Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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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 Daily Dukkha

I’ve received a number of great book recommendations since I started this project. My friend Lisa recommended a book called Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate by Wendy Johnson,and Katie a memoir by Rosemary Mahoney called The Singular Pilgrim. I also just picked up Sarah Napthali’s Buddhism for Mothers from my friend Steph, and that one seems absolutely perfect for me at this stage of my life, when so much of my dukkha is caused by angst about my kid or about the (im)balance of our lives since we had a kid.

Dukkha? Yes, dukkha. In all the books I’ve been reading, “dukkha” is translated as “suffering,” but then there is usually a quick disclaimer that by “suffering” the Buddha did not necessarily mean grief but discomfort. The daily discomforts. The dissatisfactions. The unsatisfactions. (Look, I made up two new words.)

Sarah Napthali says this: “…the first Noble Truth is that life is inherently unsatisfactory and imperfect. Before motherhood, we may have found this teaching overly pessimistic. If we felt less than happy we could catch a movie, ring a friend or distract ourselves in a myriad of ways from any pain.” And while she’s talking to mothers here, she’s also talking to the rest of us: every day, we feel small pain and discomfort, imperfection, and we distract ourselves from it.

I think a part of me, learning this over the last few weeks, has felt disappointed that this is all Buddhism can offer. The teaching is that I need to accept that I will feel anxious, that happiness is impermanent, and realize that my attempts to overcome this discomfort are distractions, tricks. My job, it turns out, is to learn to accept the discomforts and allow them. At this stage I don’t quite get how this leads me to get over my anxiety and be a happier person, but I think I trust the road nonetheless.

In any event, I decided over the weekend that one of the best things I could do on this mindfulness experiment of mine would be to notice the daily dissatisfactions and record them. And so I am introducing the Daily Dukkha, or, if that sounds a bit too much like me reporting on my…regularity, the Daily Challenge. Because I can’t promise to post every day, and wouldn’t want to impose that pressure on the girl who’s allowing herself to take a break, I won’t—but I will try to post as often as I can.

The Daily Dukkha. It has a nice ring, no?

So here is one for today. Well, since it’s only 10:00 a.m. here in California, I will post yesterday’s challenge (yes; the DD will likely be retrospective).

We were at a party, and I wanted to go. A well-meaning but overly chatty friend had cornered me, and Lex was running wild with the other kids. Marc was very much enjoying a beer. And all of a sudden I was done. It was past Lex’s bedtime, I hadn’t rested as much as I’d wanted to over the weekend, and I wanted to go. But extracting the boys was nigh impossible. Marc said sure, we can go—but made no attempts to remove himself from the chair where he was comfortably lounging. Lex pitched a fit when I gave him the five-minute warning. Marc stayed put. Finally when Marc rose and allowed Lex to take one more spin in the wagon even though five minutes were long passed, I felt myself get completely pissed off, and I hissed at Marc in the living room at my friend’s house.

On the ride home, I recalled some of the good advice from The Happiness Project, something to the effect of let it go.

At home, Marc asked whether I was angry. I made the “a little bit” sign with my fingers. And then I took a deep breath.

“It is hard for me when I say I’m ready to go and you say ‘sure,’ but then I’m the only one trying to get the three of us out the door,” I said. “It’s really difficult for me.” We talked for another minute and then I let it go. And Marc did too.

Because if there’s one thing that really gives me dukkha—ha—it’s when I feel I need to say something but then the whole night gets ruined because I’ve opened my mouth. You know that feeling?