How do we maintain an active practice while being immersed in the world of parenting and work? Are children a hindrance to spiritual practice? Or can parenting also be a path? Steve Bell, Buddhist practitioner and social worker, speaks from his experience of meditating while parenting two young boys.
I tell prospective parents to make a list of all the things they enjoy doing in their spare time. What are your hobbies? Do you like to go to the movies? I ask them to list the obscure little things they would miss. Do you like timely haircuts? Do you like to luxuriate in the bathroom, on the toilet, in the shower, and grooming? Then I ask them to cross off half the things on their list — those that are least important. Then cross out half of the remainder. Keep whittling the list down, until there is just one last thing, the thing you couldn’t give up.
The last thing on my own list was meditation. I’d give up everything but that. I love meditation and what it gives me. And I wouldn’t have known all that if I didn’t have children. The narrowing of possibilities as a parent has focused me onto what’s most important in my life and helped me to see what’s most important to me.
Parenting is a kind of crisis that makes it more important for me to meditate, because meditating is a survival strategy for me. I underestimated the amount of work it would take to raise children. The pressure of having no sleep and caring for children has challenged me maybe more than living in a hermit’s cave would. I’ve done the “mindfulness of my exhaustion and sleeplessness” meditation more than I care to. At times, when I’m tired and stressed, I feel moved to act in a way towards my children that I know is wrong. Somehow I’m primitively drawn forward, like there’s some archaic script that must be followed, some intergenerational trauma that must somehow be passed on. Meditation helps me to step aside from that, to act in my own best interest and in my children’s best interest.
The age of the children, the number of children you have, their disposition, how much support, and other circumstances, determine the constraints that you practice under. Here are the factors that affect me: My children are aged two and three. My wife works. My sons are not good sleepers. They’re very loud, active boys who like climbing, jumping, shouting and exploring. It’s been a challenge to get them into their beds, and to have them sleep through the night in their own beds. I wake up in the morning and they are in bed with us. They sneaked in while we slept.
All these conditions effect whether I get to meditate uninterrupted. My wife leaves for work during the time I meditate, and if the boys wake up I need to stop what I’m doing. There will no doubt come a time when I can ask them to let me finish meditating, or when they will just know to leave me alone until I’m finished. But for now I have to cultivate patience. To help with this I’ve taken to reading the chapter on patience in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara after I meditate, if there’s time. Rarely is there time.
My boys challenge me in unexpected ways and constantly catch me out. They are my gurus, pointing out the aspect of my practice I need to be focused on: patience. Nobody can unravel me and find my weak spots more easily than they do.
When I complain about not being able to meditate, my friends say, “Just be mindful in your day-to-day life.” I get irritated at that because on the one hand it is actually the answer. On the other hand, I feel that meditation is an essential way for me to increase and even just to maintain my mindfulness. The challenge for me is finding the right balance between the depth of sitting practice and cultivating mindfulness in everyday life.
When I don’t meditate I feel less capable, less positive, less open, and less flexible. I am more easily overwhelmed and unbalanced, more small-minded and selfish. When I meditate I can relax into the challenges of parenting. I am grounded in my body, and I’m not as reactive. I have more objectivity.
When I don’t meditate, I resist my circumstances more. One of my core understandings of the Dharma is that we hurt ourselves when we resist our circumstances. The struggle to accept my situation as a father, and in particular being interrupted when I meditate, is one of my key spiritual challenges.
The Satipatthana Sutta says that you should cultivate mindfulness when your mind is “restricted, scattered, unconcentrated.” I have more of a restricted, scattered, unconcentrated mind when my children wake up early and I don’t get a chance to meditate. Meditation is my main method for increasing mindfulness.
So how do you develop the mindfulness to parent well when parenting prevents you from meditating? How do you get inspiration in the very situation that seems to be drying it up? I can’t find the answer in the life of the Buddha. He left his family to pursue a spiritual journey that resulted in enlightenment. He never went back, though his wife sent his son to live with him at age seven, and he took him on as a disciple. Later his wife even joined the Sangha. But that’s not a reunification of the family unit — they joined his spiritual movement.
With my literal mind, in moments of weakness, I sometimes wonder if I have to leave my family to seek more spiritual depth and challenge. But of course I couldn’t leave my children. My father left me, and it was deeply painful. His leaving was perhaps the central event in my life. Because of my childhood experiences and my commitment not to harm others I could never do the same thing to my own children. So I need to find a more metaphorical kind of going forth that will benefit me and my family and that takes into account my circumstances and commitments.
Meditation is essential to me. I’ve practiced meditation daily for the past six years, and my sitting practice has been the biggest catalyst for positive change in my life. Some people are amazed that I meditate for 40 minutes most days despite having two small boys. For me, it’s vital, necessary, and not negotiable.
Retreats are very important to me. I want to squeeze the most out of the few retreats that I get to go on. On retreats it’s easier to meditate and we meditate more than I do normally, but my hunger for meditation is such that I never feel there is enough. I have an urgency I would not have developed if I was able to go on retreat more.
And I’d love to get on retreat more, but it wouldn’t be fair to leave my wife alone with the children. She’s not a Buddhist, though she is very kind, and because she doesn’t go on retreat we can’t have a straightforward quid pro quo arrangement. I won’t go on retreat against her wishes, so the retreat negotiation is yet another struggle on the spiritual path, attempting to get my needs met while also taking my wife’s needs into account.
You parent well by giving attention: by giving a particular kind and quality of attention. I don’t usually see that as mindfulness, but in a way it is. I have the challenge of trying to remain calm when flummoxed, to remain kind when my conditioning tells me to crack the whip in an unskillful way by imposing my will rather than relating empathetically. I have to watch for being so tired that I just want to let some of my children’s undesirable behavior slide by unaddressed.
Although my practice is important to me I worry about pushing Buddhism onto my children. I dislike the coercive indoctrination of religion on children. Yet my practice and my parenting are inseparable. There are many ways my boys learn about my Dharma practice. I chant to them to help them fall asleep. They see me meditate. They have met my Buddhist friends. They have gone to a Buddhist naming ceremony. They had naming ceremonies themselves, although they were too young at the time to be able to remember. They can identify the Buddha on the cover of books I read. My practice subtly diffuses out of my pores, and they pick up on it, without my proselytizing or forcing anything on them. Most of the time they appreciate my kindness and my mindfulness. So in a way I have done what my friends suggest, and infused my parenting with my spiritual practice.
I wish I could say I act gracefully all the time, that I go around in a state of equanimity, that I’m always a “good Buddhist.” The fact is though, that my boys have exposed some of my fragility and inflexibility of mind. They show me that I have lots of work to do. They are my gurus, and they humble me because they help me to see more clearly who I am and who I want to be. Pema Chodron talks about “the big squeeze”: when we realize the pressure of our ideals and how far we are from them. I have learned to clarify and use ideals, like the ten precepts, in a positive way, and not to turn them against myself in the pressure cooker of parenting.
My teacher, Sangharakshita, tells a story. There was a fellow who meditated on lovingkindness every morning. Every day, his servant boy would quietly bring some tea into the meditation room so that his master could have tea after meditating. One day, during meditation, the servant boy spilled the tea. The man roared at the boy for interrupting his meditation, “Can’t you see I’m radiating universal loving kindness throughout the world!”
So when my son comes up to me while I’m meditating, and says, “Do you want to play?” my heart melts, and I get up from my cushion — even if I’ve only been sitting for four minutes — and go play with him. That is how I express my metta.
Parenting is a challenge, but it also brings direct spiritual rewards. Kevin Griffin points out in One Breath at a Time:
Sometimes we are focused on developing concentration or investigation or some other quality. New parents have to work hard at cultivating and maintaining a lot of spiritual qualities: patience, generosity, renunciation (as they give up so much of their freedom and time). But the gift that they receive is love, as well as what’s called mudita, or appreciative joy. There’s no work involved, no effort in developing metta and mudita for our children, they just blossom. Appreciating that this is happening for us can help us to be easier on ourselves when other aspects of our practice seem to be crumbling.
I love my sons. They are utterly precious to me, even if they sometimes stop me from meditating. My love for my boys is as at least as powerful as my feelings of frustration about not being able to meditate. I sometimes catch myself speeding home from work: I am rushing to get back to them, to see them, urgently, passionately.
This is not the spirituality of being on retreat, of meditation, dharma study, and sangha. I contrast my life with a retired friend’s simple life of meditation and reflection, his walks in nature, his artistic and social activity, with no television or internet. His children have grown up and he no longer needs to work. Is that the only way to be spiritual, with free time, with no pull of responsibility? Do you have to be a monastic to move towards enlightenment? Can I be spiritual while immersed in my parenting and working life?
My spiritual practice is about staying with my experience, and not running away internally in order to cope with difficult experiences. It’s the same as with an itch on my nose in meditation — I don’t have to react, I can just experience it. I must stay with the challenging experience of parenting, not do the violence of wishing I was elsewhere, taking myself out of the here and now. It’s in this way, staying with and accepting my experience, that I become less scattered and restricted.
I wouldn’t have known all these things if I didn’t have children. Maybe I would have learned different lessons — I can’t say, and there’s no point in trying to second-guess myself. The challenge of losing my free time, of being needed so much, has taught me something vital: My children are my gurus. They help me blossom.
Steve Bell is a 40 year old father of two small children, who’s been meditating for five years. He lives in New York City and works as a psychotherapist at an agency for people with HIV/Aids. Steve is currently studying at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. His wife of 10 years is a middle school teacher.