Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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New Year’s Revolutions

I never find the new year that powerful—I think because I teach, and my mind runs on the school calendar, I think of the “new year” as beginning in September. For me, Christmas is a little blip in the middle of the year and the fact that the calendar flips from 2014 to 2015 doesn’t mean much beyond reminding me that I have to start dating my checks differently. (An aside: my wonderful cousin Lauren cracked me up around New Year’s, 1984, by saying, “Geez, I’m still writing 1982 on my papers….”) I think I made a resolution in December, but honestly, I can’t remember what it was, and I’m not worrying too much about it, since I’m still working on my resolutions from September. See what I mean?

But I did this sneaky thing, where I made resolutions for L, who is five, which really isn’t fair but I did it anyway. Actually I can only remember one resolution, which was: to make sure he brushes his teeth every day before leaving for school in the morning, since we have fallen off seriously on that task. And then I made some comment the other day, like, “Another resolution for you could be—” wherein he cut me off by yelling, “That’s too many revolutions!” and absolutely freaking out.

Oh, the irony. L is definitely in a revolution sort of phase. He got Legos for Christmas, big, shiny, ridiculous displays of Legos that I (somewhat regretfully, now) sanctioned, and who wants to go to school when there are Legos to build? And so we found ourselves, this morning, in a battle with a tear-stained five year old who just wanted five more minutes to putter with his Legends of Chima creatures and talk to himself and whisper and have them whack each other with their fantasy-weapons (which in my head I believe are less awful than representations of real weapons, e.g. guns, but maybe I kid myself) when it was really

Time

For

School.

I can’t remember a morning as bad as this one; all three of us ended up in the bathroom, me wielding the toothbrush (that fucking resolution) while L shouted about how it was my fault and I took all his time away and I always ruin everything and I always take his time away and M trying to patiently explain that Mama doesn’t control the time, it just passes by, and school was starting and etc. etc.

And then I walked L to school and on the way realized that he was absolutely wrung out with grief, his face like a sheet, blotchy from crying, devastated, exhausted. It was so saddening for me, to see him so utterly defeated, and me defeated, too. Last night was a similar battle, over dinner; I can’t even remember how it started, but it ended with that same dynamic of L blaming me for something going wrong in his life, for being hungry, for Dada not being home yet, and my patient requests for him to help get dinner ready faster by setting the table were met with shrieks and cries and refusals and just…ugliness. And then we sat down to dinner and L lectured me about how I thought what was going on between us was his fault, but actually—”Actually, Mama, it’s your fault. Really.” (This line delivered with dead serious calm, almost funny; funny now, at least.) So by the time M did walk in the door, I was speechless and done, L was a wreck, all (horrible) current events were irrelevant, and M’s bad day went completely unnoticed by everyone because we had major domestic issues happening instead.

I think because I’m on vacation this month, I’ve had a little greater access to patience and clarity than I usually do (though I admit to having lost it a couple of times during the last 24 hours). And when I am patient I can kind of see L’s behavior in a clearer light. I have realized—and it makes me no end of sad, though maybe it should not—that I have an extremely emotionally complex kid. My kid is the one whom other parents think is so easy; he’s a delight at school, he follows the rules, he doesn’t generally hit other kids or bully or anything like that. But what he does do is save up all his bad feelings and dump them on his father and me. And lately, since Kindergarten started, I think, there seems to be no end to the bad feelings. He complains about everything; he says no to everything. Everything is a battle: exercise, school, TV, Legos, snacks. I have realized that even if I walk into the day with a huge reserve of patience and goodwill—a phenom that happens, what? Once or twice a week at best?—by bedtime it has been slowly drained out of me. I realized this yesterday, actually: we were in line at the coffee shop, enjoying each other, after school. L wanted an agua fresca watermelon juice; then he asked for a baked treat. I told him to choose one or the other. He chose both. I told him to choose one. He chose both. I told him to choose one. He chose both. I threatened to walk out unless he chose; he chose both. I nearly walked out. At the last second, he chose juice.

Picture me like an hourglass, the sand rushing out. It is these tiny moments that drain me. 

I talked to him about this, later. I explained that his “pushing”—this is what we call it—was draining my patience, that I needed more help from him, less pushing. That I needed better listening. That I would try harder, but I needed him to try harder, too. He promised; he always does. But he’s five. Ten minutes later, he’s pushing again.

And so I will come to my own resolution/revolution: clearly, I need to take the high road, here. To be the bigger person, to be the adult. Resolved to stop taking L’s blame personally. Resolved to do what I can to stem the sand from flowing out. To find that extra tiny piece of patience even when I think it’s all gone. To not tell myself anymore that we’re doing a bad job because L is difficult. To stay strong with M. There’s no one else I’d rather parent with, and that’s something.

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Reflecting on a Year of Becoming Buddhist

Hi; long time.

BirchesagainstskyI’ve been realizing, in that way we realize when a ridiculously long period of time has seemed to pass in a ridiculously short one, that it’s been a year since I started this blog and this project. It was about a year ago that I collapsed crying on the couch one night and, when I came to, decided that I really needed to change something about my life.

Reflecting on this past year has been a bit like a roller coaster, every day a different tiny revelation. The first one came in the form of the tight thought “NOTHING has changed in this past year. I’m still an anxious mess.” But a few days later—I can’t remember what I was doing—I realized that for a blissful second I was watching my life like a movie, utterly unattached to outcome. Also, some dear friends broke up, and while Marc has been terribly affected by it all, I’ve really been able to watch their process of separating with something like detached compassion. And, most of all, my Insight Timer stats tell me that since I started using the app (254 days ago, or about 8.5 months ago), I’ve meditated 140 times. There are days that number feels small, but it’s about 139 times more than I had meditated a year ago, right? On some level it amazes me: 140 times?

If I’m honest, I self-centeredly wished to be in a different place than I am, this year later. I wished to be unaffected, or at least, differently affected, by life’s difficulties: my waning fertility, my extreme anxiety about my book. Just two weeks ago I decided I was going to write a multi-part post about The Infertility Dukkha, in a moment of deep sadness about my failure to make another baby (I still might). I thought to write about the terrible process of getting published, or not, and the way I beat myself up and tell myself I’m not good enough. Then I heard myself say to someone over the weekend, “I consider myself very lucky,” and I realized that’s true, too. How lucky I am, how fortunate. How lucky I am. How fortunate. I think I used to say that with some feeling that I should, but some misgiving that I was, and maybe in the last year Buddhism has made me more grateful, realistic, mindful, and humbled.

Things to be grateful for: a tiny fall harvest from our garden

Things to be grateful for: a tiny fall harvest from our garden

And that is obviously a good thing. But it’s still all very mixed.

This past week, I was wrestling a bit. I have a lot on my plate these days: teaching isn’t letting up; L never stops talking; I’ve got appointments and meetings scheduled til Kingdom Come. In the midst of this, I decided to write a new pitch for my book and when I sent it out to friends to read and give me feedback, the response was not what I wanted. Several blew it off; several made lukewarm comments, and one old friend told me to scrap the whole thing and start over. I called Marc, crying. I told him that I should have known it might be that way, that I wished I could keep this in perspective, that every time there’s a minor setback I needn’t lose it. But I did lose it; I felt my self-worth challenged, again, by this difficult business of art-making and what I perceive as my failure to do things right. I thought, again, about giving up. And the worst part is that because of that busy week (poor planning, lady) I had no time to actually work on the damn thing. The words just sat in my inbox, tormenting me. And then it was Friday, and as luck had it I had a day to myself.

But I sat on the couch and read all day instead of scrambling to work on the pitch.

So over the weekend there was guilt, fear, confusion. I wasn’t working hard enough, etc. And then, trickling up like the first lava, there was this better, clearer sense that actually, I needed to take that tiny Friday break. It reminded me a little of the decision to start this blog and this project. Because if I had manically panicked to fix the pitch, to send it out, I wouldn’t have fully experienced the disappointment of not having gotten it right the first time. I wouldn’t have been at all present. (Not to mention I wouldn’t have read that wonderful book.)

I don’t know if this is making sense. I guess: I paused in the difficulty. I didn’t just press through it. And after a bit of time, I let go of some of the deadly importance I had attached to the task.

Yesterday, my neighbors had L over for a long playdate, and I was on my own, cleaning house. I put on my Pema Chödrön CD. Earlier, I’d listened to a guided meditation on Insight Timer, one where, partway through, the speaker tells you to make space for the difficult feelings that undoubtedly are coming up (yup; there they were: guilt, anxiety). I noted that I was on a nine-day meditation stretch, that I’ve begun to crave sitting like I crave exercise and my morning tea. I couldn’t do a retreat, this weekend, and I don’t know when I will. But it nonetheless felt like I had a mindful weekend, a triumphant one, one where I just might have become Buddhist.

Here’s to another nine days. Here’s to another year!


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Parenting Will Blow You (Away)

A friend sent me this article, called “Parenting Will Blow You Away,” on the site Beams and Struts, and I knew I had to post it here. It’s a bit long, but really quite lovely on the subject of attachment and parenting (NOT to be confused with attachment parenting). The essay likens our lives before children to one of those impossibly intricate sand mandalas, and our lives after children as a time when those mandalas are constantly and consistently blown away. I hope you enjoy it.

And my crass title today? Well, because of the large number of windows I had open yesterday before I read the article–I left it up so I wouldn’t forget–the last word of the title was cut off. So all day, as I was dealing with L and the Fucking Fours, I had the words “Parenting Will Blow You” staring at me.

Apt, in retrospect, though I don’t mean to take anything away from Sam Roberts’s beautiful piece.


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Scattershot Summer

I’ve had a post brewing for a few days but it’s felt scattered and unformed, and then I realized: perfect. How appropriate.

I’m in Maine with my parents and my son, and I’m thinking about how everything, always, is a duality of good/bad, right/wrong, confusing/clear, difficult/easy.

For example:

This is one of the most beautiful, peaceful places I know, yet I miss the bustle of Berkeley.

I craved the peacefulness of this place for weeks, but now I’m here, I can’t relax.

Being close to my parents makes me realize how much I miss them, but it also makes me realize how difficult it is to be with one’s parents.

Lex is adorable, but he is also, as a friend recently remarked, “fucking four”–loud, rude, inconsiderate.

Lex is perfectly normal, yet I worry that my relatives think maybe he’s an asshole.

I told myself a break from making a baby and a break from writing would be okay, good, but since I’ve been here I’m anxious about all the hours I’m not writing or making a baby.

I have been wanting to make space for these feelings of dissatisfaction, while at the same time, I feel guilty when I remember how lucky I am to have this nice life.

Etc.

Lately I have been reflecting on how my meditation practice this year has gotten me out of some sticky situations, mostly because, when I’m being mindful, I’m kinder to myself about what I perceive as failures and setbacks. I remember to be gentle, to have lovingkindness and temperance.

Lately I have also been reflecting on how challenging this year might have been if I hadn’t been meditating–and already, it feels like it’s been quite challenging. If anything, the negative voices in my head have increased. The stress about my writing has felt more overt, more divisive, more painful. The pain about being–say it–infertile–has been palpable. Meditation has helped me to deal with these feelings more, sure, but the feelings are still there, and I wonder if, along the road, when you start to practice sometimes things get worse before they get better.

On this issue in particular, I really want clarity.


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The Bliss Between Contractions

My dear friend An Honest Mom posted a two-part essay about her experience of letting go of the homebirth she wanted in favor of a hospital birth involving pitocin. I knew the story, but I loved reading her public writing of it because I always admire her ability to bring mindfulness to childbirth, crying babies, parenting. The thing I really picked up on in her post “How I Came to Love the Hospital Birth that I Didn’t Want, Part Two” was her saying that while in labor, she knew to look for the “bliss between contractions” (thanks in part to someone named Nancy Bardacke and a book about mindful birthing).

Wow.

When I gave birth to L., four years ago this month, I was unable to find any bliss—until I’d accepted an epidural. Sure, it’s fair to say that Lex’s and my birth was harrowing. My contractions were off the charts, both because they started at a 10 on the pain scale and then shot off into the stratosphere and because, somehow, despite the fact that they ripped me in two, they didn’t actually manage to dilate my cervix at all. Nonetheless. I have long wondered (four-years-wondered) whether some of that excruciating pain and difficulty was because I didn’t know how to find the bliss between the contractions.

But today, I’m not looking at this bliss between contractions literally, since childbirth feels a long way off. But the phrase is such an apt metaphor for life, isn’t it? Life painfully squeezes the hell out of you and in between, you have to find bliss.

I’m finding solace in the metaphor this July, when life feels very busy. In a couple of weeks, Lex and I are headed to New England for nearly a month, and why I always choose that itty-bitty period to schedule everything (dentist, doctor, hair cut) I don’t know. There was the attempt to make a baby, which seemed to eat up a week (ha–I know what image this conjures. That’s not what I meant. I meant the brain space, the acupuncture, the trips to UCSF…). Marc has a job interview neither of us can stop thinking about. I’m teaching four classes. Trying to get my book published. Etc. I’ve found myself looking forward to L.’s swimming lessons just so I can stare into space for half an hour.

Another path, in central California.

Another path, in central California.

Do you live your life like this, always chasing the sensation that once you’ve completed all your tasks, you can relax? But the tasks simply don’t abate. And neither do the problems.

Buddhism teaches us that life is going to throw things in our path and we have to keep walking down it anyway. These might be small things—too much socializing, unhappy at work, too many meetings—or huge things—cancer, divorce, death. Finding bliss in between is kind of like pausing on that path, taking a deep breath, then tackling the next boulder.

I kind of love this.


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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.