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!

Living Into the Answers

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves… Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” -Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903

This passage always struck me. A few years ago a woman asked me about how I maintain spiritual practice since having a baby. I answered her, to my dismay, that parenthood had ushered me into a realm where that question was less relevant. It didn’t matter anymore how much I was outwardly expressing a yoga practice or meditation practice or any practice for that matter. Instead, parenthood was akin to living the answers, giving me the opportunity I needed to live the practice, daily, moment to moment. Of course life itself always presents this opportunity, but parenthood crystallized this revelation. Just as Rilke suggested, I hadn’t realized that it was happening. 10 years ago I was preoccupied with finding a path and acquiring knowledge and learning as if they were commodities. I was searching. Wandering. Traveling. Reading a lot of non-fiction. Going to yoga classes three times a week, spending time on retreats and meeting with a meditation instructor. I was vegetarian, an avid hiker, trying to forgive myself for past mistakes, and altogether incredibly preoccupied with personal growth and transformation. I call it the “spiritually eager” phase. Perhaps I was trying to “get somewhere” other than where I already was.

The New Year prompted me to reflect on how things have changed over the past decade (a psychologist on NPR suggested this is a better measure of tracking change in your life rather than focusing on a new year’s resolution or looking at your life in the context of only one year passing). I made lists of then versus now. At first I was overcome with nostalgia. Wasn’t I a more well-rounded person in my past? Wasn’t I more disciplined? Active? Conscientious? Connected to nature? Wasn’t this current parenthood phase less outwardly manifesting a spiritual practice or ‘study?’ Wasn’t I cooped up inside too much? And then it struck me again: no, wait. Since crossing the threshold into motherhood and embarking on the journey of home and family-making, I’m actually living into the answers of all I’d been asking throughout my life leading up to this moment. Here I am. There is nowhere else to go, no one else to be but myself. And, more importantly, there is no time to worry about it. (What a profound gift!)

As parents aiming to embody values and intention, we can often forget that parenting actually becomes a perfect place where one’s practice can unfold. The canvas of life is unrolled and family relationships become a means through which we live into the answers of life’s questions, searches and invitations. Family life is a culmination like no other: the fruit of practice comes to bear. Patience is tested. Limits are met. With fewer ‘breaks’ and less time for musing and contemplation in the conventional sense, all of the sudden we are thrown head first into a crash course in how to live out the intricacies of one’s values and intentions amidst what is often riddled with great complexity and intensity.

With less leisure and less license to live my days how I want to (for ME), I’ve entered another realm which requires me to be united with something beyond myself. What I do I do for Other. My reserves are continually tested. More time is spent functionally, too. All of the sudden living into the ‘answers’ means moving functionally with joy and intention (even when I may not like the task at hand) and maintaining an inward, centered, present focus even when attention and energy is perennially called outward. The trick is to not separate daily life and family life from practice. How often do we fall into the dualistic thinking of “if only I could exercise more, then…” or “if only I could meditate/pray/practice more, then…” Living into the answers means living seamlessly and without discrimination between tasks;  This is all practice. This is all a culmination: how we show up with others (especially our children and spouses) when we are exhausted and at our limit, how we find a way to get what needs to be done done even when we are at the end of our rope, how we find compassion for our children even when they are driving us to the edge, how we pull dinner off, how we make up our 100th story at bedtime, even when our eyes are closing.

All of the sudden we are living into the great endurance test of Love. What carries us? Mystery. What carries us? Love. No more questions, no more looking. Just here: living, breathing, loving, caring. Just here: feeling the miracle of life while watching our children fall asleep…

The Gift of Waiting

Written May 23rd, the day before my son’s birth.

Waiting. Still waiting. Almost 42 weeks pregnant and still waiting. The days tick by and I try to wait as if it’s “No Big Deal.” I recite mantras like “This is all normal. Waiting isn’t a problem. Baby is fine. Women the world over go “overdue” and there’s nothing to worry about.” Birth is life and it happens in millions of ways every day: so what’s the hang up? Why all the angst and impatience and anxiety? What’s the big deal?

A friend wrote to me that “Birth is everywhere, it is like breath…” and I begin to settle in to the lessons being served up in these late stage moments of pregnancy. I even have time to look up the etymology of the word pregnant and find it fascinating that before pregnant meant ‘with child’ it actually meant something akin to “full of meaning” (c. 1400). With this in mind I feel the “Big Deal” aspect of this journey, being blown over by how taken to my edges this process of gestation allows and invites. Simultaneously full of meaning and also so normal, pregnancy and birth is as integrated to life as breath is. Yet just when I thought I’d crossed into the realm of the Stoic, Patient Waiter, new layers of complaint emerge. My feet! My back! But But But… Really? Another day of this exhaustion? Just when I think I can’t handle one more day, five more days pass. It is a continual re-frame of what feels possible to withhold.

And then: A call from a friend who just gave birth reminds me to savor the experience. She shares her unexpected grief at the letting go of this phase and encourages me to “Cherish this.” “Savor this.” “Remember this.” – and I’m thinking “are you kidding?” But the deeper layer is “Of course!” While its true I feel done, over-cooked, hot, big, ready to move through an impending transition, ready for a great release, I also feel the lesson of savoring and cherishing what just IS. I have the rest of my life to be not pregnant. I’m reminded of slowing down, appreciating the phase of life I’m in, and remembering the great truth of impermanence. So why not enjoy what’s being served up?

Nonetheless, I still feel ready to be on the other side. I feel the futility of all my efforts to speed up a process beyond my control. Here I enter into my resistance to the unknown. I’m ushered into the mystery of this process, as well as my desire to probe and know. I feel the ever-present themes of invitation to surrender, let go of control, trust… An invitation to practice gratitude for the gifts embedded in liminal spaces, the gift of waiting for something and the vast spaces opened up if you can stay with the waiting without freaking out (which I have done, by the way – freaking out, that is).

Just when I think my practice in waiting is only about cultivating patience, deepening in my capacity to trust, staying rooted in the present moment (and waiting on the biology of labor to kick in), the final days usher me into a realm where I know I’m being worked on in mysterious ways. Things begin to look different. Time slows down. It strikes me that readiness for birth isn’t confined to having the diapers stacked and the baby clothes washed. Instead, this baby offers us a gift in the wait. The dust is kicked up. Routines are disrupted. There are new things to consider. Perhaps baby knows there is yet work to be done, and not the nesting kind – but rather the existential kind. All of the sudden my partner and I are made aware of old cobwebs that need to be cleared, and this week of eternity transforms into a daily unfolding of revelations about self and past. New limits are revealed. Buried memories resurface. Birth stories are told and re-told. Our own family experiences are closer in our awareness and we consider our own experiences of being first-born and second born. We feel ourselves in a long line of emotional and genetic ancestral patterning, generational knots to be untied or left alone. What do we want to do differently this time? What patterns do we need to shift? What growth is required of us in order to foster deep peace, health, sanity and love? We consider our own preparedness to parent again. Are we really ready? What does ready mean? The waiting offers a lull in the rush of routine, a brief dip into a valley where we can see the big picture of our lifetimes from new vantage points.

All of this passes before us as we sort out old karma in preparation for a new life.  Each day affords an eternity of possibilities. This time reminds us that while birth is indeed as ordinary as breath, it is also a reflection of unique and precious human life, each with an intricate weaving of story and history.  This is the gift of waiting. Birth impending. Pregnant. Full of meaning, if we are available to it.

The Great Horned Owl

She is perched on the edge of her nest. Three owlets grow and burrow next to her: pushing her to the edge of her home, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She will wait patiently all day until dusk overtakes the sky, when she’ll silently fly in search of food for her little ones. All day she will sit, with only her eyes and head moving occasionally. She looks at me with one watchful eye, the other closed. Her ears tilt towards me and her babies’ heads bob up to see the commotion of parked car and toddler rustle. Through the binoculars I see myself foolishly through her sharp yet relaxed gaze. It is as if she is saying “What is this? Camera clicking and binoculars mediating, sunblock being smeared on child’s face?” She just watches me. Nothing between us. No lenses, no filters, no film on skin . She is not troubled to move, even slightly.

Long neck, chin drawn in, tall stature, still frame: she strikes me as being akin to a great meditator: drawing herself into one composed line, she sits quietly and observes, tending her babies with the perfect zen-like non-perturbed gaze of a realized master. In this tree top I see a reflection of how I would like to perch: still mother, resting patiently as my children learn to fly…

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.



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.