This morning I heard a talk by the insightful Buddhist meditation teacher Deborah Ratner Helzer about her year as a monk in Burma. Living in a hut frequented by snakes, scorpions and spiders the size of her hand, she braved malnutrition in the most challenging experience of her life. Everything after that would be easy, she said. Until she became a parent.
Being a parent has been the most rewarding and difficult part of my spiritual life too. At times, I have been almost moved to tears by the lack of control over my schedule. The concept of a lazy day of solitary ‘me-time’ is as extinct as the Dodo bird. ‘Silence’, ‘Space’ and ‘Neatness’ are relics of a bygone era Deborah Ratner called “BC” (Before Children).
For many months, I searched for support on this subject in the form of books or spiritual teaching but found precious little. Recently, though, I have begun to consider the spiritual gifts parenting could bring.
The overwhelming experience of loving someone more than yourself is the most noticeable change for most parents. Nothing broke my self-centered bubble like this incredible love did. In spiritual terminology, it is the perfect heart chakra opener for introverted, ‘mental’ meditators.
Then, there is the obvious privilege of watching Pure Consciousness without stories functioning in human form. And the wonder of re-seeing the world through a child’s eyes. Living with such an unconditioned being throws into contrast your own lazy, solidified behavior patterns.
Another gift, Deborah Ratner Helzer pointed out from her experience, is that being a parent gives a sense of urgency to your spiritual practice. You must carve out the time for your daily meditation – you can’t be casual about it.
Yet another gift, my wife reminded me, is that we become conscious there is a sensitive being who is absorbing our fears and neuroses: a real impetus to look within and clean up our act.
Over the last two years, I have noticed there is also a sense of heightened awareness of the world we are creating for our children. And a responsibility to try making it a little better, kinder place.
But as I learnt during our recent summer holiday to Dharamsala, perhaps the most unexpected gift of parenting is how effortlessly a child can destroy our spiritual ego.
We took little Nirvaan to see the Tushita Meditation Centre. It turned out a retreat was in progress and the entire campus was a Silent Zone. Try telling that to a three-year-old! While I struggled to connect with a little moment of silence and browse the bookstore, I could feel a tug on my jeans every few seconds.
“Papa, can I have a sweet?”
Shhh, in five minutes.
(10 seconds later) “Papa, I want a sweet now!”
Yes, just give me two minutes.
(5 seconds later) “But I want a sweet NOW….”
Being forced to play ‘the-scattered-tourist-with-a-noisy-kid’ in a place where I would normally have been at home, I felt angry with my situation. The frustration continued to brew within as we sat for lunch in the noisiest Tibetan restaurant in Dharamsala. Then it struck me to question which part of me was upset. Was it the spiritual ego that desperately wanted to show off my meditative calm to the spiritual folk there? It was. And thanks to my son, I had failed completely. Seeing this let go of the complainer within, and a silence fell in the midst of the restaurant. This was not the cultivated silence of a garden, it was the genuine, deep stillness of a forest.
I realized that what happens on the black mat during retreats is called ‘practice’ because it is practice for the real thing: Life. At times, real life can seem like a hard, rocky road, but with those rocks, you can also build your church.