Beginner’s Mind

“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.” – excerpted from Nithyananda Mission’s website

Beginner’s mind suddenly struck me as the perfect practice solution to the troubles arising in my household: a constantly repeating and exhausting cycle of Rowan feeling jealous (his words), Rowan causing mischief with his little brother, his brother getting sad (usually crying), and me (mother) getting utterly frustrated and exasperated to the point of snapping. The cycle continues over and over again. I try patience. I try speaking kindly. I ask over and over again for a change of choice and behavior, and yet – here we go again. And again. And again.

The mantra “Connect, even when infuriated” surfaces over and over again in my awareness. Connect. Even when infuriated. And yes, I do get infuriated. Tripping, flinging any known object to man in his brother’s face, a vice grip to his brother’s neck or shoulders, an “accidental” body slam while pretending to fight dragons… Day in and day out I am constantly saying No. Please don’t. What are you doing? I resort to sending him away for time outs (usually unsuccessfully). I even resort to taking time outs for myself to get away from the madness. (Rowan won’t take space for himself in his room? Fine. I’ll lock myself in the bathroom then and count to ten). In my worn down state I know that none of this is working. Pushing my son away is not what I want to do. Connect. Even when infuriated. I recommit to keeping him close and not sending him away, even for 10 seconds. I amp up the positive reinforcement. I commit to “no more firm talking” (as the continuation of the above mentioned cycle is Rowan then moving from mischief and jealousy to his own aching heart of sadness and hurt feelings. “Can I just sit on your lap, mama? Don’t talk firmly to me. It hurts my feelings!”) How hard it is to stay close to love when I am angry, tired and worn down! The authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys say that “violence is the product of an exhausted mind” – and this rings truer than ever. I’m perennially exhausted so my fuse is shortened. I’ve over time come to expect ‘negative’ antics from Rowan towards Braeden. My responses have become painfully stale and ineffective. We’re stuck. I’m stuck. So what to do? What to do…

And then it strikes me one day: Beginner’s Mind! Like a dog barking from the bottom of a very distant well, I hear a crackle of inspiration. What if each day I commit to looking into the moments of angst from a fresh perspective? What if I choose an orientation of inquiry? What if I ask questions? What if I dig deeper into the emotions and actions of the moment? I can choose to be curious. I can practice letting go of any storyline that I’ve created about my children’s behavior. Even though I’ve just been here in this mess of redirection and bubbling familial conflict five minutes ago, what fresh response can I bring now? And now? And now?

Since we’re practicing Beginner’s Mind, let’s encounter this again as if for the first time: “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.”

So how can I be free of this cycle of suffering? Set aside preconceptions when approaching anything. The space where the mind does not know what to do is actually something to celebrate. Rather than scramble for an ‘appropriate’ or ‘effective’ response to any potentially harm-inducing action arising in my household, I can slow down and consider not knowing what to do, then start fresh from that place. I can practice seeing my oldest with new eyes, over and over again. I can accept what is, loosening my own vice grip on my desire for change. I can throw strategy out the window and be spontaneous with my responses. Rather than resist and succumb to our literal wit’s end, we can choose fresh availability to the present moment as if we’ve never experienced anything like it before. Because, truly, we haven’t!

The Four Dignities: Lessons from a Buddhist Preschool

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.”

-Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Conscious Discipline and Planting a Compass of Love…

I wrote a few months ago on Discipline as an Act of Love and continue to muse about loving ways to share life lessons with a two-year old (and beyond). I came back to Adi Da’s book on conscious parenting, Look at the Sunlight on the Water, and wanted to share excerpts from some of his teachings.

  • Conscious discipline has to be grounded in a meaningful practice. There has to be a consistent ground to which we can return, and from which we can draw, in moments when redirection is required. A deep breath, a reconnection with intention, a slowing down of words as I speak…This is when I feel most content with moments of discipline and redirection.
  • Discipline can be an expression of bodily happiness instead of the more typical expressions of annoyance, frustration, anger, impatience. Instead of creating the conditions for shame and guilt and a sense of pervasive ‘wrongness,’ we can attract our children to behave with love and kindness as the root when we embody it ourselves (even when we are horrified that our child just pulled another child’s hair out!)
  • We don’t have to bind energy and attention around a behavior as a ‘problem.’ Instead, it just is as it is – and we can focus more on how this moment of redirection is an opportunity for growth.
  • Discipline can be a “bodily demonstration of forceful love.” This takes practice. How can we be swift, direct, clear and firm, while also embodying the vast force of love? Instead of anger rooted in resistance, how can we embody patience rooted in acceptance, while also being firm and direct enough to be heard?
  • We can make a positive calling for higher wisdom and maturity. Rather than moralizing or a ‘verbal attack,’ how can we make our moments of discipline an expression of a loving demand for greater presence? Without suggesting our children should be ‘more’ or different – how can we call them towards embodying kindness and patience? I ask the question because I am walking into the answer. Sometimes I find the mark. Sometimes I miss it miserably. This is part of my practice. Hold the intention and let what comes, come.
  • Our actions and our words can establish our children in a condition of equanimity.This means we also have to establish ourselves in an ongoing condition of equanimity.
  • Express a profound commitment to staying in relationship. Rather than push away or isolate, stay in relationship with one another just as you stay in relationship with what is. Talk it through. Slow down. Take time to step away together and have a teaching moment. A ‘time out’ can still be time with a parent at the side: time for reflection, talking over what happened, taking a step back to reflect on how we want to act moving forward. Before re-entering a situation there can be support, love, the re-assurance of not being alone, while also having taken time to go over what is expected in order to continue.

If the flow of our homes and relationships can be rooted in equanimity, then the ground of kindness can flourish. From equanimity grows the ability to truly serve others and feel outwards beyond oneself. For me, this is the aim of ‘discipline:’ the condition for a life of service and contentment, where one chooses what one does not because it is the status quo and not because “I told you so” – but because the thoughtful seeds of an inner and abiding compass rooted in love have been planted.



Discipline is an Act of Love

And now:  Discipline.  And I mean it not in the way it is traditionally understood. (Don’t most of you cringe a bit at the word?  Isn’t it often associated with the uncomfortable space of trying to set boundaries, enforce limits, find a hardline?  Does anyone else have memories of teachers holding up the wooden paddle in threat?).

It feels like a huge bite to chew on, but something I have to wrestle with as my son becomes his own personality: freer and freer into his own responses and preferences.  I ask myself over and over again, how can I parent in a way that creates the conditions for equanimity, balance and service to others and one’s environment?  How to transmit and translate all my personal musings and practice into tangible parenting strategy? How to foster sensitivity rather than hyperactivity?  And even more so, how to invite children into a realm of mystery, reverence and self-transcendence?

Enter Structure.  Enter Discipline.  Enter Love.

The word discipline comes from the Latin disciplina, meaning “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge.” When I engage discipline in this way, I can feel into the possibility of daily disciplines pointing towards greater teachings I’d like to impart. Beyond the ‘hardline’ and the ‘boundary,’ is there not a realm of discipline that draws on the great wisdom traditions?  Calls forth our most realized understandings of relationship and love?  I keep searching for the inspiring examples while out with Rowan: the patient, present parents holding space for challenge and growth while still speaking from a place of love and respect (and I do see you!) – but am often confused when faced with the somewhat prevalent examples of yelling and shaming.

I begin to muse on how to create the ground for discipline (learning, knowledge) to flourish:  a sacred order in the midst of the ebbs and flows of modern American life, beginning with ‘quiet time’ each morning as an opportunity to model a practice space and self-regulation -inviting Rowan to join.  We also invite Rowan to join in every possible ‘work’ opportunity – giving him full participation and responsibility in the work of the household so that he will hopefully feel part of a greater flow of meaningful and purposeful work: his part in the realm of serving life through the details of food, washing, sweeping…

So first there is the discipline and order of each day, which ideally moves a child beyond only solitary play with objects and the often unbridled vital expression of energy, into a flow of order and responsibility which creates the structure for sensitivity, equanimity and service.  And then there is the discipline of responding to actions that go against the qualities of kindness and balance.  All of this is coming to a head as my son nears age 2 – and when “NO” is becoming his favorite word.

Enter spiritual realizer Adi Da’s book, Discipline is an Act of Love.  He points me towards the needed ground of discipline and structure in order to manifest the seeds of right relationship between a child and family and then community.  He speaks to the art of true discipline lying in the ability to move a child into “right adaptation to the law of life – which is to be in relationship to all beings and experiences that arise rather than in reaction to them.”  He writes, “If we want to communicate the secret (which is embodying a heart converted to Love) to children and free them from emotional dissociation, we have to communicate the mood of God-communion via our own body-minds…We also have to transcend our own reactions to what a child is doing or not doing, our feeling of anxiety or frustration… We have to bring great life energy to the child and help them to return to a loving, happy mood by releasing negative feelings and being restored to the happiness of his or her inherent connection to Mystery…”

Therefore the basic task of true discipline is to help children return to the understanding (and bodily knowledge) that “they are loved and that they are also obliged to be Love.”  When I live my days of parenting with this discipline lens, I am working to create the condition for Rowan to feel full-bodily his relationship to myself and others – and then beyond his family towards community and the natural world.  And the necessary platform from which to dive is intimacy and love.

Adi Da reminds me that the primary thing children are reacting to through so-called negative behavior is the absence of intimacy.  As a society we tend to focus on the action and not the suffering behind the action; With this lens of looking beyond the action to what the feeling behind the action is, I can step back, consider causes, and check in with my reactions before responding (at least this is what I am practicing!).  I am reminded that I must continually deal  with the primary emotion of relatedness (or Love), and foster that sensitivity, “rather than deal problematically with secondary reactive emotions.”  Let me say this again:  rather than discipline being about strict redirecting, anger or frustration fed forceful speaking of constant “NO” – discipline can be about creating the conditions for happiness and balance through constant connectivity and fostered intimacy with my child.  Every gesture of the day is an opportunity to maintain or deepen this connection; And every blip in the flow is a chance for me to assess whether the connection has been broken and to come back into relationship first before acting from a place of reactivity in moments of challenge.

“You can’t teach anything without Love, and without being happy with them,” says Adi Da.  What a simple mantra I can return to.  When offering ‘discipline’ – or a deep form of teaching on what is ultimately most important in life and conduct – am I coming from a place of love?  Am I feeling the deep threads of relationship here?  Am I taking a deep breath before flying off the coop with irritation at the thrown egg whites for the fifth time this week?

Until I embody equanimity how can I expect my child to rest in life with equanimity? Children respond to our disposition and embodiment perhaps more than our words (particularly young children).  If we want to teach anything, perhaps we must first be in love with our children (yes, in the very moment of pinnacle frustration) and feel into our own happiness – and ask ourselves if there is anything we are doing that isn’t serving our child when they are out of balance.

This perspective serves me in profound ways.  Rather than creating a separation between Rowan and myself in moments when ‘discipline’ is required – when the most meaningful teachings are demanded of me – I can soften, as is always an invitation, and respond with Love.  I can reconnect.  I can model what a true gesture of service really is:  that which calls forth the best in others even when it challenges.  I can move both of us towards a space of mutual growth – while staying in relationship with not only Rowan, but with everything that is – exactly as it is:  not reacting but instead responding to the true callings of discipline.