All Embracing Urge: Motherhood and Practice
Motherhood has opened up a new emotional realm for Srimati. But how to love wholeheartedly and continually let go is the ground of her daily practice.
Against the odds and ahead of hard evidence, I instinctively knew I was pregnant. As I lay in the bath there was something magical in the air. I found myself, hand on belly, making a heartfelt pledge in a tender whisper: “If you’re there, you’re welcome and I’ll do my best for you.” This was the beginning of the greatest love of my life. One week into my relationship with this unknown, unexpected being, I was howling with an ancient grief as I bled, and feared it was over. The pain of that love had also made itself felt.
But all was well, and that feeling of love and pain gathered substance during the months of pregnancy. My body surrendered more and more to its task, and love for my unborn became increasingly tangible with the growth of the life in my belly. So did the fears. Dreams of the coming birth were mostly beautiful, but my heart was full of the fragility of human life. I felt I would do anything to protect this life inside me, and yet there was so little I could do to ensure its wellbeing. That was ultimately out of my hands. Even before my child was born, I was learning that maternal love means letting go.
I spent an unforgettable night bringing my son into the world. In the calm and comfortable aftermath of that struggle, I lay stung awake by wonder, gazing at him. The blacks of his eyes shone in the dark, peacefully apprehending his new world as he lay between us, his parents, the very flesh that had created him. A few days earlier I’d dreamt I was begging a Nazi soldier not to shoot me, to give me one more week so I could see the face of my unborn child. Becoming a mother has shown me that the death of a child is the cruelest loss imaginable.
As a practicing Buddhist, such strong feelings have raised many questions for me. What gives rise to such powerful and self-sacrificing maternal love? To what extent does this love help or hinder us in living a spiritual life?
Some Buddhists claim parenthood is unhelpful from a spiritual point of view, partly because it opens you up to such incredible attachment. It is generally true that the more emotionally involved you are with someone, the more you are liable to be caught in attachment. At worst this can mean limiting, insecure ways of relating, and unhealthy dependence. Attachment is difficult to recognize and can be easily rationalized as something less selfish. For a Buddhist, however, identifying and uprooting this clinging is the very heart of practice and for a Buddhist parent it is no different.
Nevertheless certain Buddhist traditions take the image of maternal love as a metaphor to describe metta, universal loving-kindness:
As a mother watches o’er her child,
Her only child, so long as she doth breathe,
So let one practice unto all that live
An all-embracing mind.
Parenting, especially early parenting, can seem incomparably unselfish — but is it really? What enables such incredible resources to be unstintingly roused in the service of another human being? Perhaps it is because there is cellular identity with the child, especially in the mother’s case: My child is me. There is quite a leap between this and the empathetic identification of a Bodhisattva, the embodiment of compassion, with all living beings; but it is a powerful analogy.
I have come to value the power and vitality of maternal love and motherhood has given me a depth of experience that enriches my spiritual life. I have contacted a huge reservoir of passionate love for my son such as I have never experienced before. Most parents speak of this kind of love for their children. I prefer to see parental love as a spiritual opportunity. The answer is not to back away from the strength of that love, but to dwell deeply in it; to penetrate its nature and the nature of that which you love.
As a parent you have almost no choice but to love your child passionately, and this demands that you find the same intensity of wisdom. The more your heart is open, the more you can allow any wise reflections to touch you and let them transform you.
The story of Kisa Gotami is probably my favorite from the Buddha’s life. Kisa Gotami comes to the Buddha cradling her dead child. She is distraught, even a little crazed, and cannot accept that her child is dead. She has heard the Buddha is a great man, a great healer, and begs him to provide medicine for her ‘sick’ child. The Buddha replies that he will help her. She must find a mustard seed as medicine, but there is one condition: it must come from a household that has not known death.
Kisa Gotami sets out on her quest, knocking at doors. Those who greet her are happy to give her a mustard seed, but shake their heads when they hear of the condition. The living are few, but the dead are many. Kisa Gotami cannot find a house in which no one has died, and gradually a new perspective dawns. She sees the universality of death and this allows her to acknowledge what has happened. She buries her child, returns to the Buddha, and commits herself to the spiritual life.
Kisa Gotami “wakes up” during her quest. She sees that death and loss are universal, so she can finally grieve and let go of her child. This is a deeper engagement with life and death that sees it in a spiritual perspective. In accepting the death of her child, Kisa Gotami gains insight into the nature of human life. Obviously this is challenging ground. Kisa Gotami had the Buddha’s help. But it is not that she stopped loving, just that her love was placed in a much vaster context.
Tibetan Buddhist texts dwell on the mother-child relationship in many ways to evoke the intensity of love that human beings are capable of. The difficulty lies in transforming exclusive love into one that includes all beings. The prospect of loving every being like one’s only child is awesome, but life offers glimpses of such an experience. For example, when one grieves the death of a loved one, the combination of feelings arising from a personal loss, with an acknowledgment of the universality of death, can open up an intense love for all humanity.
Compassion comes with realizing that all beings will one day share this moment in their own way. Similarly, dying people sometimes reach a serenity where they accept impending death and are imbued with a sublime love for their family and for life itself — as if only this fullness of love is important, more important and powerful than death itself. Over the years I have thought a great deal about the nature of human love, ordinary human affection and intimacy with all its imperfections. It is this middle ground between the lofty climes of metta and the grip of unconscious attachment that I am interested in — that is where many of us stand for much of our lives.
When I first became involved in Buddhism I latched on to the notion of non-attachment because I was hurt by loss and death. I was 19 and didn’t know myself well. Although fairly bright and positive on the surface, I was unconsciously on the run from painful experiences. My adolescence had ended abruptly with my father’s illness and death, and I had witnessed the agony my mother suffered in losing him. I felt mature beyond my years, and my world of teenage rebellion became meaningless.
So, too, did my relationship with my first love, who had recently held such passion and promise for me. I had thought he was my soul-mate, the man I’d spend my life with. But my need for him melted away and I felt strangely alone. Suddenly, I found myself telling him it was over and telling my mother that I was leaving home.
Within a few months, my inner searching brought me to the Glasgow Buddhist Center, and I instantly recognized I had found the means to understand life and death that had been invisibly beckoning ever since I can remember. Although my response to the Dharma was largely sincere, I misconstrued some of what I learnt. While I rejoiced in my fortune at having come across the Buddhist path so young and unencumbered, I did not realized how much emotional backlog I had to deal with. It was during this initial phase that I developed a sort of defended pseudo-independence and fooled myself that I was free of attachments.
Fortunately meditation and spiritual friendship sorted me out. I threw myself into the spiritual life, and moved to the London Buddhist Center where I could participate in more intensive situations for practice, and be around more experienced Buddhists. Meditating every day, living in community with other Buddhists and working in a Buddhist Right Livelihood business was like being in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I looked, my being was reflected back. There was no escape. So the pain of what I had been running from caught up with me. It was a journey into the underworld and I came more deeply into relationship with the love and pain that had been stirred by these losses.
By fully grieving, in opening up my heart to what had happened, the psuedo-independence crumbled. I was heartbroken, and from that broken heart a bigger heart was released. I began to see that non-attachment was not about holding back, being self-contained and trying to limit the inevitable emotional damage that comes through being in relationship with people. Ironically, I’ve found that non-attachment is about loving deeply, letting my love flow, admitting how much friends, family and partner matter. It involves being willing to love them, give myself to them, even though we will one day be parted. There’s nothing we can do to stop death, to end separation. Non-attachment means being prepared to take the pain of losing loved ones because the sheer experience of love is worth it.
My attitude to love began to change as I acknowledged the truth of impermanence, and the inevitability of the suffering implicit in loving. From feeling I made myself vulnerable by loving, I began to experience a greater robustness in my love. What did I really have to lose? I started to see love as giving rather than losing myself. Really to love I must be prepared to give everything and let go of everything. I must learn to release my love, love for its own sake, with no desire for a secure pay-off.
More than a decade later, with a partner and a four-year-old son, those ponderings have a new arena. The issues of attachment are different. I cannot choose whether or not to love my son, whether it is ‘safe’ to invest emotional energy in him. It is absolutely what I must and will do. I am only beginning the journey of loving as a mother, and every time I think I have understood what is involved, it changes.
And yet I sense that the lessons of this decade are the same. Only insight into to my son’s true nature, indeed into human nature in general, can free me from attachment. Every so often a tragic news story rips through the day-to-day illusion that this love is forever, never to be disturbed by accident, illness, separation.
I do not want to have to face what Kisa Gotami experienced in order to wake up to the human situation, but I do want to wake up. I want to feel unbounded love that is passionate, full and wise. Living with the tension of loving fully and letting go is not easy: it involves simultaneously holding two apparent opposites.
But hopefully the tension will allow a larger perspective to emerge. In the meantime I feel it is the only option. Love is not about binding another or oneself to a status quo because of insecurity. That is essentially an impossible task: things change, like it or not. It means taking a stand on a deeper, spiritual knowledge. To love fully is to open oneself to the truth of the human condition.
Srimati is a freelance spiritual teacher, writer and co-founder of Thrivecraft Coaching, and a former member of the Western Buddhist Order.
She is currently engaged in publishing her whole body of work via books, articles, CDs, films, and the internet. Her aim is to contribute accessible and relevant spiritual intelligence to mainstream modern life and business.
Srimati’s CD, Answers: Finding Wisdom from Within, is now available from her website, Thrivecraft.