Enlightenment at Three

Growing Down: My Three-year-old Teaches Me About Enlightenment
By Maggie Shea
Web Exclusive, June 26, 2006

Little girl playfully looking at cameraNestled in the cave of her bottom bunk, dressed in a purple nightgown, a miniature philosopher attempts to enlighten her mother. At three, she has the cosmos on her mind. Her insights come mainly at night, after I’ve read her two or three stories. “Can you snuggle up with me?” she says as she curls into me. Her saucer-shaped blue eyes light up with joy then turn serious with fear, her perky mouth following suit, as she tells tales, tries out new theories and gives me advice. Her latest revelation: first you grow up, then you grow down. She insists that when I grow down I’ll be released of all my bothersome grown up duties, like worrying and cleaning.

My daughter’s growing down philosophy echoes the Taoist concept of the Uncarved Block. Here’s a simple explanation: we enter this world as uncarved blocks and culture, family and friends, education, and everything that touches us “carves” us into sharply-defined grown-ups. Some would say God holds the carving knife, others would say we carve our own selves, and still others believe that there is no carving knife. Regardless of how it happens, we do grow up; though our carved adult selves boast many important attributes, including jobs and paychecks, knowledge, compassion, and empathy, many of us have lost something precious. Enlightenment, in the Taoist sense, involves striving to return to the place where we truly did live in the moment and were open to the world’s magic. As Lao Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching: “true wholeness can only be achieved by return.”

Don’t get me wrong—I do not wish to be three again. I relish many grown up pleasures: reading and writing, being married and parenting, drinking strong coffee and good wine, to name a few. But I do long to be like my three-year-old and my other children in many ways. And I see the “carving” process beginning, especially in my oldest child, who is fully immersed in school and peers and the pull of the pack. My three-year-old remains mostly uncarved. She bounds down the stairs early each morning and jumps into my lap, full of hugs and kisses and giggles. She jabbers through the morning about her ideas and plans. She draws dozens of -shaped people each day and hands them out as gifts. These figures have become like the mark of Zorro—we find them everywhere she has been, including her dresser, a cedar chest, on walls, and on her own body. She tucks her stuffed animals in at naptime by covering each one with a single tissue. Yesterday she decided to host a “Tea and Taffy” party, a concept she borrowed from a giraffe in a story. She also planned a tea party for Sally, our newly-departed cat, to be held in the middle of her funeral. This tea party never happened, but my daughter did stand up during our “Good-bye to Sally” ceremony and make this pronouncement: “Don’t worry. You don’t have to be sad. When you die you always come up again.”

She tries new things constantly without trepidation or anxiety, and there is no “box” for her to think outside of. Paint—why confine it to paper? Tables, metal cups, walls, baby sisters: all valid surfaces. I’ve lost count of how many times she has run to me, breathless with pride, to show me how completely she has covered her hands and arms in red paint. In her hands, beads can be strung on necklaces, but also look great on paper, cards to friends, boxes, and simply dumped out all over the floor. Cutting anything into tiny pieces is a very worthwhile way to spend a half-hour. Glue is fun.

Her emotions pour out right when she feels them. She cries spontaneously whenever she misses the cat or her cousins, hugs and kisses anyone she even sort of likes, and breaks down when she can’t buckle her shoe or put on her clothes herself or write an “S” to her satisfaction. She sings throughout the day, songs she learned at preschool and many she makes up herself, and dances anywhere, including elevators and grocery stores. When I am stressed, she’ll yell out “Mom!” and I’ll reply snippily, “What!” “I like ya!” she’ll smile up at me. Gleefully, she streaks through the house yelling, “Naked girl!” She carries on extensive conversations with herself and writes notes to all sorts of people, asking us to add “I really love you a lot.” Recently, she made a necklace for her preschool teacher, buried it in bright red paper with lots of tape, and asked me to write this on the bundle: “I like that you’re my teacher. I hope I can have a sleepover at your house very soon.” Of course, she also hits her sister on occasion and sometimes calls people stupid. She has called me “the baddest mom ever” and, when told she couldn’t eat chocolate coins right before bedtime, quietly disappeared into her closet and devoured dollars worth of gold-wrapped quarters.

She certainly has her moments, but her firm belief in growing down, her tea parties and ideas and affection come so spontaneously that I praise her uncarved nature and long to be as free as she. So I return—to my little philosopher’s cave each night, and, with some practice, to a more uncarved place in my own life.

Maggie Shea is a freelance writer. She lives near Minneapolis and hears about new philosophies daily from her four children, Sean (8), Anna (5), Elise (3) and Cecilia (1). Besides writing, she enjoys reading, running, traveling and keeping up with extended family all over the country.