The play of causes and conditions
Parenting can be a hindrance to spiritual practice or the main driving force of a spiritual practice. Bodhipaksa shares what he’s learned from his daughter.
Short of taking up Buddhist practice, the biggest seismic shift in my life was becoming a parent. Originally I’d seen parenthood as a distraction from my spiritual practice — after all having kids would take up more of my time, make it harder to meditate, and prevent me from getting on retreat as much as I was used to. And although all those things turned out to be true, I’m finding that there’s a lot of ways in which I’m learning and growing from being a parent. In fact I’d say that if anything the challenges of parenthood have accelerated the pace of spiritual growth in my life. I’d like to tell you how.
One rather deep thing has been watching the evolution of my children’s awareness and inner lives. We adopted my daughter at four months old, and what I noticed was how happy she was compared to anyone else I know. Happiness was her default emotion; it was only when hunger or pain arrived that she’d become upset. How many people can you say that for — that happiness is their baseline mental state and that they only deviate from that state temporarily? This reminded me of Buddhist teachings that tell us that happiness is fundamental to the mind, and that troubling mental states are disturbances to that inherent sense of well-being.
Now you and I probably don’t experience things quite that way most of the time, but in meditation we can see that the mind just has to settle down and it becomes happier. All we have to do is let our swirling thoughts sink like mud to the bottom of a jar of water, and the mind, like water, becomes clear. My daughter reminded me of what life can be like — joyful, and alive, and loving.
I watched my daughter exhibit wonder. She’d just sit there and move her hands and look at them and smile, and you could see that she was alive with curiosity and delight. Just the sight and feeling of her hands moving was wondrous to her. And that reminded me too of what life can be like. The greatest pleasures are to be found by being exquisitely attentive to and appreciative of the simplest things — looking into someone’s eyes, sipping a cup of tea, looking closely at the world around us.
I realized that my daughter was happy because she had no craving or grasping. When she was small, you could remove something from her hands that she’d picked up, and she wouldn’t protest. She’d just move onto delighting in the next experience. But then craving and grasping started to arise in her mind, and with it arose her first real experiences of self-generated suffering. Because we’d take something from her that she wanted — something she saw as a fun toy but that we saw as a choking hazard — and she’d suffer agonies of despair. So that was a reminder of how craving and grasping lead to suffering. It was a reminder of how we create suffering and repress our own happiness. Joy is the most commonly repressed emotion.
Developmentally, hot on the heels of craving arose anger: now when she’s deprived of something she wants, my daughter is likely to have a tantrum. She’s two, which is the right age for this mental development — and I have to say she’s doing a good job of dealing with her emotions. But this was another confirmation of a Buddhist teaching — that anger arises from frustrated desire. So far she’s still incapable of hatred, and that’s inspiring. She’s literally incapable of hating another human being. That’s something she’s going to have to learn. Hatred is learned and is not innate. There’s another lesson.
So she acts as my teacher in some ways, this little girl of mine. She’s always reminding me of Buddhist teachings. But she challenges me in other, more practical and direct ways too. She’s insisting more and more on doing things for herself — a natural and welcome development. Welcome, that is, but for that fact that she has her own timetable for getting things done, and her timetable and mine often don’t match. I may want her to get strapped into her car seat right now because we said we’d be somewhere at a certain time, but getting into the car is a big game for her, and she wants it to last as long as possible. So I have to learn to be patient, and to learn how to be playful as well. I’m challenged to find fun ways to get her to do things that I want her to do — whether it’s eating the food we’ve prepared or going to the potty. I’ve found I have to be playful and silly, and that those things work a hundred times better than stern lectures and raising my voice.
But the most profound thing I’ve been learning is to accept the truth of impermanence and not-self (anatta) when I’m dealing with her. I’ve been reflecting a lot on these topics as part of my researches for a book I’m working on. Sometimes, when she’s frustrated, my daughter will try to strike me or will do something like spit at me (honestly, she’s a very sweet kid — it’s just a phase she’s going through and it doesn’t happen a lot). When a baby does that kind of thing you just shrug it off — you don’t take it personally when a one-year-old clonks you on the head with a building block, because you reckon they’re just learning to coordinate their actions and aren’t aware that they’re really hurting the person they’re doing this to. But at a certain age you stop regarding your child as a bundle of joy and start seeing them as more of a person.
And this happened in my relationship with my daughter a couple of months ago. She’d hit me or spit in my face in anger, and I’d find I was taking it personally and I’d get angry. But then I started reflecting that she was really a stream of “causes and conditions.” Rather than seeing her as a “person” (which implies something rather static) I started thinking of her as an eternally-unfolding stream of causes and conditions. She doesn’t know why she acts in certain ways. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing all the time. She’s experiencing new emotions (imagine that!) and having to learn to deal with them. And so she’s just going through phases of development as she tries to make sense of the world around her and of herself. Oddly, I found that I could face her tantrums not just with equanimity, but with love and compassion, when I let go of the assumption that she was a “person” and saw her more as a stream of causes and conditions.
It’s funny, isn’t it? It sounds dehumanizing to regard someone as not being a person. But actually it’s the opposite. When I see her as a “person” I start immediately thinking (even unconsciously, I think) in terms of her having a fixed nature that I have to mold into the shape I want. And that brings about judgments, because molding a living being isn’t easy. There’s “resistance,” and “uncooperativeness” and “bad behavior.” And it’s hard not to be angry when you’re faced with those things (even if they’re just judgments your own mind has imposed on reality).
But when I see my daughter as a stream of causes and conditions, I see her as an evolving being, and instantly I feel compassion for her, because I see her as a struggling and growing being. And my heart opens to her, because deep down we’re all struggling and growing beings. And perhaps somehow my heart knows that the best conditions in which to be a struggling and growing being are love and compassion from other struggling and growing beings.
I’m not saying that I never get frustrated with her. Sometimes I lose sight of the perspective I’ve been describing — which involves, fundamentally, appreciating my daughter’s impermanence and her lack of a fixed self-nature — and I get frustrated. But this is just another thing to play with. I too am a struggling and growing being, and when I remember that I’m a stream of causes and conditions I find that self-forgiveness comes easily.