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.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

parenting without labels

When we are not sure what is going on, we react in fear and start labeling things black and white, good or bad, doomed to fail or destined to succeed. The process of labeling something because we are not sure what it is further increases the illusion of duality. Dualistic mind creates an aggressive scenario because we project a self and “other.” This process becomes a cycle: the heavier the dualism, the heavier the fear. - Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Lately I have been contemplating the quote above from my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. The original context of this teaching was the current economic crisis and the fear it continues to generate, but I have been chewing it over in regards to my parenting. In particular, I have been seeing how easily I can become dualistic, both with my own children and with others and their parenting choices.

To become a parent is to make friends with fear. To become a human being is to live with fear of course, but being responsible for another life really intensifies it! Having children really forces one to face the truth that we cannot control things. The world and life are groundless. Our children will get hurt. They will get sick. They will make mistakes. They will hurt others. They will drop out of highschool and run off to Mexico with that other kid we really disapprove get the idea! All we can do is provide them with a strong foundation of love, nurturing and acceptance so that they recognize their own basic goodness and can make that manifest in the world. But that can look all different ways. And they will still get sick, get old if they are lucky, and eventually, like all of us, will die.

Scary stuff. And compounded by the already chaotic daily challenges of raising young children, it is no wonder that we try to push off these truths and our fear around them by constructing some kind of identity that (we hope) will somehow stave off the vagaries of living. This immediately puts us at war with life! It is hard to go with the flow of life when we are constantly trying to stem it, stop it, turn it this way and that. This is how suffering increases and we lose all ease in our parenting.

The dharma tells us that it is always problematic when we seek to construct and maintain any kind of identity, any "this is what I am" storyline. When we label ourselves as being some thing, then others inevitably become something else, and separation is cultivated in our minds and hearts. So, if I decide to call myself an attachment parenting mama, then everyone else either is in alignment with that or not, and of course, whatever actions I take as a parent are either in alignment with this label or out of alignment with it. Always the schizophrenia we impose on the outer world is equally imposed on our inner world! This leads to labeling things as good or bad or with me or against me. Even our children are either with us or against us. We are constantly measuring ourselves, our children, and other parents up, seeing how we all do against the criteria we have created. And then we judge.

And the more I experience this, the more I realize all of this is really just about managing our own fear. Our fear for our children and for ourselves. Our fear of the world. And our continual struggle to deny reality - to try and make things permanent that are impermanent. This is, as the Buddha taught, the root of all suffering. We keep thinking that if we just do things a certain way, we will be safe from life. But what if life wasn't something we had to keep safe from? What if we could really begin to trust in our own basic goodness, and in the basic goodness that underpins the entire world?

As a good attachment parenting mama (lol!), I read Mothering magazine, which is all about natural parenting. In their letters to the editor section, I am always struck by how the majority of the writers list their natural parenting bona fides in the beginning of their letters, as in "I am a breastfeeding, babywearing, bedsharing, cloth diapering . . ." you get the idea. I find it rather exhausting. Just as I find it exhausting when I find myself doing it! Stating our identity seems to close off compassion for other paths. And it can also close off compassion towards ourselves or our children when we miss the mark, when we don't comfortably comply with the parameters we have imposed so strongly on our lives.

We need to make peace with the truth that everything is constantly changing. Nothing is fixed. Our children certainly are not, but neither are we. I often think of the many different things I have called myself over the course of this lifetime, and how they more often than not no longer apply in any way, shape or form! We need to allow ourselves this kind of space in our parenting - the space to be constantly changing, adapting, flowing. This is allowing life to work through us and with us, rather than fighting it. This is opening ourselves to our own parenting path, our children's path, and the paths of other caregivers. We can see more clearly when we aren't looking through our heavy labels. What we see without them is so much more beautiful, joyful, and energetic than with them. We can stop being at war with ourselves and others and instead fill our heartminds with gentleness and spaciousness. This will cultivate our awareness of basic goodness and allow it to flow out of us unimpeded.

To read all of the Sakyong's wonderful talk, you can go here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mindful birth

The power and intensity of labor pull us right into each moment. Each labor is unique. Like life, you never know how things will unfold. - Myla Kabat-Zinn

Giving birth is one of the most intense experiences that mind can go through- so intense in fact, that the buddhist teachings tell us birth can be an opportunity to experience the true nature of mind fully, just as at death. As with all experiences, we can open to birthing or we can close and attempt to stave off the physical and emotional challenges that it presents us with. By opening to each moment of labor and allowing ourselves to be pulled into the present as Myla Kabat-Zinn describes, rather than being dragged into it kicking and screaming, we will be able to relax and let go. The more we can relax and let go, the more we can experience our mind fully and welcome the arrival of our precious baby.

Relaxing and letting go can look many different ways. It can look peaceful, quiet, and calm as we ride the waves of surges. It can also look chaotic, intense, loud, or even scary. Whatever the birth, we can come back to the breath. We can place our mind on the in-breath, staying with the intensity of physical sensation, and relax and let go with the out breath as it dissolves into space. We can keep opening into space as we breathe out, letting go of any tension or tightening. We can allow ourselves to laugh or to cry. We can trust that each breath is bringing our precious baby closer to us. We can trust our bodies, their ability to grow and nourish this baby and bring him or her into the world. By opening and letting go, we can listen to our bodies during birth and let our body wisdom lead us where we need to go in the process. We can rest between surges, rebuild our windhorse, and get back to the work of bringing our baby out.

Birth can be a powerful opportunity to let go of our preconceived ideas of who we are and how we should behave. With my second birth, I literally growled and grunted like a bear during the final stages of labor- which was a full embrace of the present moment and what I needed to do to meet my baby. I let my body and mind guide me, rather than second guessing myself. I fully opened to the intensity that was arising and went with it, rather than fighting it and feeling any storyline of embarrassment or shame. We can try and watch our minds during labor and birth, noticing when we are resisting what is happening or adding hope and fear to the situation, and then choosing to let go of it all and open again. Whatever kind of birth we are having, we can do this. Whether you are having a vaginal birth or a c-section, natural birth or otherwise, you can continue to practice opening to what is unfolding, watch your mind, and relax into the experience moment by moment by using the breath as a guide.

Birth is unpredictable. We can't plan on how it is going to go. It is an adventure that asks us to open wider than we may have ever been asked to open before. By trusting in the present moment and in our basically good mind and body, we can bring our baby into being with confidence and power. Wishing you all a beautiful birth!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Mind of No Complaint

Mindfulness of speech is a big practice once you have children. With our little ones looking to us as models of ways of being, what comes out of our mouths has an impact we can’t escape, as they will inevitably repeat back to us at some point or another what slips out. I have a terrible habit of cursing – I picked it up many years ago in an attempt to appear much tougher than I actually was as a punk rock teen. And my father cursed in front of us daily- so much for having a Professor of English as a language role model! I am reminded everyday how much I still use these curse words; as my level of exhaustion rises, my mindfulness over my tongue weakens, and a few choice words are sure to follow as I struggle to find my keys or drop a plate in the kitchen. My little ones are looking on, and as I notice them looking at me, and to me, I am instantly reminded of my speech and come back to my resolve to not curse either in front of them or anyone else.

On a more subtle level than curse words, I have begun working with the notion of “complaint” in my daily speech and thought. Speech after all begins in our thoughts, in the constant self-talk we engage in silently to ourselves. This self-talk plants the seeds of speech that will blossom out of our mouths the more we water them internally. Complaint is a form of speech, both internal and external, that truly pushes us towards aggression and away from compassion or joy. To voice dissatisfaction, to indulge in it in our self-talk and then share it with others, can truly distort our relationship to things as they are. Complaint is actively warring with what is. Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t see things as they are and then see possibilities for change that will benefit ourselves and others. That is much different from complaint. Where the former still includes acceptance and clear seeing, the latter is always about our own projection onto and discomfort with reality. It is about closing instead of opening. Opening to what is can lead to transforming things, whereas closing and complaining just shuts out all possibilities.

So, working with complaint for me has been very sparky and rich. It has meant noticing when I am engaging in complaining self-talk. It has meant also noticing when I am uncomfortable with reality and what is arising in it and reacting with a shove rather than an embrace of what is going on. This has led me to notice my tone of voice with my children. I am now aware that when I am uncomfortable with my children’s needs and their communication of their needs, I adopt a very exasperated, edgy tone of voice, even if my words are quite sweet! There are days when it seems my toddler and infant are playing an out of tune violin right in my ear, and every sound they communicate to me provokes a reaction of impatience. Again, my words sounds patient and loving, but my tone and my way of being are full of complaint. As though I am saying “stop bothering me!” “what do you need NOW?!” “Can’t you just play quietly for five minutes?” I have never actually voiced these things, but I am still communicating with a push away rather than a welcoming in. So, what to do with that?

Again, just noticing is the first powerful step in stopping the chain of karma. So I notice. I pause. I stop being so busy with what I think I must be doing, and instead try to open to my children. Sometimes I need to acknowledge to myself that yes, I am tired, and yes, these little ones are certainly needing a lot from me today. And I have made a vow to give to others, not just my own children. And really, nothing is happening. They aren’t trying to do anything to me, or to harm me. They simply need a drink, or a nursing, or a cuddle, or a changed diaper or help opening a box or the thousand other things that require a big person’s aid. It doesn’t have to be such a big deal. So, do I push them away with my complaint about what is, or do I open to them? The wonderful thing is that when I open, my discomfort invariably drops away. I find I am more resourceful at finding things that will help them. Everyone perks up and relaxes. We move forward. And my level of complaint and their level of need also tend to drop. This is what the mind of no complaint can begin to accomplish. What are ways you work with mindfulness of speech around your children?