Is it possible to have children and a spiritual practice at the same time? Sunada talked with some friends who are managing to raise a family while staying committed to their spiritual lives. How do they do it? What does practice look like as a parent?
Welcoming children into our lives is such a joyous and HUGE experience. For anyone who is a dedicated spiritual practitioner, such a change can’t help but have a profound impact. Take Vanessa for example. Her firstborn son arrived four months ago. With sleep deprivation, exhaustion, stress, and her body being all out of whack, her formal meditation practice of 10-12 years, which had been so vital to her up until giving birth, just flew out the window. “I’m stunned and humbled by my realization of how fragile my practice really is,” she said. “As soon as the conditions of my life changed, my practice collapsed.”
So does that mean you can’t have children and a spiritual practice at the same time? When you can’t fit meditation into a life of 3am feedings and diaper changes, is it time to give up? Vanessa and I knew that couldn’t be true. I have no children myself, so I set out to talk with some other friends who are managing to raise a family while staying committed to their spiritual lives. How do they do it? What does practice look like as a parent?
One person I asked was Bodhipaksa, whose daughter Maia arrived about a year ago. He too admitted that for several months, he barely meditated. After the New Year, he decided to make more of a commitment to sit daily. But as the family has been settling more comfortably into their life together, a new sort of picture is emerging. “I’ve learned a lot just by watching Maia engage with the world,” he said. “For a start she really exemplifies mindfulness, like when she stares at something intently or just enjoys moving her hands in the air. I’ve also learned how important it is to give her my full attention. It’s very frustrating for both of us if I try to do something else like write an email when she really wants to talk or play with me. We both do so much better when I can be fully present with her.”
In talking to Rita, whose two daughters are 5 and 6, I saw Bodhipaksa’s insights played out even more. Yes, it takes a real effort to keep up any sort of formal sitting practice. But at the same time, she now sees everything about her life with her girls as opportunities to grow and deepen her understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. For one, she says she’s really learned how to flow with her life, moment to moment, and let go of ideas of how things ought to be. When she’s surrounded by a cluttered mess of a house and her girls are running around and shrieking, she can stop and appreciate that this is just the way it is right now. There is no right or wrong, there is no need to bring her ego’s needs into the situation. Just sitting in the midst of chaos and being OK with it, in fact surrendering to it, has been a real source of strength for her.
Rita says this insight has helped her to be a better parent, too. Children have a way of pushing us to limits we didn’t know existed, she says. Knowing how to feel OK when she’s not in of control of a situation has helped her to exercise her patience more wisely. “I feel able to give them the freedom to be themselves, because I can see more clearly what lead them to be that way. I feel less need to step in and judge the situation, or try to change what I really can’t and shouldn’t try to change.”
Nancy’s son Stefan is 10 years old, and so her thoughts on parenting are very much about being in a relationship with another individual. While being aware of the Buddha’s warnings against pema, or attachment, she also saw much to be gained by allowing herself to go more deeply into her relationship with her son. “Children are a practice in themselves”, she said. “You have to respond to them, but at the same time constantly step back and ask yourself – is this the most helpful and loving thing I can do?” While she admitted that it’s an extremely challenging job, it’s very obvious that it’s a source of real joy and enrichment for her.
She was delighted that Stefan, at the age of 7 or 8, took so well to learning meditation, in particular the Metta Bhavana. Even though they sat for only 3-5 minutes at first, it was a way to share something sacred and meaningful. They’ve also enjoyed chanting mantras together. He particularly likes the mantra for the bodhisattva Vajrasattva because it’s so lively and upbeat.
She hadn’t realized how meaningful this all was to him until recently when a boy from Stefan’s class at school lost his mother in a car accident. Stefan was obviously shaken up and empathizing with his friend, saying how hard it must be for him to lose his mother. And after coming home from the memorial service, he asked Nancy if they could meditate together – something that brought him comfort in his time of fear and confusion. Of course, she’s fully aware that every child is different, and that not every child would respond so positively to sharing her love of the dharma – the Buddha’s teachings. In her case, though, she found that shared gift by being gentle, patient, and completely open to being with her son — responding lovingly, moment-to-moment, to what he needed most.
So what do these four parents have to say in common? They all admitted that any notions they might have had about keeping up their own formal meditation practice were blown away. None of them gave up on it entirely though — doing what they could in dribs and drabs whenever possible. They all knew that it was important to find time for themselves, to recharge their batteries and stay sane, even in small doses.
But the bigger emphasis of their practice was the whole of their lives – the ordinary everyday experiences, and living all of them more mindfully and lovingly. Being with children brings us back to the basics of life. Whether it’s cooking for our children or just playing together, it brings us in touch with what it means to be alive as a human being. It’s also an opportunity to let go of any fixations we may have on the past, the future, or how we want things to be, and instead surrender more deeply into the here and now. It’s a real lesson in seeing things as they are, without preconceived judgments, and responding in a creative way that allows everyone to flourish.
And in the end, isn’t that what a spiritual life is all about? It’s not about the grand meditative experiences, about attaining this or that. It’s about taking whatever situation we’re in and finding ways to respond positively, gracefully, and lovingly. It doesn’t matter if it’s about children, our jobs, or relationships — our lives will never be in that perfect arrangement of circumstances we think we need in order to practice. And so that realization becomes a practice in itself. It invites us to jump right into the mess, clutter, and chaos, and find our own peace in the midst of it all.