mindful parenting

“The Tibetan Art of Parenting” by Brown, Farwell, and Nyerongsha

the tibetan art of parentingA new book aims to describe the art of child-rearing in Tibetan culture, in order to help Tibetans hold onto their traditions and as a teaching for the wider world.

A pilgrimage earlier this year took me to Northern India and Sikkhim where I visited Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries and witnessed a little of the spiritual practice which is so integral to the ordinary everyday life of the people there, amongst them many Tibetan refugees. Saddened to leave India I was interested on returning to my life and my family to pick up this book and find myself once more amongst Tibetans and to be offered another perspective on their lives and practice.

The Tibetan Art of Parenting offers a rich and well documented overview of the holistic theory and practice relating to childbirth and infancy within Tibetan culture. It is divided into seven parts, looking at approaches from pre-conception through to early childhood. Originally a work by Anne Maiden Brown and Edie Farwell, psychotherapist and anthropologist, it has been revised and now includes the collaboration of Dickey Nyeronghsa, a doctor from a lineage of Tibetan physicians, brought up in Tibet and now living in the US.

Title: The Tibetan Art of Parenting, From Before Conception Through Early Childhood
Author: Anne Maiden Brown, Edie Farwell, and Dickey Nyerongsha
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 0-86171-579-9
Available from: Wisdom Publications and Amazon.com.

The material is drawn from practice within the refugee community, principally in Dharamsala, Northern India, home of the Tibetan government in exile. The account adopts the device of introducing us to three fictional families living in or near Dharamsala, and narrative engages us with them at the different stages of parenting.

The work is intended for parents, child health professionals and legislators as well as sociologists and anthropologists. It seeks to present and preserve the rich tradition associated with birth within Tibetan culture. The authors are keen to stimulate dialogue between modern and traditional approaches, valuing the Tibetan understanding of childbirth as a natural process to be undertaken within the context and care of the family and wider community.

I had a mixed response to the book. As a parent and Buddhist I found it interesting but without being a childbirth practitioner there was more detail especially around preconception and gestation than I could engage with and I would have welcomed more information about Tibetan Buddhism itself. For any child health professional or alternative medicine practitioner I think this would be a most interesting read. It seems that there is evidence that Tibetans were the first people to study and illustrate the conception and development of the fetus through gestation.

In order to engage with the fictional, composite families one had to suspend belief –- it may well be that this did facilitate the narrative for me but it was an unusual contrast with the sections of more technical information. I imagine I may have found the original interviews more authentic and satisfying. I wasn’t sure who I was meeting.

During my reading of the book I gained more of a picture of the relationship of the families with their practice as Buddhists, a practice that is intertwined with folklore and superstition and with a dependence upon and close relationship with the monastics and lamas. Concepts of karma, rebirth and interconnectedness are introduced and of course essential to our understanding of the subject at hand. As a Sangharakshita disciple I missed the careful definition of terms.

The book which has comprehensive notes and glossary may well have benefited from some kind of appendix. However, as a layperson’s introduction to Tibetan birth practices, I do recognize that it would have been far beyond its remit to offer more than a superficial introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, complex as it is, not only in its meaning, but in its institutions and history.

In the main I found the book easy to follow and rich with interesting detail. As a parent I was able to recognize some of the obvious and frightening gaps in knowledge. Infection, without the understanding of basic sanitation, was often attributed to a spirit, witches or barren women — (they do get a hard time in this culture). Colostrum in breast milk was thrown away as impure. In Tibet in 1990 the average life span was 54 and although few women died in childbirth the infant mortality rate was over half.

Amongst the many positives the tradition emphasises the importance of nutrition for the mother, of massage and touch for the young child, with mother and baby rarely separated, and a serious response to post natal depression.

What interested me personally was the use of ritual at every stage of development before and after conception and birth and the extent to which this supports on every level the life of the mother, child and their family. A very lovely example is where the new born child has the seed syllable of the bodhisattva Manjushri painted on the tongue with saffron, symbolically bestowing wisdom and valuing articulate and clear communication.

Although some of the rituals may come across as less objective and more rooted in superstition it is clear that with many the effects give psychological support, serve to bind the child within its family and community and emphasize positive qualities and values.

The book also offers an insight into the changing lives of the new generation of Tibetans as refugees, how they meet western values and medical knowledge and what they may choose to leave behind of their traditional values and practices.

I do hope that the book achieves some of what it sets out to do and helps Tibetans to retain and value such of their traditional approaches as are of enduring merit and to recognize, in a world that fragments community, the rituals and beliefs that serve to root them in appreciation of and interconnectedness with others.

For westerners it will be difficult, without being steeped in the culture and religious belief of Tibetan Buddhists, to translate many of these practices into our lives. However what cannot be missed in this detailed and often fascinating account is the kindness of the Tibetan people, the cherishing of human life and of positive values which is so well developed and embedded in Tibetan society. This we can find within our western culture and it can be translated into any language.

Dharmavasita is from Brighton where she works and teaches at the Brighton Buddhist Centre and lives with her husband and 16 year old son. Dharmavasita first came across the Triratna Buddhist Community in 1979 and was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2004. She loves being a mother and loves teaching and practicing meditation –- there is always something more to learn.

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Thich Nhat Hanh, “Answers from the Heart”

Answers From the Heart, Thich Nhat HanhThich Nhat Hanh can be a brilliant communicator, finding fresh and direct ways of reaching the heart. Can be. Find out why Gloria Chadwick was less than thrilled by his latest book.

When Bodhipaksa asked me to review Thich Nhat Hanh’s new book, Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Life’s Burning Questions, I immediately said yes. I’ve read many of his books and found them to be loving and peaceful.

Title: Answers from the Heart
Author: Thich Nhat Hanh
Publisher: Parallax
ISBN: 978-1-888375-82-4
Available from: Parallax and Amazon.com.

In the spirit of honesty, I must say that I was disappointed with this book. It seems vague; most of the responses to questions asked are answered with an all-encompassing response of basically to be mindful of the emotion you are feeling. In my opinion, Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t offer concrete–or practical–answers to questions in the chapters about Daily Life, Family, Parenting, and Relationships, Spiritual Practices, Engaged Buddhism, Sickness and Health, Death and Dying, and Children’s Questions. But perhaps this is the purpose of Answers from the Heart. To offer us koans to help us create our own answers, to look within for our own compassion and understanding.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Family, Parenting, and Relationships:

Question: My teenage son and I argue all the time. How can I stop these fights?

Answer: The first thing you can do is to look at yourself, to see whether you have enough calm energy to help calm him when he is in your presence. The problem may not only be with the child, but within the parent. If the parent is not peaceful, this can trigger negative emotions in the child, especially if there are negative seeds planted in him. In the past there may have been times when you got irritated and reacted in a state of annoyance–this has deposited those seeds in him. You have to undo this in the present moment. Being loving and calm and having the capacity to listen can absorb a lot of suffering. If you can engage him to talk to you about his difficulties by practicing deep, compassionate listening, that will help remove the kinds of energies that are making him suffer. If you have loving kindness and the energy of peace in you, even without speaking you can influence another person and he or she will feel better just sitting with you.

I had a bit of a dilemma about whether to post this review since it’s negative and I have so much respect for Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve read many of his books and enjoyed them tremendously, but I didn’t enjoy this book and would not recommend it. I decided to post this review because it is my honest opinion of the book. Have you read this book? What did you think about it?

Gloria Chadwick is the author of the book and website, Zen Coffee. Zen Coffee is for people on the go; it offers an active approach to mindfully meditating in every moment of your busy life. It offers you many ways to bring peace and a sense of serenity into all your experiences and activities, to be in harmony with them. As you race through life with your coffee cup in hand, you’ll find many mindful moments to meditate.

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Mindfulness, parenting, and happiness

Bodhipaksa and his daughter, Maia

Most people will tell you the greatest happiness in their lives comes from having children, but research shows that most people aren’t all that happy while parenting. Can mindfulness make parenting more enriching? Bodhipaksa thinks it does.

In an article in Atlantic magazine, author and Yale University professor of psychology Paul Bloom makes a provocative observation about parenthood and happiness:

Pretty much no matter how you test it, children make us less happy. The evidence isn’t just from diary studies; surveys of marital satisfaction show that couples tend to start off happy, get less happy when they have kids, and become happy again only once the kids leave the house. As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it, “Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of ’empty-nest syndrome’ is increased smiling.” So why do people believe that children give them so much pleasure? Gilbert sees it as an illusion, a failure of affective forecasting. Society’s needs are served when people believe that having children is a good thing, so we are deluged with images and stories about how wonderful kids are. We think they make us happy, though they actually don’t.

Although researchers have endured heated responses for daring to suggest that children may not be life’s greatest blessing as far as happiness goes, I’m happy to accept this as a fact. One of the ways that this has been established is by beeper studies. Here’s Bloom in an interview:

…the literature is pretty clear that if you beep people on a beeper while they’re with their children and ask them how they’re feeling, they’re not so happy. But if you ask people what they like most in life, they say they love their kids—their kids are the great joys of their lives … Kids really make us unhappy, but we think they make us happy.

I think the delusion is more likely to be rooted in genetics than culture, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the beeper thing reminded me of the old idea of the “mindfulness bell” — a bell that rings either at regular or random intervals during the day, reminding you to check in with yourself. I used such bells as an integral part of the retreat schedule while leading working retreats at Dhanakosa retreat centre in Scotland; we can become overly engrossed in work to the point that we lose touch with ourselves, and as a consequence we steer ourselves blindly into suffering. Think of working on a computer, realizing that you’ve been so intent on achieving some task that your back and neck are aching. It’s because you’ve been focused on a task that you haven’t paid attention to your own well-being.

So for the last few days I’ve been checking in with myself while parenting, not just seeing whether or not I’m happy, but seeing what I can do to bring about more happiness. My inner mindfulness bell will ring, I’ll remember to check in with myself while playing with or taking care of my daughter, and find sometimes that I’m not really engaged, part of me wishing that I was reading a book or watching a movie. So I bring my attention more into the present moment, appreciating how delightful my daughter is, appreciating that I’m alive and aware, relaxing my body, and letting myself be happy. It often seems to be this way, that happiness is there but simply obscured by some inner activity like wishing I was doing something else. When I let got of that activity, happiness once again comes to the forefront of my awareness.

So although having children may tend to make us less happy, I don’t think that’s inevitable. With greater mindfulness our parenting can be rich and fulfilling.

BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa.

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All Embracing Urge: Motherhood and Practice

SrimatiMotherhood has opened up a new emotional realm for Srimati. But how to love wholeheartedly and continually let go is the ground of her daily practice.

Against the odds and ahead of hard evidence, I instinctively knew I was pregnant. As I lay in the bath there was something magical in the air. I found myself, hand on belly, making a heartfelt pledge in a tender whisper: “If you’re there, you’re welcome and I’ll do my best for you.” This was the beginning of the greatest love of my life. One week into my relationship with this unknown, unexpected being, I was howling with an ancient grief as I bled, and feared it was over. The pain of that love had also made itself felt.

But all was well, and that feeling of love and pain gathered substance during the months of pregnancy. My body surrendered more and more to its task, and love for my unborn became increasingly tangible with the growth of the life in my belly. So did the fears. Dreams of the coming birth were mostly beautiful, but my heart was full of the fragility of human life. I felt I would do anything to protect this life inside me, and yet there was so little I could do to ensure its wellbeing. That was ultimately out of my hands. Even before my child was born, I was learning that maternal love means letting go.

I spent an unforgettable night bringing my son into the world. In the calm and comfortable aftermath of that struggle, I lay stung awake by wonder, gazing at him. The blacks of his eyes shone in the dark, peacefully apprehending his new world as he lay between us, his parents, the very flesh that had created him. A few days earlier I’d dreamt I was begging a Nazi soldier not to shoot me, to give me one more week so I could see the face of my unborn child. Becoming a mother has shown me that the death of a child is the cruelest loss imaginable.

As a practicing Buddhist, such strong feelings have raised many questions for me. What gives rise to such powerful and self-sacrificing maternal love? To what extent does this love help or hinder us in living a spiritual life?

Some Buddhists claim parenthood is unhelpful from a spiritual point of view, partly because it opens you up to such incredible attachment. It is generally true that the more emotionally involved you are with someone, the more you are liable to be caught in attachment. At worst this can mean limiting, insecure ways of relating, and unhealthy dependence. Attachment is difficult to recognize and can be easily rationalized as something less selfish. For a Buddhist, however, identifying and uprooting this clinging is the very heart of practice and for a Buddhist parent it is no different.

Nevertheless certain Buddhist traditions take the image of maternal love as a metaphor to describe metta, universal loving-kindness:

As a mother watches o’er her child,
Her only child, so long as she doth breathe,
So let one practice unto all that live
An all-embracing mind.

Parenting, especially early parenting, can seem incomparably unselfish — but is it really? What enables such incredible resources to be unstintingly roused in the service of another human being? Perhaps it is because there is cellular identity with the child, especially in the mother’s case: My child is me. There is quite a leap between this and the empathetic identification of a Bodhisattva, the embodiment of compassion, with all living beings; but it is a powerful analogy.

I have come to value the power and vitality of maternal love and motherhood has given me a depth of experience that enriches my spiritual life. I have contacted a huge reservoir of passionate love for my son such as I have never experienced before. Most parents speak of this kind of love for their children. I prefer to see parental love as a spiritual opportunity. The answer is not to back away from the strength of that love, but to dwell deeply in it; to penetrate its nature and the nature of that which you love.

As a parent you have almost no choice but to love your child passionately, and this demands that you find the same intensity of wisdom. The more your heart is open, the more you can allow any wise reflections to touch you and let them transform you.

The story of Kisa Gotami is probably my favorite from the Buddha’s life. Kisa Gotami comes to the Buddha cradling her dead child. She is distraught, even a little crazed, and cannot accept that her child is dead. She has heard the Buddha is a great man, a great healer, and begs him to provide medicine for her ‘sick’ child. The Buddha replies that he will help her. She must find a mustard seed as medicine, but there is one condition: it must come from a household that has not known death.

Kisa Gotami sets out on her quest, knocking at doors. Those who greet her are happy to give her a mustard seed, but shake their heads when they hear of the condition. The living are few, but the dead are many. Kisa Gotami cannot find a house in which no one has died, and gradually a new perspective dawns. She sees the universality of death and this allows her to acknowledge what has happened. She buries her child, returns to the Buddha, and commits herself to the spiritual life.

Kisa Gotami “wakes up” during her quest. She sees that death and loss are universal, so she can finally grieve and let go of her child. This is a deeper engagement with life and death that sees it in a spiritual perspective. In accepting the death of her child, Kisa Gotami gains insight into the nature of human life. Obviously this is challenging ground. Kisa Gotami had the Buddha’s help. But it is not that she stopped loving, just that her love was placed in a much vaster context.

Tibetan Buddhist texts dwell on the mother-child relationship in many ways to evoke the intensity of love that human beings are capable of. The difficulty lies in transforming exclusive love into one that includes all beings. The prospect of loving every being like one’s only child is awesome, but life offers glimpses of such an experience. For example, when one grieves the death of a loved one, the combination of feelings arising from a personal loss, with an acknowledgment of the universality of death, can open up an intense love for all humanity.

Compassion comes with realizing that all beings will one day share this moment in their own way. Similarly, dying people sometimes reach a serenity where they accept impending death and are imbued with a sublime love for their family and for life itself — as if only this fullness of love is important, more important and powerful than death itself. Over the years I have thought a great deal about the nature of human love, ordinary human affection and intimacy with all its imperfections. It is this middle ground between the lofty climes of metta and the grip of unconscious attachment that I am interested in — that is where many of us stand for much of our lives.

When I first became involved in Buddhism I latched on to the notion of non-attachment because I was hurt by loss and death. I was 19 and didn’t know myself well. Although fairly bright and positive on the surface, I was unconsciously on the run from painful experiences. My adolescence had ended abruptly with my father’s illness and death, and I had witnessed the agony my mother suffered in losing him. I felt mature beyond my years, and my world of teenage rebellion became meaningless.

So, too, did my relationship with my first love, who had recently held such passion and promise for me. I had thought he was my soul-mate, the man I’d spend my life with. But my need for him melted away and I felt strangely alone. Suddenly, I found myself telling him it was over and telling my mother that I was leaving home.

Within a few months, my inner searching brought me to the Glasgow Buddhist Center, and I instantly recognized I had found the means to understand life and death that had been invisibly beckoning ever since I can remember. Although my response to the Dharma was largely sincere, I misconstrued some of what I learnt. While I rejoiced in my fortune at having come across the Buddhist path so young and unencumbered, I did not realized how much emotional backlog I had to deal with. It was during this initial phase that I developed a sort of defended pseudo-independence and fooled myself that I was free of attachments.

Fortunately meditation and spiritual friendship sorted me out. I threw myself into the spiritual life, and moved to the London Buddhist Center where I could participate in more intensive situations for practice, and be around more experienced Buddhists. Meditating every day, living in community with other Buddhists and working in a Buddhist Right Livelihood business was like being in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I looked, my being was reflected back. There was no escape. So the pain of what I had been running from caught up with me. It was a journey into the underworld and I came more deeply into relationship with the love and pain that had been stirred by these losses.

By fully grieving, in opening up my heart to what had happened, the psuedo-independence crumbled. I was heartbroken, and from that broken heart a bigger heart was released. I began to see that non-attachment was not about holding back, being self-contained and trying to limit the inevitable emotional damage that comes through being in relationship with people. Ironically, I’ve found that non-attachment is about loving deeply, letting my love flow, admitting how much friends, family and partner matter. It involves being willing to love them, give myself to them, even though we will one day be parted. There’s nothing we can do to stop death, to end separation. Non-attachment means being prepared to take the pain of losing loved ones because the sheer experience of love is worth it.

My attitude to love began to change as I acknowledged the truth of impermanence, and the inevitability of the suffering implicit in loving. From feeling I made myself vulnerable by loving, I began to experience a greater robustness in my love. What did I really have to lose? I started to see love as giving rather than losing myself. Really to love I must be prepared to give everything and let go of everything. I must learn to release my love, love for its own sake, with no desire for a secure pay-off.

More than a decade later, with a partner and a four-year-old son, those ponderings have a new arena. The issues of attachment are different. I cannot choose whether or not to love my son, whether it is ‘safe’ to invest emotional energy in him. It is absolutely what I must and will do. I am only beginning the journey of loving as a mother, and every time I think I have understood what is involved, it changes.

And yet I sense that the lessons of this decade are the same. Only insight into to my son’s true nature, indeed into human nature in general, can free me from attachment. Every so often a tragic news story rips through the day-to-day illusion that this love is forever, never to be disturbed by accident, illness, separation.

I do not want to have to face what Kisa Gotami experienced in order to wake up to the human situation, but I do want to wake up. I want to feel unbounded love that is passionate, full and wise. Living with the tension of loving fully and letting go is not easy: it involves simultaneously holding two apparent opposites.

But hopefully the tension will allow a larger perspective to emerge. In the meantime I feel it is the only option. Love is not about binding another or oneself to a status quo because of insecurity. That is essentially an impossible task: things change, like it or not. It means taking a stand on a deeper, spiritual knowledge. To love fully is to open oneself to the truth of the human condition.

SrimatiSrimati is a freelance spiritual teacher, writer and co-founder of Thrivecraft Coaching, and a former member of the Western Buddhist Order.

She is currently engaged in publishing her whole body of work via books, articles, CDs, films, and the internet. Her aim is to contribute accessible and relevant spiritual intelligence to mainstream modern life and business.

Srimati’s CD, Answers: Finding Wisdom from Within, is now available from her website, Thrivecraft.

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“Baby Buddhas: A Guide for Teaching Meditation to Children” by Lisa Desmond

Baby Buddhas, by Lisa Desmond

When we think of a meditation class we generally think of a group of adults sitting quietly. But is it possible to make meditation accessible even to young children? Bodhipaksa has been taking lessons from Lisa Desmond’s book, Baby Buddhas, and finds that he’s learned, or perhaps relearned, a new language.

I taught my first meditation course almost 20 years ago now, and yet I’d feel at a loss teaching meditation to children because my entire experience of acting as a meditation guide has been with adults.

True, when I was the director of a Buddhist Center in Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, we’d sometimes have groups of schoolkids as young as 11 or 12 come for visits, and I successfully taught them a stripped-down version of the mindfulness of breathing practice. But in essence I treated them as young adults. Incidentally, that worked for most of the girls, who were generally pretty mature and who got a lot out of the short sessions of meditation we did, but for many of the boys a five minute period where everyone had their eyes closed was too invaluable an opportunity for mischief to be overlooked. Clearly, my grown-up style of teaching didn’t appeal to those below a certain level of maturity. How would I have fared with a class of five-year-olds? To be honest, I think I wouldn’t have tried meditating with them at all.

In essence I simply would have no idea where to begin teaching pre-school age children how to meditate. I just don’t speak the language. And that’s a shame, since I have a daughter who’s now almost 15 months old and who’s growing up rapidly. At some stage I’ll want to teach her how to work with her mind. Thankfully, I now have some tools available, thanks to Lisa Desmond’s excellent book, Baby Buddhas.

Desmond understands children. She understands how they learn (“The children will mimic you — the way you speak, how you breathe, how you sit and hold your head, how you fold your hands — so be a good model”). She understands the importance of ritual and reverence (“Store your sacred items on your altar and let the children know that they may not play with them — these objects are not toys”). She understands children’s sensitivities (“Do not comment on the way the children breathe”). She respects and trusts the adults who may attempt to teach meditation to pre-schoolers (“Trust your intuition”).

See also:

All these gems, by the way, are from just one two-page chapter of Baby Buddhas. Those two pages (five and six) contain so much practical wisdom that reading those alone will give you at least half of what you need to know in order to start teaching meditation to children. The other half consists of the specific meditation techniques that she outlines. The “third half” (if you will allow me such an indulgence) is experience and the learning that comes with experience. And that is something no book can give you, although this book will help you to take the plunge and gain such experience.

Baby Buddhas is laid out in a very attractive style, with some delightful photographic illustrations of children (and adults) joyfully meditating, and with some practical illustrations of useful equipment and how to use it.

The instructions are clear, and could be followed by any interested adult and not just by an experienced meditation teacher. Each meditation includes a list of materials, suggestions for evocative and useful terms that can be used, suggested uses for that particular meditation, and space for noting your own creative ideas. There then follows a step-by-step guide to the meditation that covers everything from how to arrange the cushions, to a suggested script that includes not just the words that one might say (“We are going to sit with our legs crossed, our backs straight, and our heads held high”) but also stage directions (“Long exaggerated breath in, long exaggerated breath out”).

The meditation exercises covered include the “Sunshine Meditation” (a simple form of metta bhavana, or lovingkindness meditation), an “OM Meditation,” a “Cleansing Breath Meditation, a walking meditation, and several others. Also included are two meditations for adults — one a way for adults to honor each other and to understand that we all wish to raise our children to be at peace, and another for sending love to a child in a time of need.

I can’t imagine a better book on meditation for children of pre-school age. Desmond’s book achieves the goal of teaching meditation in a language that young children can understand — a language, moreover, that I am pleased to find that I recognize and resonate with.

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Tips for successfully teaching meditation to children

Lisa Desmond’s beautiful and practical book on teaching meditation to pre-school age children, “Baby Buddhas,” contains the following excellent advice for those wanting to teach meditation to tots.

Some of these suggestions could be useful to those who teach meditation to adults as well!

  • Speak in a soft, kind, loving voice.
  • Smile.
  • Be joyful yet serious.
  • Store your sacred items on your altar and let the children know that they may not play with them — these objects are not toys.
  • Practice the meditations on your own, so you are comfortable.
  • At night, use soft lighting.
  • Make eye contact when appropriate.
  • Do not comment on the way the children breathe.
  • Do not comment on whether or not their eyes are open or closed.
  • The children will mimic you-the way you speak, how you breathe, how you sit and hold your head, how you hold your hands — so be a good model.
  • Place a singing bowl, crystal, picture, or statue in the center of the circle so the children have something to focus on.
  • Start with the shorter meditations and progress to the longer meditations.
  • Know your intent: What do you want to teach with the meditation and why?
  • Gently end a meditation if you feel it is warranted.
  • Trust your intuition.
  • Be patient: you and the children will look forward to these meditations.

From Baby Buddhas, by Lisa Desmond.

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Mindful Moms, Dharma Dads

Is it possible to have children and a spiritual practice at the same time? Sunada talked with some friends who are managing to raise a family while staying committed to their spiritual lives. How do they do it? What does practice look like as a parent?

Welcoming children into our lives is such a joyous and HUGE experience. For anyone who is a dedicated spiritual practitioner, such a change can’t help but have a profound impact. Take Vanessa for example. Her firstborn son arrived four months ago. With sleep deprivation, exhaustion, stress, and her body being all out of whack, her formal meditation practice of 10-12 years, which had been so vital to her up until giving birth, just flew out the window. “I’m stunned and humbled by my realization of how fragile my practice really is,” she said. “As soon as the conditions of my life changed, my practice collapsed.”

So does that mean you can’t have children and a spiritual practice at the same time? When you can’t fit meditation into a life of 3am feedings and diaper changes, is it time to give up? Vanessa and I knew that couldn’t be true. I have no children myself, so I set out to talk with some other friends who are managing to raise a family while staying committed to their spiritual lives. How do they do it? What does practice look like as a parent?

One person I asked was Bodhipaksa, whose daughter Maia arrived about a year ago. He too admitted that for several months, he barely meditated. After the New Year, he decided to make more of a commitment to sit daily. But as the family has been settling more comfortably into their life together, a new sort of picture is emerging. “I’ve learned a lot just by watching Maia engage with the world,” he said. “For a start she really exemplifies mindfulness, like when she stares at something intently or just enjoys moving her hands in the air. I’ve also learned how important it is to give her my full attention. It’s very frustrating for both of us if I try to do something else like write an email when she really wants to talk or play with me. We both do so much better when I can be fully present with her.”

In talking to Rita, whose two daughters are 5 and 6, I saw Bodhipaksa’s insights played out even more. Yes, it takes a real effort to keep up any sort of formal sitting practice. But at the same time, she now sees everything about her life with her girls as opportunities to grow and deepen her understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. For one, she says she’s really learned how to flow with her life, moment to moment, and let go of ideas of how things ought to be. When she’s surrounded by a cluttered mess of a house and her girls are running around and shrieking, she can stop and appreciate that this is just the way it is right now. There is no right or wrong, there is no need to bring her ego’s needs into the situation. Just sitting in the midst of chaos and being OK with it, in fact surrendering to it, has been a real source of strength for her.

Rita says this insight has helped her to be a better parent, too. Children have a way of pushing us to limits we didn’t know existed, she says. Knowing how to feel OK when she’s not in of control of a situation has helped her to exercise her patience more wisely. “I feel able to give them the freedom to be themselves, because I can see more clearly what lead them to be that way. I feel less need to step in and judge the situation, or try to change what I really can’t and shouldn’t try to change.”

Nancy’s son Stefan is 10 years old, and so her thoughts on parenting are very much about being in a relationship with another individual. While being aware of the Buddha’s warnings against pema, or attachment, she also saw much to be gained by allowing herself to go more deeply into her relationship with her son. “Children are a practice in themselves”, she said. “You have to respond to them, but at the same time constantly step back and ask yourself – is this the most helpful and loving thing I can do?” While she admitted that it’s an extremely challenging job, it’s very obvious that it’s a source of real joy and enrichment for her.

She was delighted that Stefan, at the age of 7 or 8, took so well to learning meditation, in particular the Metta Bhavana. Even though they sat for only 3-5 minutes at first, it was a way to share something sacred and meaningful. They’ve also enjoyed chanting mantras together. He particularly likes the mantra for the bodhisattva Vajrasattva because it’s so lively and upbeat.

She hadn’t realized how meaningful this all was to him until recently when a boy from Stefan’s class at school lost his mother in a car accident. Stefan was obviously shaken up and empathizing with his friend, saying how hard it must be for him to lose his mother. And after coming home from the memorial service, he asked Nancy if they could meditate together – something that brought him comfort in his time of fear and confusion. Of course, she’s fully aware that every child is different, and that not every child would respond so positively to sharing her love of the dharma – the Buddha’s teachings. In her case, though, she found that shared gift by being gentle, patient, and completely open to being with her son — responding lovingly, moment-to-moment, to what he needed most.

So what do these four parents have to say in common? They all admitted that any notions they might have had about keeping up their own formal meditation practice were blown away. None of them gave up on it entirely though — doing what they could in dribs and drabs whenever possible. They all knew that it was important to find time for themselves, to recharge their batteries and stay sane, even in small doses.

But the bigger emphasis of their practice was the whole of their lives – the ordinary everyday experiences, and living all of them more mindfully and lovingly. Being with children brings us back to the basics of life. Whether it’s cooking for our children or just playing together, it brings us in touch with what it means to be alive as a human being. It’s also an opportunity to let go of any fixations we may have on the past, the future, or how we want things to be, and instead surrender more deeply into the here and now. It’s a real lesson in seeing things as they are, without preconceived judgments, and responding in a creative way that allows everyone to flourish.

And in the end, isn’t that what a spiritual life is all about? It’s not about the grand meditative experiences, about attaining this or that. It’s about taking whatever situation we’re in and finding ways to respond positively, gracefully, and lovingly. It doesn’t matter if it’s about children, our jobs, or relationships — our lives will never be in that perfect arrangement of circumstances we think we need in order to practice. And so that realization becomes a practice in itself. It invites us to jump right into the mess, clutter, and chaos, and find our own peace in the midst of it all.

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Parenting and practice

Steve BellHow 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.

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Six tips for mindful parenting

mindful parenting: young back man helping a young child to draw

Five mindful parenting tips from Dr. Fran Walfish, the Early Childhood Parenting Center.

1. Balance love and limits. Be equally comfortable with loving / nurturing and setting boundaries / limits with your child.

2. Give lots of “undivided” listening attention to your child.

3. Follow your child’s lead (vs. directing your child).

4. Get on the same page as your spouse / companion. Kids learn very young to play one parent against the other.

5. Nurture yourself (so that you’re fortified to give to your child).

6. Examine your own behavior as closely and honestly as you do your child’s.

What would be your top suggestion for mindful parenting? Why not leave a comment below?

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“The Tao of Poop: Keeping Your Sanity (and Your Soul) While Raising a Baby,” by Vivian E. Glyck

book coverAvailable from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

My first question as I approached this book was whether I would find the time to read it whilst caring for my one-month-old daughter. The second question was, of course, whether it would reward my efforts. Happily, the answer to both questions was a positive one.

The Tao of Poop is divided into ten very readable chapters, each with a theme or ‘life lesson’ for parents to reflect upon. These are diverse and some will resonate more than others with the reader at any particular time — thus I felt I was reading a book that I could return to again and again. My personal favorites were, “We’re not in control,” and “Healing the mommy wars.” In the former was the sentence that I took up as a kind of mantra for my first few weeks as a new mum: “The sooner you make friends with helplessness as a parent, the longer and happier you will live.” I imagine that every reader would find such gems that ring true for him or her.

In “Healing the mommy wars,” Glyck explores the tendency to compare oneself with other parents, leading to a false sense of superiority or of inadequacy. She encourages compassion for self and others as the simple, yet challenging, way out of this trap.

The magic of Glyck’s book is that whilst she tackles themes that ask a lot of us, she does so in a light and grounded way. Using her own experience as a mother as a starting point, she narrates her highs and lows in a way that will ring true for any parent who is trying to stay in touch with, and develop, a sense of “spirit” or “soul.” Her stories will provoke chuckles of recognition and come as a breath of fresh air to those dedicated parents who, having tried to digest and follow the usual “baby book” advice, are left exhausted and confused.

At the end of each chapter, she offers a “thought experiment” to encourage further reflection on the theme, and ‘sanity savers’ — tips to help with putting good thoughts into practice. The result is a book that feels friendly and approachable whilst talking to parents about what most concerns them.

For me, Glyck’s overall theme is an enquiry into how we can parent with authenticity in the most profound sense – authenticity towards ourselves, our children and the nature of life itself. She is encouraging us to stay truly human and openhearted within our parenting.. Although she directs her book primarily towards mothers, I would recommend this book to any parent who is concerned with the spiritual messages, challenges and benefits of raising young children. And yes, you may think you have no time to read it if your baby is just a few weeks old, but reading a few lines in those long hours of feeding or watching over your sleeping babe really will reward your efforts!

Padmaprabha works as a clinical psychologist with older people and is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. She lives with her husband and baby daughter in East Sussex, England.

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