Wrestling With Shadows

I once told expectant parents that having a child is akin to carrying a constant mirror that shows you both the depths of your infinite love as well as the darkness of where your heart stops itself in closure. Parenthood continues to humble me in unexpected ways. As with any mirror, we can choose to look or not look, and today, I’m struggling to look.

Spiritual masters across time have said that equanimity is a true mark of maturity; How humbling to have equanimity tousled like a fierce wind blowing up leaves I didn’t even know were there. Sometimes parenting stirs up new winds that I can tame, and other times I’m blown to the brink of utter exasperation: where the shadow within the mirror image is far from graceful, calm or centered. How quickly the tides can change when negotiating with a two and a half-year old. These past few weeks of travel and breaks in routine have found my son and I in two such moments where I have in a flash been forced to wrestle with the shadows of impatience and frustration; the shadow of shallow breath and raised voice and the shadow of not-knowing how to curb the fire of a 2-year-old tantrum and most importantly, my own response. I can feel myself doing the dance of mindfulness: trying to slow down, reach out, make eye contact, speak patiently and lovingly…And, I see myself teeter to my edge where I too loose my shit and want to freak out in an attempt to stop the madness. (Let me give you a snapshot. Parents of toddlers, I know this will sound all too familiar: At Whole Foods, blow out diaper needs changing, a struggle towards the bathroom stall with kicking limbs, my 5 month pregnant body struggling not to drop his flailing 25 pound frame on the ground, poop everywhere and my son is trying to hit me in the face because he WANTS to sit in his poop and he wants to leave poop all over his clothes and how dare mama try to change his diaper. Screaming, pushing, a full-blown tantum on the floor of the bathroom stall with poop smeared everywhere from the struggle and SNAP: I have to force the kid to be still so I can clean him and SNAP I yell at him to STOP! I’ve fallen into the pit of mutual misery where we are both flailing to maintain “control.” Each in our different ways, of course). Another morning, same thread: awakened at 5:45am by cranky son insisting its time to get up. Tired mama rises while sick papa needs to stay in bed. Time to change shirts and BAM: full on fit because he doesn’ want to take it off…I’m again taken to the place where I want out. I want to fight the moment too because I’ve reached my limit of tolerance. Its the place in me that doesn’t want to deal with what is arising and rather wants to turn away and go back to bed. I’ve had it. I’m done. I’ve lost composure and I am angry at everything for the situation at hand. Instead of holding the line of compassion and sanity (or choosing to let it go and return to the shirt change later!), I’m headed off the deep end as I wrestle the shirt off my son’s body.

This is the painful window into a facet of parenthood too often reserved for the shadows. We don’t talk often enough of the moments when we are faced with our own raw edges and our ability to respond with equanimity is taxed to the brink. For me, the moment is the most painful sort; To respond with mutual tantrum is to succumb to the winds of impatience. It is a moment of profound resistance. It is a complex moment of trying to find the loving masculine force of holding a firm and necessary boundary, but doing it with strongly expressed loving force. It is a moment of artfulness if it can be mastered. A moment of grace and mutual learning and connection – if only we as parents can hold the line of boundary steeped in infinite loving presence free of the need to “react” in our own immature ways.

Spiritual masters also point to the impulse to grow as a mark of maturity. If we can stay with the mirror that our own children offer us, we can continue to grow. We can respond differently next time. We can return to the moment and talk it over with our children. We too can say “I’m sorry” and “I was sad and frustrated, just like you.” In this way we can embody and demonstrate personal responsibility for our actions and admit when we too “weren’t being nice.”

Because the infinite love for my child is also a constant mirror, so then too is the pain of not living as fully in the light of that love as I am capable. Pain is magnified, as is the impulse to grown and be a fuller embodiment of how much I love my son. Herein is one of the most marvelous conundrums: if we can sit with the raw pain of letting ourselves and our children down, we can also grow. We can connect with the vast heart impulse that our children beckon more alive in us, and practice growing ever more into that impulse. The mirror simply shows us where that impulse shops short of its potential infinity.

It’s no wonder one of my most difficult moments with Rowan was in a bathroom stall with shit flying everywhere. What a gift to deal with so much shit! Never again will so much literal shit be in my face than this period of motherhood. We can face it and deal with it and stay connected with our impulse to grow, or we can shut down and turn our backs and glide past the rough spots with randomness…(and a million responses in between! Not to mention the baggage many carry from our own childhoods; All of the sudden so much is at a head and so much is at stake…)

Like putting money in a piggy bank, so too we are tasked with doing our own inner work and taking time for ourselves. In this case, I needed to take time to feel my own grief and sadness about my own limitations. I needed to face the parts of myself that get ‘fed up’ to the point of cracking into my own tirade where the inner dialogue gets stuck in “I’m so sick of this! Get me out of here! Are you kidding me? Is this really happening??” I needed to attend to my own emotions and regret so I can re-enter the sacred ongoing bond with my child knowing I’ve done the work required of me in order to show up as present and as clear as possible…Most importantly, I needed to bring the wrestling with my own shadows to light. In this ways, just as the sun returns to its brighter and longer revealed status this time of year, I can also bring more of my experience into the light of loving truth and acceptance.

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A Feeling, Breathing Relationship to Mystery

As many of you know, I recently participated in a book group exploring themes of ‘conscious parenting.’  What, you might ask, does this mean?  There are so many solutions.  So many methods.  So many paths.  So many books on the subject.  A baseline from which to start: “Children must learn to live from a spiritual point of view…They must learn how to live ecstatically in the feeling of God (Divine Reality).  Children should enjoy a feeling, breathing relationship with the Mystery.” – Adi Da

Below are several insights on my continual path of translating spiritual practice and intention into parenting a toddler. For me, conscious transcends ‘mindful,’ ‘thoughtful,’and ‘well-educated,’ into the realm of questioning how I can raise a being who is attuned to subtlety, interested in spiritual growth, not bound by the ceaseless churnings of ego – and ultimately interested in living a life of service rooted in the experience of love.

As parents we have the opportunity to help cultivate this capacity for a direct feeling-intuition of the Divine Reality under all circumstances.  Whether you believe in a “God” or not, this is not the point.  The point is to raise children who will become happy, sensitive, responsible, sane and caring adults.  The point is to raise children who will not be addicted to suffering and selfishness, instead attracted to embody qualities of integrity and Grace.

The nuggets below were inspired by Adi Da’s books and serve as small portals for me in making daily parenting decisions.

  • Develop a Feeling Sensitivity.  How can I encourage Rowan to feel, full bodily, into his experience?  How can I encourage him to use all of his senses?  How can I bring him into a profound, felt relationship with his surroundings in the midst of so much cultural and literal noise?  How can I encourage a feeling-based experience of reality versus a material based experience?  In nature, we can use all of our senses.  We can touch, smell, listen.  We can talk about emotional states and the subtle nuances of rain, air, clouds, colors, distant sounds.  At 3am when he is awake and doesn’t want to sleep, we can sit quietly on the porch and register together the different texture of night compared to day.  We can say hello to the birds.
  • Develop A Sense of Self that is Greater than the Physical.  How can I help Rowan become responsible for his energy state or emotional state?  How can I teach him self-awareness and also attunement to others?  He is naturally sensitive to a baby’s cries – how can I encourage that sensitivity rather than distracting him from his discomfort?   Early on we often teach our children to look the other way, rather than sitting with them in understanding pain.  When we notice sensitivity, we can create teaching moments.  We can become more sensitive ourselves.
  • Foster Human Intimacy, Intimacy With Nature and Intimacy with Mystery.  Let these priorities serve as ballasts.  Prioritize relating to people and the natural world more so than relating to objects (toys).  Stay in relationship, always.  When reactivity or anxiety emerges, check in on the intimacy thread.  Make meaningful eye contact over and over again…Widen experience to include other species, and eventually a greater mystery of Life.  How can reverence and a sense of the Sacred imbue everything?
  • Learn to Relax Deeply.  We live in a world where nervous systems are taxed and the stressfully vital is revered as ‘normal.’  How can I teach Rowan to self-regulate amidst constant invitations to spin out into a type of cultural mania?  We can take deep breaths together.  We can slow down.  We can slow down again.
  • Feel Your Body!  We start the day saying hello to the body from head to toes.  I massage him.  When he is frantic, I remind him of his feet and belly.  When he is upset, I remind him to breathe.

We can begin by establishing and maintaining a sense of calmness, equanimity and sensitivity.  And, most importantly, we must continually ask ourselves whether we are embodying the lessons we wish to impart.  What does our state convey (more than our words)?  What parents can transcend creates space for children too to transcend.

Equanimity Failing into New Ground of Balance

This weekend I read that “equanimity is the true mark of spiritual maturity.”  What an irony that here I am:  mother, practitioner, “adult” – and losing equanimity more often than I ever have since Rowan was born.  I know what it is about:  finding  and encountering the unpracticed, undiscovered territories in myself that don’t yet possess strength in the face of challenge.  In this way, Rowan – and motherhood –  continue to be my greatest life teachers, offering me opportunities day in and day out to exercise my spiritual faculties and emotional reserves in a way I’d never imagined.

I thought I’d mastered patience and equanimity.  I thought I had an unshakable penchant for showing up in any given moment ready to respond with understanding and compassion (what a joke!).  I thought I’d burned up life’s imbalances through self-awareness, study and dedication to practice.  And then I dove off a cliff into parenting and lost my traditional reserves.  I gave birth and literally lost my shit.

Just yesterday at a book group focused on conscious parenting someone spoke on how when they are well rested and prioritizing self-care the intuition is intact, patience is intact, love impulse is intact… I smiled to myself remembering the luxury of self-resourcing through a steady life pace: sleep, exercise, spiritual practice, connecting with others, the joy of uninterrupted creative process or even an uninterrupted conversation… It struck me that my intuition, patience and love impulse are not as intact as they used to be when I could self-regulate on my own terms prior to motherhood.   All of the sudden I find myself in an unchartered groundless space:  grasping for sanity and centeredness when I need it more than ever, facing the challenges of mothering a toddler in a culture that could use more cooperative community support.  Just when you need balance and equanimity and those resources of self-care the most, it seems they are taken, gone, seemingly unavailable – just like the genie disappearing back into a bottle….

Don’t misunderstand:  I am a victim of nothing.  I simply acknowledge that it is far harder to live in a ‘balanced’ way – where equanimity reigns – now that sleep evades me along with time for ‘practice’ and ‘self-care’ in any predictable or reliable way.  As parents, the baseline of physical well-being through rest, community support and overall sense of health and vitality isn’t a given any longer, and yet the demand to function and show up at our best doesn’t relent.  In fact, it is only amplified.  This is all true.  And, at the deepest level, it doesn’t matter.  This isn’t to say it doesn’t hurt like hell to be swimming this path that is full of physical and emotional challenges when under-resourced;  I am simply clarifying that there are no excuses as to why we can’t still show up at our best.

The calling is one of profound responsibility to serve our children and others through finding a new ground and baseline of balanced surrender into what is.  As parents intending to live the parenting journey as sacred practice and mindful art, it is absolutely our responsibility to find new ways of self-care and self-resourcing even when the conditions are less than ‘ideal’ from a conventional perspective.

When the bottom falls out a new opportunity is presented.  Instead of engaging life from a place of struggle, we can choose to respond in a relaxed way with a non-problematic disposition.  (“What, it isn’t normal to be up eight times a night?” “Oh, you mean waking up to my son’s puke all over me isn’t pleasant?”…”No Big Deal” as Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron often says…)  This capacity to respond in a relaxed, non-problematic way blurs into my relations with Rowan (at least I want it to).  Instead of emotionally responding to difficult moments from a place of exhausted reactivity (which happens more often than I care to admit) I can chill out with a deep breath and answer the tug at shirt or throw of egg across the room with a relaxed, non-problematic disposition (after all, young children respond to our state so much more than our words).  I can remember my mantra of ‘nourished surrender’ – meaning that the surrender into my exhaustion or frustration or feeling unsupported can of itself be nourishing;  Just the gesture of sinking into what is arising in the present moment without resistance and without pining for something that was or could be is a way to care for ourselves.  It often requires a reorientation of how one engages the present moment:  a re-framing of what nourishment is or can be in our lives, and a dedication to relax more and crave ‘other’ less.  It doesn’t mean we thwart paying close attention to what we are needing/drawn to/attracted to in our lives.  It doesn’t mean we stop asking for help or moving in new directions to create more sane situations… It just means we are committed to a relaxed surrender to what is arising, even while we move gently towards what we need for support and sanity.  For me, the relaxed surrender points the way towards the elusive realm of equanimity:  that mark of spiritual maturity.

The ground shifting beneath our feet can usher forth the discovery of manifestations of Grace not previously understood.  There is a way to find a resourcefulness that is less dependent on the realm of physical nourishment or ‘comfort’ – and more rooted in subtler realms of feeling.  Smaller gestures of self-care like a cup of tea or a brief hot shower can become more poignant.  It is essential to uncover new ways of engaging each present moment in its unexpected challenges, working with not turning away and not delving into the internal dialogues of “if only this”…”if only that” (“if only I could sleep more, then I’d be saner,”  “if only he napped longer I could finish this journal entry and get back to a more centered place”  “if only I had time to do that downward dog right now without him pulling my hair…” – you get the picture).  At each juncture we can choose not to turn away from the present moment into a fantasy of what could be ‘better’ or easier.  We can instead choose a ‘no excuses’ orientation in terms of a personal responsibility to engage bliss and love in each moment of arising –  hair pulling, moments of contraction, equanimity failing – and all.