don't appreciate themselves."
— Chögyam Trungpa (Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior)

I was watching my toddler today play with a group of slightly older children at a local indoor play space. As mentioned before in this space, he is cautious by nature and can become slightly overwhelmed in groups of children. This sometimes translates into him being bulldozed by other little ones - they take his toys right out of his hands or push him aside, and instead of taking the toys back or protesting, he shrinks a bit, steps away or clings to me. I don't want him to be aggressive towards other children, and I want him to share willingly, but I also really want him to appreciate himself and his own right to be there, to be here, on this good earth. I believe that if this is cultivated in him, he will be able to feel confident and gentle towards others at the same time, without the need to shrink. How can I help nurture that in him and his brother?

It is so hard at times to appreciate our own good hearts and minds. Probably because we don't often view our hearts and minds as being particularly good. Instead, we tend to view ourselves as being terribly flawed, or unlovable, or a mess, or maybe unkind, or ... you fill in the blank. It can depend on the day, who we are with, how much external circumstances live up to our expectations of how our lives should look. It can be very hard to see ourselves as basically good, sane beings if we have just yelled at our child or put our foot in our mouth, or made some kind of normal, human mistake. This isn't a new topic for me, but I think it can be useful to return to it, as I know in my own daily life, I am so often lacking in loving kindness for myself. And when I am lacking in loving kindness towards myself, it becomes very difficult to feel it towards others. That's the funny thing we begin to see more and more as we practice mindfulness and awareness in our daily lives. It is very difficult to open from a place of aggression towards oneself. It is very difficult to consider the basic goodness of others if we don't think it is in ourselves. So if we really want to appreciate our children in all their uniqueness, quirkiness, crankiness, brilliance, beauty and energy, and really want our children to appreciate all of that in themselves, then we need to appreciate our own messy humanness.

What does appreciating oneself mean? How do we begin to truly trust in our own basic wakefulness and compassion? For me, meditation has been the space where I have been able to see my own naked heart and rest with it, no matter what. The more I have been able to rest with it in all its moods and thoughts about the past and future, its little and big desires, its little and big mistakes- the more I am able to feel kindness towards myself. By seeing how truly human I am, I am somehow able to see how human everybody else is too, and slowly, slowly, begin to love and appreciate myself and others more and more. It is so tender, this being human. It is such a precious experience, even in the chaos and the suffering. We can begin to appreciate all of that, the more we work with not judging what arises within ourselves or outside of ourselves. Just staying with what is happening, and letting go of what arises again and again.

Another potent practice has been loving kindness or metta contemplation practice. This is a practice where you send loving kindness to yourself. Once you have worked with sending loving kindness to yourself, then you begin to send it to other beings. First you send loving kindness to someone who has helped you, who you respect. Then you work with sending loving kindness to someone you love, then to a person you feel neutral about (like the mailman or a grocery clerk) and then to a person you actively dislike. Eventually, you extend this loving kindness aspiration out to all beings throughout time and space.

There are many traditional phrases you can use during metta practice, but I like to use the following, as adapted from Sharon Salzberg's book, "Loving Kindness":

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be free from danger.
May I live a happy life.

Again, always begin with yourself. After a few minutes of wishing yourself genuine happiness, you can bring someone who has helped you to mind who you respect. Then it is lovely to bring your children to mind and wish that they be happy, healthy, free from danger and so on. And then the neutral party, and then the person you struggle with. If you are pressed for time, it can be as simple as when you wake up or are going to sleep to just say to yourself "May I be happy. May so and so be happy. May my children be happy." etc. Or just start with "May I be happy." You can work with that throughout your day. You are strapping yourself into your seatbelt in the car: "May I be happy". You reach for a snack from the fridge: "May I be healthy". You are changing a diaper: "May I be free from danger." Just bring it to mind whenever you notice where your mind is. Whenever you notice where your mind is, space occurs. You can choose what to put into that opening.

This is a simple but very powerful practice. The more you work with it, the more you can notice. Is it hard to wish yourself happiness? Is there a tightness around it? Irritation? Sadness? Just keep noticing and come back to "May I be happy".

We deserve to be here, on this beautiful earth. Basic goodness is our birthright, our inheritance when we come into being. Being human is a precious experience. The more we cultivate appreciation for ourselves in all of our humanness, mistakes and all, the more our children will see their own goodness, and appreciate their right to be here too.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

should our children make us happy?

"People who have experienced the Great Eastern sun are constantly gentle and fearless, whereas those who are still trapped in the world of the setting sun are aggressive and fearful. Whenever genuine sadness attempts to enter their minds, they try to block it from happening. The setting-sun version of enjoyment is to forget your gentle sadness and instead become aggressive and "happy." However, what you're experiencing is neither real happiness nor enjoyment."
-Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche, Smile at Fear

Several friends have brought this recent article in New York magazine to my attention. My first reaction to reading it was, "Oh great. Another article about how awful being a parent is." Our USian culture teems with such articles, studies, opinions on how terrible it is to be a parent. How draining children are. These stories are always full of the words "freedom" and "joy" and "happiness". As in, having children will destroy all of the above. I find these articles unsurprising, as they arise from a country, (the United States) that I believe is, if not outright hostile to children and child rearing, then definitely very ambivalent towards them.

But digging deeper, I think that these types of articles and studies actually arise naturally from the context of samsara, which I use here to mean, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu so eloquently describes, "the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. As one world falls apart, you create another one and go there." Chogyam Trungpa describes it above as "setting sun". It is our human tendency when distrustful of our basic goodness, to search for comfort in other people, other situations, other things. We keep thinking we can find happiness, freedom, joy, anywhere but right here, in the present moment, with everything contained within it. Our present minds, bodies, environs, and so on. The more we turn away from the present moment, the more we live in the past and future - dreams and fantasies. We keep thinking something different will change everything, will finally make us happy. The new job, the new partner, the new friend, the new house . . .the new and improved me. We put enormous expectations then on the job or the partner or the new and improved me, expectations of great happiness. And when those expectations are inevitably disappointed, the world crumbles (or often, we destroy it) and we move on to the next one.

Until we wise up to what we are doing, our children are not exempt from this search. With mindfulness, we can contemplate our relationship to our children, from conception through birth and on through raising them. We can notice if we are subtly laying on them the burden of making us happy. Of giving us joy. Of not taking away our freedom. Of confirming us in some way. Being in mindful, compassionate relationship to other beings means giving over. Giving over of one's self. Letting go of one's wish to always be comfortable. To always have the world cater to our own desires and needs. It also means letting go of our profound desire to have others confirm us. Confirm that we exist in some real, solid way. All relationships ask this of us, not just those with our children. But our children really make it clear! It can be quite shocking, how inconsiderate our children can be of our own needs. It can be quite uncomfortable, living in that space of not getting confirmation, especially from beings so dear to us. But why do we expect them to give that to us?

It's an old, tired line, right? Don't expect others to make you happy? I think the root of the problem though is we are so confused as to what real happiness is. As Chogyam Trungpa writes above, happiness is often conceived to be this cranked up, aggressive, state of untrammeled joy. Freedom to do what we want. Such a state, like all others within samsara, is impermanent and bound to change to fear, sadness, anger. Such joy and freedom are false and unsustainable. It is all about us. True happiness seems to be found in those moments when we are able to loosen our grip on ourselves and extend out to others. We can view parenting in this way - as a constant loosening and extending out to our children. Then it stops being their responsibility to make us happy.

What I have found in those moments when I am able to let go of my "self" and open to my children, is that I often feel genuinely happy. I feel present. I am able to notice the ordinary magic contained in the very ordinary things and people that surround me. This is a quiet kind of happiness. But it is very potent. And the more you open to it and allow it in, the more you will find that your children and other beings you encounter become gateways to this joy, rather than obstacles. And beneath this joy is indeed sadness. It is the beautiful, bittersweet, genuine sadness that arises from having an open, tender heart. Being touched, pierced, by the world and the beings in it.

This path isn't easy. Parenting is hard work. It is often stressful. It challenges our emotions, our physical bodies, our psyches, our bank accounts . . .but honestly, I have yet to discover any genuine path that does not pose similar challenges. As Chogyam Trungpa writes,

We are, in our own way, pioneers: each is a historical person on his own journey. It is an individual pioneership of building spiritual ground. Everything has to be made and produced by us. Nobody is going to throw us little chocolate chips or console us with goodies.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

smile practice

"Fear can be conquered...You can step on fear, and therefore, you can attain what is known as fearlessness. But that requires that, when you see fear, you smile." - Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Having a sense of humor can be hard when your children are screaming in the middle of the grocery store, your favorite pot and the dinner in it are burning on the stove, or you realize you left the lunch sitting on the counter at home. It can be hard to smile when you are in the middle of one of those moments of feeling so completely overwhelmed and undone by the journey of parenting that you think "I can't do this".

In those moments, if you can remember to try and breathe, you may find that underneath that feeling of not being able to handle your life, your children, your reality, underneath the current of thoughts and doubt, is the shaky churning feeling of fear. If you can touch that, continue to breathe, feel your feet on the good earth, your good heart beating away in your chest, you may be able to drop deeper and touch what lies beneath the fear. You may be able to touch the sad, happy, broken heartedness of being a human being. A basically good human being. And then you can try to smile. It might be a feeble smile at first. A small, tentative smile. But if you relax into that small, shy smile, it will grow.

The wonderful Vietnamese teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely little smile practice: When you are feeling stuck, you can close your eyes and repeat to yourself, "Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment." I actually do this with my toddler when he is very upset- I hold him and I repeat to him "breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile." It can be that short. It helps us when we are caught up in the tightness of frustration and anger. We smile together. Or maybe I smile. Just me.

Out of that smile, so much becomes possible. Smiling is a way of opening to what is. When we open to what is, we automatically lighten up. The heaviness of our situation is immediately ventilated and we can even laugh. A burnt pot, a frustrated child, an embarrassed parent - we can laugh with gentleness at the phenomena of the moment, knowing that it will soon be a passing memory, like every other moment. Knowing this, that this moment and the next and the next after that are flowing, changing, arising, then passing away- this can help us smile when we feel so stuck. That stuck feeling comes up when we cling to phenomena - try to make it solid and permanent when it is like a reflection in a pool of water. Our smile is like the wind that shakes the image - we can let go, just like that.

The more we smile and the more we let go, the more fearless we become on this path. We can do this. We can. We can have confidence in ourselves to walk the path of parenting with sanity and joy. We don't have to spend our time on this journey just trying to keep it all together. Let it fall apart. Then smile. That's enough sometimes.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

start where you are

"We already have everything we need.
There is no need for self-improvement...
We are one blink of an eye from being fully awake." - Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (Shambhala Library)

I spent the morning with my babes at a local meeting for fellow baby-wearers - mothers and fathers who carry their babies on them in various structured and non-structured slings, wraps, carriers and so on. I've been wanting to attend for a couple of years now, and there were lots of other parents there and babies of all ages. It was lovely. And it was also hard.

Start where you are. The teacher Pema Chodron has a wonderful book with this title, full of pith teachings on compassion in everyday life. Our everyday life. It has become a parenting mantra for me. I repeat it to myself throughout the day. We have to start where we are. This is where we will wake up. Nowhere else. Not on a mountain. Not in a monastery. Not when we have lost those 10 pounds. Not when we are finally together, happy, "good" people or "good" parents.

My toddler is slow to warm up to groups. We met at a large playground, very spread out and bounded by busy streets. This made it difficult when, intimidated by the group, he spent the morning running away trying to find the car so he could go home. I was trying to get some advice on how to get my youngest onto my back in a carrier by myself and so it was a bit of a juggling act, keeping my toddler close to me and relatively calm while experimenting with my infant (who by the way, was quite unhappy about being put on my back with a stranger's help). I got the advice, I fed my toddler a snack, and we got back in the car and went home, rather than linger and risk more upset. None of this was a big deal, just a normal navigating of a new experience for my little ones and me. But I was aware of my mind when the other mothers commented on my eldest.

They meant well. But because my son was behaving in a different manner than the other toddlers, he stood out. And some of the mamas looked a bit askance to me, and one asked if he was not feeling well or something along those lines. I replied that he was feeling fine, but groups are challenging for him. He is a cautious little guy. Like his mama. It takes him a while to feel comfortable in new surroundings and around new people. This isn't a problem. It is only a problem when I make it one, or allow others to make it one.

You have to start with your body, your mind and your heart, just as they are. With your children, just as they are. Your partner, just as he/she is. Your home, just as it is, as cluttered, dirty, filled with pet hair...whatever. We often have the idea that certain things have to be in place or our lives have to look a certain way before we can practice mindfulness. Or that our children should be a certain way before we can really enjoy them. Our lives a certain way before we can enjoy them. This just keeps us running running running towards something that we already have present in every moment.

It is true that we need our basic needs met - food, shelter, a certain level of physical safety, before we can turn our minds outwards. Once those needs are met though, we can wake up. Just like that. We can be joyful. Just like that. Compassionate, wise, patient ...all of that is available to us, every moment, just as we are. There is no place we need to get to. No way we need to be. And the same holds true for our children. Just as we are training to trust in our basic sanity, we are training to trust in their's.

We can stop in the middle of our child's tantrum, the middle of our messy apartment, the middle of our chaotic morning, and stop pushing. Stop pushing our child to be a certain way, or pushing for our breakfast to be something other than it is or our cat to stop shedding all over the clean laundry. It gets so claustrophobic, trying to make our lives fit into how we "think" they should look or feel. There is no space there, and it is so easy to panic. Starting where you are means accepting everything for what it is. And then acting out of that. Making a choice, rather than feeling driven to do something, to feel a certain way. Rather than feeling the need to in some way apologize for ourselves and our situation.

So that's what I told myself today, when I felt my insides tighten while my toddler cried, my infant pulled my hair, and the other mama furrowed her brow at me. Start where you are. This moment, this life, these children. I could smile, laugh genuinely, and tell her, "yes, groups are hard for him sometimes. We are going home now for a nice lunch." As soon as we were back in the car, his smile returned and he agreed with me that we should go back to that nice playground with daddy, just not with all those other people. We went home, enjoyed the fall sunshine on the front walk while drawing with some chalk, went inside and had a nice lunch. Blue sky, smiles and lots of space to be exactly where we were.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

giving up our expectations of applause

More than to expect thanks, it would be helpful just to expect the unexpected...We can begin to open our hearts to others when we have no hope of getting anything back. We just do it for its own sake. On the other hand, it's good to express our gratitude to others. It's helpful to express our appreciation of others. But if we do that with the motivation of wanting them to like us, we can remember this slogan. We can thank others, but we should give up all hope of getting thanked back. - Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (Shambhala Library)

"Don't expect applause." This is one of the lojong mind-training slogans that I come back to again and again in my practice and life as a parent. Sometimes it comes to me with a laugh, and sometimes with a sob. I guess it depends on how spacious my mind is feeling at the moment - when it is very contracted into "me" and what "I" would like, it can be painful to be reminded of this teaching. To see how tight my heart and mind can get and how challenging it can be to give to another being, to my own children, and not receive anything in return. No confirmation of how good I am. How kind and patient and generous. No confirmation of being lovable, that I actually exist in some way. How uncomfortable this can be! We are so habituated to look for something, anything in return for our acts of generosity. We get mad if we hold the door for someone and they don't say "thank you"! Then our children enter our lives and we are asked to give to them in such a primal, total, unending way. From giving over our physical bodies to giving them our time, our energy, our possessions, our food...everything and everything again. How can our children ever truly acknowledge this generosity? How can they acknowledge our basic goodness if we do not truly trust it ourselves?

This is one of the reasons why parenting with mindfulness can be an incredibly quick and powerful path to waking up our hearts. When our children are infants, new to the world, they cannot confirm us. They are completely, totally dependent on us for every need and we must give to them, endlessly, ceaselessly, in order for them to survive and thrive as beings in this realm. It doesn't matter if we are tired, we must care for them. It doesn't matter if it is 3:00 am and completely inconvenient, we must care for them. It doesn't matter if we are sick, we must care for them. And they don't say thank you. They don't even smile until they are nearly three months old!
All the parenting manuals say something along the lines of "with that first smile, all the work of the first few months is suddenly worthwhile." What if it is all worthwhile anyway? First smile or no?

Through all their stages of development, there will be many instances where our children do not conform to our expectations of what we would like, or what we think we deserve from them. Can we continue to give to them in these instances, surrendering our attachment to being acknowledged? If we can't do that with our children, how can we truly give selflessly to others outside our family?

I am not saying we should not teach our children appreciation or manners - not at all. The more we teach our children about basic goodness and how it exists in all beings, and how we need to treat others in a way that honors that goodness, the more kindness, appreciation and true gratitude will flow from them.
But we may find it useful to look at our motivations when we give, both inside and outside our family. Can we notice anything behind our impulse to help, any subtle wish of being liked by the other person, or desire to be seen as generous, or disappointment when the other person, (whether our child, our partner, our neighbor), doesn't respond in a particular way? Do we constantly feel unacknowledged for what we do for others? What I have noticed the more I meditate and work with this slogan is that the more I look for acknowledgement, the more tired and angry I feel when I don't get it. And inevitably, the acknowledgement is not enough. When we doubt our basic goodness and look to others to confirm it for us, we will invariably be disappointed.

Ultimately, we are being called to give everything to everybody, whether they like us or not, appreciate us or not, even whether we like them or not! So we need to practice in our daily lives with our dear children, noticing when we want to hold back from them, when we feel a bit hurt by their lack of interest in confirming us and our needs. Working with slogans such as "don't expect applause" is a powerful way to connect to awakened generosity. If you have the time in your day, you could practice meditation for a little bit, then contemplate this slogan, using it as the object of meditation and watching what arises in your mind while you work with it. This can be brief, even just a few minutes. If you don't have that much time even (and there are many days when I don't) then just write it down on a post-it or piece of paper and place it where you might see it - maybe your bathroom mirror, or above your kitchen sink. When it catches your attention during your day, just pause for a moment, let it sink in, and carry on. If it arises in your mind during an activity or an interaction, just notice it. Maybe it will cause you to do something different. This can be a very rich and fruitful practice that can transform our habitual ways of interacting with others.

There are many lojong slogans, all incredibly potent at softening our hearts and minds. I think the best book on lojong is Chogyam Trungpa's book, "Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness". If you have a favorite slogan you find useful in your own parenting, please share it in comments!

Monday, August 30, 2010

gentleness and making mistakes

There seems to be no end to doing things wrong, messing things up all the time.We are sort of trapped in that kind of negative “oy vey” situation. On the other hand, very interestingly, there is lots of room to make mistakes. That’s true, absolutely true. But such room for mistakes cannot be created unless there is surrendering, giving, some kind of opening. If we can give away our aggression or attempt to give it away, if we attempt to open up and to strip away our territoriality and possessiveness—then there is lots of room for making mistakes. - Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

It seems to me that gentleness is the parenting tool that when cultivated, yields the most rewards for us and our children. But it can be so hard sometimes to be gentle, and so easy to be aggressive, especially if we didn't grow up with gentle parenting ourselves, or when we doubt our own goodness. My toddler is rapidly approaching the age of two, and the challenging period of meltdowns that this particular period is fertile with seems already upon us. It can be very challenging to maintain my patience with him at times, especially if my infant is in need of my immediate attention. My toddler is having a hard time sharing me lately, and this leads to some difficult situations during our days, where I begin to wish there were two of me to better manage! I have been having moments of feeling I am making mistake after mistake after mistake in my role as mama.

It can be hard to act with gentleness consistently towards our children when we cannot be gentle towards ourselves. Mistakes will be made in our parenting, often on a daily basis. We have to accept that. We will often act out of habitual pattern, and we have to accept that too. But if we manage to stay aware, to recognize when we are acting habitually, unmindfully, with aggression, impatience, and so on, then we can let go. As Chogyam Trungpa says, we can let go of our aggression, our neurosis, and surrender to the present moment. Surrendering to the present moment may mean that we really feel that knot in our stomach as our child screams at us. Or the tightness in our throats as we touch our anger. Maybe we will see that our anger is not about our child and their actions but about something else - the fight we had with our partner that morning, our lack of sleep, our wish to have some quiet- often a thousand other things. Perhaps our child touched a button, long buried in us, that we no longer remembered even existed. And somehow, in that moment of their own frustration and difficulty, they managed to find it! We can bow to our children in that moment for being our wisest teacher. That act of bowing, of surrendering our button, our ground, creates a huge space for us, or opening to use Trungpa Rinpoche's word. A huge opening where gentleness can occur. Where we can touch our tenderness, see the tenderness in our children, and start again. Fresh start.

Chogyam Trungpa taught often on the idea of "fresh start". Basic goodness does not go away. Buddha nature does not leave the room even though we are yelling like a tyrant or feeling stuck. It just gets obscured. Like clouds that pass in front of the sun. Mindfulness is the gentle breeze that blows those clouds away so our true nature can shine out. That breeze creates the fresh start. It's like an automatic reset button. We find we are lost in the past or the future, in a story line, a pattern, overtaken by the energy of anger, despair, and so on and seeing that, we touch it, let it go and... fresh start. Here we are again. In this room, in this body. How do our feet feel on the floor? The air against our skin? That tear on our child's face - we can see it now. Maybe we can touch into their frustration as well as our own. We can breathe into our own pain, whatever it may be, and breathe gentleness to ourselves and to our children. Fresh start. We wipe away the tear, get down to their level, and work it out sanely. Fresh start. New moment. We touch our basic goodness and can begin to act out of that, rather than our stuckness.

We are going to make mistakes continually as parents and as human beings. What matters is how we relate to those mistakes and to all the other moments that surround them. Mistakes do not mean we are bad parents or bad people. They just mean we are learning. And our children will learn from us as they see how we relate with gentleness towards our own errors and move forward. That is a powerful gift to them. I wish us all gentleness and confidence in our own goodness this week, and truly, always.

Monday, August 23, 2010

cultivating compassion

Relative bodhichitta comes from the simple and basic experience of
realizing that you could have a tender heart in any situation.
- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

There is a story about the Buddha that tells of one of his many incarnations in which he was an ox in the hell realm. In this form, he pulled a heavy cart while yoked to another ox with chains of fire. The cart was very heavy, and the chain burned and cut into him ceaselessly. He was devoured by physical pain and suffering. Then one day, he noticed the ox beside him, and became aware of how that ox also suffered terribly. In this noticing, Buddha's heart opened, and he was filled with the aspiration that his fellow ox be free of the pain and burden that he himself suffered. In that moment of noticing and opening, bodhichitta, or awakened, tender heart, blossomed and buddha nature peeked through.

All beings want to be happy and free of suffering. The more we know this in a true, felt sense, the easier it becomes to open our hearts to others and manifest with kindness in the world. Our children provide us with powerful, daily opportunities to practice this deepening and opening. In our day to day interactions with our children, we can sometimes forget that they are unique sentient beings with their own individual desires for happiness as we struggle to keep up with the demands of caring for them, keeping them safe, working to support them whether outside or inside the home and so on. We can begin to get speedy and stop seeing things from their point of view. This can lead us in turn to rush them through their days, fill up with activities any space that occurs, and slowly lose mindfulness of body, speech and mind as we relate to them. We may handle them less gently, or speak more harshly. We find it difficult to allow them the pauses they need to relax and extend outward into the world, exploring slowly while held gently in our awareness. Instead of making our hearts more tender, we begin to seek to protect our hearts and our bodhichitta goes into hiding.

A few weeks ago I came across a blog posting where the author wrote about adult privilege as it relates to the personhood of children - in other words, how challenging the world can be for a child, and how so much that we as adults take for granted is not available or doable for our children, from simple body autonomy to what they eat or where they sleep or play. The essay contains a long list of privileges denied to children. This list has given me much food for thought, and has become a bit of a touchstone for my daily parenting. I find it to be a great heart "tenderizer"! It has helped me see more clearly how my actions impact them for better or for worse in their daily experience of basic goodness and primordial confidence. By primordial confidence I mean a confidence in their own true sanity and wisdom that is not shaken by circumstances or conditions. As mindful parents, how can we build this confidence?

This list has made me more mindful of how I interact with my children in terms of body, speech and mind. It has watered the seed of bodhichitta in me as I open my heart to how challenging it is to be little. When we water the seeds of bodhichitta in ourselves, we create a relationship with our children where they are treated with compassion, respect, gentleness and understanding. They can't help but gain trust in the goodness of themselves, others and the world when this becomes part of their daily life. This cultivation of gentleness does not mean we do not set boundaries with them; it does mean we act with sanity rather than aggression when we enforce those boundaries.

Tenderizing our hearts can seem scary. Opening to other beings is a scary business. As we practice opening to our children again and again, genuinely wishing them happiness and freedom from suffering, we are able to bring that same compassionate heart out into the world and practice with more and more sentient beings. A tender heart is also a courageous heart. It is the warriorship of love that we are practicing, and our aspiration is to extend this fathomless love out to all beings.

Here is a helpful essay by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on practices to cultivate compassion.

Friday, August 13, 2010

working with obstacles

"[You] do not have to pretend that everything is okay. And you do not have to wait for things to get better in order to practice. Instead of viewing mishaps as personal attacks, you can include them in your practice. You might even welcome them, for it is when you face difficulties, not when things are going smoothly, that you learn the most. That is what tests the strength of your practice. " - Acharya Judy Lief

This week was one where I seemed to be haunted by mishaps, or parenting and life challenges. In addition to still being sick, our appliances were visited by a mysterious plague causing first the dishwasher, then the refrigerator, and finally the washing machine to break down, all within about 48 hours of each other. And because we were all sick, we couldn't really address these breakdowns in a timely manner which meant that dishes and clothes piled up and our meager income was spent on takeout. My poor toddler, unable to go to his usual activities, spent most of each day indoors being sick, cranky, uncomfortable, and susceptible to tantrums. My baby was a bit out of sorts himself, and also in need of a change of scene and more interaction than I felt capable of.

I spent the week coughing my lungs out, trying not to trip over the mess in our apartment, negotiating repairs with my landlord, nursing both my children in what seemed an unending series of feedings and feeling victorious if I managed to get us outside for a thirty minute walk by 11:00 am. Oh, and I lost my patience, a lot. I had a very hard time holding my experience and not just reacting to it. Instead, I began feeling rather victimized by reality. Victimized by the inanimate objects showing their impermanence, by my body showing its impermanence, by my children showing their ever changing natures and moods. I wanted things to be different. And that's when I would break, and react to my toddler with frustration or impatience rather than nurture. Which of course just made everything so much worse.

There is a lojong, or mind training slogan that says "when the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi". As Acharya Lief says above, it is when things get tough for us that our practice really takes place. Can we pause for long enough in the midst of obstacles and watch our reactions? See where we are getting stuck? Notice where we are tightening? See where we want to blame others for our difficulties? Desire that things be different from what they are? Can we see where that energy turns into aggression? Where we want to attack, lash out, force things into changing? And can we unstick ourselves? Do something different?

A teacher once told me that when I noticed myself about to argue with someone or something, I should spin myself around in a circle and laugh instead. That this would be the most compassionate thing to do, even if the other person thought I was crazy. We don't have to do something as extreme as this when we feel our frustration and aggression rising. Sometimes just pausing is radical enough to change the familiar flow of habit energy and allow us to make a different choice. Maybe we still yell, but more softly! Or we decide not to say anything at all. Or we cry instead. Something different. Something less harmful. Something that creates the possibility of joy perhaps rather than suffering

There is another slogan that says "always maintain a joyful mind". I noticed so keenly this week when I acted out of my dissatisfaction rather than joy. Noticed when I was making these mishaps all about me and things not working out for me. Noticing means practicing. Watching the mind. Holding our experience in our awareness. Noticing is inherently gentle. We aren't judging - we are just noticing. We don't make ourselves wrong for feeling angry or victimized. We see it. Touch it. Feel it. We can even feel humorous about it. "Oh dear. There I go again. All about me, me, me. Poor me, poor, poor me!" It's pretty funny if you really begin to notice how you talk to yourself. Humor also helps cultivate gentleness. We don't need to beat ourselves up so much for being human. We can hold ourselves in loving kindness, extend some compassion to ourselves. Buddha is still in there. Buddha just got a bit obscured by our opinions of and attachment to how things should be.

Being mindful does not mean we don't make mistakes, or that our mind is never stolen away by worry, desire, anger, what have you. But it does mean we notice and come back. Come back to our trust in basic goodness, in our own sanity and compassion. In the basic goodness, sanity and compassion of our children. And then we get back onto the path of bodhi and start walking it all over again.

As Acharya Lief continues in her teaching: "Transformation does not mean that all our problems go away or that we overcome all our difficulties. It does not mean that the world is suddenly all rosy. It means that the path of dharma is big enough to accommodate whatever arises, good or bad. When you work with mishaps using the tools of mindfulness and loving-kindness, your relationship to such mishaps is transformed—and in the process, so are you."

Wishing you continued transformation this week and gentleness as you work with your own particular mishaps.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mindful Movies: How to Cook Your Life

We saw a wonderful movie the other night about Zen teacher and Master Chef Edward Espe Brown. How To Cook Your Life was directed by Doris Dorrie, a filmmaker who is also a practicing Buddhist and has made other dharma films of fiction. This documentary shows Chef Brown cooking, teaching and being authentically, unabashedly himself. Author of The Tassajara Bread Book and a student of Suzuki Roshi, Espe Brown is a wonderful and direct teacher of cultivating genuineness, both in the kitchen and in the heart. The movie is very funny and moving. He is not afraid to show himself honestly, warts and all. He admits to anger. He shows sorrow. He laughs at himself. And yet through it all, he conveys such gentle compassion and insight, that you are left with a deeper understanding of the teachings.

Cooking is his vehicle for understanding and transmitting the dharma, and his food is so beautiful and nourishing to look at, and having used his cookbooks, I can attest that it also tastes wonderful. He speaks beautifully in the film about things as they are, and how to surrender to the present moment. The film left us hungry and a little bit happy sad, as we thought of how to apply his teachings to our own daily life with our children. He says one thing in the film that stuck with me: "it is our job to help the swiss chard [or lettuce or whatever we are cooking] be the best swiss chard it can be, not manipulate it or force it to be anything else. It is our job to just offer ourselves to it and ask, how can I assist you in being yourself fully?" I have been contemplating this all week as it applies to child rearing. It is a useful and powerful teaching for me.

Here is a nice poem by Mr. Espe Brown:

The truth is you're already a cook.
Nobody teaches you anything,
but you can be touched, you can be awakened.
Put down the book and start asking,
"What have we here?"

Though recipes abound, for soups and salads,
breads and entrées, for getting enlightened
and perfecting the moment, still
the unique flavor of Reality
appears in each breath, each bite,
each step, unbounded and undirected.

Each thing just as it is,
What do you make of it?

You can view the trailer for the movie here - although it doesn't do it justice!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

precious human birth

Joyful to have such a precious human birth
Difficult to find, free and well-favored

My little niece has decided to enter into this human realm about 6 weeks early, so we have been contemplating the preciousness of human birth these last few days. The teachings say that being born into the human realm is the most fortunate, as you can actually hear the dharma and so achieve enlightenment. But the teachings also tell us that actually attaining a human birth is as rare as a lone ring floating in a vast ocean, that is found and poked through by a turtle who only peeks his head above water every 500 years. Precious indeed!

Of course, just being born human doesn't necessarily mean you will ever be able to hear the dharma. People are born into all different conditions, with all different kinds of obstacles - physical, mental, environmental, financial - the list is never ending. So we are very fortunate indeed. And these precious babies coming to us - rare jewels.

Our children come to us in many different ways, through their own karma joined with ours. With them we can embark on a journey of waking up to the world and other beings. Waking up to our own sanity and brilliance. Our love calls them down out of the realms, and it this love that they rely on to walk their own paths into the world. May all our children be free from suffering and the roots of suffering. May they know happiness and the roots of happiness. May they never be separated from the great joy devoid of any suffering. May they dwell in great equanimity free from passion, aggression and ignorance.

And may we continue to have confidence in our own fearless nature, so our children can have confidence in theirs.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

sick and mindful

Well, we are all sick here in the gesbaby household. A summer bout of influenza has sneaked up on us and laid us low, and the timing is, to be honest, just terrible. We were all supposed to be in New York City this weekend, celebrating the upcoming birth of my brother's baby girl, and hanging out with some very dear, old friends who we rarely see. So, in addition to being ill, we have had to be mindful of indulging in our disappointment.

This can be tough for me. Disappointment is just so juicy, isn't it? And when I am physically sick, I sometimes feel justified in letting go of mindfulness practice, because, well, it can be hard work and I just don't feel like it- I'm sick after all. I want to focus on the negative - how my house is even messier, wholesome food scarcer (my husband doesn't cook), the babes are needier and I can't get the rest I need. Add to that a cancelled vacation with loved ones and things are simply bleak. We spend our lives trying to get everything to conform to our wants and needs and illness upends that applecart entirely!

Which is why maintaining mindfulness, even during illness, is one of the most nurturing things we can do for ourselves and our families. I find it helpful during these times to keep letting go whenever I notice myself engaging in thoughts dwelling on the illness or my frustration/disappointment that I am sick. I try to come back to the present moment and allow myself to rest there, even though it might not be entirely comfortable to do so, what with aches and fever and what have you! But I have found that adding anything to the physical discomfort of illness just makes me feel so much worse, and also makes me very cranky with my children and partner. Illness slows us down, so we can relax into that and not fight it. When illness makes us itchy to be outside of the house, or tackle a project that has been planned, we can notice that itch of wanting things to be different, notice the tightness it creates in us, and just breathe. We can send breath to where the tightness lives and practice releasing it physically. We can give ourselves a glass of orange juice or a nice bowl of warm soup, watch a movie on the couch snuggled with our children, take them all into bed with us for a communal nap. Sometimes just breathing is enough. We so rarely give ourselves the space to do that in our busy days.

When feeling really awful, I also try to practice tonglen. By breathing out healing for myself and all beings who are suffering from illness, I am able to unwind my tendency to make it all about me and how miserable I am. This invariably leads to me feeling less miserable. I start by connecting to my basic goodness, that sense of complete spaciousness and freedom, then start slowly breathing in my suffering and discomfort and breathing out healing. Then I extend to other beings - I breathe in their suffering and discomfort with the flu, and breathe out healing to them. This can be very brief, just a touching in really.

So we are practicing just breathing here while the chaos around us builds up. My babes continue to teach me generosity, as even in my illness I have to extend out and care for them, and care for them with tenderness and patience as they are also sick. I continue to practice turning my heart and mind outward towards others, rather than inwards towards just myself. Sometimes I do this willingly, and sometimes not so much. But this is the heart of our practice, and illness gives us an amazing opportunity to deepen it.