Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Teachers

Just a quick one, here.

I wish I could lie and say my pity-party is over, but for whatever reason what happened a couple of weeks ago with our house has felt like that proverbial rock thrown into a pond that ripples outwards in concentric circles. Like, the house instability has made our job instability that much clearer, and the job instability makes M’s depression more obvious, and M’s depression somehow sheds light on my terrible anxiety about most things, but especially about my writing–which makes it impossible for me to actually get much writing done since I feel so stymied by anxiety. Then the acupuncturist tells me in the most gentle way she can manage that she thinks my anxiety is partially to blame for my infertility–how could it not be?–so I’ve been trying my damndest not to be anxious, which, if you think about it, is pretty funny.

Oh, and the guilt for even feeling this way! Yes, I know there are terrible things happening in the world. I know how many blessings I have. I do know, I promise. But telling yourself not to be blue because of all the much realer and scarier sadness in the world is about as futile as trying not to be anxious, wouldn’t you say?

Yesterday I was reading a novel and the concept of teachers came up. Not yoga teachers or gurus, not writing teachers like me–rather, those people we encounter in our lives because they’re here to teach us hard lessons. And my first thought was, Ingrid. Our landlady. What is she here to teach me? I suspect, though my first reaction is “to never trust people again,” that it’s something about knowing what’s fundamentally stable and good in my life, and relying on that, rather than on illusions and might-bes.

But I don’t know, yet. I guess that’s what I have to figure out.

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The Mørketid

In Norway, this time of year is called the mørketid, the dark time. You can guess why; in Oslo right now the sun rises around ten a.m. and sets at three. This morning, walking L. to school, I remembered how five years ago at this time I was morning sick and thankfully underemployed, so I spent much of November and December sleeping away the morning, rallying for the sunlight, then going back to bed. The evenings were the best time, the time I was able to consume the most tomato juice and watch The Simpsons with Norwegian subtitles on our tiny illegal television. Then we’d light some candles. My brother’s wife had just left him and he came to Oslo for three weeks, slept on our couch and brought me my tomato juice. Together we flew to Copenhagen for a few days and stayed in a one-star hotel, talked and talked and talked, weathered the cold, weathered his great tragedy.

photo-4I was thinking about this this morning because we had a frost in Berkeley. Marc and I are cracking ourselves up by refusing to turn on the heat until we really need to this winter. Instead we cook big pots of soup or roast whatever we can think to roast so the oven warms the small space; let’s face it, 40 is cold for Berkeley. But last night, Jack Frost painted the roof white and when I woke I could practically see my breath. There had been a strange dream, a man was trying to get into the house and the door wouldn’t lock against him and I couldn’t find my phone to call 911. When I woke, Marc was gone, off to work early, and L. was stirring so I just had a five-minute sit on the zafu before he bustled into the living room with a giant blanket. Our hands and feet, like ice. “One of these days Daddy and I will turn on the heat,” I told him, shaking my head, laughing. We are strange people sometimes. We like a challenge.

And all of it made me feel a little weepy: not being pregnant, not being in Norway, Marc off to work early, my love for L. feeling difficult because he has so forcefully been trying my patience lately, not being published, working so damn hard at all of it for what? For what? For what?

But underneath, oh, underneath—there has been this beautiful and clear sense of gratitude lately, for that cold house, for the breakfast I put together, for Marc, for Lex, for having had so much luck and joy and happiness in my life. I’ve been feeling like I’ve spent a lot of time not understanding that one could have both: disappointment and happiness, or perhaps: failures and success. Or perhaps: struggle and ease. Yes, that’s what I mean. Struggle, and ease.

I loved Amanda Green’s Thanksgiving post for this reason. You overflow with gratitude, but it can almost feel like too much. And sometimes, even if you are a fortunate person, you overflow with sorrow for the things you miss.


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The Preschool Meeting and the Path

LeoLegsI often find bussokuseki’s blog posts gorgeous, but I wanted in particular to reblog this one, “The Spiral and The Path.” A man and his kids make a spiral in the snow, only to discover its impermanence. It’s a lovely testament to non-attachment and it was one of the few things I sat down and read fully, without distraction, on the day I saw it. I hope you check it out.

I loved the post also because in a metaphorical and oblique way it’s about the difficulty of being Buddhist with kids. I sometimes think if I didn’t have a kid, what a great Buddhist I’d be. I’d be so patient, so mindful, so calm. Of course that’s absurd: having a kid is part of what sent me down this path, and part of what sustains this practice, and so in that way, without Lex there would be no Becoming Buddhist. No great need for patience and mindfulness.

I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago, when things felt particularly dire on the home front. As with everything, that day passed, and another one arrived, then another. Then it came time for an all-school meeting at Lex’s school. The topic: ask a teacher all your burning questions about child-rearing. We were invited to submit questions anonymously; the teachers would each choose one to answer. I submitted one. It went along the lines of:

Do you have any strategies for dealing with kids who are argumentative, uncooperative, and unhelpful, rewarding “good” behaviors and discouraging “bad” ones?

I kind of cringe when I read it now.

The meeting solidified my feeling that—if I may brag for just a second—Lex goes to the best preschool in the entire world. Maybe down the line I will become jaded, but at the moment I’m astounded by how fully this school allows my son to be himself. It encourages his emotional, intellectual, and physical growth, and allows his parents to be involved in his education. For me, it’s like walking into a room every morning and knowing that despite economic diversity, different personalities, and probably philosophical disagreements, every parent in the room wants the same thing for their kid and wants to try harder to be the best parent they can be (I know, it’s so bourgeois, so Berkeley). So at this meeting, I found solutions to parenting problems that ranged from spiritual (“practice non-attachment and objectivity,” said one) to pragmatic (“there are two kinds of tantrums,” said another. “Here’s how you deal with type A…”). The last teacher to speak was Alyssa, Lex’s classroom teacher, and, wouldn’t you know it, she picked my question. Her answer was helpful, somewhere in the middle of spiritual and pragmatic, and I got some good ideas from her. But mostly I had this nagging at my heart the entire time she was talking. A voice came into my head, and here’s what the voice said:

You are not dealing well with Lex’s anger.

And I realized the voice was right. I have been scared of his anger, inconvenienced by his anger, annoyed by his anger. I have found it misplaced and confusing, so I have shut it down. In not so many words I have told him that his anger is inappropriate and has no place in our house. Because I have not always dealt well with my own anger, this realization scared me and made me want to do better.

When I got home, I shared my experience of the meeting with Marc. The surprising part was that I didn’t get more than two minutes into explaining about the anger before I started to sob. The tears felt like they came from someplace else, like they were moving through me; I sobbed and sobbed. I let go of all the difficulty of the past couple of months, with Lex, with the ectopic pregnancy. I realized how hard it has been to be a patient, mindful parent to a child who has tested my mindfulness and my patience at every turn.

I cried and cried and cried and cried.

The California equivalent of snow

The California equivalent of snow

And then you know what? I swallowed, and realized that the incredibly painful sore throat I’d had for a month was gone. GONE.

And I woke up the next morning remarkably refreshed and optimistic. And happy.

Parenting mindfully may be the most difficult thing I have done. At the end of the day, exhausted, practicing non-attachment feels like arduous work. Some days, reacting calmly to anger or rudeness takes every ounce of strength I have. Some days I really suck at it.

Lately, I am happy to report, Lex’s challenges to my Buddhism have been a little more pedestrian. Since the meeting and the cathartic cry, we have been better with one another again. I have been better.

Nowadays the great difficulty is getting up early enough to do ten sun salutations and sit for ten minutes before I hear the Thump! Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-shakow-Boom! that is Lex hopping out of his bed, bounding across the room, and throwing open the door to come find one of his parents. Often, I’m still on the zafu.

“Come here, Honey,” I might say as I pull him onto my lap and wrap him in a wool blanket. “We’re sitting quietly.”

The other morning the stillness was palpable. Lex’s warm body was the loveliest of meditations. Silence. Then there was a “pfffffttt!” as he let out this enormous morning fart on me and the zafu. We both paused, surprised; then he started to giggle uncontrollably.

Then I did, too.


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The Valentine’s Dukkha

Happy Valentine's Day.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Let’s just say I found refreshing this great post, “Snowed in with Satan,” on Momaste’s blog this morning. As soon as I read the title I thought, well, she and I are in the same hell. And I was right: we’re both wrestling with parenting difficulty, plus the accompanying guilt that comes whenever you admit that your child is anything less than, you know, perfect, world-rocking, amazing, a gift, a treasure.

This is a subject I adore and one I find tricky to negotiate. To wit:

  • A few years ago I had a falling out with an old, dear friend, because I complained to her (gently, I thought) about little things like, oh, being woken up at 5:15 every morning by my one-year-old. She told me I was “the most privileged mother” she’d ever met, and, basically, that my life was perfect and I should shut up. Ouch.
  • Having now experienced my own fertility difficulties, I understand a little better why it’s annoying for childless people who really, really want kids to hear mothers complain about their lot. When you want a kid that badly, you don’t want to hear how bad it is to have a kid. Fair enough.
  • On the other hand, raising a kid is really fucking hard, and I think if we don’t admit that, we do ourselves a real disservice. It’s like when, after nearly dying giving birth, and the trauma is so real you still have PTSD, a million people remind you that what counts is that you have a healthy baby. Maybe on one level that’s true. On another, it’s incredibly dismissive.

Things have been pretty traumatic at home. Lex is 3.5 next week, and I’ve heard that’s the apex of the terrible twos. Let us hope. He is argumentative, fractious, angry, and verbally abusive to his parents. I feel like our house is a toddler minefield, and Marc and I walk through it stepping into landmines. Bedtime, mealtime, transition time, bathtime, playtime, every time has its own set of challenges. One minute he’ll be sitting in our laps, loving; the next, he’s yelling “I’m going to kick you out of this house” and throwing something.

I don’t know which end is up.

This morning I woke early and realized I might just have a really nice day ahead of me: it’s the first morning in over a week that I have a little time to write. It’s Valentine’s Day, which I can kind of get into because I’m a very loving person. Lex has a long day at school, and I’m meeting two old friends for lunch. No plans tonight other than to stay in and watch this BBC TV show that Marc and I are addicted to. So I got up and did my yoga and had a long meditation session, trying not to think about all these things. And when I emerged from the zafu, I thought, I’m going to make waffles.

First I set the table. We had three Valentines in the mail yesterday and each of us got one at his or her place. I added a Hershey’s kiss. Marc and Lex slept on as I made tea and Lex’s lunch (I cut his sandwich into a heart shape) and mixed the dry ingredients and then the wet for waffles. I didn’t combine them, because I know that Lex loves to help me cook and I wanted to save something for him to do: mix the wet and the dry, stir in some frozen blueberries, eat.

Around 7:45 I went to wake up Lex. He was so beautiful with his sleep-matted hair and his little puffy sleep-face.

“I’m waking waffles, honey,” I said. “Do you want to get up to help?”

He murmured that he did, so I told him to meet me in the kitchen when he was awake and went back to get my tea.

Two minutes later, it started.

A banshee–what’s the male equivalent?–came running into the kitchen, screaming and kicking.

“I wanted to mix the waffles and you did it without meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” he shrieked.

“I didn’t, sweetie, I left it for you to do. Pull up a chair, let’s mix them together.” (Landmine! Landmine!)

“NO!!!!!!” he screamed. “I wanted to do the flour and you did it without me! I’m going to kick you out of this house! I’m going to pour uncooked waffles down your throat!” (That’s a new one.)

I picked him up to try to comfort him, to discuss it. He flailed, he kicked. I told him again to pull up a chair. He did, then threatened to dump the waffle mix on the floor. I carried him into his room and tried empathy: “You really wanted to mix in the flour, huh? I hear you. Do you want to do it next time?”

“No!!”

“Well, the flour’s already done I’m afraid. Do you want to come mix them now?”

“No!!”

“Okay,” I said. “Then I am going to go mix them myself.” And I did.

At which point Lex came running into the kitchen again to start tantrumming all over again because he had decided he’d wanted to mix them after all. Again he threatened to pour the waffles on the floor. Kicking, screaming, yelling; it was now after 8:00 in the morning and no one was dressed, no one had eaten, no one had showered, no one was happy.

Marc woke up. Pissed off at me from something that happened last night, he didn’t say a word to me. He picked up Lex and talked him through the rest of the tantrum–thank God–but then when I put a waffle on his plate he walked out of the kitchen to take a shower, ignoring it, me, the Valentines on the table, the tea, the mess.

So I ate the waffle myself, thinking, if someone sent me ONE one-way ticket to Hawaii right now, I would be really grateful.

I know there will be days like this; lately, there have been a lot of them. I think I used not to take personally Lex’s moods, but lately, I do. That strikes me as risky; one of the most basic things you need to be as a parent is stalwart in the face of your children’s arrows, because we all know they will sling them again and again. But maybe because of the grief I am feeling, and the worry, I just don’t have it in me to be stalwart. Lex likes to talk about how things are hurting his feelings. Mine too, I think. Everything hurts my feelings these days! And it takes a lot of energy to give and give and give–to take his feelings into consideration at every turn–and have him never, ever, think about mine.

I know he’s three. I know this is developmentally appropriate. I won’t lay this trip on him. But here, I need to just say that it hurts. My. Feelings. Too.

I am holding tightly to this Pema Chödrön quote:

“When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.”

Yes, I am experimenting with this.