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!