Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Mistakes were Made

photo-4 copy

I conceived of this post in the middle of the night, when I woke up with insomnia of the social remorse variety, so it’s still a little unformed.

The background: I’m the co-chair of my son’s cooperative preschool. It’s an amazing place, but I’ll let you in on the dirty little secret of co-op nursery schools: it’s a shitload of work to keep them running. And, because almost everyone is volunteering, on top of being moms and dads with jobs and lives, stuff falls through the cracks. Interpersonal things get intense. Budgets get interesting. Meetings can drag on. On top of that, you still have to “participate” every week and show up for work days twice a year.

Since becoming co-chair, I’ve been wrestling with this feeling of not being good enough. I had two meetings this week, and after each, I came home feeling like I’d made mistakes. After the first I thought, oh why did I make that one comment? Was I inclusive enough? Do people like me? Am I doing a good job? And after the second I thought, oh why did I make that one comment? Was I inclusive enough? Do people like me? Am I doing a good job?

That last question I verbalized to The Hubs after I got home: “Do you think I’m doing a good job as co-chair?” To which he replied, “Why are you agonizing over whether you’re doing a good job as co-chair?” To which I replied: “Isn’t that my point in life, to agonize over whether I’m doing a good job?”

You’d think I was kidding. Sadly, I wasn’t.

In the middle of the night this came back to me. I thought again about the meeting I’d had and whether things had gone down the way they were supposed to. Then, bizarrely, I remembered how in college, when I edited an anthology of women’s writing for my senior project, I failed to correct a grammar mistake in one of the poems. Embarrassingly, what I did do back then–in 1995, nearly twenty years ago–was attempt to edit another poem that was perfectly fine as it was; in fact, I read the other day that this woman went on to get her PhD and has published several books of poetry and has a tenure-track job somewhere, so clearly the joke is on me.

I lay there in the dark, thinking about all these ways in which I haven’t done a good enough job. And I realized that I have been doing this my whole life: looking back on mistakes I’ve made, and regretting them. Often, in the middle of the night.

Lately, whenever I have a moment that, back when I could afford therapy I would have taken to my therapist, I now take to this little compartment in my brain labeled “mindfulness.” I think how Buddhism is helping and not helping with my sometimes-debilitating anxiety. And I don’t come up with many answers, truthfully. I do see that now, I notice these really unhealthy patterns of behavior, and I notice how intensely difficult it is to change them. I notice now when I wake up in the morning and feel like I’ve been beating myself up all night, and I can maybe, on a good day, remind myself that this is illusion.

What I truly hope is that eventually, I’ll stop doing it altogether, and sometimes, I see a glimmer: I think to myself, why don’t I just stop remembering how “sung” should have been changed to “sang?” Why don’t I stop remembering how hurtful I was to my 9th-grade boyfriend? And a tiny piece of me lets go.

But another piece seems to snatch onto it again, to hold it, like I need to keep torturing myself until I learn to do a better job. I’ll be forty in two weeks. Do I really need to do this for another forty years? What, exactly, would that accomplish?

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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.