“kindness is cooler.”
“a slice of nice makes a mile of smile.”
“good deeds fill needs.”
~wisdom from Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler by Margery Cuyler
~wisdom from Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler by Margery Cuyler
What my son taught me about armpits refined my mindfulness practice. Listening deeply and seeing clearly into the suchness of all things.
I was cuddling one autumn morning with my then 15 month-old son. Nestled in the crook of my arm, K suddenly pointed at me and asked, “Whuzzat?”
“My armpit,” I laughed.
I was thoroughly tickled! For one, K was fascinated by this new discovery. He fearlessly inspected it, pinching at the sprouting hairs (um, yeah, I’m sharing this). I marveled that my child would find the ordinary, or otherwise maligned, armpit a source of wonder. Not to mention that he had used his word-of-the-moment in context!
My baby’s first uttering was “see.” A statement and a question.
He’d gaze intently out of our front window, repeatedly pointing at the scene before him. His dad or I would hold him close and name everything that was in view–elaborating on each detail or making up little stories or rhyming songs.
Together we’d soak in the sounds and sights with bright curious eyes.
It was easy to make the connection between this act of observing the world with my son and what I had learned through years of meditation: to look deeply, with every sense engaged and opened to the wonder arising in the moment.
What is this? The fair-witnessing mind gently asks.
Look. See truly. A reminder to strip it bare. Peel away the layers. Get to the core. Reveal the heart: Simple. Rich. Vibrant. Suchness.
With every ensuing question K began to ask, my mind and senses were bathed in mindfulness. I had to pause and consider how to answer in ways that could be understood by a toddler.
An exercise in skillful effort, indeed.
This meant each arising thought and spoken word was filtered through the four gates of speech (attributed to the Sufi tradition and referenced frequently in Buddhism): Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it kind?
Parenting books would translate such ancient spiritual wisdom as “keeping it simple and sweet.” But there’s so much more to this lesson.
We can cultivate our own skillful understanding as we break things down for the little ones in our lives. We refresh our perspective, search for new meaning (I mean this literally, too. Hello0ooo, Google!), and recognize, in truth, just how much we don’t know about this world.
My son has truly helped me unlearn, relearn, synthesize, and renew my practice of looking and listening. By nourishing his inherent joyful curiosity about life, I am learning alongside him how to penetrate the surface of all that we encounter:
For example, while playing at a park last summer, we noticed an enormous bee-like insect zipping around. Another mother warned her kids away, understandably concerned by the prominent stinger. We too avoided colliding with it, but our curiosity was definitely piqued. I even mentioned to my mate that I’d spotted something I’d never seen before! A few days later, upon leaving the children’s science museum, K and I spotted a sign in one of its gardens that identified this strange creature as a cicada killer wasp. He was excited to know all about it, so when we got home I read through articles and found a video on the internet to watch together (see previous link). For weeks afterward, he was talking about it–impressing his grandfather with the story of the cicada killer. Had I offhandedly dismissed it as a scary bug, we might have overlooked the sign and missed this opportunity to understand the nature of this creature.
With senses sharpened, we see the minute details and puzzle them together into an experience that reshapes us. This capacity to see clearly may expand into a capacity to speak truthfully and skillfully about what troubles, intrigues or excites us in life. For my son, Whuzzat became Why morphed into And Then What Happens? and begat the twin wonders What Does That Mean? and Tell Me About This, Mommy. Our questions bloom into explorations, discoveries, reflections, imaginings, stories and memories.
As Rilke once assured a young poet, we learn to live the questions now. Living the questions may often test our faith, compassion, and understanding. We may get stretched out completely. But our willingness to be present to them helps us develop the resilience to survive even the most difficult questions. So we listen and look closely and grow to love the questions and the journeys they lead us on.
This much I have learned from really hearing the wisdom in my son’s question and looking deeply into the coolness of an ordinary armpit.
I knew I’d have to make peace with winter when I decided to move back to Michigan 10 years ago (from NYC, which in my 9-year stint as a resident, had milder weather. Hands down. The true test: my nose hairs never once sprouted icicles!) As a kid, I loved everything about it. But my intolerance for snow, bitter chill, and grey skies–sometimes from October to April–grew with each year of adulthood. Maybe it’s genetic–my Caribbean roots or my anemia!
So I chose to embrace it rather than to suffer or grumble through the inevitable teeth-chattering and shoulder-scrunching. Warmed by my childhood memories of gliding, stumbling, and laughing with family and friends as we looped around our now-defunct outdoor ice rink for hours on end, I bought ice skates and made weekly visits during the mid-day open skate. I learned to breathe and relax my arms instead of tensing all my muscles in a futile attempt to fold deeper into my goose-prickled skin. I was slowly becoming weather-resilient!
By the time I became a parent, I was committed to making sure my son would be an all-seasons kid. So as long as the temperatures don’t veer toward the danger zone, we bundle up for regular walks and romps in the snow.
Notable winter moments so far:
K got his very own shovel as a gift from his Papa! It was as much a gift for Daddy too since he no longer had to trade turns with K while clearing the walkway.
My Caribbean father, who has lived in Michigan for all but two of the nearly 40 years he’s been residing in the States, went sledding for the very first time in his life! It was a joy to watch K and his Papi make such memories…and a trip to see my dad spend hours editing the video he shot of our sledding adventure that day! #BucketList
K is forever pulling out my yoga mat to “exercise” or spontaneously busting a yoga pose. We love Legs-Up-The-Wall (Viparita Karani), especially when settling down for bed. So today I thought it be fun to enlist his help (and stave off cabin fever) to create a fun photo to include in an announcement about my class cancellation.
It was 17° F on New Year’s Day, and my practice still beckoned me to honor my commitment to get sorted, settled and centered–body, heart, and mind–through my walking/running meditation.
There’s a special stillness in winter that I deeply appreciate. Fewer people venture out when the temperature dips below 30 °F, and only the bravest dare to “play” if the sun’s not offering some illusion of warmth. Slate grey sky. Stark white snow. A solid path along a river flowing beneath a thickening sheet of ice. Scraggly winter-stripped branches and a frizzled ridge of vegetation mark the border between shoreline and water.
I feel enveloped and penetrated by this rare moment of quietude. The sensation of refuge arises to warm my muscles–fueling each step or sprint.
I am reminded of the “witching hours” when I’m awakened by the moon. Fully alert and energized, I sit or lie down to meditate, abiding in breath, or write out my contemplations in my journal. Reprieve in a house that is typically buzzing with the energy of my 3-year old daredevil and the electricity of appliances and electronics in constant service. A murmur and sweet sigh from my son. I pause, instinctually ready to respond to his call. I relax once more. A startling chainsaw-like snore from my mate. I pause again, listening to the pattern. If it continues, I move to another room.
These sacred spaces–a park in winter, a house in slumber–magnify the wonder and magic of my mindfulness practice.
One of the first things my son likes to do each morning is look at the sky to see if it’s dark or sunny.
Through our east-facing windows, he gazed at the cloudy gray light–naked tree branches casting straggly black figures against the vastness–and beckoned me to look. No sun.
From another room, I spied the luminous moon, now two days past full, brightening the Western skies and excitedly called him over.
It’s not shining very brightly, Mommy. Not like the Sun.
Not quite. The Moon has a different kind of light.*
*(Yes, I laughed as soon as I heard myself! Creative parenting spawns a tendency toward singing, rhyming and making everything into a game. All in the name of teaching and learning.)
On a scrap of paper that had loosened itself from one of my many overstuffed journals, I re-discovered a treasured but unattributed book excerpt I had copied and tucked away years ago. The message was so “on time” for me, as my meditation group has been contemplating mindfulness of emotions and how we may cultivate skillful understanding and practice around difficult feelings and experiences. I shared it with my sangha on Sunday and today finally ran a search with one of the sentences (it wasn’t a line from the excerpt I had read to sangha but one I guessed might yield the most relevant results) in hopes of finding the source.
I glimpsed a title that evoked a dawning familiarity–The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets by Phyllis Cole-Dai and James Murray (and, yes, this was indeed the source!)–and then followed that thread to the author’s website where my eyes alighted on the link A Year of Being Here.
A gem! This blog/project hosts a collection of mindfulness poetry. Wonder of wonders, today’s poem is yet another thread woven seamlessly into the fabric of our study of emotions. Here are a few lines from Jane Hirshfield: “A Room” (click the link to read the full poem):
[originally written Fall 2012]
As a Zen practitioner in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, my study of his teachings and personal history provided a surprising lesson about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This gleaming insight into their relationship renewed my appreciation and broadened my understanding of King’s legacy as it elucidated the global impact of his compassionate mission.
Several years ago, inspired by the “inter-being” between these two leaders as well as my own dharma as a Black American woman on this path of practice, I led my root sangha in the Touching the Earth prostrations to honor King and Thay as spiritual teachers.
Since then, my Monday evening Yin+Yang Yoga class has fallen on this national holiday. Each asana that brings our hearts closer to the earth (like these two favorites: Child’s Pose + Anahatasana) becomes a prostration, in which we fully embody the mindfulness practice of remembrance and reconciliation. We remember our origins and connections: to ancestors, by blood and spirit; to this Earth that sustains us and upon which our complex and interwoven histories have been built. We may began to penetrate the deep suffering emanating from our painful histories, which continue to manifest in new forms and to impact our experiences and abilities to relate to one another because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability and a whole slew of “differences” that seem to separate us. Breath by compassion-filled breath, we may began to reconcile these histories as we acknowledge, cradle, and heal our own suffering. We give it back to this wondrous Earth to absorb and transform it, as from the mud blooms a lotus.
In every class, I invite the practitioners to cultivate compassionate understanding of their bodies, minds and hearts through the alignment of breath and posture. Generating such mindfulness and loving awareness for ourselves teaches us how to skillfully extend compassion and loving-kindness to others.
When we abide in mindfulness, our senses become clear and fully attuned to the spectrum of beauty and suffering in the world. We acknowledge our own contribution to that stream–how our actions increase beauty or increase suffering. We make amends when we cause suffering and begin anew, watering seeds of compassion. Each heart-driven act–embodied on the mat, the cushion, among our beloveds and within our communities–commemorates the King’s legacy.
[Updated 20 January 2014]
Did he think that he would grow up to be who was? Here is the link to the talk I did at the San Francisco Zen Center, Janauary 19, 2013. I hope you enjoy. http://www.sfzc.org/zc/display.asp?catid=1,10&pageid=3584
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
I was pissed!
Once again, despite my wholehearted intentions and efforts, another Wednesday evening had arrived and, instead of meditating with my root sangha (Buddhist meditation community), I was at home.
Feeling exhausted, out of sync, and in deep need of restoring myself in a place of uninterrupted quiet where I could relax my busy mind with the steady flow of my breath and invite the precious moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness that defines mindfulness.
So I was unduly pissed at myself for not being organized (or awake) enough to get there, my mate for not making it easier for me, and all those unforeseeable or unavoidable forces that arose in the course of a day and became “obstacles” to my practice. Adding to my irritation: knowing that I now lived a few minutes away from the temple yet was faced with detours and delays that made getting there seem like a trip to the other side of the state. What the hell?!
At the same time, I was completely aware of the absurdity of my frustration. How could I be stressed out about needing to meditate…so that I could be less stressed?
My life was completely different: Mothering my then-infant son, finding a rhythm with my mate in our new life together as parents, and maintaining some sense of order in our new home were my highest priorities. And, around these, I sought to balance my teaching commitments, time with loved ones, and the space to nurture myself through my practice.
Doing all of this mindfully was my deepest aspiration.
Which is precisely why I wanted to connect with my sangha—to enjoy walking and sitting meditation in the sacred space of the temple; to share our curiosities, contemplations, and challenges; and, in turn, to be supported in the practice of cultivating mindfulness!
Cycling through this loop of grasping-anxiety-frustration, I realized that in my striving to get to the temple, I was working myself out of alignment with the heart of the practice! There was, as the Zen wisdom beautifully teaches, “nowhere to go, nothing to do” but to rest mindfully in the present moment wherever I stood, sat, or lay.
INHALE. Being aware of frustration and unskillful, negative chatter.
EXHALE. Allowing it to be expressed and felt.
INHALE. Giving it space to soften and settle.
EXHALE. Releasing it.
Stopping to breathe, listen deeply, and see clearly into my discomfort with some of the changes I was adjusting to helped me accept that my new life could no longer accommodate a two-hour evening meditation. I cherished that time with my fellow practitioners at the temple, but it was no longer an option.
No cushion, no mala, no bell, no incense were required.
In the absence of all these, I needed only to take refuge in the here-and-now quality of the breath—my constant teacher—in order to cultivate that steady, quiet space where mindfulness blossoms. Bringing that gentle, expansive awareness to each moment I spent cradling my son, preparing dinner for my family, or talking to my mate was, in fact, the practice. It was how I could live the meditation.
Although the teachings of mindfulness are rooted in the traditions of Buddhism (my path to this practice), its universal principles transcend the temple or meditation hall. It is a commitment to self-study that teaches us to develop nonjudgmental awareness of our bodies, thoughts, emotions, experiences and all that arises in our lives. We learn to quiet our “inner critic” and suspend our knee-jerk reactions and give space for qualities such as compassion, equanimity, and non-attachment to grow. Indeed, we learn to nurture mindfulness by practicing meditation. We learn to sustain it through our diligent efforts off the meditation cushions and benches.
So parenting has truly been a re-education in mindfulness for me. All that I thought I understood and experienced in my five years of practice prior to my son’s arrival has been stretched in directions I hadn’t fully imagined! I renew my commitment to non-attachment on a daily basis when I’m not able to “accomplish” tasks as intended.
Sometimes I can easily shrug it off and relax in the present moment, knowing it will keep. At other times, I have to acknowledge and release the irritation or anxiety of feeling thwarted. These challenging moments become opportunities to deepen my understanding and to practice wholeheartedly this living, breathing meditation. And then I exhale, remembering that there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to attain.
So whenever it is that a task gets completed or whenever I safely reach a destination, it will be at the right and perfect time.
[originally published 14 sept 2012 for just b yoga’s blog]