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.