“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.” – Plato
My youngest son Kienan is in his second year at Alaya Preschool, a preschool rooted in contemplative educational practices founded by the late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. When the weather is nice after school, children and parents linger to play and connect in the play yards, which are carefully created and tended. Just as spring was unfolding this month, I was able to look around and appreciate the attention to detail, the opportunities for sensory play, and the hints of magic found in carefully placed daffodil flowers or mysterious fairy doors at the base of old trees. It was one of those moments when a warm wind was blowing after a long winter and I was able to see the play space with fresh eyes.
My boys were busy scooping water and building with stones and wood. Everything mirrored nature. There were trees to climb, a wooden play structure to swing off of, a sand area encircled by tree trunks. A small bridge hovered over a rock and flower garden. After seven years of my children attending Alaya Preschool, it struck me how many happy moments we have shared in this play yard, surrounded by lovely things.
I began to consider all the ‘things’ we often hand to children. Do they need any of them? Here, there are simple pleasures. There is fresh air, there is shade. There are living things. There is space to roam and run. Rocks, sticks, stones and rough wooden blocks abound. Each play yard is graced by the trickle of running water. I remember: Let’s make time for simple play. Let’s be outside. Nature offers what we need. Let’s foster an appreciation of lovely things…
With Thanksgiving and the holidays afoot, I find myself considering how to make time and space for more of what really matters. This time of year invites me to go inwards, to create more space for reflection, and to find time to connect more deeply. Its a time for creating or continuing traditions – and for celebrations rooted in what really matters: sharing, gratitude, creativity and joy.
One tradition that I look forward to each November is the annual Lantern Walk hosted by my children’s schools. The aim is to cultivate a space for quietness, to take pause, and also to honor the dark and colder nights of the season. We are all invited to remember the light within us, even in darkening times. The kids made their lanterns at school and learned songs to sing. Everyone was reminded that the event is meant to honor the spirit of contemplation and stillness. Cell phones off. Social personality and chatter aside. Together, during a quiet walk with lanterns in hand, we celebrate the dark, cool night, we sing a few quiet tunes, and we take note of the twinkling stars.
The event reminds me of the importance of finding stillness and moments of pause during what can be a busy season. It reminds me to shake up my family routine and get outside, even in the dark evening when I’d usually be moving us towards sleep. It reminds me to create time and space for what matters to me – even if my children might not receive it how I imagine they might. I can support the conditions for these things to arise, and then be ready too to let go into any chaos that might emerge. (Because, well, it usually does!)
This year’s lantern walk held it all. There were the quiet moments holding a hand, and there was giggling and the usual running around in circles orchestrated by my sons and their cousin. There was getting lost from one another and dropped coats and hats. There were candles blown out and tears. But it didn’t matter. We were there together in the spirit of co-creating something special and meaningful. There were moments of magic and appreciation. There was the absolute joy of my youngest son seeing the stars and exclaiming in sheer amazement: “Mom! It is real space up there!” And above all else, I was just thankful for exactly what was – remembering that essential ingredient that guides me to what matters every time: Gratitude! No matter what – just, gratitude.
Earlier this year I posted on Principles of Contemplative Parenting – and my reflections inspired by them. Thanks to Alaya Preschool for outlining some of these suggested points. Here I share a few more, accompanied by my experiences. After a challenging spell with my boys, these served my life like guideposts, reminding me that even when I feel lost or confused, there is always an intentional perspective that I can bring to any situation or moment.
Mind matters most: how we come to a situation has the greatest effect on how the situation turns out. For me, it isn’t just my mental state – but my overall state: whole body, nervous system, heart and soul. A few weeks ago I took my first weekend away from my kids with a few girlfriends. We soaked it hot springs, ate delicious food and hiked in the gorgeous Glenwood Canyon here in Colorado. Upon coming home, I felt truly restored. It wasn’t just that I was relaxed or refreshed; it was that I actually could feel again the essence of who I am most deeply. I was tuned in with myself in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. And when I rejoined my children, I could feel my own state clearly and distinctly as separate from theirs.
This might seem like an obvious need and capacity to some of you reading – but for me, I’d lost something in these past months of parenting. I’d become so spread outwards that I’d lost my capacity to subtly note when my boys’ states were overly and negatively influencing mine. So when my middle son was feeling anxious about the impending start of school and beginning to act out as a result, I too was feeling anxious and getting high strung and ungrounded. When my sons were needing to wrestle and run and jump and join with each other in conflict, I was getting swept right in to that elevated energy. I was losing my sense of balance and ease. I was literally being pulled all over the place and in the process not feeling deeply into myself. The result has been that I’ve not been able to manage difficult family moments with as much patience or skillfulness.
It took a weekend away to realize what had been happening. When I came home and greeted family situations grounded, rested and really feeling my own body and experience, I could respond more in alignment with how I most want (with compassion, kindness, patience and openness). Alternately, if I haven’t been taking time to tune into my own state and attend to my deepest sense of well-being throughout the day, then I’m scattered and unable to tend mindfully to big emotions arising or the sometimes crazy moments of chaos and conflict.
So yes – how we come to a situation has the greatest effect on how a situation turns out. The lesson here for me is to take the time needed to tune in, slow down, and notice how I’m doing (at the deep levels) before I respond to difficult and complex moments. Then, I can set the intention per how I most want to respond and let that guide me.
Keep it light, fun and no big deal, unless it is a big deal. Even then, make sure love comes through (even if it has to be the tough variety). My challenge of late is to choose what is a big deal and what isn’t. Some days it feels like I could be battling all day long setting boundaries and redirecting actions. So where do I really step in and draw big lines? Again, as I mention above, if I’m not careful I can be swept into a million nutty directions with three boys and their friends doing all sorts of things bordering on unsafe or unkind. So I make a practice of choosing my battles. Trying to catch bees with a kitchen towel? Okay. Not the best choice but I’m going to let that one go. Plowing through the neighbor’s flowers during a pretend mountain biking excursion? No way. Let’s make apology cards and buy them a bouquet to leave on their doorstep. Donning helmets and pretending to be bulls fighting via intense headbutts in a pen? Not my favorite pasttime but go for it. Taking a plastic race track, turning it into a whip, and smacking your brother full force across the legs? Oh no. Here comes the big reaction.
We all need boundaries. And yes, keeping it light and fun is the ideal. But there are moments when strong words and bigger energy is also needed. Remembering to let love shine through even in those moments is key – even if it means looping back around after the fact to connect. “We all make mistakes. But there are things we can do to be more careful…”
Children never want us to be unhappy, but they certainly do sometimes get stuck in wanting us to do the things we do when we get mad. Right now, one of my sons seems to relish in pushing my buttons. Ultimately, he needs to push me hard enough so that I give him the containment that he needs in order to release his big feelings. In his confusion, he’ll do anything to get a reaction from me. He will work every angle until he can acheive an emotional release.
The other night just before bedtime, he pulled apart one of my houseplants. He threw his brother’s lego sets. He proceeded to run around the house – engaging me in a push-me, pull-me cat and mouse chase. Nothing I said satisfied him until he finally got to the place of crying while I was holding him. But before he got to this place, he was certainly stuck in wanting to meet me in a place of reactivity and chaos. The doorway to his relaxing, connection and release was somehow rooted in wanting me to do the things I do when I get mad: one of which is hold him tightly.
I’m still working on how to free up this pattern. There are so many layers at work – so many needs and emotions – and also perhaps pure mischief, too. I try to switch up my responses, remembering my ability to be fresh and new with how I’m responding.
“We’re going to try something new” is always an option when you are in a rut with your child. Sometimes I forget that I can indeed try something new. As I’ve written about before – this principle reminds me of the Buddhist notion of “Beginner’s Mind.” I love this definition excerpted from Nithyananda Mission: “By definition, having a beginner’s mind means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and freedom from preconceptions when approaching anything. Beginner’s mind is actually the space where the mind does not know what to do. It is that delicious state when you are sure of nothing, yet completely fearless, totally available to the moment.” Yes! “We’re going to try something new.” Such a simple invitation – and reminder of the possibilities available when stuck.
Authentic presence in itself is a complete path of parenting, containing all the wisdom, power and love we will ever need. I love this one. If I’m tuned in with how I’m doing and what I need, then I can bring more authenticity to my parenting journey and my relationships with my children. Sometimes I find myself pushing too hard to get things done, or agreeing to go on excursions that don’t serve my need for quiet introversion. I find myself at the bike park or under the blazing sun with neighborhood kids swirling around me on scooters. I love these moments, of course. But I also find that often I’m churning along, not standing up for some of my deeper needs.
It helps when I can speak clearly about where I’m at. It also helps when I can loop back around and share my experience honestly with my kids. “I was frustrated when…” “When you do that, I feel…” It never lands when I’m in a reactive moment – but it does land when I’m settled again and can be authentic about whatever has transpired and what the impacts were. It requires a bit of extra introspection and taking the time to process how we all engage in a moment together. Remembering to be authentic and honest softens many edges and helps me to relax.
Love is the answer. It doesn’t always feel quiet and sweet, but it always feels true. I love the truth here. “It doesn’t always feel quiet and sweet, but it always feels true.” Parenting has taught me that love can look a million ways, and it doesn’t always look how I’d imagined. Love can however become a larger container that we all live in, together. Love can offer the cushion of safety that surrounds us, even when we’re not feeling it directly during a difficult moment.
For me, it helps to create space to really notice my children – to really look deeply at them and hold them in an intentional light. Coming back to love, over and over again, is truly the answer. Even when I mess up and grapple with feelings of failure, overwhelm and exasperation, I remember to come back to my experience of love. From there, I find all the insight I need.
As the Alaya teachers and staff share so aptly, “Parenting is a much greater challenge that most people admit (even to themselves). The potential of parenting, in helping us grow, be happy and relax into compassion, is also more profound that we sometimes can see. Parenting is a quick and steep path indeed!”
A note to readers: Hello! It has been awhile since I’ve been posting regularly. As I mentioned a few months ago, I’ve been busy editing my book – The Invitation of Motherhood, coming soon! Meanwhile, I’m catching up to speed on the blog and you’ll see a few posts this week (along with a new look) as I finally get them online. Enjoy!
Over the years, I’ve written a bit on the amazing preschool that my boys attend in Boulder, Colorado. It has been a beacon of wisdom and insight, and I’m eternally grateful. Rooted in the tradition of Shambhala Buddhism, the teachers act based on the premise that there is a basic wisdom inherent in human experience, where bravery and fearlessness can be cultivated. Rowan, Braeden and Kienan’s first year classroom at age two was called the Tiger Classroom, the tiger referencing one of four “dignities” that Alaya Preschool founder Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used as metaphors for stages on the path toward realizing our inherent goodness. Each ‘dignity’ points to certain characteristics a practitioner develops in order to bring wisdom and compassion into daily life. At Alaya Preschool, it is never considered too early to begin instilling the human qualities of discernment, discipline, compassion and wisdom – which the four dignities point to.
Just like the contemplative educational tradition encourages, I wanted to nurture reflection, practice slowing down, and make time for consideration.
Thanks to Alaya Preschool for the following ‘Principles of Contemplative Parenting.’ On a normal weekday morning at drop off, a stack of handouts highlighting these principles greeted interested parents. The following are ones that most resonated, accompanied by short reflections on how these weave into my family life.
Children need to experience how we work with strong emotions. This one gave me a sigh of relief. I often feel bad for expressing my own ‘big’ feelings. Yet I want to be authentic and honest about my own experiences and feelings. Yes! Children do need to see how we work with strong emotions. How do we navigate our own hurt feelings? What do we do when we’re angry? We are always modeling for our children – and any moment working with emotions is a potential teaching moment.
Children do want to be the cause for the effect… So, don’t attend to negative attention seeking. I’ve often worked with trying to focus my energy on the ‘positive.’ I don’t want to get into negative cycles – but I often find myself gravitating towards ‘negative attention seeking.’ How to shift that common pattern? I try to tend to what needs tending, while being aware of overly placing attention in one area.
Taking care of oneself is the best way to take care of the family. This one resonates as my growing edge. How is this possible? It is hard enough to complete even the basic tasks of a day: breakfasts, lunches, dinners. Laundry. Getting to work on time. Each of my children seems to clamor for my attention when I am with them. There are needs to be met – and there are difficult moments at school to process. It is all important – so how to prioritize? Currently, my self-care happens after the kids are in bed. I have yet to crack the nut of how to fully give myself what I need during the days without feeling I’m shortchanging my family. And – I see that if I am nourished and resourced, I always have so much more to give.
Use slogans! In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, slogans (or Lojong) are used as a mind training practice. By practicing with slogans in mind, I could better remember how I wanted to live into my family life. I took some time to create my own slogans for what I wanted to practice in my daily life. I posted them on my bathroom mirror.
Slow down. Take a breath. Take Care
Less ‘time outs,’ more ‘time ins.’ Take a break for self instead.
Did you do quiet time today?
“Time outs are better for us to take than to give to our children.” I never like giving “time outs.” And, there are times when space is needed, both for myself as well as between brothers. I’ve been trying on this idea that time outs are better for us to take than to give to our children. “I need some space!” I will often hear myself saying. In a heated moment, I try to move away and take a deep breath before responding. For my boys, I will often say that they need to take space after making a mistake (especially after making choices that hurt another brother). I am sure to invite them to come back when they are ready. I’ve also been trying the idea of a “time in.” I’ll encourage my son to stay with us all in the same room, but to sit out for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. We often “push the green button” to start over. The key is to interrupt the cycle and to infuse a sense of space.
Check posture & Speak slowly. I love these reminders. They are so tangible. When I speak slowly, I am most often speaking more mindfully and deliberately. When I’m frustrated or angry, my voice often raises and I speak faster. There is less time to consider what I actually want to say. There is more reactivity. So the pause to check posture realigns me with my intentions. If I commit to speaking slowly, I am usually speaking more kindly and thoughtfully.
Compassion: let your kindness be the guide. There are moments when I feel I’ve gone astray from my kindness. It might be the middle of the night and my three-year-old is up screaming because he can’t have the drink he wants in bed. Or it might be that one brother has hurt another and I’m angry beyond words. If I’m tired or overwhelmed on top of any of these things, it can be hard to respond as my best self. So remembering the simple word ‘compassion’ helps. It reminds me to see my children with softer eyes, and to look for the feelings behind their actions. It also reminds me to be gentle with myself.
Make quiet time part of the daily routine. Why is this so difficult on many days? I’m one who prioritizes simplicity and who values down time. And yet it can feel so elusive with three boys in tow! Even my best efforts for quietness are often thrwarted. The boys want to jump and wrestle. They want to play soccer and bike. They want to make physical contact with every object in the house. I can of course steer the energy towards quieter activities – but sometimes this is to no avail. So I model the quiet time myself. I commit to sitting on the couch and watching the birds at the bird feeder every day. I read a book and invite them to join. I practice saying no to the ceaseless activities – making sure that I’m noting that some stillness and quietness is good for me. Sometimes they join, other times they don’t. The key is for me to create this time and space.
After writing the post on Lessons from a Buddhist Preschool, I’ve been thinking about how the intention, flow and order of Rowan’s school days could also apply to a (my) personal spiritual practice. Last Fall his teachers handed out a sheet of paper with the words Principles of Practice at the top, Adopted from the Vidya School Aims as a sub-header (vidya meaning knowledge/clarity/brightness). I tucked the piece of paper in my calendar and keep shuffling into it while at work. Finally, I unfolded it and took a closer look. Yes, indeed. Principles of Practice at Rowan’s school can also be Principles of Practice for any of us wishing to imbue our lives with practice, both in how we parent as well as in the broader context of our lives. Below are excerpts from the list (in italics) and some musings to pair.
Genuine Relationships. It is beyond concept, technique, method or strategy. Action arises out of the spontaneous indeterminate living quality of people themselves.
Kindness. A constant recognition and reminder of Basic Goodness, the sudden cruelty of impulse does not solidify.
No Problem Children. There are children with very special needs, but the atmosphere of “problem” with its attendant fixations is not introduced.
Oh how I love this one. “The atmosphere of “problem” with its attendant fixations is not introduced.” What if we too lived like this? Rather than working to ‘fix’ something we can in stead be available to Grace, and offer our unwavering compassionate presence in the face of whatever is arising, without judgment (this applies to our own experience, too).
Habitual Vision of Greatness. A reference to quality, excellence, greatness and nobility infuses the environment and content of the curriculum.
Again, what if we lived each day like this? Substitute ‘work’ for curriculum. “A reference to quality, excellence, greatness and nobility infuses the environment and content of our work.” I’m reminded of what a teacher once said about caring for another human being:
“There is nothing more regal.” Can we integrate a habitual vision of greatness into the ‘ordinary’ moments of work and parenthood?
Cultivation of Inquisitiveness. Students are constantly challenged to inquiry, wonder, and freshness of mind.
This reminds me to be ever-awake and inquisitive, even in my adult form. Particularly with the ongoing structure of habits, routines and seemingly never-ending responsibilities, we can practice a freshness of mind…
Accommodation of Mistakes. Great value is placed on mistakes as the door to understanding.
How true, particularly with the learning curve of parenthood. Every time we meet our own limitations and see a different course of action than what we may have taken, we can use these moments as teaching moments. No guilt. No dwelling. Just honest acknowledgement of mistake and deepened commitment to integrity and patience moving forward…
Discipline of Body, Speech and Mind. Order, attention to detail, doing things thoroughly and fully in all activities – dress, eating, greetings, cleaning up, etc., are considered essential to the overall environment.
Can our homes and play spaces reflect this order too?
No Blame. By perceiving situations as they are without attaching blame, negativity becomes workable.
Not Afraid of Sharp Edges. All the negativity and intelligence of the child is acknowledged squarely and viewed as relevant.
Celebration. Take delight in the simple appreciation of each other and the world. Discipline and delight go hand in hand.
Basic Goodness is the Fundamental Reference Point. Because, in every situation, the reminder of Basic Goodness is available, trust in oneself and humor in the environment propel seemingly stuck situations forward.
Sacred World. Because the world is viewed as sacred, every object and person has its own dignity. Things have their own power, quality and place. This is the art of everyday life.
A recent community night at Rowan’s preschool (which was founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master and lineage holder), reminded me how lucky I am to send my son to a school honoring the tradition of Shambhala Buddhism (the teachings of which are grounded in the premise that there is a basic human wisdom inherent in human experience, where bravery and fearlessness are cultivated and a ‘basic goodness’ in ourselves and one another is celebrated).
Rowan’s first year classroom at age 2 was called the Tiger classroom, and he now resides in the Snow Lion classroom – Tiger and Snow Lion pointing to two of four “dignities” Trungpa Rinpoche used as metaphors for stages on the path toward realizing our inherent goodness. Each ‘dignity’ points to certain characteristics a practitioner develops in order to bring wisdom and compassion into daily life. It strikes me that I too can journey this path with my son: him mirroring the lessons of each ‘dignity,’ and me practicing from the parenthood perspective. It also strikes me that it is never too early to begin instilling the human qualities of discernment, discipline, compassion and wisdom – which the four dignities point to. As a parent I want to impart these qualities to my children, and I know I can’t do it alone. Hence the need for models of education which attend to the whole person and which include practices aimed at cultivating a compassionate, thoughtful society. Within the Buddhist teachings of the Four Dignities I find a blueprint for living which can weave through my days and inform my outlook like silk resting in colorful dye.
The first dignity, the Tiger, points to contentment and discernment. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (the current head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage) says “As we slow down and consider our thoughts, words, and actions with the question, “Will this bring happiness or pain?”, we become like tigers who carefully observe the landscape before pouncing. In looking at what to cultivate and what to discard, we are remembering our precious human life and deciding to use it well…” How often with our toddlers have we spoken of not hurting others’ feelings, being gentle, learning mindfulness of our bodies in space? If we can tie our constant feedback loops with our children to what causes happiness or pain (both for ourselves and others) perhaps we can begin to encourage the slow and steady cultivation of discernment and mindfulness of speech and action. We can encourage reflection, a slowing down, time for consideration. Beyond just ‘impulse control’ lies also the potential of cultivating a foundation of compassion, reflectiveness and empathy.
I’m now walking in the realm of the second dignity, the Snow Lion, with my son. He’s graduated from the Tiger Room (as it is called) and is one of 23 ‘snow lions.’ As a teacher wrote in a recent newsletter, “The Snow Lion is vibrant, energetic and youthful and delights in the sensory experiences of life. Trungpa Rinpoche uses the term “perky” to describe the Snow Lion’s joyful and artful synchronization of body and mind and the upliftedness of not being caught in the trap of doubt…” As parenting makes me often feel older and more brittle, here is an invitation to remember to also be perky, and to delight in the sensory experience of life (remember how enamored our young ones are when making so many first discoveries? Snow! Rain! Puddles! Tastes! Grass! Sand!). Routine, habit and responsibility can blind me at times from remembering the fresh, perky potential of each day. The Snow Lion is ultimately joyful, and joy arises from discipline. The snow lions thrive in routine (and we adults too can thrive in the structure of an intentional practice). The flow of each day is marked by intentional routine and ceremony; So too can I bring this sense of magic woven with order into my home. So too can I deepen in my commitment to discipline, spiritual and beyond. Sakyong Rinpoche says,”Using discipline to generate compassion, we leap beyond the fickleness of mood into the confidence of delight in helping others. The discernment of the tiger and the discipline of the lion take us toward the outrageousness of the garuda, a mythical bird with human arms that is hatched from space, ready to fly. What makes the garuda outrageous? No longer attached to the view of “me,” it has 360-degree perspective, a fresh mind that continually cuts through concept. This mind accommodates everything with the confidence of equanimity, an unbiased view that comes from having contemplated the landscape of life: the reality of impermanence and suffering.”
Rowan will graduate to become a Garuda next year – and the invitation to me is to accompany him on this fresh journey of education that he has undertaken. How outrageously joyful can I be in bouncing my 6 month old to sleep? How can I make a routine (well-known) trip to the playground an act of joy? How can I frame my happiness and contentment even further through the lens of compassion towards others, including my children (who seem to present the greatest opportunity for selflessness and extension of oneself often beyond what feels possible or tolerable)? How can I deepen in meaningful discipline? How can I continually reach beyond the fickleness of mood to live from a deeper place?
Then: my son and I will jump into the vast realm of the the fourth dignity, the Dragon: no longer a preschool classroom name with accompanying lessons imparted, but the vast territory of life beyond these first foundational steps of a basic, human education. The dragon knows more of how things are and thus possesses a deeper wisdom. Perhaps the dragon is not beyond but actually within and beneath: the ground of wisdom from which we can daily spring into action – 6am running of feet into bedroom, dawn barely peeking its purple face above the horizon. A deep breath and we are off and running. A deep breath and we are out of the dream and into the unstoppable flow of a day…
“The dragon knows we’re always trying to project a concrete world onto a fluid process, mistaking our ever-changing experience for a self. Like the elements, this kind of wisdom doesn’t need to be propped up. It is a direct experience of reality, empty and ungraspable.
As the wisdom of the dragon destroys our illusions, we begin to understand basic goodness, the unconditional purity and confidence of all. With this view, life itself becomes our source of energy, and the enlightened world begins to appear. The wish-fulfilling jewel of wisdom and compassion are liberated, and we can play in the blessing and magic of our everyday existence.”