mindful parenting

Self-compassion in the kitchen

Unmindfulness Increases Our Suffering

I’m making dinner for my children while they do their homework in the other room. I’m chopping vegetables and putting together a peanut butter sauce and also frying tofu and stirring rice. I’m not a natural at multitasking, and balancing all these tasks is stressful.

One of the kids asks for a drink, and I feel a surge of annoyance. Can’t they see I’m busy?

I heave a sigh and say, rather testily, “I just put the juice back in the fridge! Can’t you just wait two minutes?”

Now my child is upset, and I have yet another thing to take care of. I feel annoyed, but also disappointed with myself for having expressed my irritation. I’ve taken my original stress and added a whole bunch of new sufferings to it!

Mindfulness Leads to Freedom from Suffering

I’m making dinner for my children while they do their homework in the other room. I’m chopping vegetables and putting together a peanut butter sauce and also frying tofu and stirring rice. I’m not a natural at multitasking, and balancing all these tasks is stressful.

But I’ve been training myself to be more mindful of my feelings, and I’m starting to notice the stress building up in my body. I notice that there’s a tense edge to the way I’m thinking. I sense that emotionally I’m being hard on myself, like I’m becoming angry with everything.

In short, I’m aware that I’m suffering. I notice this just as a fact, not as a judgement. It’s normal to suffer. That’s OK. It’s just what happens sometimes.

Letting my awareness drop down into the body, and away from my thoughts, I can sense a painful knot of tension in my midriff. That’s where the suffering part of me is expressing itself. That’s how it’s communicating with the rest of me, trying to get my attention.

I regard this suffering part of me with an inner look of tenderness. It’s the same look I’d have for my children when I feel particularly loving toward them.

I say a few words: “I know this is hard for you. I just want you to know that I love you and want you to be happy.”

All of this takes just a few seconds. All of the time I’m doing this I’m still chopping and stirring.

When one of the kids asks for juice, I tell them, kindly, that I’m in the middle of something, and that it’ll be a minute.

I realize that part of what’s going on is that I’m overwhelmed with tasks at a time when I’m tired and my blood sugar is low. I experience this realization as a relief. It’s not that the world is a horrible place. It’s not that my kids are trying to make my life difficult. It’s not that I’m failing as a cook and as a father. What I’m feeling is just the physiological effect of trying to do a complex task when I’m hungry and tired from working all day. And so I continue cooking, feeling supported and cherished.

The kindness I’m showing myself spills over into the way I’m cooking. I enjoy the actions my body is doing. I enjoy the colors and textures and smells. It affect the way I’m relating to my kids. I behave to them in a way that’s calm and kind. They know I care about them and there’s a loving connection extending from the kitchen to the living-room and back again. A minute or two later, I get them their juice.

The Power of Self-Compassion

Being mindful of our feelings creates a “sacred pause” where we are less likely to respond with habitual volitions like anger, judgement, or blame.

Mindfulness of feelings puts gives us a chance simply to observe what’s happening. It gives us an opportunity to avoid doing things that will just cause more suffering for ourselves and others.

This sacred pause we create in moments of mindfulness not only allows us to temporarily let go of our reactivity. It also allows a space in which more creative responses can arise. It allows us to relate with patience and kindness to the parts of us that are suffering. And it gives us an opportunity to support ourselves, empathetically.

And when we support ourselves with kindness and compassion, we’re more likely to respond to others with those emotions.

The sacred pause gives us a chance to practice wisdom, with the kind of reframing that I illustrated above (recognizing that its normal to suffer, that the irritability is the result of physiological circumstances, rather than being a deep personal failing or a sign that the world is a horrible place).

Four Steps to Self-Compassion

Self-compassion isn’t  always easy to practice, but the steps are simple once we’ve remembered to use them.

  1. Notice that you’re suffering. Let suffering become a trigger for self-awareness.
  2. Drop the story you’ve been building (“This is so frustrating! Why can’t the kids leave me alone while I’m busy?”)
  3. Drop down to observe your suffering as felt sensations in the body. These are mainly around the heart, diaphragm, and gut, usually.
  4. Offer kindness to the part of you that is suffering, by talking to your pain, looking (with your inward eye) at it with loving eyes, and even with a loving and reassuring touch.

To practice these four steps it’s helpful to imagine or remember stressful situations. That gives you a safe space in which to memorize and practice the four steps so that they become second nature. Rehearsing in this way makes it more likely that in the future we’ll spontaneously respond with compassion and kindness to ourselves and others.

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Mindfulness for Women: Claire’s diary

Vidyamala Burch

Vidyamala’s course, “Mindfulness for Women,” starts March 1, 2017

The Mindfulness for Women online course, starting March 1 on Wildmind, is based on the book I co-wrote with Journalist Claire Irvin. Claire hadn’t meditated before we worked on this project so she gamely kept a diary of her efforts which are accessible, often hilarious, and moving. Here’s her diary of her first attempt to meditate:

Claire’s Diary Week One: Body Scan

It’s 9.30 on a dark early-spring evening. My husband Stuart is away and I’ve finally got Amelie, six, to go to bed (she will take any opportunity to delay bedtime, and an absent parent is as good an excuse as any). On a normal weekday I’d be starting to think about bed myself (early bedtimes are the only way I cope with the hectic pace of my life), but tonight I’m a bit wired, and also secretly relishing the quiet in the house. I think guiltily of my promise to Vidyamala to start my mindfulness journey, but quickly push the thought away. I sit down in front of the TV and am suddenly filled with resolve (plus, I won’t lie, there’s nothing on telly and the idea of lying down is very appealing). I decamp upstairs to my bed and press play on my meditation recording, and Vidyamala’s calm, gently lilting voice fills the room.

 

I immediately feel myself relax. This isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be . . . I listen for a few more seconds and then get distracted by a noise in the garden. It’s a cat, by the sounds of it, climbing up the side of the shed. I resist the urge to get up and look. But it makes me wonder if I’ve locked up properly outside, and it’s a couple of moments before I can pull myself back to the meditation.

 

I cringe a bit at the mention of my belly. I hate this word and, like many women, hate focusing on my tummy at all. But as I feel my breath echo in my pelvic floor and my lower back, I begin to feel like a star pupil. I can do this! To say I’m pleased with myself is an understatement. I hear another noise outside, in the front this time, and I tense up again and wonder what it is.

 

Vidyamala is now asking me to relax my face. Oops! My face is very tense. Like, really tense. I relax it: my jaw, my teeth, the set of my mouth. As soon as I relax one part of it, another tenses up again. I get distracted thinking about the irony of having to work harder at being relaxed. I make myself laugh, then realise I’ve missed the next few moments of the meditation. Must do better next time.

 

Afterwards, I decide I should go to bed. I notice how much more relaxed I am. Despite Stuart being away, which normally makes me edgy, I sleep like a baby.

Click here to register for the Mindfulness for Women online course, starting March 1.

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How to enter the stream

What you need to do to become a stream entrant

There are certain things you need to do, and attitudes that you need to cultivate, if you’re going to set up the conditions for insight to arise.

You’ll need periods of intensive practice, such as going on retreat. And I don’t mean just getting away for the odd weekend, which is all some people say they can manage. You need to have intensive spells of meditation for a week, ten days, two weeks, preferably longer.

Sometimes we find it hard to have the time. I heard someone say that when you say you don’t have time to do something it’s not a statement of fact, it’s a statement of values. When we say we don’t have time to go on retreat, this is a statement of what we think is important. Certainly there are practical difficulties — if you have a young child it’s very hard to get away for those first few years — but with time (and willingness) we can overcome these difficulties.

You need to do a lot of work to become a more positive person. You need to get rid of the gross manifestations of greed, hatred, and delusion. You need to be reasonably ethical. You need to work on being kind. You need to take responsibility for yourself. You have to have done a lot of letting go. You need to work on bringing Buddhist practice into your daily life. Your practice can’t be a hobby, and has to be the central orienting principle in your life. So your life has to be your practice. Your work has to be your practice, your parenting has to be your practice, your parenting and your friendships have to be your practice. Every aspect of your life has to become an avenue for cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and insight.

You’re going to need a sangha to do all of the above. We need other people to encourage us — and to challenge us. It’s all too easy for us to kid ourselves on about how spiritual we are, or to let ourselves off the hook when we face a spiritual challenge. A sangha holds a mirror up in front of us, so that we can see ourselves more clearly.

You need to have an enquiring mind. It’s very difficult to develop insight if you’re not prepared to question. And by this I don’t mean making a pain of yourself and arguing about everything. Gaining insight is about questioning your experience and questioning your assumptions about the world — your assumptions about where happiness comes from, your assumptions about who you are, your assumptions about things having permanence. Unless you’re prepared to question, you can’t break the fetters.

The enquiring mind is not afraid of uncertainty. In fact the enquiring mind thrives on uncertainty. I think a lot of what holds people back is too quickly assuming that they understand. It’s so easy to assent to Buddhist concepts, and being clever and having a quick mind can be a problem as well as a blessing. It’s easy to take ideas on board because they seem reasonable, without really thinking them through. The reason I decided to go study Buddhism at university was after I started noticing this in myself. I discovered that I could hold two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time. I could switch seamlessly from one to the other without ever noticing the contradiction, and I wanted an opportunity to be forced to think clearly. To give one example, it’s common to hear that the “eastern tradition” is that we should never talk about spiritual accomplishments such as enlightenment. So if we get enlightened we should be modest and never say anything about it. And then five minutes later we’ll read a sutta where the Buddha, or one of his disciples, proclaims his spiritual attainment, and think how wonderfully confident this all is. Another example would be believing that we literally have to aim to save all sentient beings in order to awaken, and in the next moment reading the Buddha’s life story in which he first gets awakened and then feels impelled to teach and help others. Often we never notice that we have two contradictory ideas in our mind, since each is only evoked under specific circumstances.

Stream entry involves breaking three fetters

Stream entry involves breaking three out of the ten fetters that hold us back from full awakening. These fetters are habits and views and acts of clinging that stop us from making progress.

The first fetter is “self-view.” It’s often expressed as “fixed self-view.” This is the assumption we have that we have a fixed and separate self that’s running the show of our lives. It’s not just that if we think we can’t change, we won’t, although that is true. This fetter is rather more subtle than that. It’s the view that there is a self that is somehow separate from our ever-changing experiences. So we may notice that our experiences are changing, but assume there’s some kind of stable, permanent self that has those experiences. But where could this kind of self lie?

To break this fetter, we have to simply notice, over and over again, that there’s nothing permanent in our experience. It’s not that we just understand impermanence intellectually. That’s often what we do. We talk about impermanence rather than just looking.

We watch our physical sensations. over and over, and see that they’re changing. We enquire. We look deeply. We question assumptions. So we find ourselves thinking “I’ve had this headache all day.” Well, actually you haven’t. Look closer. You’ve had it for a microsecond. Before that you had a slightly different headache for a microsecond. You’ve had a gazillion headaches, all a microsecond long, and each one different. So you notice this endless parade of headaches, coming and going, pulsing and throbbing. You come to realize that the headache is not a permanent thing. At some point you realize that everything that constitutes our sense of self is like that. Even the consciousness that notices the headaches coming and going is changing all the time. There’s nothing here but change. There’s no room for the kind of permanent self that we assume “has” our experiences.

This fetter, although we call it “(fixed) self view” is literally the fetter of “real body view” (sakkāya ditthi) and this literal sense of the term is an important component of the fetter. At a certain point we lose the sense of having a body, and instead we experience ourselves as a mass of ever-changing sensations. There’s a loss of the sense of solidity and permanence of the body. But this experience of the body dissolving doesn’t stop with the body. It extends to every aspect of our experience, and even to our sense of self.

So this is all you need to do. Just look. Notice that everything’s changing. And keep doing this until the penny drops that all there is is change. It’s really simple. We do this with physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc.

The second fetter is doubt. All three fetters break at the same time, so this one goes automatically when the fetter of self view breaks. When we break the fetter of self view, we see everything’s changing. This is changing, that is changing, everything is changing. And then it clicks, there’s nothing here that’s permanent. There’s nothing solid in my self.

Now this is very liberating! We’ve been under the grip of a delusion all our lives — the delusion of having a fixed and separate self. There’s been doubt about all this Freudian stuff lurking under the surface. There’s been doubt that we may be fundamentally incapable of becoming enlightened because of all the baggage we’ve been dragging around. And there’s been doubt about whether Buddhist practice can even go beyond making us a bit happier. Now doubt vanishes. Now we have confidence — confidence that comes from the evidence of our senses. So where could there be doubt? Where could it exist? How can your baggage hold you back when it’s impermanent and insubstantial? You’ve seen the reality of not-self, and there’s no room for doubt. (There will be other doubts about other things, but this particular doubt has gone).

The third fetter is “dependence on ethics and religious observances.” The wording of this fetter is strangely complex compared to the others, and it’s also harder to connect this with an experience that happens at the same as the other two fetters break. But apart from the stunning insight that there is no substance to the self, and the surge of confidence we feel as doubt falls away, there’s one other powerful experience that happens at stream entry — a sense of the immediacy and obviousness of the insights we’ve just experienced. Now that we’ve seen, we wonder why we haven’t seen before. After all, the reality of the insubstantiality of the self is out there in the open, just waiting to be seen. The reality of impermanence is not exactly a secret. So there’s this sense of wonder that this is all so easy to do, and we puzzle over why we haven’t seen it before.

So how does this relate to dependence on ethics and religious observances? Basically, this fetter seems to refer to the practices we’ve done that have ended up being a distraction from seeing impermanence and seeing the insubstantiality of the self. We get caught up in external practices that are distractions, like trying to be a “good Buddhist” and trying to impress, and especially trying to understand intellectually rather than just looking and seeing what’s right there in front of us.

Of course we need, in a way, to rely on ethics and religious practices. But sometimes we use them as distractions. We cling to the form of our practice and forget the spirit. We keep forgetting, on some level, what the purpose of practice is. And actually all we have to do is look. And look again. And again. Until finally the penny drops.

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Meditation can help special-needs parents

wildmind meditation newsDenise Dador, ABC7.com: A first-of-its kind study focuses on the parents of kids with special-needs. The thought of providing life-long care to a child brings on many stresses from financial to emotional.

Now researchers say having a stress relief tool at your disposal may give all parents the grounding they need.

Getting centered is one of Marianne Kehler’s strengths. At age two, her 18-year-old son Liam was diagnosed with a severe form of autism. For years, she needed to protect Liam from himself.

“Many households of individuals with autism can be like a warzone,” Marianne said. “He would self-injure. As a consequence, others …

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Put down the fork: A mindful parenting mantra

wildmind meditation newsCarla Naumburg, PsychCentral: A few weeks ago, I was on a retreat as part of a year-long course I recently took on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. (For the record, the course meets in person in the Boston area and online for those of you around the world, and it’s fantastic. If you’re a mental health professional interested in integrating mindfulness into your practice, I highly recommend you check it out.) Anyway, we spent about 36 hours of the retreat in silence, during which time our goal was to meditate on whatever we were doing: sitting, walking, washing dishes, and eating.

At each meal, I tried …

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The play of causes and conditions (Day 96)

100 Days of LovingkindnessWe adopted my daughter at four months old, and I found it absolutely fascinating to watch her mind evolve. What I noticed first was that 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.

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.

But then things began to change.

She 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 — she’d suffer agonies of despair.

The hot on the heels of craving arose anger: by the time she was two, when she was deprived of something she wanted, she was likely to have a tantrum.

This was a bit of a shock to the system, having my sweet, happy daughter taken away from me and this demonic entity kicking and thrashing and screaming. It was all developmentally appropriate, but challenging!

One of the ways I found myself rising to this challenge was recognizing that what I was seeing was the play of causes and conditions. When she was frustrated and would try to strike me or spit at me, I started seeing her as an eternally-unfolding stream of causes and conditions.

She didn’t know why she was acting this way. She was experiencing new emotions (can you imagine what that’s like?) and having to learn to deal with them. She was struggling to come to terms with moving from complete dependance to relative independence, never knowing where the line was or what her limitations were, going through phases of development as she tried 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.

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If you benefit from the work we do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

The great teacher 8th century teacher Shantideva talked about how seeing beings in terms of causes and conditions could help us have more patience with them:

I am not angered at bile and the like even though they cause
great suffering. Why be angry at sentient beings, who are
also provoked to anger by conditions?

Just as sharp pain arises although one does not desire it, so
anger forcibly arises although one does not desire it.

A person does not intentionally become angry, thinking, “I
shall get angry,” nor does anger originate, thinking, “I shall
arise.”

All offenses and vices of various kinds arise
under the influence of conditions, and they
do not arise independently.

An assemblage of conditions does not have
the intention, “I shall produce,” nor does
that which is produced have the intention, “I
shall be produced.”

So this is simply an extension of the principles of anatta (non-self) that I’ve been discussing recently. At my best, I don’t indulge in “conceiving” of my daughter having a self. At my best I realize that her tantrums are not her, not hers, and that they are not her self.

I’m at my best when I relate to others not in terms of what I think they are, but in terms of what they can become. It’s not that I have a fixed sense of what they can be, but that I simply don’t assume that what I see is all that there is. When my daughter’s having a tantrum that’s just one particular manifestation of the causes and conditions that constitute her being at that particular time. Minutes later she may be sweet and loving. And who knows what she will become in the future?

Things go best between us when I accept her as an eternally-evolving and undefinable being, and my task as a parent is to be a compassionate presence that encourages the emergence of what is best in her.

So this again brings us to upekkha. Upekkha is not equanimity, but is the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening. It’s also the activity that helps beings to experience that peace. Recognizing that beings are not fixed, but are vortices of conditions arising and passing away, helps us to experience that peace ourselves, and to help them to move toward that peace themselves.

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

100 Days of Lovingkindness

It’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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Mindfulness: Can it make parenting easier?

Carla Naumburg: There’s no question in my mind that mindfulness can make us all better parents, both by helping us to stay tuned in to our own thoughts and feelings so they don’t unconsciously dictate our actions AND by giving us the skills and tools to truly connect with our children so we can best respond to their thoughts and emotions with kindness.

I have found that my own meditation and informal mindfulness practices have made a noticeable improvement in my ability to stay calm and choose how I want to respond to my girls, rather than reacting to them out of…

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Connecting with Our ‘Soul Sadness’

hands holding sad-looking withered leaves

>Marge, a woman in our meditation community, was in a painful standoff with her teenage son. At fifteen, Micky was in a downward spiral of skipping classes and using drugs, and had just been suspended for smoking marijuana on school grounds. While Marge blamed herself — she was the parent, after all — she was also furious at him.

The piercings she hadn’t approved, the lies, stale smell of cigarettes, and earphones that kept him in his own removed world — every interaction with Micky left her feeling powerless, angry, and afraid. The more she tried to take control with her criticism, with “groundings” and other ways of setting limits, the more withdrawn and defiant Micky became. When she came in for a counseling session, she wanted to talk about why the entire situation was really her fault.

An attorney with a large firm, Marge felt she’d let her career get in the way of attentive parenting. She’d divorced Micky’s father when the boy was entering kindergarten, and her new partner, Jan, had moved in several years later. More often than not, it was Jan, not Marge, who went to PTA meetings and soccer games, Jan who was there when Micky got home from school. Recently, the stress had peaked when a new account increased Marge’s hours at work.

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“I wish I’d been there for him more,” she said. “I love him, I’ve tried, but now it is impossible to reach him. I’m so afraid he is going to create a train wreck out of his life.” I heard the despair in her voice. When she fell silent, I invited her to sit quietly for a few moments. “You might notice whatever feelings you’re aware of, and when you’re ready, name them out loud.” When she spoke again, Marge’s tone was flat. “Anger — at him, at me, who knows. Fear — he’s ruining his life. Guilt, shame — so much shame, for screwing up as a mother.”

I asked her softly if it would be okay to take some time to investigate the shame. She nodded. “You might start by agreeing to let it be there, sensing where you feel it most in your body.” Again she nodded, and few moments later, put one hand on her heart and another on her belly. “Good,” I said. “Keep letting yourself feel the shame, and sense if there is something it wants to say. What is it believing about you, about your life?”

It was a while before Marge spoke. “The shame says that I let everyone down. I’m so caught up in myself, what’s important to me. It’s not just Micky, it’s Jan, and Rick (her ex-husband), and my mom, and … I’m selfish and too ambitious, I disappoint everyone I care about.”

“How long have you felt this way, that you’ve let everyone down?” I asked. She said, “As long as I can remember. Even as a little girl. I’ve always felt I was failing people, that I didn’t deserve love. Now I run around trying to achieve things, trying to be worthy, and I end up failing those I love the most!”

“Take a moment, Marge, and let the feeling of failing people, of being undeserving of love, be as big as it really is.” After a few moments she said, “It’s like a sore tugging feeling in my heart.”

“Now,” I said, “sense what it’s like to know that even as a little girl — for as long as you can remember — you’ve lived with this pain of not deserving love, lived with this sore tugging in your heart. Sense what that has done to your life.” Marge grew very still and then began silently weeping.

Marge was experiencing what I call “soul sadness,” the sadness that arises when we’re able to sense our temporary, precious existence, and directly face the suffering that’s come from losing life. We recognize how our self-aversion has prevented us from being close to others, from expressing and letting love in. We see, sometimes with striking clarity, that we’ve closed ourselves off from our own creativity and spontaneity, from being fully alive. We remember missed moments when it might have been otherwise, and we begin to grieve our unlived life.

This grief can be so painful that we tend, unconsciously, to move away from it. Even if we start to touch our sadness, we often bury it by reentering the shame—judging our suffering, assuming that we somehow deserve it, telling ourselves that others have “real suffering” and we shouldn’t be filled with self pity. Our soul sadness is fully revealed only when we directly and mindfully contact our pain. It is revealed when we stay on the spot and fully recognize that this human being is having a hard time. In such moments we discover a natural upwelling of compassion—the tenderness of our own forgiving heart.

When Marge’s crying subsided, I suggested she ask the place of sorrow what it longed for most. She knew right away: “To trust that I’m worthy of love in my life.” I invited her to once again place one hand on her heart and another on her belly, letting the gentle pressure of her touch communicate care. “Now sense whatever message most resonates for you, and send it inwardly. Allow the energy of the message to bathe and comfort all the places in your being that need to hear it.”

After a couple of minutes of this, Marge took a few full breaths. Her expression was serene, undefended. “This feels right,” she said quietly, “being kind to my own hurting heart.” Marge had looked beyond her fault to her need. She was healing herself with compassion.

Before she left, I suggested she pause whenever she became aware of guilt or shame, and take a moment to reconnect with self-compassion. If she was in a private place, she could gently touch her heart and belly, and let that contact deepen her communication with her inner life. I also encouraged her to include the metta (lovingkindness) practice for herself and her son in her daily meditation: “You’ll find that self-compassion will open you to feeling more loving.”

Six weeks later Marge and I met again. She told me that at the end of her daily meditation, she’d started doing metta for herself, reminding herself of her honesty, sincerity, and longing to love well. Then she’d offer herself wishes, most often reciting, “May I accept myself just as I am. May I be filled with loving-kindness, held in lovingkindness.” After a few minutes she’d then bring her son to mind: “I would see how his eyes light up when he gets animated, and how happy he looks when he laughs. Then I’d say ‘May you feel happy. May you feel relaxed and at ease. May you feel my love now.’ With each phrase I’d imagine him happy, relaxed, feeling held in my love.”

Their interactions started to change. She went out early on Saturday mornings to pick up his favorite “everything” bagels before he woke up. He brought out the trash unasked. They watched several episodes of The Wire together on TV. Then,” Marge told me, “a few nights ago, he came into my home office, made himself comfortable on the couch, and said nonchalantly, ‘What’s up, Mom? Just thought I’d check in.’”

“It wasn’t exactly an extended chat,” she said with a smile. “He suddenly sprang up and told me he had to meet some friends at the mall. But we’re more at ease, a door has reopened.” Marge was thoughtful for a few moments, then said, “I understand what happened. By letting go of the blame—most of which I was aiming at myself—I created room for both of us in my heart.”

As Marge was discovering, self-compassion is entirely interdependent with acting responsibly and caringly toward others. Forgiving ourselves clears the way for a loving presence that can appreciate the goodness of others, and respond to their hurts and needs. And, in turn, our way of relating to others affects how we regard ourselves and supports our ongoing self-forgiveness.

Adapted from True Refuge (on sale January 2013)

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Entrusting yourself to the waves

I was drawn to my first Buddhist mindfulness retreat during a time when my son, Narayan, was four, and I was on the verge of divorce. During a slow, icy drive through a winter snowstorm on the way to the retreat center, I had plenty of time to reflect on what most mattered to me. I didn’t want a breakup that would bury the love I still shared with my husband; I didn’t want us to turn into uncaring, even hostile, strangers. And I didn’t want a breakup that would deprive Narayan of feeling secure and loved. My deep prayer was that through all that was happening, I’d find a way to stay connected with my heart.

Over the next five days, through hours of silent meditation, I cycled many times through periods of clarity and attentiveness, followed by stretches when I was swamped in sleepiness, plagued by physical discomfort, or lost in a wandering mind. Early one evening I became inundated by thoughts about the upcoming months: Should my husband and I hire lawyers or a mediator to handle the process of divorce? When should we move to separate residences? And, most importantly, how should I be there for our son during this painful transition?

As each anxious thought surfaced, I wanted to really dig in and work everything out in my mind. Yet something in me knew I needed to stay with the unpleasant feelings in my body. A verse from Ryokan, an eighteenth-century Zen poet, came to mind: “To find the Buddhist law, drift east and west, come and go, entrusting yourself to the waves.” The “Buddhist law” refers to the truth of how things really are. We can’t understand the nature of reality until we let go of controlling our experience. There’s no way to see clearly what’s going on if on some level we’re attempting to ignore or bypass the stormy weather.

During the last few days of the retreat I tried to let go, over and over, but felt repeatedly stymied by my well-worn strategy for feeling better—figuring things out. Now Ryokan’s verse was rife with possibility: Perhaps I could entrust myself to the waves. Perhaps the only way to real peace was by opening to life just as it was. Otherwise, behind my efforts to manage things, I’d always sense a lurking threat, something right around the corner that was going to cause trouble.

My old habits didn’t give up easily, though. As soon as I’d contact some tightness in my chest, I’d flip right back into worrying about my son’s new preschool, carpooling, or about how to find a baby-sitter with more flexible hours. Then I’d become hypercritical, harshly judging myself for “wasting” my retreat time. Gradually, I recognized that my heart was clenched tight, afraid to let the intensity of life wash through me. I needed help “entrusting.”

Each afternoon, the teachers had been leading us in a lovingkindness meditation. I decided to try weaving this into my sitting. The classical form of the meditation consists of sending loving prayers to ourselves and widening circles of other beings. I began to offer kind wishes to myself: “May I be happy and at ease; may I be happy and at ease.” At first, repeating the words felt like a superficial mental exercise, but soon something shifted. My heart meant it: I cared about my own life, and becoming conscious of that caring softened some of the tightness around my heart.

Now I could more easily give myself to the waves of fear and sorrow, and simply notice the drifting thoughts and physical sensations—squeezing and soreness—that were coming and going. Whenever the worries that had been snagging me appeared, I sensed that they too were waves, tenacious ones that pressed uncomfortably on my chest. By not resisting, by letting the waves wash through me, I began to relax. Rather than fighting the stormy surges, I rested in an ocean of awareness that embraced all the moving waves. I’d arrived in a sanctuary that felt large enough to hold whatever was going on in my life.

After my retreat, I returned home with the intention of taking refuge in presence whenever I was irritated, anxious, and tight. I was alert when the first flare-up occurred, a week later. My ex-husband called to say he couldn’t take care of Narayan that evening, leaving me scrambling to find a baby-sitter. “I’m the breadwinner, and I can’t even count on him for this!” my mind sputtered. “Once again he’s not doing his share, once again he’s letting me down!”

But when I was done for the day, I took some time to pause and touch into the judgment and blame lingering in my body, and my righteous stance softened. I sat still as the blaming thoughts and swells of irritation came and went. Underneath the resentment was an anxious question: “How will I manage?” As I let the subterranean waves of anxiety move through me, I found a quiet inner space that had more breathing room—and more perspective.

Of course I couldn’t figure out how the future would play out. The only time I had was right now, and this moment was okay. From this space I could sense my ex-husband’s stress about finding a new place to live, working out our schedules, and, more deeply, adapting to a different future than he had imagined. This helped me feel more tolerant and kind. It also revealed the power of entrusting myself to the waves. My husband and I continue to be dear friends. With him and in countless instances with others, this gateway to presence has reawakened me to a space of loving that feels like home.

Adapted from Tara’s upcoming book, True Refuge – Finding Peace and Freedom in your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, Feb, 2013)

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