My friend, the new mother of a bouncing little boy, is struggling to re-find her centre. While he is thriving, she is exhausted from lack of sleep, redefining her relationships and work, disoriented by the sudden dropping away of her self-identity. As we are both meditators and mothers, a feminine wisdom voice erupted. “Just think of new mothering as a deep dive into No-Self.”
This really helped, changing her narrative from one of personal struggle and failure to adapt to the universal human journey of navigating unpredictability, sacrifice, creation and love.
Why had no one else told her this? It’s not lack of volume by the baby advice industry. But there are few who can speak to the inter-sections of long-term parenting and the deep end of spiritual practice. Not because parents aren’t interested or their busy lives do not permit the intensive commitment required. But because many teachers and spiritual traditions don’t get the connection.
After this encounter, I looked back on my 20+ years of meditation practice, oodles of reading and raising two now-grown daughters (wonderful women) and realized,everything I ever learned on the meditation cushion I first experienced as a motherClick To Tweet. No one ever pointed this out to me, and there is very little in the literature. So, I’d like to offer my own totally personal take on the connections between parenting and awakening development.
Read on if; you are a parent who wants a deeper interpretation of your personal struggles; you are a mother dealing with at least partial regret at the cost of motherhood; or you read the spiritual literature but don’t see your experience reflected there.
Spiritual Teaching Has Its Own Masculine Bias
Just as in politics, media and business, the religious world, both east and west, is subject to misogyny and bias. The power roles are held by men. There are numerous #metoo moments of sexual violation in all religions. (I trained briefly with a renowned Zen master who was also a sexual molester. My first teacher, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, left her teacher because of sexual assault—on her son, no less.) Sadly, these are all reflections of systemic bias found in any other institution. But I think there’s a further unconscious bias that is unique to the world of spiritual endeavours. We don’t appreciate feminine wisdom perspectives not just because they are suppressed. We don’t even hear them. We are attuned to the masculine voice.
[I want to make clear that experiencing masculine or feminine perspectives is not necessarily determined by gender.]
With a few precious exceptions, the great wisdom teachers all bring a masculine perspective to the path of awakening development. They have trod the arduous path by retreating from the daily world for periods of intensive study and ascetic discipline. They abstained from sex. They learn focused concentration and developed penetrating insights into the nature of mind and reality. They may taste the empty, liberating freedom side of awakening
But Life is too big to be expressed in just one voice. Too dynamically evolving to rest only on traditions. A feminine perspective on awakening includes the richness of all Creation, the equanimity to deal with the challenges of daily living, a willingness to be an embodied vehicle for transformation, an appreciation for G-d not just transcending the world but refracted in its every particle. The feminine wisdom may taste the richly full side of awakening.
If parenthood isn’t a crucible for this kind of development, I don’t know what is!
The Buddha was willing to face death to achieve enlightenment. Every mother must be willing to face birth.
Back in the 80’s, I decided to go for natural childbirth. It was becoming trendy, with a view that medical interventions only impede a natural process. Living in Belgium, I had the best possible setup for this; an inviting birthing room and the dedicated support of a midwife and physiotherapist.
But who can really tell you about the pain? It was indescribable, surprising and frightening. The fear is primal. Until the late 19th Century, the death of a mother in childbirth was a tragic but not uncommon occurrence. In your bones, you know this could be it. But you can’t change your mind and go home! As Pema Chodron says, the wisdom comes from knowing there is no escape.
After about 12 hours of hard labour, something in me just gave up. Surrendered. “I don’t care about the pain anymore. I don’t care if I rip wide open. Just let this baby come out.” And here’s the miracle; 30 minutes later, our first child was born.
The lesson from birthing—equanimity.
Equanimity is the ability to allow sensory experience to be what it is; to neither push away painful experiences or hold onto pleasant experiences. It is radical permission to feel. Somehow, when I stopped resisting the pain, not only did my suffering go down, but a baby was born.
Equanimity—aka surrender, letting go, kenosis—is widely acknowledged as a core mindfulness skill that leads to reduced personal suffering or enhanced fulfillment.Equanimity is also essential to the creative process, whether that is a baby, a work of art or spiritual development.Click To Tweet
We took home a beautiful, healthy daughter. Home was in a country we’d moved to only three months prior, where we knew no-one, I could speak only rusty French (forget about Flemish) and my husband was pre-occupied with a demanding new job. Like so many new moms, I was unmoored from my career, exhausted from lack of sleep, ignorant but desperate to know what to do, slightly depressed. I remember one woman remarking fondly on my then six-month daughter, “Ah, the first days go by so fast!”
“Not fast enough”, I muttered, as she looked on horrified.
Like everyone else, we muddled through those first disorienting months. I got used to operating on broken sleep and learned to catnap. I calmed my anxiety be reading baby-advice books. I met a few new people and explored the delights of Belgian cuisine. Slowly, I became a new person.
Later on, after years of meditation and time on silent retreat, I also had weird, disorienting experiences, where I didn’t quite know who I was. A No-Self experience, it was called. “You’ll get used to it. You’ll learn to operate from this place”, my teacher said. And I recalled; I’ve been here before. It was called being a new mom.
The lesson from New Parenting—moving through disorientation.
No-Self is not just a rare, meditative state. Don’t Know Mind happens all the time, whenever your certainties are ripped away. It is that vacant space of no form in between old and new forms. It is the quantum potential before every moment of actualization. We navigate the chaos by taking uncertain action anyway.
When we moved to Belgium, I had interrupted my business school training, and wanted to resume as soon as possible. Not just for the education, but to have an adult conversation. We struggled with the usual questions. When to leave our baby with a sitter or daycare? To wean onto solid foods? To sleep through the night? To potty train?
As Oliver Burkeman points on his article on the Baby-Advice Industry. babies and young children have always been a source of bafflement. Our seeking for advice is “a vehicle for the yearning – surely not unique to parents – that if we could only track down the correct information and apply the best techniques, it might be possible to bring the terrifying unpredictability of the world under control, and make life go right.
I read some books, talked to some people, found a local university that offered a good degree through evening classes and a fabulous infant in-home daycare. Bur really, if I hadn’t done this, I would have gone insane. Bad for me, bad for our child. You follow your gut. You make your own meaning
The Lesson from Early Years—meaning is from the heart.
I am reminded of Cynthia Bourgeault here: “meaning and explanation are not the same thing. Explanation is of the mind. Meaning is of the heart, a felt-sense of belongingness that needs neither justification nor further action. It is simply its own fullness.”
For many parents, these are the golden years, with your children making forays from home and now adapted to school, friends or sports. They were good years for us. We moved back to Canada, and with now two wonderful daughters pursued our business careers. I tried to figure out that elusive “work-life balance” (funny how it’s usually women who ask this question), which eventually led to a consulting career.
The balancing actually got harder as the children grew older. You can ask a sitter or daycare to mind or feed your children; you really can’t ask them to exert discipline, monitor homework or model your essential values. We slowly figured out how to spend our time; when to push forward with our work, their school or activities, and when to just chill and relax.
The Lesson from Early Years—bearing down and easing up.
Meditators sometimes ask their teachers how much they should practice. This question is found both East and West. For Buddhists, “If we are always already enlightened, why practice at all?” In the Christian tradition, is one saved by grace or personal works? For Shinzen Young, the answer is both. You have to know both when and how to bear down and ease up. Just like work-life balance, I realized.
We relocated just before our daughters’ peak teen years. Who knows if we got that timing right? Certainly, we had some tough times; angry words, estrangement, yoyo-ing through schools.
The onslaught of hormones is confusing to both kids and their parents. As our children develop the capacity for formal operational thinking, they can now see new futures that don’t yet exist, adopt their own ideals. It becomes blindingly obvious to them that you are not perfect parents. (You may have already grasped this.) As their peer group becomes ever more important, you are evicted from your role as the centre of their universe. The comfortable conditions of your early family life have changed, widened, become more elastic. Our job then? To be the solid ground against which they can push off. To love them through all these changing conditions
The Lesson from Teen Years—love without conditions
Many wisdom teachers talk about how meditation practice can lead to boundless love, unconditional love. As you see through your own mental and emotional constructs, you learn to take yourself less seriously. You become less bound up by the conditions of who you thought you were. Freer to see others as they are, rather than who you would like them to be. Just like you learn to do in the teen years.
A friend recently relocated to our city, and urged her long-time friend to send her daughter here for university. “She’ll love it, and I’ll watch out for her.”
“Oh no”, her friend responded. “Then she’ll meet someone, marry them and never move back home. She can go to school in-town.”
I get it, I thought, but how sad. I remember crying for hours, after dropping off a daughter for her first year away from home. Missing them over holidays, feeling them so far away. And now I’m so proud of the accomplished, independent women they’ve become.
The Lesson from Young Adult Years—love liberates
As the late Dr. Maya Angelou said, “I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. Love says, ‘I love you. I love you if you’re in China. I love you if you’re across town. I love you if you’re in Harlem. I love you.
Lessons for Life
Parenting is one of our most profound and complex relationships. It can produce the joys and frictions that polish both parents and children. It can become a vehicle for our own continued growing up and waking up. Why wouldn’t this more traditionally feminine wisdom perspective be a window onto profound lessons for how life works? Why wouldn’t a wisdom voice not only preach from the pulpit at the front, but skilfully guide from the center of our daily life?
As my friend—a successful professional, mother and grandmother said— “I’m glad I’m a mother of four children not because I have four children, but because of who I’ve become.”
My book Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary, helps you create a customize mindfulness practice. It includes sample practice routines for a variety of styles and schedules, including busy parents.