Ah, the curious things that preoccupy the mind of my 3 year-old at 5 am! Sitting quietly on my lap, waiting for the sun to come up (and, by far more important to the kid, what Mommy deems to be a decent hour for her early-riser to start watching tv), K cheerfully rattled off a list of sizing categories: smallest, small, (and my personal favorite) Mediumest, big, bigger, biggest!
K took one look at his plate and exclaimed that the noodles looked like the picture in the book where you puke! He was so excited to show me and dashed upstairs to grab How The Incredible Human Book Works so we could, he suggested, “compare.”
“A mother has two lives, the one she lives herself and the one she is reincarnated into as her own child.”
caption for “a mother’s journey”
What my son taught me about armpits refined my mindfulness practice. Listening deeply and seeing clearly into the suchness of all things.
The Incredible Magic of Ordinary 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!
See…See? What Is It?
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.
And Then What Happens?
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.
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.
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):
A room does not turn its back on grief.
Anger does not excite it.
Before desire, it neither responds
nor draws back in fear…
Whatever disquiet we sense in a room we have brought there.
Give a boy a garden hose…
and he’ll surely make, fling, smear, and eat mud!
I finally prepared my garden over the stretch of a week—turning the earth over (Shhh! I surprised my semi-bug-phobic self by apologizing to the displaced insect life and asking for their help in growing our garden), watering the plot, contemplating the layout and selection of plants, and interplanting flowers and herbs for the first time. All the while, my dirt-loving-Earth-Day-born 2-year-old was giddily digging right alongside me.
By the end of the day, K was a pro with the garden hose and everything was a fair target. Including me, of course! I even had to negotiate time with it. He’d reluctantly hand it over, whimpering “my hose” and half-heartedly picking up the hand shovel or cultivator until he could get the hose back in his grip.
So now he’s the official hose boy!
Days later, K waters the garden.
Tending the Earth
While at the park one afternoon, he played with two little girls who were trying to make an airplane out of candy wrappers strewn about the playground. I pointed out other scraps they could use, remarking how cool and clever it was that they were recycling garbage into art. Suddenly, K starts hunting down trash and throwing it away!
I have no doubt that our time together in the garden cleaning up debris, tilling, weeding, planting, watering and admiring our efforts have planted in him the seeds to be a steward of this earth.
First blooms of the Snapdragons
Yesterday, I was so excited to see the first of the snapdragons flowering!
The gift of the whole universe:
…A hose, a toddler’s enthusiasm and wonder,
Our hands, our breath, our laughter, our smiles.
“A baby wasn’t an idea, as love was an idea. A baby was a fact.
It was a being with a mind and a nature, and you could feel about it any way you liked, but a baby wouldn’t care.
Just by existing, it demanded that you believe in a future: the future it would crawl in, walk in, live in.
A baby was a piece of time; it was a promise you made that the world made back to you.
A baby was the oldest deal there was, to go on living.”
I was moved by this beautiful image circulating around Facebook last fall. These children, connected to the earth, connected to one another, through laughter and play, are radiant with the fullness of life and love. A love that is boundless— permeating and nourishing all it touches, and being fed in return by the breath and hope of all living things.
Seeing this instantly brought to mind these lines from the Metta Sutta (or Discourse on Love):
“Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life,
cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos.
Let our boundless love pervade the whole universe, above, below, and across.
Our love will know no obstacles. Our heart will be absolutely free from hatred and enmity.
Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying, as long as we are awake,
we should maintain this mindfulness of love in our own heart.
This is the noblest way of living.”
[20 october 2011, dya]
There’s something magical about waking up with my lovey-boy before dawn on the days that surround the full and change of the moon.
Sometimes for K, it’s a tossing-and-turning to find the right nook to snuggle into, a fluttering of eyes, a murmuring of dreamy words, a giggle- and-yawny stretch. Hands reaching out, knees nudging, toes burrowing—the reassuring warmth of skin. And, once in a while, he’s wired for sound! Popping up to play with cars or to read books as if the sun were streaming brightly through his window.
When I alone am awake, I rest in contemplation or sit in meditation. These witching hours are made for listening deeply and seeing clearly by the twinkle of stars that light the path.
Insight is a gift not the goal. Some things are illuminated, others released. Often, nothing at all appears to be happening. Yet it’s more than enough to abide in the hush, to simply feel and hear my breath subtle and distinct. Quietly, steadily just being me.
Attuned to this spirit time, I feel energized rather than depleted. I am awake—moving easily through the day on merely a few hours of sleep, sustained by the magnetic wisdom of the moon.
sharing the sweetness of breath, warmth, quiet, and rest
until the snoring begins
and blankets become tangled and hot
or hogged and coveted
and stray limbs wander into sensitive territories
leaving me the “wakeful flea” to balance hip-heavy on the inches near the edge
crowded, I roll over and out
while the two bears cuddling in the bed sigh deeply and spread wider
sweatered and socked
or wrapped in a cozy,
I snuggle up in solitude and free space