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.

Inadequacy and Love: and Why We Have to do Our Own Inner Work

I had the great honor of attending my brother’s -Zen Master in making, embodied practitioner and gifted teacher Rob McNamara’s -workshop on the “Gate of Inadequacy” over the weekend.  With my mother at my side, we unpacked multi-generational patterns of self-esteem (or lack thereof) and marveled at the power of intention to parent in different ways than we were parented.  We unpacked the potential wounding that a parent’s words can inflict – and sighed deep sighs of relief that neither of us lives in the realm of inadequacy today (even though my mother’s path to healing took some 33 years).

As parents we can often feel inadequate, not enough, lacking, incomplete.  And sometimes perhaps we are.  The most important work we can do for ourselves and our children is to do our own inner work:  delving inwards to feel into our own life story, programming and patterning, and come to peace with all parts of ourselves – even the wounded, embittered, lacking in confidence, angry, shut down, dissociated…all the parts that may translate into less patience or more sharpness.  Those are the very realms of our experiences that most need integrating and tending in the spirit of breaking generational cycles of patterning that don’t serve our greatest capacity to embody openness and love.

Love is the great equalizer.  Through love (and not thinking about it but feeling it, living it, breathing it) – all things can transform.  In my own experience the practice and gesture of being in love with life not only brings me more fully into living my days, but also dissolves over time the sharper edges of my being.

As mothers we are powerful beyond measure – which is all the more reason to burn through obscurities in the spirit of walking the path of parenthood with as much clarity and clear energy as possible.  We can choose to embark on the path of purification that is central to so many religious paths in order to best serve our children (and everyone around us), who we influence so greatly.  For me, this has entailed a profound unearthing over the years of all parts of myself.  It has entailed dancing with perfectionism, which at times was self-destructive, yet which ultimately gives rise to my ceaseless intention to embody ever-widening love and grace.  With delving, I came to understand that perfectionism was (and is) my way of trying to pay homage to the Divine nature of life and being alive.

Plumbing my depths also led me to the vast restfulness possible in directing my loving regard internally to all parts of myself (yes, even those I may label “inadequate” or “imperfect”). Through a simultaneous shedding of light on my entire experience coupled with the force of love (and ultimately being in love and falling in love with my experience of life) – I find myself able to walk further into an uninterrupted flow of love and light.  This means taking the time to, through practice, shed light over and over again on the mysteries of body, soul, personality and habit that make up my particular human form.  It means staying with what is difficult.  It means not turning away from anything – and not trying to suppress or ignore the more complex and uncomfortable parts of self and experience.  All of the sudden I can live more fully in a realm of being that is absolutely okay with what Is, while also recognizing again and again an inherent dimension of incompleteness and ‘inadequacy’ that only propels me further into how I most want to live and give.

The ongoing effort at crux:  We can intentionally choose to follow a path of inner work and personal refinement that ultimately transforms our own particular sharp edges, shadows and blind spots.  Through continual willingness to face ourselves and our experience fully and squarely without discrimination or judgement, and willingness to commit ourselves to not turning away from what is uncomfortable or less than desirable in our experience, we can, through applying a loving regard within and without – become more fully seated in an experience of Love.  This means just being in Love!  With our children, our partners, the leaves on trees, the texture of color of sky and Earth, the changing seasons, our parents, the ground we walk on, and yes – even the more shadowy dimensions of our souls.