"People often ask me how children, even infants of four months, can be brought up in a buddhist way. But at this point there doesn’t seem to be a buddhist way to bring up children. It’s more a question of bringing the parents up to a more buddhist approach. That is, the infants bring the parents up to some kind of attitude of responsibility." - Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
How do we raise compassionate children, confident in their own basic goodness? Children who cultivate mindfulness in their lives as youngsters and adults? Who reject the false promises of a materialistic, consumer, "me" focused culture?
As with all things on this crooked, precious path - it must begin with us. A flower cannot grow in rocky soil, or at least not flourish there. It is we who provide the foundational soil for our children, and who are responsible for cultivating and tending it. Our children learn from watching us. How do we talk to them? How do we talk to others in front of them? To ourselves? What do we spend our time on when they are with us? Are we present with them, allowing ourselves to be pulled into their games and projects, (or at least holding them in our awareness), or are we constantly moving away from them, checking email, making phone calls, turning on the tv, keeping ourselves busy with our own projects? Keeping ourselves distant from the present moment and things as they are?
Do we speak kindly to our partners? Do we apologize when we have made a mistake? Are we resentful with them when they ask us for more than we feel capable of in the moment? When we wake up in the morning, are we on the "me" plan, as my teacher Sakyong Mipham asks? Or do we make a conscious effort to turn our minds outward, to others?
And finally, do we practice at all? Do we make the time in our busy days, no matter how brief, to meditate, pray, practice formal contemplation? I often am asked about teaching young children meditation. In my own buddhist tradition, our teachers recommend waiting until a child is 8 years old before teaching formal meditation to them. Prior to that, the most important teaching is for them to witness their parents practicing. And even more important, I think, is that this practice occurs not just on the cushion, but in our lives as well. If we aren't becoming kinder, then something isn't working, no matter how long we find to sit on the cushion each day. Practice softens us, opens our hearts and stabilizes our minds. That softening and opening translates into our everyday life, as long as we remember to continue practicing off the cushion as well - to continually bring our minds back to the present moment whenever we catch ourselves not here, not now. To consciously let go and open when all we want to do is defend ourselves and retreat.
In my own daily life, I make a very brief time each morning to sit and practice. Sometimes this means just having my children ring the meditation gong, getting settled in my physical body and taking a few brief breaths, then getting up and going on with the day. Sometimes my little ones are settled enough that I can do some morning chants in my tradition and sit perhaps 10 minutes or so.
At breakfast and at dinner, we all hold hands as a family and take a few breaths together, looking into each other's eyes. Even my littlest, at just one, loves to imitate taking big breaths and smiling at us all. This is a very simple way to get us all grounded together in the same place, in our bodies. It is a quick way to synchronize body and mind.
We also have many images around our house of our teachers and the Buddha. We read stories from the Jataka Tales and some other buddhist books aimed at young children. But mostly, we just try to remember to keep practicing. To keep being present with our children and each other. To be mindful of our speech. To be mindful of where we are placing our attention, particularly in front of our children. To continue to cultivate loving kindness towards ourselves and other beings.
We don't always succeed. We are human. We make mistakes. We lose our mindfulness. We get angry. Our minds get stolen away by entertainment and technology, and by neurotic thoughts. And it is ok. We come back. Fresh start. And we keep coming back, walking the path. It is the most powerful thing to do, and eventually, it becomes the only thing to do. Choiceless. The path of parenting is a very rich, very powerful path to waking up if we let it do its work. If we let our lives, in all their mess and uncomfortableness, wake up our hearts instead of shutting them down, there will be no stopping us. No stopping us from having complete confidence in our basic goodness and the basic goodness of our children and the world. And then our children in turn will have that same unshakeable confidence and blossom outward instead of shrinking inward. It is a wonderful gift, to allow for our very ordinary human lives to be as magical as they really are. It is a wonderful gift, to turn our minds outward, ever outward to others, and in some way, wake all beings up to this same magic and joy.