"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.