whuzzat?! why? and, what happens next, mommy?!: curious questions of a cool mind

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.

“Cool.”

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.

magic + madness of mud

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:

the earth, the sky, the rain, and the sun…*

 …A hose, a toddler’s enthusiasm and wonder,

Our hands, our breath, our laughter, our smiles.

Related articles

On “Guerrilla Learning” ~ Grace Llewellyn & Amy Silver

Guerrilla Learning is coloring outside the lines, finding the shortest direction between two points, moving directly toward goals, doing the best you can with what you’ve got to work with now, making what you want for your kids and what they want for themselves as real as you can, asking people for specific kinds of help, getting out of theory land and into the trenches, realizing that schools could take centuries to significantly improve (or to get out of the way altogether) and that meanwhile your children are barreling through childhood…

Cover of "Guerrilla Learning: How to Give...In a nutshell, Guerrilla Learning means taking responsibility for your own education.And Guerrilla Learning is relaxing—knowing that you’ve made a lot of mistakes as a parent (and an educator) and that you’ll make a lot more, and that that’s okay—your kids are resilient; it’s not all up to you, and life will provide.

For young people, that includes thinking clearly and seriously about one’s own goals, interests, and values—then acting accordingly.

For parents, it means supporting your child in doing so.

It might mean giving your child a kind of freedom that may seem risky or even crazy at first.

And it also means continuing your own involvement in the world of ideas and culture, continuing to read, to think, to discuss, and to create–and being a walking, talking invitation to your kids to do the same.

Of Related Interest:

Raising Smart Girls Blog

An Unschooling Life

holy mood swings: my toddler the teenager!

Let me first state that I do not subscribe to the common expectation that a toddler’s transition to the age of two will be terrible!

Even at the height of my son’s spontaneous emotional swirl-nados, I steadfastly refuse to be trapped by what I see is a trite label and myopic view in child development that doesn’t foster deep, compassionate understanding.  Yes, there will be tantrums! Frequent and at times seemingly relentless. But there are far too many magical moments (and, in general, enough madness) in parenthood to flat-out condemn this developmental phase as a requisite breath-holding, loin-girding battle of the wills.

What these natural growing pains require are deep breaths, gentle words, easy smiles, open arms, sympathetic hearts and creative minds. The magic is revealed when we greet the madness with such mindfulness and, whenever possible, humor.

Hiding out!
No, I not doing that, Mommy!

“No” and its variants are running neck-and-neck with “Mommy” as the utterance we hear most frequently.  Be it emphatic and loud, soft and sweet, plaintive or matter-of-fact, our growing list of the ways in which K expresses his resistance—er, preference—currently includes:

      • No, thank you.
      • Nope.
      • Not doing/Not going…
      • Not yet.
      • Uh-uh.
      • And, once: No way, José!  (for which I take total responsibility)

Not all of these “no” moments are cause for alarm.  Many, I must admit, are hysterical to me—and I get so tickled that I can hardly suppress my laughter!  In those laughable cases, my mate and I typically find it easy to redirect K’s attention and energy.  If his persistence cannot be ignored, we are not above negotiating with Altoids (our newest useful tool) to allay potential meltdowns and encourage cooperation from our mint-crazed kid.

But I mindfully gauge my response to each situation (namely, turning away if I’m particularly giggly) so as not to invalidate K’s feelings. When I notice that he’s beginning to struggle with his emotions, I ask whether he needs help, a hug or both.  Any of those are effective in the easiest scenarios.

Of course, we parents wouldn’t stretch and grow into our wise and skillful selves if we only had the easy.  In the toughest moments K’s alter, The No-Bot, emerges to unequivocally and inconsolably refuse all aid!

Now  comes the deep breathing…and, I give K the space to work it all out:  He’ll clomp upstairs and fling himself onto the bed, hiding under the covers whenever I check in. Or, run off to pout in a corner or shut himself in a closet or the bathroom. Yes, all of these dramatic gestures from a child on the cusp of two years old!

Even in the midst of this I remain amused and amazed by how well this child of mine knows his own mind and fearlessly expresses it.  Most important, I recognize and respect that K is a little person who doesn’t yet know what to do with all these big new feelings and ideas blooming inside.  It’s not necessary, helpful or appropriate to exhaust myself by demanding his obedience. As a connected parent, I understand that when children don’t “feel right” they have difficulty demonstrating the behavior we deem “acting right” and learning to manage feelings is a slow and gradual practice (for kids and adults alike).

This wide open perspective serves us both: K learns that he can freely and safely experience a full range of natural emotion such as frustration (the most common because he can’t do or have something), anger, discomfort, fear or confusion without punishment.  I not only foster trust and compassionate communication between us, but also exercise patience and conserve energy. I model  the calm behavior and, slowly and gradually, nurture those seeds of calm in him.

So I wait nearby, quietly assuring him that I understand and am ready to help, to hold, to hug.

Then that moment of intensity passes.  K settles into my arms.  I rock him and sing the calm down song until his breath comes smooth and steady. (Ah, the magic of songs and education-based kids’ programming that can be used as empowerment tools for parents and their little ones. Another jewel for magic + mindfulness: Anh’s Anger.)

Now I know he’s ready to listen. I replay the scenario and translate his feelings into simple words: you wanted to do this, mommy said that, you felt mad…and so on.  Sometimes, I take him to stand before the mirror so he can see how his feelings look.  I tell him that it’s okay, that he’s growing and learning, and still needs help from mommy and daddy.

I look into K’s eyes and say, “Gimme your nose!”  Giggling, we rub our noses together in an Eskimo kiss. Into this simple, loving gesture I breathe my willingness to receive all his no’s with mindfulness.  K’s transient outburst is already forgotten. Centered and at ease once more, he zips off to the next new experience. 

Contemplations for Practice: Living Buddha, Living Christ ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

This afternoon I will step out of the family Easter dinner to enjoy walking and sitting meditation with my yoga-sangha.

When I realized that my regular Sunday practice fell squarely in the center of the high holy days of Passover and Easter, and at the end of the Religious Awareness Week our local university organized (and at which my dharma sister shared and led a Zen meditation practice), I was inspired to re-read Thich Nhat Hanh’s contemplations in Living Buddha, Living Christ.

Here, I share some of the passages that resonate with my personal experiences of the interbeingness of Buddhism (the practice that began to organically blossom in my life before I even knew it formally as “Buddhism”), Christianity (the practice in which I was raised and often felt at-odds with) and Judaism (the practice of my maternal great-great grandmother that I came to touch through my Jewish dharma sisters who have invited me to celebrate holy days such as Passover and Yom Kippur).  In my practice today, I will touch the earth in honor of my spiritual ancestors and teachers.

“RELIGIOUS LIFE IS LIFE”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To me, religious life is life. I do not see any reason to spend one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit.  We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions.

Professor Hans Kung has said, “Until there is peace between religions, there can be no peace in the world.”  People kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies.  When we believe that ours is the only faith that contains truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result.  The second precept of the Order of Interbeing, founded within the Zen Buddhist tradition during the war in Vietnam, is about letting go of views: “Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to receive others’ viewpoints.” To me, this is the most essential practice of peace.

“TOUCHING JESUS”

But my path to discovering Jesus as one of my spiritual ancestors was not easy. The colonization of my country by the French was deeply connected with the efforts of the Christian missionaries…In such an atmosphere of discrimination and injustice against non-Christians, it was difficult for me to discover the beauty of Jesus’ teachings.

It was only later, through friendships with Christian men and women who truly embody the spirit of understanding and compassion of Jesus, that I have been able to touch the depths of Christianity. The moment I met Martin Luther King, Jr., I knew I was in the presence of a holy person. Not just his good work but his very being was a source of great inspiration for me. And others, less well known, have made me feel that Lord Jesus is still here with us…Through men and women like these, I feel I have been able to touch Jesus Christ and His Tradition.

“LIVING IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD”

In the Jewish tradition, the sacredness of mealtimes is very much emphasized. You cook, set the table, and eat in the presence of God. “Piety” is an important word in Judaism, because all of life is a reflection of God, the infinite source of holiness. The entire world, all the good things in life, belong to God, so when you enjoy something, you think of God and enjoy it in His presence. It is very close to the Buddhist appreciation of interbeing and interpenetration…

Piety is the recognition that everything is linked to the presence of God in every moment. The Passover Seder, for example, is a ritual meal to celebrate the freedom of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and their journey home. During the meal, certain vegetables and herbs, salt, and other condiments help us touch what happened in the past—what was our suffering and what was our hope. This is a practice of mindfulness.

“ENJOY BEING ALIVE”

To breathe and know you are alive is wonderful. Because you are alive, everything is possible.  The Sangha, the community of practice, can continue. The church can continue. Please don’t waste a single moment. Every moment is an opportunity to breathe life into the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Every moment is an opportunity to manifest the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit…

You need only to walk in mindfulness, making peaceful, happy steps on our planet. Breathe deeply, and enjoy your breathing. Be aware that the sky is blue and the birds’ songs are beautiful. Enjoy being alive and you will help the living Christ and the living Buddha continue for a long, long time.

a million hoodies, a million hearts: metta behind the movement for trayvon martin

Easily seen is the outrage, despair and fear, the ignorance and insensitivity, the failures of the police, lawmakers and politicians, the complex, provocative and polarizing rhetoric and debate, the uncertainty of justice and the swelling distrust in the systems that are meant to ensure our safety.

Hard indeed to see and to carry hope for the possibility of deep and lasting change.

Not only to the controversial and dangerous law that gave a misguided vigilante license to act upon his fear and racism with unnecessary and deadly force.

But also to individual and systemic institutional practices that reinforce our prejudices, feeding and fueling them to become rampant antis-, –isms and -phobias.

Easily seen are the differences between us: skin, hair, race, gender, age, sexuality, religion, education, politics, economics…

Hard indeed to see are the threads that tie us together:
blood, breathe, heart, soul, histories, joy, suffering…

But for my practice of the buddha-dharma,
I might sit heavy with visceral rage, terror, disgust and disappointment.

Stomach-churning, heart-racing, tear-choking, breath-stealing anguish

For Trayvon,
my son,
my mate,
my father,
my brothers,
my nephews,
my cousins,
my friends,
my neighbors,
and others known or unknown to me who could be snatched from their loved ones
so brutally, so easily.

And not just sons, not only males.

Our daughters, mothers, sisters, and aunts are always vulnerable too. 

This cruelty, this pain, this suffering does not discriminate.
It leaves no one untouched.

So with my practice I sit.
Breath-, Love- and Hope-filled.

In full trust of the ever-evolving nature of all things.
In full remembrance that there are causes of and an end of suffering.
In full awareness of the victory of each sweet breath.

I sit to cradle my simmering feelings—
giving them space to stretch out, unfold, take new shape in their own time.

They are natural, they are human, they are mine.

Yet they are not me.

Touching the dharma and continuously taking refuge in the Five Mindfulness Trainings,             I am determined that my feelings will not feed or fuel choices that are unskillful, harmful or deadly.

I grow steady with each breath.
My anger and fear cool, soften and slowly transform into
the compassionate vigilance of mindfulness.

I listen deeply, see more clearly what is the true, necessary and wise course of action for me in this moment.

I touch the Metta Suttasending compassion and lovingkindness
in all directions with every breath
so that any habitual inclination toward anger, numbness, despair or avoidance will be released.

I step back—filtering out the discord, limiting what I consume from the media.
Tuning in—to my breath, my intentions, my dharma, my heart.

From this space, I listen deeply for:
facts, resolution, and the aspirations I hear beneath the pleas for justice.

From this space, I see clearly the faces:
brown as my own,
also darker, lighter—matching the full spectrum of hues and tones of people I know and love—reflecting my sadness, my questions, my aspirations.

From this space, I see clearly the hearts beneath the hoodies.

I feel them beating, bleeding, bursting wide and tender with compassion
for Trayvon Martin, his heartbroken parents and loved ones,
and all others who are suffering from such tragic and profound losses.

Hearing, seeing, feeling completely, I touch those aspirations that connect us all.

I chant them silently, I chant them aloud to my son each night, I chant them for us all.

With each nourishing, energizing, life-sustaining breath:

May we and all beings be happy,

May we and all beings be safe,

May we and all beings be well,

May we and all beings have peace.

My path and practice are affirmed.  I know this is the only way for me.

 Trayvon‑Martin‑009_540x405.jpg

  • My son: My ray of light, my bell of mindfulness, my clear intention for practice.
  • My mate: A miraculous odds-smashing survivor of a random act of road rage, he was shot in the head at 19. He happens to be white. The shooter, who served the minimum sentence on a plea, is black. His parents–my loving “in-laws”—and family members who are models and practitioners of faith and forgiveness.
  • The Dhammapada (Verses 252 – 3) as quoted in Come See For Yourself  ~ Ayya Khema         We read and discussed the chapter “The Faults of Others” in my root sangha (lamc.info) several years ago, and it continues to resonate.
  • The Places That Scare You: A Guide To Fearlessness in Difficult Times ~ Pema Chodron    I’m currently re-reading this book (slowly digesting the practices), and my bookmark was resting in the middle of her chapter on Compassion.
  • Metta for Children ~ InvitingtheBell.com                                                                                         Matt wrote about introducing this “magical” practice to his daughter (exactly one month ago today) and, auspiciously, I read it shortly after putting my own child to bed with thoughts about how to incorporate age-appropriate bedtime blessings into our evening ritual. Every night since, I sing my simple metta chant to him.
  • ‘Million Hoodie’ March  ~ Newsone.com

squeeze + smooch: the magic of hugging meditation

“When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

My clever kid was about 15 months old when he abandoned nearly all requests to be picked up.

To him, the briefest pause was an eternity.  Of course, toddlers have no tolerance for waiting, and any effort—no matter how gentle—to introduce the concept of delayed gratification or patience is futile.  They want what they want when they want it, so GET IT TOGETHER, FOLKS!

K had quickly come to realize that I could not resist his yumminess.  Throughout the day, I would snatch him up for sniff (ah, that baby-fresh scent), squeeze and smooch!

I’m sure you can see where this is going…

Yup, K understood that whenever I was deeply engaged in an activity (usually cooking dinner) all he needed to do was stand at my feet, stretch open his arms, flap his hands and beg  for a hug!

How could I not instantly drop whatever I was doing to oblige him?  Every. Single. Time.

Nothing is more important than assuring my child that I see him, hear him, and feel his need to be connected.  But, of course, there are moments when I feel stretched to complete a time-sensitive task and cannot immediately give him my full attention.

So I talk him through it—I hear you, lovey. I know you want Mommy…this is what I’m doing now, then we’ll do X, Y and Z.  And soon as it is possible, I hug and kiss him wholeheartedly  for a few breaths and go about the task at hand.

Often that is enough.  But when it isn’t, I keep him next to me and do what parenthood demands we master (or fail miserably trying): multitask!

Other times, however, I require space and uninterrupted solitude.  In those instances, the multitasking continues.  My attention is concentrated on the activity while my heart is reaching toward him.

I acknowledge the subtle twinge of guilt and release it.  Breathing into it, I trust that he’s been properly fortified by every loving touch we exchange and that his sense of our connectedness will sustain him through the healthy, naturally-unfolding experiences of separation between parent and growing child.

But the instant my work ends, I grab K and love him up—breathing deeply as I squeeze and smooch until he’s had enough.

Learn more about the  practice of  Hugging Meditation.

hugging meditation
Image via PlumVillage.org – Art Of Mindful Living

tandem shoveling: the magic of tot-powered labor

MAGIC: A parent’s chore is a child’s greatest joy!

tandem shoveling
i got this, daddy!

Here, K got in on the shoveling fun started by his Papa and Daddy…and made a game of switching shovels every few moments.

MINDFULNESS:  Whenever I sweep the floors or scrub the tub, K begs to assist. I gladly pull out the extra broom so he can help clean up his cracker crumbs and give him the scrub brush and allow him to jump naked in a baking soda-coated bathtub to muscle out the bubble bath scum.

While K is demonstrating autonomy and initiative, I have the opportunity to nurture seeds of cooperation (all along chirping The Wonder Pets’ “teamwork” song) and an appreciation for taking care of his home and belongings as well as those of others.

relaxing & admiring the snowlightful view

So I say, let start ’em young!  Guiding him through a task may take a few extra minutes. But the songs, smiles, and laughter—evoked by his proud cheers of “I did it!”—truly lighten the load.

to tv or not to tv: history + heritage on nick jr.

to tv: I appreciate that Nick Jr. teaches and celebrates diversity.  For Black History Month, I was thrilled to see them honor Dr. Alexa Canady!  She is not only one of my hometown’s (#lovelansing) most notable history makers, but also one of my childhood role models: Celebrating Dr. Alexa Canady.

not to tv:  It’s hard to support networks, particularly those with children’s programming, that don’t use their broad influence to go beyond simple entertainment and create fun teachable moments on culture, history, science, technology and the arts.  No moment spent teaching our kids something–anything–new is wasted!

on the mindfulness in motherhood

Samatha.*

Embodied.

Senses.

Engaged.

The body, the mind, the activity.

Stopping.

The belly, the lungs, the nose.

Breathing.

The eyes, the heart. 

Looking.

The ears, the heart.  

Listening.

The opening.

Fully…of laps, of hands, of arms, of hearts.

The receiving.  The allowing.  The cradling.

The embrace.

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on the madness in motherhood

Cackling, with laughter to keep the tears at bay.

“From cool to chaos” — whirlwind-tornado-tsunami — in a split second.

MESSY

 …sticky, stinky, sloppy, smushy and sometimes…

STRANGELY GLORIOUS

 …to be freed from the insistent call to order

from shelves, drawers, closets and containers.

LIFE

…spilling

…out:

ALL VIBRANT.  LOUD.  REAL. 

Wailing

Pouting

Shrieking

Bellowing:

HERE, HERE, HERE!

NOW…NOW…NOW!

NONONONO!

And then, sighing:

OKAY? OKAY. OKAY!

YES…YES…YES.

And now:

Laughing.  Softly.  Deeply.  Easily.  Always.

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magic + madness: creepy-cool new skill

I must admit I found this finger-crossing action somewhat creepy the first time I noticed K doing it last week.  Mind you, he was locked in his high chair, wailing “Help!” and biting his arm!  I thought it was some kind of spasm (more likely he had an itch he couldn’t quite scratch), but he’s been randomly twisting up these two fingers ever since.

Verdict: New trick!

weird new skill

weird new skill

another view of the weird new skill

another view of the weird new skill

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mindfulness + motherhood: counting breaths

Learning to spend one LESS breath doing something that doesn’t serve me and learning to spend one breath MORE being fully present to experiences that support me.

 

[originally posted 3 Oct 2011;  dharma yoga arts on FB]