Children Are Our Spiritual Teachers
By Cheryl Dimof
Issue 124 May/June 2004
Like most mothers, I did not come to this wonderful, crazy world of motherhood looking for a spiritual path. My reasons for wanting to become a mother were the usual ones: the joys of watching children grow, introducing them to the beauty of the world, teaching and parenting them alongside my husband. Perhaps I romanticized the concept of motherhood; I was definitely not prepared for the “real thing”: the sleepless nights, the messes, the constant repetition, the distractions, and the lack of time to myself. The big questions of my life turned from “What is the meaning of life?” to “How can I get a shower today?” and “How much sleep did you get last night?”
After my younger daughter was born, I left the workplace to be a full-time at-home mom. I was tired of the frenzied pace and conflicting demands of trying to both parent adequately and work full-time. At first, I was ecstatic. Here I was, doing the job I loved best with the people I loved most: my kids. Yet, as time went by, a question began to gnaw at me: “Isn’t there more to life than this?”
It wasn’t just that I missed the more immediate sense of accomplishment that comes from being praised for a job well done, or that I missed the adult interaction or the sense of contribution to the family coffers that came with bringing in a paycheck equal to my husband’s. Perhaps the somewhat more slow-paced (although, I’ll admit, very busy) life of an at-home mom had given me more time to reflect on the meaning of my life and had led me to grasp at something that would bring me an even deeper feeling of purpose.
Over the years, I had been sporadically interested in Buddhist philosophy. I found myself seeking out Zen practice and meditation, wanting a way to “calm down” from the stress associated with the full-time parenting of young children, to enhance my creativity and effectiveness in my life with my family, and, possibly to try to re-experience the sense of “oneness” I had felt at earlier times in my life. I was also attracted to the Zen idea of “just sitting.” Mothers rarely get to just sit.
In the face of the demands of parenting, “just sitting” is not an easy thing to do. There is always “something else” parents must do. As I sat in meditation, my mind constantly wandered, writing checks, doing dishes, going over the myriad household chores that needed to be done. It was difficult to schedule in meditation around early risings, bedtimes, dance classes, and all the other demands of motherhood. Yet I persisted, continuing to see my meditation practice as somehow separate from my role as mother.
At some point, I decided to seek out a Zen group to sit with. I thought that meditating with others might reinforce my resolve to continue, and that perhaps I would find a teacher who would encourage my practice. When I put the question of mixing the demands of Zen practice with the demands of parenting to a Zen student, she answered that her teacher had sometimes said that “raising a family is like having sanzen all day, every day.” According to The Path to Bodhidharma: The Teachings of Shodo Harada Roshi, sanzen is a private interview with a true teacher that is designed to help one let go of ego attachments and bring one closer to enlightenment – which, I believe, in Buddhist philosophy is being able to truly see our interconnectedness and interdependence on one another as human beings. I imagine that sanzen is not an easy thing. The student’s statement intrigued me, however; I realized that it is probably true. More than anything or anyone else, it is my children who have led me to question my own nature and deepened my appreciation of the mystery of life.
In his book Wherever You Go There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn compares children to “live-in Zen masters,” and raising them to having an “18-year meditation retreat.” As Zen masters go, my older daughter isn’t bad. At five years, she has just the right mixture of fierceness and . . . well, we’re still working on the compassion, but I know it’s there. As I sat at the table one morning, eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, she exclaimed, “Mommy! When you eat, don’t read, just eat!” Talk about reminding me to pay attention!
Jessica also asks the most wonderful koans. (In Zen practice, a koan is a story or question that cannot be solved using the rational faculties and is designed to bring one closer to enlightenment.) One day, she was anxious to play with a friend who would be home in an hour. Every ten minutes or so, she asked me how much longer she had to wait. Finally, she asked me, “How do you know?” When I said, “Because I’m looking at the clock,” she asked, “How do you know you’re looking at the clock?” Question reality! Other favorites of Zen Master Jessica: “What was here before the universe?” “Mommy, why does my tongue have to live in my mouth?” and “How do you know you’re not dreaming right now?”
Children certainly can be our teachers. They often act as mirrors, reflecting both our positive qualities and, frequently, those qualities in ourselves that we do not want to own up to or accept. Looking in the mirror of my daughter, I have seen my own shadow and faced my own dark side more than I have any other way. Shunryu Suzuki spoke of “beginner’s mind,” in which the number of possibilities is unlimited. Children have the ultimate beginner’s mind. By the time we are adults, we have so much “knowledge,” so many preconceived ideas, that it limits our creativity and the number of possibilities we are able to visualize. Seeing through our children’s eyes can help to re-open us to a wider range of possibilities. Sometimes, when we’re stuck in a negative way of thinking about something, our children can offer possibilities of more positive ways to view the situation. One day, I saw my husband staring out at the backyard, shaking his head in disgust at the number of dandelions that had invaded it. “I want to spray,” I overheard him mutter. My daughter apparently heard this as well. “What’s wrong with the dandelions?” she asked. She saw them not as a mess of unsightly weeds but as a meadow of beautiful yellow wildflowers.
Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh recommends posting a note to oneself saying, “Are you sure?,” reminding us to check the reality of our perceptions. Since I have had children, I no longer seem to need that note – my daughter asks me this question frequently. Her other questions, about everything from how life began to the minute details of everyday life, frequently remind me of how much I don’t know, how much I have yet to learn. This is a humbling and important lesson, especially for those of us who want our children to look up to us as powerhouses of knowledge. (My daughter seems convinced that I am such a powerhouse – I have frequently heard her state, “Mommies know everything!” Somehow, this doesn’t stop her from arguing with me about everything.)
An oft-told Zen story recounted in Charlotte Joko Beck’s Nothing Special: Living Zen goes like this: A student asked a Zen master to write something very wise. The master wrote one word: “Attention.” The student, disappointed, asked if that was all he had to say. In response, the master wrote “Attention. Attention.” The student again felt disappointed and frustrated, and complained to the master that he had asked for something wise. The master responded by writing, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” The student, now quite irritated, asked what “Attention” was supposed to mean. The Zen master replied, “Attention means attention.”
Mindfulness is an important part of Zen practice, but the word is just a fancy way of saying “paying attention.” If we can slow ourselves down a bit from the hurried rush of Western life to go at our children’s pace for a while, we might notice things we might otherwise miss. “Look, Mommy!” my daughter will exclaim, “This tulip is so pink!” and “Oh Mommy! I love wormies, they’re soooo cute!” I remember how beautiful each flower, each sunset, each bug was to me when I was a child. When I can quiet my mind and look through my daughter’s eyes, I am able to recapture some of the beauty and innocence of childhood.
Along with helping us to pay closer attention, raising children forces us to ask questions about what is most important, what is “enough.” I was confronted with this when my first child was born and I felt I had to return to work to contribute to the family income. Although I enjoyed some aspects of my work, I missed my daughter terribly and feared that I would miss being there as she achieved all the “big” milestones – first steps, first words – as well as just sharing new experiences together. Eventually I realized that I could concentrate more fully on the parts of my life that are most important by changing my attitude toward what is “enough.” I don’t claim to have perfected the art of downsizing, and I admit that I still like to spend money that I probably should not. But I realized that I had it within my means to claim the time I wanted with my family if I lived more simply and learned to be satisfied with what I already had.
Children’s rapid growth can be a reminder to us of one of the most important ideas in Zen: that of impermanence. The idea of impermanence often seems depressing – I think most of us have trouble letting go – but impermanence can also be what makes things more precious. Knowing things will change, pass out of existence, makes it important to appreciate them right now. Isn’t it the continuous dance of birth and death, growth and change, that keeps life interesting and meaningful?
Finally, my children teach me direct lessons in nonattachment. Of course, we’re all “attached” to our children – we care about them and want for them what is best. Yet we cannot fit our children into a mold, or make them conform to what we think they “should” be. Children will be what they are; all we can offer is the right environment for their growth and development, whichever way they unfold.
In searching, grasping for a path to help make my life more meaningful, I tended to separate things into the “spiritual” and the “nonspiritual.” The spiritual would include such things as meditation, prayer, attending religious services or ceremonies, and communing with nature. The nonspiritual would include things like housekeeping, preparing meals, changing diapers. It seemed difficult to infuse everyday, mundane, repetitive chores with any meaning beyond the obvious.
When I first attended a Zen sit, I was unfamiliar with some of the sutras that were chanted at the beginning of the session. When we got to a part of the sutra that read, “Not knowing how close the truth is, we seek it far away – what a pity! We are like one who in the midst of water cries out desperately in thirst,” I almost laughed out loud. That sounded like me: searching to attain something that I thought I needed but didn’t have when, all the time, I was in the midst of what I needed.
I then encountered the idea of making everyday activities into a path of practice. If I can do all the myriad tasks that mothers do – changing diapers, cleaning, doing dishes, cooking, chauffeuring – with my full attention (ha), each can become a meditation in itself.
Zen master Shodo Harada Roshi writes, “In the workshop, in the home, while walking, while traveling, while hiking; in the very midst of these we develop and realize our mind’s true peace. Wherever we do this is a dojo: a place of practice. Each person’s home . . . is also a dojo.” That my home could be a dojo was news to me. My home usually seemed more like a maelstrom of chaos and disorder. But then it occurred to me that perhaps I was thinking of it the wrong way. Perhaps learning to maintain some inner calm, learning to remain centered in the midst of all the messy, crazy, chaotic, and wonderful demands of family life, was my lesson to learn.
Now, sometimes, when I remember, I try to follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice about showing appreciation and gratitude toward my little Zen masters by bowing to them in a small Zen-style bow – a gassho. I remembered a woman from my church doing this a few years ago. I thought it was really great, but my daughter didn’t; she requested that I not do it again. It also occurred to me that we mothers have our own special practices and meditations. I have sometimes heard a friend of mine chanting, over and over, “Reward the good, ignore the bad,” as if it were her mantra.
Although I am still interested in Zen and in meditation, seeking out these small daily practices has helped to open me up somewhat more to learning lessons from my own little teachers who are with me all the time: my children. Though I still find meditation to be beneficial, right now motherhood is my primary path, my practice.
Beck, Charlotte Joko. Nothing Special: Living Zen, reprint ed. Harper San Francisco, 1994.
Harada, Shodo. Dojo: A Place of Practice. Pamphlet prepared for the Occasion of the Dedication of the One Drop Zendo Tahoma Monastery on Whidbey Island , 14 September 1996 .
Harada, Shodo. The Path to Bodhidharma: The Teachings of Shodo Harada Roshi. Charles E. Tuttle Co., 2000.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Hyperion, 1995.
Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Weatherhill, 1997.
For more information about parenting and spirituality, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “High Art: Raising a Child,” no. 107; “Meditating Mamas,” no. 105; “Family Life as Mystical Experience,” no. 98; and “Children and Spirituality,” no. 95.
In her life B.C. (before children), Cheryl Dimof worked as an occupational therapist in long-term care. She currently lives in Kingston, Washington with her husband, Ted, and her children, Jessica (now 8) and Zoe (now 4), where she helps at preschool, chauffeurs her kids around, occasionally writes articles, and runs an Internet directory featuring family-friendly links and articles. She rarely has time to just sit.