Monday, June 21, 2010

Transforming our family karma

One way of understanding "lineage" is "linkage" – that which links each of us to our true nature, to each other, to the teachings, to the succession of teachers and to primordial wisdom itself. – Richard Reoch

I recently read a paper by a psychologist named Lloyd deMause in which he talks about the neurotic and destructive tendency in abusive parents to use their children as “poison containers”, in other words, as vessels into which all of the unresolved psychic pain and neuroses of their childhoods are injected. The more I contemplate this, the stronger I feel that all parents are destined to do this to some extent or another, not just those who are abusive towards their children. We all have the tendency to respond to our children with the same neurosis that we learned from our families – and we will do so until we see this clearly, and are able to transform it. Not that our family neuroses are equivalent to abuse, but they certainly create suffering for others and ourselves. Why not stop the lineage of neuroses, and transform it into the lineage of wisdom and sanity?

Our parents are often the main, if not the only, parenting role models we have. They have the most success in continuing a lineage, or linkage as Richard Reoch defines it, of either neurosis or nurture that can be traced back for many generations. If we are not mindful in our parenting, we will find that those same habitual patterns will be inherited by our own children, and be carried on into future generations. How do we cultivate those karmic seeds in our own lineages that hold awakening and compassion rather than aggression and fear? I think this is one of our central tasks as parents. It all depends on what seeds we choose to water!

To have some choice over what family karma our children inherit from us, we must continue to create enough space in our own minds to be able to distinguish when we are acting out of the accumulated karma of our families of origin, and when we are actually making a choice and acting out of our basic goodness or wisdom. We often see this choice arise when we are under pressure, when our children manage to provoke us, or when we are not taking good enough care of ourselves and so get overtaken by exhaustion or resentment. In all of these scenarios, our automatic responses often get the better of us. And in my own experience, our automatic responses are often those inherited from our parents.

The more we are able to slow down our automatic responses, the more possibility we create for behaving in a different way. The more mindfulness we can cultivate through meditation, whether it is formal sitting practice or acting with intention throughout our day, the more space will occur for us, so that we will be able to see when we are about to react to something or someone else in a habitual way. At first, we won’t really notice until after the fact, in which case we can use the regret, remediate and refrain tool I blogged about before. But at least we notice. We can go through our entire lives without noticing when we have created suffering, although we won’t escape the residual pain it leaves in its wake. So just noticing when we have behaved automatically is a big, important first step.

The more mindfulness we create, the more we will be able to notice the habitual response while or even before it occurs. Once this begins to happen, we can begin to pause. We can just pause when we feel the energy arise in us that usually leads to harming ourselves or others. That pause begins to literally stop the momentum of karma, the flow of habitual poison cultivated for so many generations. Once that momentum is interrupted, we can touch in with our bodies. Where do we feel this energy of anger, of fear, of resentment, frustration, whatever? Is my chest tightening? Is my stomach cramping? Can I breathe? Touching into what is going on physically for us is a way to ground that energy, begin to work with it rather than being carried away by it. We can begin to notice what thoughts we are engaging in. Are these thoughts that reflect our basic goodness and that of our children? Or do these thoughts focus on what is “wrong” with ourselves, our children, the situation, etc? If it is the latter, we can choose to let go of those thoughts. We can choose not to believe them. We can stop writing the story that has been written for so many centuries in our families.

How then do we choose to react, to behave towards our children? The possibilities are endless. Maybe we can use a gentle but firm tone rather than shouting. Maybe we can leave the room until we feel calmer. Or we can choose to offer a consequence to our children for their behavior that we actually feel comfortable following through with, that is in proportion to what has occurred. We might even discover the most appropriate response is laughter, or a change of scene. We can begin to create enough space in our interactions for our children to see their own basic goodness, and be encouraged that, because it is who they truly are, they can act out of wisdom rather than out of their own fear or anger. This can create a dialogue of compassion between parent and child that will transform any poison into joy.

This is challenging work and it can feel uncomfortable at times. You are turning over ground that may not have been cultivated at all during many generations! I once went to a teaching by Pema Chodron where she said that when you feel that discomfort while doing this work, stopping that momentum of habitual pattern energy, it is the burning of karma. So, welcome the fire!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mindful Movies: "Unmistaken Child"

On the recommendation of another mindful parent (thanks DH!) my husband and I watched the wonderful documentary "Unmistaken Child" last night, about the search for the reincarnated tulku of Geshe Lama Konchog, a highly realized master in the kadampa tradition of Tibetan buddhism. It is a beautiful film, full of devotion. We were extremely moved by the journey undertaken by Geshe Lama Konchog's heart disciple and student, Tenzin Zopa, and by the family of the child recognized to be Geshe Konchog's reincarnation.

The film was shot in Nepal and India, and gives a real "insider" view into the arcane processes of tulku identification and confirmation. The Dalai Lama makes an appearance, as do other great lamas. You don't need to know much about Tibetan Buddhism or the tulku system to become engrossed in a very human story about dealing with loss, and ultimately, about finding meaning in one's life.

The tulku tradition is unique to Tibetan Buddhism, and has often proven controversial. Whatever one thinks of the tradition, it cannot be disputed that whether these children are indeed the reincarnations of a lama or no, the majority grow up to be great teachers who benefit countless beings. As a mother watching this, I was very challenged and moved by the sacrifice made by the discovered tulku's parents. How does one give up one's child? I felt so much pain and resistance when the request was made to the parents that they allow their little son (only two years old) to be taken to a far-away monastery to be raised. These are poor people with great devotion to the buddhist teachings and great respect for the lamas. Being named a tulku means that their son will be raised in relative comfort and receive a wonderful education. A certain level of prestige and community esteem comes to the family of a tulku. But as his father says, "no one would give up their child for nothing". They agree to do so ultimately because of their belief that their son will help many many suffering beings in his role as an enlightened teacher. And their son's life will have its own hardships, as we know from studying the lives of any of the lamas. To be separated from his parents at so tender an age is just the beginning.

This sacrifice is in accordance with the mahayana view of enlightened generosity and the bodhisattva vow, but what a sacrifice to ask. The devotion shown by these humble people is truly amazing. And my heart quickened every time Tenzin stroked a little baby's cheek, looking for his teacher. Those beautiful little babes - part of me could not bear to think of them separated from their parents' loving arms. I am still contemplating this movie. It is a teaching on non-attachment, enlightened generosity, and love.

Basic goodness and our daily parenting challenges

Buddhist psychology is based on the notion that human beings are fundamentally good. Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness, intelligence and warmth...When problems are seen in this [context], then there is less panic and everything seems more workable. When problems arise, instead of being seen as purely threats, they become learning situations, opportunities to find out more about one’s own mind, and to continue on one’s journey. - Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I've been contemplating daily life problems and the truth of basic goodness lately. I've been contemplating basic goodness, or buddha nature, for many years now, but have been doing so in a more urgent way since my first son was born. And as for the problems - well, with the birth of a child, it does seem that our daily lives become rather more complicated!

As Chogyam Trungpa explains above, in the buddhist view, our true nature is fundamentally, basically good. Our minds are inherently sane, compassionate, wise, joyful and clear. That is who we truly ARE. We are all awakened buddhas. But we do not experience ourselves as basically good in an ongoing way. Instead, we mistake our discursive thinking for who we are. All of our hopes and fears, our replaying of the past and fantasizing about the future, our neurosis - we think all of THAT is who we are. This case of mistaken identity seems to make our daily lives inherently problematic, rather than inherently joyful and sane. I think that because of this mistake, we find it very hard to be gentle towards ourselves. And when it is hard to be gentle towards ourselves, it becomes very hard to be gentle towards others in a consistent, lasting way. This includes our children.

Our children are also basically good, fundamentally awake beings. I think we have an easier time perceiving this in them - their ability to be awake to the present moment, to dwell in their own, pure natures, to not get caught up in past and future. They fall, they cry, they get up, and they are on to the next moment. Their basic goodness is less obscured by habitual thought patterns.

But ...because we distrust that we are also basically good, we can begin to doubt it in our children as well, particularly when they challenge us, which they do on a daily basis! When they irritate us with their demands or their behavior, we can very easily let the irritation take us over and respond to them without gentleness or sanity. We can then use that response as evidence pointing to our lack of basic goodness! It can become a vicious cycle of blaming our child and then blaming ourselves, escalating and escalating until we are all miserable. We get stuck in the challenge, rather than letting go and allowing space to expand.

Mistakes in our parenting will occur - it is part of being a human being in this world, learning to trust ourselves, learning to trust our children, learning to trust in basic goodness. Our aspiration as mindful parents is to use these mistakes as learning opportunities to open further into our true natures and to our children. A teaching that has worked powerfully for me is "regret, remediate and refrain" followed by my own addition of "and then move on".

Regret: we realize we have responded in a way not in accordance with our aspirations, or created a situation of confusion or aggression or whatever. Remediate: if it is possible, we change the situation, apologize for the response, clear up the confusion etc. Refrain: we restate to ourselves our intention to refrain from that particular kind of response, that particular confusing action, etc. and do our best to not repeat it. And then we move on. We don't continue to replay the incident, the response, over and over in our minds, beating ourselves up about it. We don't continue to fantasize about what we should or could have done, said, given instead. We let go and we move on into the next moment.

This kind of mindfulness work in our day-to-day parenting can be very powerful, and can truly transform our problems into opportunities for opening our hearts and transforming our neurosis. It can be challenging work. We can discover that we are rather attached to viewing ourselves as inherently bad rather than inherently good. Being inherently a buddha can seem rather threatening!! But when we begin to unravel the thick skein of thought patterns we have spent so long in weaving, we discover an incredible source of joy and energy that in turn allows for our children to express their own basic goodness in myriad ways. Our home life becomes one of sanity and nurture, a further part of our journey of awakening. What a gift to bestow on our children!
Here is a wonderful talk by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on having confidence in our basic goodness. I would love to hear your thoughts!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Baby Minding Practice

Here is a baby mindfulness article I wrote for my buddhist community's newsletter - about practicing mindfulness with a newborn.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Surrendering to the present moment

Our life is completely full even though we might be completely bored. Boredom creates aloneness and sadness, which are also beautiful. Beauty in this sense is the total experience of things as they are. It is very realistic. - Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I feel that life is constantly offering us the opportunity to either open ourselves to what is, or to close the gates of our heart and mind tight against the present moment. My children are constantly pushing me to open wide to the world and the present moment, much wider maybe than I had ever planned on doing. I can either fight with the present moment, or I can relax into it, and find the beauty described by Chogyam Trungpa above. It can be so nuanced, the way we close ourselves off to what is actually going on, how much we can resist what is, because we are so afraid of ...of what exactly? Of space, and of boredom, which is what we seem to project onto our experience of simply being present. Whether in meditation or in our daily lives, we can become so afraid of boredom that we forget it is full of beauty.

For many months I have been eagerly awaiting the opening of a new library branch a mere three blocks from where we live, hoping that the librarian would offer a regular storytime for children. It was finally completed, and I trekked down one day with my two boys to check it out. The library was not yet open to the public but the kind librarian invited us in and gave us a tour of the facilities, which includes a lovely children's area. She was wonderful with my toddler, and he seemed excited to play with the toys and the books. And she informed me that yes, a weekly storytime for toddlers would be offered. I was thrilled, and left that day with much excitement and many promises to my toddler (who didn't want to leave) that we would return the following week for our first storytime.

The day and hour come, and we trek over once again, my toddler very excited. We enter the building and immediately, excitement turns into reluctance. I have to repeatedly coax him just to stay inside. We approach the story circle very slowly, very hesitantly. He backs off, and sits in the middle of the book aisle, refusing to budge. He is on the verge of tears. I continue to coax him, trying to entice him into the circle with the other children, who are happily interacting with one another and the librarian. He instead turns to the puzzle shelf, pulls out a puzzle and begins to point to it insistently, wanting to play with it. Story time begins, with the librarian singing with the children. I continue to try and push him verbally away from the puzzle, and into the cozy happy circle that I want to be in with him. I am beginning to feel the rising energy of frustration and the familiar tiredness that accompanies it. I begin to weave a mental storyline about my young son, about how cautious he is, and what a challenge it can be. How it worries me. How it must be bad, right?? And then I realize . . .that's just it, isn't it? I want to be in that circle. My son doesn't. Why isn't that ok with me? Why can't I just accept him for who he is in this moment? Why can't I accept what he wants to do? And so, I drop it. I drop my storyline, my frustration, my "but I want him to . . ." I stop trying to persuade him to join the others. I unzip the puzzle bag and take out the pieces, and hold my newborn as my eldest happily begins to play with the lovely new puzzle full of trains, trucks and airplanes - his favorite things! My energy returns and I can enjoy him, his baby brother, the sound of the other children singing, responding to the lovely story the librarian is reading. We are outside of the circle, but in our own cozy space.

Not that we must always surrender to our children's wishes - my son doesn't like to go to the doctor either, but obviously, he must do so, and I bring him to her willingly or no. But so often, we seem to hesitate or resist our children because we have a particular agenda for them that blinds us to what they actually need in that moment. When we are busy pursuing our agenda rather than just being with our children, friction occurs and drains us of energy. There is so much we would like to do, to busy ourselves with! And they would prefer to just sit there and read the same story a thousand times or watch that ant crawl up the leaf or do the same puzzle over and over again. We feel the subtle pull away from them, ignoring the incredible richness right there in front of us, that they continue to point out to us again and again. There is so much joy in surrendering to that fullness! Just as in meditation practice, the more we can relax into just being there, whether with our own minds or with our children, the more pure delight begins to inform our experience.

I continue to bring my son to story time, and he continues to prefer to play off to the side with a puzzle. Sometimes he will approach the circle and listen in, but for now he is happier outside of it. And I continue to accept that and delight in his individual exploration of the library. Eventually he will join the circle - or maybe he won't. As long as I continue to surrender to who he is and what he needs, it is all perfect.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Beginner's Mind

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
So taught the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, and it is a lesson I have had to learn again and again as I stumble along the everyday path of awakening. Having a baby is a profound teacher of beginner's mind- from labor and birth to the actual caring for and raising up of children, we realize repeatedly that everything we think we "know" often doesn't work or isn't true for this birth, this child, this situation, this family, this moment . . .and is instead an obstacle to truly experiencing things as they are in all their beauty and magic. When we let go of what we "know" and simply open to the present moment, to our baby, our child as he/she actually is, then possibility happens. What seemed overwhelming or unsolvable becomes workable and we can breathe again. Tears turn to smiles. Frustration transforms into a silly song. Beginner's mind allows us to just be with our child, waiting for him to tell us what he actually might need, rather than what we think he needs.

Beginner's mind happens when we let go of our expectations and our agenda. This is hard to do. I often fail at it! It means noticing when we are pushing what we think should happen onto the present moment, not allowing any breathing room for anything else to occur. When we notice we are doing this, when we are busy being "experts", we can pause. Just that pause can stop the momentum of expert's mind, and allow the grace of the present moment to peak through. We can allow our baby or child to communicate with us - because we are actually present to receive the communication, rather than deflecting it with our preconceived ideas. This in turn allows our babies, our children to trust us. Beginner's mind softens our hearts and helps us open to our children. Our baby crying becomes a necessary communication rather than a frustrating annoyance. The toddler's tantrum becomes a strong reminder of the power of frustration, and we can compassionately give her the safe space to vent. We can allow ourselves and our children simply to be. The more we create that sacred space, the more joy will arise in our daily parenting. So, I remind myself each day "beginner's mind".