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.

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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.