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.