family

Meditating as a family

wildmind meditation newsAmy Wright Glenn, Philly Voice: It’s hard to imagine my life without a 20-minute pause in the middle of the day. As my son naps, I sit up tall, close my eyes and gently bring attention to the ebb and flow of breath. No matter what is going on, I can uncover insight and find rest for a joyful or troubled heart while opening to the comforting presence of peace.

As a long-time meditator, the practice of cultivating a calm inner state is woven into my experience of living. There were years when I sat in silence for hours a day. Today, as a …

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Seven ways to teach your children mindfulness

child meditatingHere are seven practices that you can do with young children, to help bring mindfulness into your home.

  1. Just before leaving for school in the morning, stand together and take three mindful breaths.
  2. When your child comes home from school, give him or her a piece of fruit and ask them to pretend they are from another planet and have never seen this piece of fruit before. Ask them to describe their experience using all five senses. What does it look like? Smell like? Feel like? Taste like? Does it make a sound when they bite it?
  3. Take three mindful breaths as a family before eating and try to begin the meal mindfully.
  4. Go for a walk with your child and pay attention to what you both notice around you, what you see, hear, smell and touch. Share some of the things that you’re noticing.
  5. Tell your child you are going to ring a bell or a singing bowl. Ask them to listen carefully to the sound of the bell and raise their hands when they can no longer hear it.
  6. Have your child lie down on a mat on the floor, or on their bed, and place their favorite stuffed animal on their belly. Have them rock the stuffed animal to sleep with the movement of their belly as they breathe in and out. This is how they can begin to pay attention to their breathing.
  7. Before bed, share something that you are grateful for that happened that day – something that enriched your life. Small things are best! Have your child do the same.

These suggestions are adapted from an article in Parents Canada.

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Equanimity is love — even-minded love (Day 78)

100 Days of LovingkindnessIt’s easy to forget that upekkha, or equanimity, is love. The word “equanimity” doesn’t sound very loving. It’s coldly Latinate, lofty, and remote, and doesn’t roll off the tongue easily. Few of us are likely to use the word in everyday conversation. The adjective, equanimous, is even worse! Even the Anglo-Saxon equivalents, “even-minded” and “even-mindedness,” don’t convey any sense of love, or kindness, either. But upekkha is a form of love.

The word in Pali or Sanskrit is from a root īkś, which means “to look upon,” along with a prefix upa-, which can mean many things, but which almost always connotes a sense of closeness, as in upaṭṭhāna (attending) and upakiṇṇa (covered over). So although upekkha is usually taken to have a distant quality, it’s actually quite intimate. It means “looking over” but in the sense of being close up. Perhaps we should render upekkha as something more like “equanimous love” or “even-minded love.”

Upatissa, the author of the first century meditation manual I’ve been sharing with you as we explore the “immeasurable” meditations of loving-kindness, compassion, joyful appreciation, and now even-minded love, describes upekkha like this:

As parents are neither too attentive nor yet inattentive towards any one of their children, but regard them equally and maintain an even mind towards them, so through equanimity one maintains an even mind towards all beings. Thus should equanimity be known.

The fact that Upatissa talks about parenting reminds us of the warm, intimate nature of upekkha. It’s warm, intimate, and wise, not cold and distant.

Any parent who has more than one child is familiar with the scenario he describes! The other day my daughter asked me: “Who do you love more, daddy? Me or my brother.” And then she cleverly added, “It’s OK if it’s not me.” I think she assumed that her addition would pave the way for me to tell her the “truth” that she wanted to hear (or feared hearing) — although the truth is that of course it’s simply not possible for me to quantify and compare the love I have for each of my children.

My kids are in full on dispute with each other at the moment. My four-year-old son is going in for a tonsillectomy tomorrow. He’s terrified of the prospect, naturally, and this is leading to him acting out in various ways, like having temper tantrums and meltdowns, and this has led to him doing things like hitting his six-year-old sister. This in turn has led her to “punishing” him by trying to exacerbate his anxiety — reminding him of his operation at every available opportunity, and sometimes going into graphic detail about how sore his throat will be afterwards, asking what kind of knife the surgeon will use, etc. And that leads him to get revenge by breaking her stuff. It’s a classic tale of spiraling vengeance!

So in the midst of any particular situation of conflict — he’s just broken her special bracelet, or she’s slyly reminded him of his operation by “helpfully” reminding him that he’ll get to have ice cream afterward — there’s no possibility of taking sides. I realize that both are suffering, and I want both to be happy. My son hurts his sister and I realize that both are having a hard time. Yes, he needs to be told that he can’t act this way, but fundamentally he also needs sympathy and to be helped in dealing with his anxiety. My daughter torments her brother and again she has to be encouraged to act less like a tiny torturer and more like a helpful big sister, but she also needs support because she’s suffering from having to cope with his anxiety and the behavior that springs from it.

So I can’t take sides. I don’t mean that I “shouldn’t” take sides. I’m incapable of taking sides. I can’t say “this child deserves happiness more than the other.” That just makes no sense.

So if you really, deeply, recognize that all beings want to be happy, and that they want to be free from suffering — when you realize that each being’s happiness and suffering is as real to them as it is for you and for any other being — there can be no sense of welcoming one person being happy at another’s expense. There is sympathy for all.

The thought may have crossed your mind — and it certainly crossed mine — OK, so Bodhipaksa says he can do this with his children, but his children are still his children, and is it even possible to have this kind of even-minded love for strangers, or for people we’re not related to, like other people’s children? Don’t we have an inbuilt bias, because after all we have a great history of affection and of relatedness with those we’re close to — friends, family — that we don’t share with strangers? It’s a good question. But when one of my kids is involved in an altercation with a child from another family — and this happens almost on a daily basis — I don’t see my own children’s happiness as being any different from, or important than, any other child’s. So in sorting out any dispute I try to maintain an awareness that the kids on both sides are suffering and want happiness. Sure, I’m going to put effort into protecting, feeding, and clothing my own children and not with the neighbors’ kids — but that’s a separate issue. That’s to do with the nature of the relationship we have, and the resources available to me. It doesn’t mean that I think my children’s happiness is more important to them than the neighbors’ kids’ happiness is to them.

This quality of even-minded love is inherent in all the other practices. It’s very similar to the final stage of the lovingkindness, compassion, and joyful appreciation practices, where we cease focusing on individual relationships and simply imbue the mind with those loving qualities, so that any being the mind touches, whether it’s because we encounter them in our lives or because we meet them in our thoughts, is touched by a loving quality. In the final stage of these practices there is a quality of even-mindedness, where we let go of our likes and dislikes. Happiness is desired by all, and suffering is something that all wish to avoid. Our likes and dislikes, our social connectedness or lack thereof, can obscure this truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless. And so the practice of equanimity is to see past these obscurations in order to recognize this truth.

So upekkha is love. It’s even-minded love, where we maintain an even mind towards all beings as we wish them well. It’s not a cold or distant state. It’s simply where we drop our biases and value all beings’ happiness and wellbeing.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness Posts here.

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“Zombies on Kilimanjaro,” by Tim Ward

Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

‘”Your guide will probably tell you,” Ezekiel said, “that the name Kilimanjaro comes from kilima, the Swahili word for ‘mountain’ and jaro, the Maasai word for ‘snow-capped.’ But that’s just for the tourists. We Chagga people who have always lived here, we believe the name comes from our own language: kilema-kyaro, which means ‘Impossible to Climb.’”’

So begins Buddhist writer Tim Ward’s latest book, ‘Zombies on Kilimanjaro,’ an intriguingly and perhaps misleadingly titled memoir about climbing the highest freestanding mountain in the world with his 20-year-old son, Josh.

It’s a good beginning, plunging the reader straight into the ‘plot’ of this gentle travel narrative. Will father and son reach the top and will they reach it together? This question is both literal and metaphorical. Following Ward’s divorce from Josh’s mother, father and son have had a troubled relationship.

Ward’s description of the climb is very interesting. We travel in the company of guides and helpers, and meet some other climbers, some of whom reappear later on. Ward writes very well about the dramatic scenery and the physical effects of the climb on the body. He tells us something about climate change and its effect on the mountain.

There are also some wonderful reflections about his own father, and Ward is honest enough to show how he has inherited some of his father’s most difficult traits, and how these have affected his relationship with his own son.

So far, so good. But although the opening chapters of the book are gripping, a fatal flaw soon appears: a tendency to relay in direct dialogue things that would be better shown in the book’s action, or perhaps even omitted altogether.

Ward talks at length to Josh as they climb the mountain. What he says is interesting enough. He explains memes and makes some extremely courageous self-disclosures.

But the long, direct conversations come at a price. While they are taking place, the mountain disappears, Josh disappears and, ironically enough, the father-son relationship itself disappears. We are being told about events in the past instead of being allowed to witness how those events have informed the present and the living, breathing relationship between father and son now. Josh, largely relegated to the role of listener, becomes a shadowy figure. In contrast, I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and how the father-son relationship is so strongly established despite minimal dialogue.

But there is certainly much to enjoy in this well-meaning and heartfelt memoir. A week after reading it, what remains with me is the compelling description of the final ascent to and descent from the peak, when there was no time or energy for conversation.

Tim Ward is the author of several well-regarded books on Buddhism and other subjects including the cult classic ‘What the Buddha Never Taught,’ an account of his experiences as a Theravadin monk in Thailand.

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Ten tips for setting up a meditation practice

The benefits of meditation come with regular practice, and that means making it part of your life. That’s one of the great challenges of learning meditation, so here are ten tips for establishing a meditation practice.

1. Get some instruction

You can learn the techniques of meditation from books and CDs: there are some good ones around (check out our shop). There are also meditation apps. But it helps a lot to learn from a live class if you can make it to one. Take a course – or go to a class where you can ask questions about the issues. In time, it helps to have friends or teachers who are more experienced meditators than you are.

2. Settle on a practice that suits you

On an meditation course there are three main practices – the mindfulness of breathing, the body scan and mindful movement, and there are many others out there. It’s worth experimenting a bit and then settling on the practice, or combination of practices, that work for you.

3. Find a regular time for practice

You might start off thinking you’ll just try fitting meditation into your day somehow or other, but establishing a practice means finding a time that works for you. For many people, first thing in the morning before the day starts up is a good time; others prefer the evening. There are pros and cons with either so you’ll need to experiment.

4. Set up a meditation place

You can meditate anywhere, but if you sit down amid clutter it has an effect. So set aside a space that evokes the feeling of meditation. Some flowers, a candle or an image on a table can be enough to encourage the feeling that you’re leaving aside the usual preoccupations. It also helps to set aside the cushions or chair that need for meditation, and it’s worth thinking about getting some meditation cushions or a stool.

5. Talk to your family or housemates

To avoid people barging in or turning up the music just as you start to get settled, talk to the people you live with and let them know what you are doing. Don’t worry if they thing you’re weird: if they notice you’re calmer and happier they’ll soon change.

6. Meditate with others

It’s hard to keep anything going on your own, at least to start with. We all need encouragement and guidance. Many people find a setting where they can meditate with others: Buddhist centres, sitting groups, and even virtual settings, like a videoconference or app.

7. Go on retreat

Retreats are a chance to get away from all the things that usually fill up our lives. They vary in length: you can find day retreats or residential retreats for a weekend or longer. Just being quiet and meditating several times a day lets everything settle down so your experience can go deeper. On an intensive retreat you don’t do much apart from meditate, but there are less demanding options as well.

8. Take your practice off the cushion

If you think of meditation as something that only happens in the formal practice time, it will be hard to maintain. So look for ways to keep the thread of mindfulness and meditation alive through the day. The Three Minute Breathing Space gives you time to stop and connect with mindfulness, and you can find many more, informal ways to do the same.

9. Reflect on your values

Most of us get enthusiastic, every so often, about a certain kind of exercise or studying a particular subject. But, looking back, we only maintain a few of these. They are the ones that touch on the values at the core of our lives. If you can make the connection between something that is a deep-seated drive like helping others or understanding the truth, or a pressing concern like not getting depressed or being more effective as a parent, then you’re much more likely to be able to sustain it.

10. Be patient … and persistent

Establishing a regular meditation practice is a long-term project. You may miss days, get discouraged or just forget about meditation for a while. The key thing is to keep going. If you force yourself to meditate when you really don’t feel like it, you’ll probably have a reaction to the whole idea; but if you wait until you do feel like it before you pick your practice up again, it may never happen. But with time, you figure out ways to make your practice happen.

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Can meditation make you a better parent?

Melissa McClements found it hard to cope with her daughter’s tantrums – until she joined a parent and toddler meditation class. How do you stay calm when your child misbehaves?

My toddler and I recently started a meditation class. I know what you’re thinking. What kind of idiot parent would attempt silent mind control in the presence of someone whose idea of quiet time involves sticking pencils up their nostrils and shouting ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’?

But now I am that idiot parent. And – despite a cringeworthy moment when my two-year-old pointed to a Buddhist monk and asked, “Why is that man wearing …

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10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy

happy buddha

I’m a science geek as well as a Buddhist geek, and recently when I was leading a retreat on how to bring more joy into our lives I found myself making a lot of references to an article published in Yes magazine, which touched on ten things that have been shown by science to make us happier. It seemed natural to draw upon the article because so much of the research that was described resonated with Buddhist teachings.

[By the way, since this article was first published it’s been viewed more than 340,000 times!]

So I thought it would be interesting to take the main points of the article and flesh them out with a little Buddhism.

1. Be generous

“Make altruism and giving part of your life, and be purposeful about it,” Yes magazine says. “Researcher Elizabeth Dunn found that those who spend money on others reported much greater happiness than those who spend it on themselves.”

And in fact Buddhism has always emphasized the practice of dana, or giving. Giving hasn’t been seen purely as the exchange of material possessions, however; giving in Buddhist terms includes non-tangibles such as education, confidence, and wisdom.

“And which are the three factors of the donor? There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified.” (Anguttara Nikaya)

2. Savor everyday moments

“Study participants who took time to savor ordinary events that they normally hurried through, or to think back on pleasant moments from their day, showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.”

This of course is an example of another fundamental Buddhist practice — mindfulness. When we’re mindful we stay in the present moment, and really pay attention to our experience. Walking meditation, and even eating, can be ways of savoring everyday moments. In being present, we dwell in the present without obsessing about the past or future, and this brings radiant happiness:

They sorrow not for what is past,
They have no longing for the future,
The present is sufficient for them:
Hence it is they appear so radiant.
(Samyutta Nikaya)

3. Avoid comparisons

“While keeping up with the Joneses is part of American culture, comparing ourselves with others can be damaging to happiness and self-esteem. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, focusing on our own personal achievement leads to greater satisfaction.”

Buddhists are advised to avoid “conceit.” Now in the west we think of conceit as a sense of superiority, but in Buddhism conceit includes thinking you’re inferior to others, AND it includes thinking that you’re equal to others! What’s left? Just not thinking in terms of self and other at all. The ideal in Buddhism is a kind of “flow” state in which we un-selfconsciously respond to others without any conceptualization of there being a self or an other.

“Though possessing many a virtue one should not compare oneself with others by deeming oneself better or equal or inferior.” (Sutta Nipata 918)

4. Put money low on the list

“The more we seek satisfactions in material goods, the less we find them there,” [researcher Richard] Ryan says. “The satisfaction has a short half-life—it’s very fleeting.” People who put money high on their priority list are more at risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Despite western preconceptions to the contrary, the Buddha wasn’t against people making money. In fact he encouraged it! Money’s useful to the extent that it supports our physical needs, allows us to make others happy, and — most importantly — to the extent that we use it to support genuine spiritual practice. In Buddhist terms we validate our wealth creation by giving our money away to support what’s really important in life, which is the pursuit of wellbeing, truth, and goodness. The idea that materialism can bring us genuine happiness is what Buddhism calls a “false refuge.”

There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. (Dhammapada 186)

Knowing the bliss of debtlessness,
& recollecting the bliss of having,
enjoying the bliss of wealth, the mortal
then sees clearly with discernment.
Seeing clearly — the wise one —
he knows both sides:
that these are not worth one sixteenth-sixteenth
of the bliss of blamelessness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

5. Have meaningful goals

According to Harvard’s resident happiness professor, Tal Ben-Shahar, “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.”

The Buddha’s last words were “strive diligently.” The whole point of being a Buddhist is in order to attain spiritual awakening — which means to maximize our compassion and mindfulness. What could be more meaningful than that?

“He gains enthusiasm for the goal, gains enthusiasm for the Dhamma, gains gladness connected with the Dhamma.” (Majjhima Nikaya)

6. Take initiative at work

“How happy you are at work depends in part on how much initiative you take. Researcher Amy Wrzesniewski says that when we express creativity, help others, suggest improvements, or do additional tasks on the job, we make our work more rewarding and feel more in control.”

The Buddhist teaching on work is called the practice of Right Livelihood. And the Buddha saw work as being a way to show initiative and intelligence:

“By whatsoever activity a clansman make his living … he is deft and tireless; gifted with an inquiring turn of mind in to ways and means, he is able to arrange and carry out his job.” (Anguttara Nikaya)

Heedful at administering
or working at one’s occupation,
… [these are factors] leading to welfare & happiness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

7. Make friends, treasure family

“We don’t just need relationships, we need close ones,” says Yes magazine.

To the Buddha, spiritual friendship was “the whole of the spiritual life.” And even though people tend to think about monks and nuns leaving home, for those who embraced the household life, close and loving relationships with others was highly recommended. “Generosity, kind words, beneficial help, and consistency in the face of events” are the things that hold a family together, according to the Buddha.

Let him associate with friends who are noble, energetic, and pure in life, let him be cordial and refined in conduct. Thus, full of joy, he will make an end of suffering. (Dhammapada 376)

Support for one’s parents,
assistance to one’s wife and children,
consistency in one’s work:
This is the highest protection [from suffering].
(Mangala Sutta)

8. Look on the bright side

“Happy people … see possibilities, opportunities, and success. When they think of the future, they are optimistic, and when they review the past, they tend to savor the high points,” say [researchers Ed] Diener and [Robert] Biswas-Diener.

Buddhism doesn’t encourage us to have a false sense of positivity, but neither are these researchers. They’re suggesting that we find the good in any situation we find ourselves in. Buddhism encourages positivity through practices such as affectionate and helpful speech, where we consciously look for the good in ourselves and others.

The strongest expression of this is where we’re told to maintain compassionate thoughts even toward those who are sadistically cruel toward us:

“Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.” (Majjhima Nikaya)

9. Say thank you like you mean it

“People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis are healthier, more optimistic, and more likely to make progress toward achieving personal goals, according to author Robert Emmons.”

The Buddha said that gratitude, among other qualities, was the “highest protection,” meaning that it protects us against unhappiness. And:

“A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people.”(Anguttara Nikaya)

To one ever eager to revere and serve the elders, these four blessing accrue: long life and beauty, happiness and power.(Dhammapada 109)

Gratitude in Buddhism helps us to align our being with the good (kusala) so that we’re more likely to live in a way that leads to happiness and wellbeing.

10. Get out and exercise

“A Duke University study shows that exercise may be just as effective as drugs in treating depression, without all the side effects and expense.”

And the Buddha said — well, I don’t think he said much about exercise! In a culture like the Buddha’s where most people worked manually, and where walking was the main form of transportation, there wasn’t much need to emphasize exercise as a thing in itself. It’s only in sedentary cultures like ours that people have to make a special trip to the gym to exercise — although they usually park as close to the entrance as possible to minimize the amount of exercise they have to do in order to get to the exercise machines! But walking meditation was, and is, a key practice in Buddhism, even though it’s sometimes done very slowly. However the Buddhist scriptures commonly mention that such-and-such a person was “walking and wandering up and down beside the river for exercise,” suggesting that monks, with their own form of semi-sedentary lifestyle, needed to set aside special time to get their bodies moving.

Monks, there are these five benefits of walking up & down. What five?

One is fit for long journeys; one is fit for striving; one has little disease; that which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted, goes through proper digestion; the composure attained by walking up & down is long-lasting.

These, monks, are the five benefits of walking up & down. (Anguttara Nikaya)

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Relax, kids: Meditation touted as stress buster for children

Tralee Pearce: I haven’t studied enough. I’m going to fail the test. My mom’s going to be mad. Maybe I’ll skip class.

Thoughts like these can quickly gallop out of control in kids’ minds, but what if there was a way they could clear them away? Enter the three-minute breathing meditation, which can be done anywhere, whether it’s on the bus or in a school hallway.

It’s one of the cornerstones of the increasingly popular practice of mindfulness, a blend of Buddhism-inspired calm and cognitive-behavioural therapy. Used as a therapy for adults for about 30 years, it’s now moving into the world of kids …

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“The Rhythm of Family” by Amanda Blake Soule

First, if you’re my wife, please stop reading this review.

Now that’s out of the way, The Rhythm of Family is a year-long journey through the life of one family living in Maine. It follows the seasons, from January snows back to the turning of the year at the winter solstice. The Soules have four children who are, during the year described in the book, from nine to one years of age. The point of the book is to describe the intersection of family and nature.

The introduction to the book is called “Noticing,” and this sets the tone for what follows:

Wonderful things happen in our family when we choose to move slowly through our days. When we stop running and rushing about, we discover more time, energy, and space for the things most important in our lives. By slowing down, our connections with our children and as a family inherently become deeper, our creativity thrives, and we find meaningful ways to fill our time.

Title: The Rhythm of Family
Author: Amanda Blake Soule
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-777-9
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

It’s astonishing how things have changed since I was a child. In every family I knew, dinner was an affair when the entire family got together around a table. There may have been bickering and moodiness and children refusing to eat what was in front of them — I don’t want to romanticize — but the family was together. Now in most families people eat separately, often not at the same time, never mind in the same room. And the most commonly eaten “meal” at dinnertime is a sandwich. Now human beings are flexible, and I don’t think these changes represent The End of Civilization As We Know It, but I don’t think they’re healthy. Families need to spend time together. We’re too busy.

The Rhythm of Family is the rhythm of a family living close to nature. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly where the Soules live, but they describe their home as “suburban,” so I think it’s safe to say they don’t live in the depths of the countryside — a privilege (if it is such), open to few. But they make good use of the nature that is around them. They get out of the house. They play together. They explore.

Again, from the introduction:

The natural world can serve as both inspiration and reward on this journey. For it, too, is ever changing and constantly in motion .. there is an ever present awareness of both birth and death, and the constant passage of time … it is only by spending time in the natural world, by paying attention and noticing, that we see these important changes … this natural rhythm can act at the heartbeat of our lives.

The Rhythm of Family is a lyrical and poetic book. Amanda’s words are joined at times by those of her husband, Stephen. It often reads like a blog, and can at times be a bit too gushy for my taste. Amanda’s penchant for sentence fragments sometimes grates. Sometimes irritates. Sometimes annoys. (See what I mean?) Sometimes the writers are striving too hard for effect. It’s fine to say that the birds return in the spring, but phrases like “In the spring–oh, in those precious spring months–the birds return” made this reader wince. Something about birds seems to make Amanda’s brain turn to mush; at one point birds are described as “two-legged tiny creatures that fly.” Much of the writing, however, is excellent, and please note that the version I read was a pre-publication draft, and it’s possible that future editing will reduce some of this verbiage.

Despite the book’s occasional lapses into sentimentality, I enjoyed reading The Rhythm of Family very much. It’s a powerful reminder of the importance of nature, the preciousness of family, and the connection between the two. As well as lyrical pieces describing the family’s activities throughout the year, the book is illustrated with beautiful photographs. This is one book you won’t want to read on the Kindle. It’s a book to hold and appreciate as a visual object. The book also contains “Make and Do” sections that tell you everything from how to make a bird feeder to how to make potato soup, with some knitting instructions thrown in. I came away with a deeper sense of how we could have fun as a family, making things and using the things we’ve made to connect with nature. I don’t think I’ll be taking up knitting (to be honest, I skipped those parts) but there are some arts and crafts activities that I’d love to do with my kids.

Some harried families will no doubt be saying, at this point, “Yeah, it’s all right for them, but where do I find the time.” And there’s a certain degree of validity in that. What do the Soules do for work? I can’t tell you. After reading an entire year’s worth of description of their daily acitivities, I don’t recall any mention of anyone working, going to work, coming home from work, or any concern about finances. The word “money” doesn’t even appear in the book.

But don’t use that as an excuse. I think there are many families harried by a sense of time being short who, if they gave it some thought, could work out ways to spend more time together. The average adult American watches more than 28 hours of television each week. The average American child spends more time watching TV each year than he or she does in school. According to the TV Turnoff Network the number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children is 38 ½. Before we start complaining about not having time to spend with our kids, let’s spend less time with American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

You may not live in or near the countryside. But even in a city there are parks. Even in a city there are wild birds, and you can put out a feeder for them and make an effort to learn more about them. There are leaves and seeds and pods and flower petals you can take home and use in arts projects.

It is, however, unfortunate that the Soules, in trying to convince us to spend more time with our families, and with nature, give the impression that they live in a protected bubble of unreality, since that impression reinforces the notion that time spent with children exploring nature is an unattainable goal. It’s not, and the book itself will give you plenty of ideas for activities with your kids, especially if they’re younger. The Soules do admit to being imperfect (“sometimes we eat popcorn for dinner, sometimes there is fighting, and sometimes we as parents wonder just how it is that we’re going to get through a day”) but they don’t show you that. You never get to see their struggles. You never get to learn from their mistakes or to empathize with them as they doubt their parenting abilities. But they also remind us that

Letting ourselves believe … that someone else has it so much more together than we do … is just a distraction and takes us away from the real work that each of us is doing in our everyday lives.

I wish The Rhythm of Family had taken a more honest “warts and all” approach, rather than offering a portait of a perfect family who tell you, as an aside, “Oh, we’re not perfect.” But we should take their advice, cease from making comparisons, and simply starting from where we are, consider step-by-step how we can spend more time with our kids, and more time exploring nature as a family.

The Rhythm of Family is a flawed book for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but it’s an immensely valuable book as well. I’m inspired by it, and found myself apprecating much more the simple moments I spend with my children. And I’m sure my wife will like the book even more than I did. Her birthday’s coming up soon, almost exactly a month after the book’s publication date, and I was thinking it would make a great present for her.

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“Buddha at Bedtime,” by Dharmachari Nagaraja

Recently I walked into a bookstore and saw a spine bearing the title “Buddha at Bedtime.” As the father of two young children who always want a good story at bedtime, I was delighted to know that this book existed. I was even more delighted — and surprised — when I pulled the book from the shelf and realized that I knew the author, Nagaraja.

So for full disclosure, I first met Nagaraja at the Glasgow Buddhist Center over 20 years ago, and although we’ve never been close friends, we were ordained together and I’ve sometimes asked him to review books for me. But our connection is weak enough that his book could be out for almost two years before I stumbled upon it.

Nagaraja is a regular guest presenter on BBC Radio 2, where he used traditional Buddhist tales to communicate the Buddha’s teachings to a UK audience of 7.7 million people. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1988, was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1993, and went on to teach at and manage the Covent Garden Meditation Centre, London. He has now returned to his native Scotland, where he is now involved with the Glasgow Buddhist Centre and works as a psychotherapist.

Title: Buddha at Bedtime
Author: Dharmachari Nagaraja
Publisher: Duncan Baird
ISBN: 978-1-84483-596-6
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Buddha at Bedtime is a collection of jataka stories, which are traditional folk-tales that have been incorporated into the Buddhist tradition. In the jatakas, the hero, who is often an animal, is said to be the Buddha in a previous life. The stories are similar to many of Aesop’s fables, and both traditions may well have been drawn from a common pool of tales that circulated among many cultures from Europe, across the Middle East, to India. Each tale illustrates a particular virtue, such as courage, thinking before speaking, or responding with intelligence rather than violence.

Buddha at Bedtime contains adaptations of twenty such jatakas. The stories are westernized to some extent, so that the characters names tend to be recognizable rather than foreign-sounding. Whereas a young girl in the original Indian version might be called Nandavati or Sundari, the corresponding character in Nagaraja’s version might be Rosalina or Polly. Additionally, the protagonist of the story is never explicitly named as being “the bodhisatta” (the Buddha before his enlightenment). These changes help to make the stories more contemporary and accessible. Additionally, Nagaraja has chosen not to stick slavishly to the original plot, which I think is wise, and in keeping with the original tradition of storytelling, where each teller of the tale would add his or her own embellishments while respecting the essence of the narrative. A couple of times I wished that Nagaraja had gone a bit further and changed the few references to “the gods,” although that’s just my taste.

Nagaraja is an effective storyteller. Each story has a short introductory teaser that gives a preview of the forthcoming attractions. Every time I got to the line “Would you like to know what happened?” I was surprised to hear my children yell “yes!” It’s a clever technique, using questions as a way to generate engagement. The language is simple and vivid, and yet the book doesn’t condescend. Here’s a randomly chosen sentence from “Two Ducks and a Turtle”:

For many years, he was quite content swimming lazily around the large pond, or basking in the sun on top of one of the big, rubbery, green lily pads that covered its surface. Sometimes, he would snap at a passing dragonfly, or try to catch a fat, juicy water beetle to eat.

The stories end with a moral, expressed in two or three sentences. For example, at the conclusion of “The Grateful Bull” we read:

It’s all too easy to lose our patience with people and act unkindly. A wise person knows that showing kindness and compassion is the most effective way to bring out the best in others.

These morals are as appropriate for adult readers as they are for young listeners, and perhaps even more so. I had the impression that my children’s attention had been lost the moment the story ended and that the explicitly stated moral was lost on them, but after a sometimes hassle-packed bedtime routine I sometimes found myself reflecting on how my own behavior could be more ethically skillful and kind.

The book is intended to be meditative as well: a natural meditative absorption that trains young minds in vitakka or continuous attention. Each tale begins with the words, “Relax, be very still, and listen — listen carefully to this tale…” There’s also a section at the end with child-friendly guided meditations, which I successfully tried out on my four-year-old daughter.

Buddha at Bedtime looks gorgeous. Each story is preceded by a detailed full-page illustration, and the following pages are decorated with elements extracted from the main image. The colors are rich and vibrant, and both the human and the animal characters are expressive and dynamic.

My only quibble with Buddha at Bedtime is a small one. The image of “the Buddha” accompanying the moral at the end of each tale is not the Buddha at all, but is the fat, jolly character that one sees referred to as “the laughing Buddha.” This personage is actually Po-Tei (Chinese) or Ho-Tei (Japanese) and he was a folkloric monk who has been granted the status of a household deity representing prosperity. He is a character who smiles despite having little, and who is portrayed as being generous. He carries a sack (his name means cloth sack) and in the Zen tradition he’s said to give gifts to children. Confusing Potei with the Buddha is rather like confusing Santa Claus with Christ. Rather than being portrayed as fat, the Buddha is always depicted as being slender, and he’s never portrayed as laughing, but as smiling serenely. If there’s a second edition of Buddha at Bedtime, I hope that the illustrations can be corrected. A Chinese book called “Jesus at Bedtime” where Jesus had been replaced with Santa would properly evoke wry laughter. Its time to lose the cultural confusion over Hotei and the Buddha.

That aside, this is a wonderful book. Ultimately in a book such as this the reviewer is the child. I’d expected that it would take close to three weeks to read the entire book — one story a night for twenty nights but due to demands placed on me by my two tiny tyrants we ended up reading Buddha at Bedtime in just over a week. My daughter still asks specifically for the book, and had two stories read to her just last night. There are some suggested meditation exercises that I haven’t yet tried out with my kids.

I would highly recommend Nagaraja’s book to all parents of young children, whether Buddhist or not. I’m expecting to be reading this book over, and over, and over — for many months to come.

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