“Mommy, wake up so you'll have time to play with me before you go to work.” Half-asleep, I recognized this as the first time I'd heard my daughter use time in a linear fashion. She had kept me living more or less in the present for almost four years. I felt guilty for all the times I'd rushed her as she contemplated a puddle (“Hurry or we won't get there on time!”) or talked to a “family” of raisins (“Finish your breakfast quickly or we'll be late!”)
When she was born time stopped. The pediatrician spoke of the next visit. I stared blankly. Tiny new baby in my arms, a month was an unfathomable distance.
My daughter helps me to live as a “child of illusion.” Socks on rocking horse runners or a four-year-old body jammed into a six-month-old's outfit bring me back with a smile. Giving up hope of finishing anything without interruption is oddly relaxing. The moment is more fun than the to-do list, even when the moment is finding her gluing beads to furniture.
“Mommy, you be the airplane that is taking us to Africa.” “Honey, I have to make dinner.” “That's okay. Be the airplane while you make dinner,” and she is gone. Apparently the airplane chopping vegetables is important to whatever she is doing in the other room. Nothing more is required at the moment except to smile and hold my heart open to another fleeting instant of childhood. I am grateful for these years of easy joy in the now.
Intellectually I understood that parenting can be a practice, but I didn't experience this until a ten-day retreat I took last year. Since then, I have many times been overcome with wonder at being able to practice “meditation in action” in responding to the immediate and relentless demands of a young child. She is my perfect guru—the mirror that shows me again and again my habitual patterns, my ego-clinging and, fundamentally, what really matters.
As parenting has helped my practice, so has practice helped my parenting. I work constantly to forgive (myself). When I revert to knee-jerk reactions, as I do again and again, I come back to the present, learn from what has transpired, and know that I will be given the opportunity to try again, probably before the day is out. I notice when I have succumbed to a battle of wills and take a moment to reflect on what it is I’m trying to achieve: what are the consequences of letting Kayleigh have a cookie after breakfast today and can I live with them?
I cannot make my child Buddhist, but by the example of my actions and the Buddhist experiences to which I expose her, the seeds of mindfulness and kindness will be sown that will help her all through her life.
Before my arrival into the realm of parenthood, I spent 8 1/2 hours in that bardo called labor and delivery. It was horrible and painful. I was given pitocin, which intensified my contractions. My daughter was malpositioned, and I received my (ineffective) epidural very late in the game. During the ordeal, I was not in this realm. The material world, everything in it and everything about it, did not exist. My past did not exist. My future did not exist. I did not exist. I was the pain, and the pain was me. Then, at 1:09 am on May 3, 2000, my daughter Larissa was born, and I was reborn into the realm of parenthood.
My ten years as a lay Zen practitioner gave me the focus and discipline to endure a horrible delivery. The utter, complete extinguishing of self and material existence that I experienced added depth and focus to my practice and my parenting.
The lesson I brought with me from the bardo was “be here now.” Be here now, and I'm better able to sense and meet my daughter's needs, as she's incapable of telling me what they are. I can avert those mishaps of childhood—the falls, the overturned dishes, the uprooted plants. Be here now, and I'm more keenly aware of how my daughter changes from day to day, as I watch her first crawl, then walk and later run down the path of samsara.
It began as a quiet, peaceful day, as mornings with mothers and children at home go. But as the day went on, the activity and energy of the household increased. Grandmother came to visit, friends came to play with treasured toys, tiredness came on, hunger appeared. So, he lost it. Five years old and screaming, a full blown temper tantrum. My mother, too, began to lose it: “If he doesn’t stop screaming, I will need to go home.” (A three-hour drive.) This was the beginning of her three-day visit.
We left the playroom, my child and I, going into our little at-home meditation zendo. This room is bare and full of space—loving, attentive, non-judgmental space. It has been furnished over time with breath and posture, with attention and chanting. I sat on the zafu of bed pillows, holding the flailing, screaming mind for 10 minutes, for 20 minutes, for 30 minutes. How much longer, I asked myself? Hanging in there, breath, posture, chanting. Breath, posture, chanting. What a retreat! How long will this mind go on? Breath, posture, chanting, Kwan Seum Bosal. Until finally at 60 minutes, the flailing quiets and disappears; the mind of smiles and hugs and cuddles appears. We, my child and I, sit quietly breathing together.
A week later this mind appears again in the five-year-old. He takes me by the hand and leads me into the safe space. But this time the screaming mind only needed 10 minutes. And the next time only 4. And the next time only...
Now at 18, when this young adult/child, who knows me so well, sees the slightest bit of tension on my face, he looks over and with a strong posture, he lovingly says, “I’m breathing, are you?”
The concept of “emptiness” challenges me and I know it always will. Yet the birth of my daughter provided me, paradoxically, with a reference point for this evasive concept.
My wife Sarah had been induced and it wasn't going well. The doctor pulled me into the hallway and started quoting statistical data to support doing this or not doing that, numerical values for how frightened I should be. They rushed Sarah into an operating room for an emergency C-section. They stretched a cloth over her midsection so neither of us could see the violence required to start our child's life. I sat at the end of the operating table holding my wife's head, telling her to stare only at me, keeping her from seeing the arc of blood that appeared above the barrier.
The doctor handed my daughter to me, while others repaired Sarah's body. When I held the thing that had been until now only an idea, a concept, but now was a very real person looking up at me, I also felt another concept become something more. All fell away and there was nothing. No limits, no lines, no fear, no hindrance. For an all-too-brief moment the Heart Sutra was the Heart Sutra. Nothing was nothing.
Now, another child and five years later, coming home after sitting to a minefield of plastic toys and crusty faces, I can pick up either of my children and they once again let me view what was so elusive on the cushion. Nothingness and gratitude all at once, there should be bows with goodnight kisses.
Prenatal testing, beginning at 15 weeks, told us that our baby had a severe, life-limiting prognosis. Our advising physician told us that if our son survived birth, we would lose control of his life soon after, that life-support measures and drastic surgeries would be used whether we wished them or not.
It did not seem that his window of life would be very long, and we began to think that parenting this child meant choosing the best possible death for him. We chose to terminate the pregnancy and it was the most difficult decision we ever made.
We wanted to give him as peaceful a death as we could, one as free from fear as possible. With early induction our son could die in a practice environment. Against the odds he was born alive and lived for several hours. We practiced with his tiny body for almost 24 hours.
After his death we learned that our doctor had been wrong. Inquiries revealed that our son, with his profound medical complications, probably would have qualified for palliative care. Perhaps we could have gone forward with the pregnancy and let him die naturally.
In the midst of our grief, we found ourselves regretting our careful decision. The pain at having taken his life was overwhelming—he had become fully beloved to us during his birth and brief life, as beloved as our living children. Our son had a tremendous will to live. His life may have seemed like only a death sentence, but it was his precious life.
The experience etched into my bones that life itself is sacred. Not just some life, but all life. I am no longer able to wish anybody away. I no longer hope that an irritating coworker will take a job elsewhere or that a pokey person will switch checkout lines. All beings deserve their space, their time, their life. From the birth and death of my son, from the grief, the love, and even the regret, I have tasted true equanimity.
I married and became a step-dad after 39 years as a bachelor. I was intent on becoming a good parent anyway, but it also seemed crucial to the success of my new marriage.
Things were difficult in the early days. It felt like those amusement park rides where at each turn something scary springs out and the train swerves to avoid it. The kids always needed to stay out after curfew or go to mixed-gender sleepovers. The school bus was always too late or too early. Textbooks were hopelessly sealed in lockers at school.
And that’s just the parent stuff. How about the step-parent stuff? I needed a manual on taking over for a recently absent father, and I wondered how to engage the kids without stepping on bio-dad’s turf.
The Mahayana suggested a sensible strategy: maintain an unbiased and friendly attitude toward the kids’ father. So, I reminded the kids to call on Fathers’ Day. We sent him birthday cards and had him to dinner when he was in town. I gambled that this was best for the kids during that time of transition, and that over time it would be best for all of us.
We each had to find our place in the new mandala. It took a long time, and it was filled with pleasure—and pain. What did I learn? To treat the kids like they were my own, but not to try to replace
their father. To trust my instinct in the absence of any experience. And to be glad that my instinct had been conditioned by hearing the dharma.
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