The Prodigal Son

By Mark LeMay I came late to parenting. I was 40 when Joe was born and 43 when Sammy arrived. They are now six and three years old, and I am still amazed at how they changed my life. I am especially struck by the sheer challenge of parenting. When Joe was an infant, his nighttime nickname was Buddha: he was always awake. Now it seems we have two live-in Zen masters. They are ingenious at disrupting the first sign of complacency in us.

During our six years as parents, we have moved closer to Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness. We strive to bring mindfulness to our family life and were very pleased to discover Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Everyday Blessings. We are committed to parenting as spiritual practice, and look for ways to gently introduce our children to the path. For example, they take turns as bellmaster before meals, and we recite a mealtime gatha together. We also encourage them to sound the bell when things get a little out of control. We all take three breaths and, with or without giggling from the boys, try to remember our commitment to family harmony.

We feel it is also important that our children know something of Christianity, the root tradition of both their parents. We have attended a fairly liberal Episcopal church where the boys went to Bible school. For a year or so, Joe thought of Jesus and Buddha as ancient superheroes, like Superman and Batman. This church, with its friendly priests and warm congregation, helped heal many of my old Catholic School wounds. In particular, I remember a visit from a retired bishop who talked about the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32). He focused on the story as a model of God's love for all his children, and of God's willingness to accept us back into the church, even when we have fallen away.

The Prodigal Son, like many Bible stories, has always been difficult for me to grasp, and even harder to live. But since I was studying and practicing mindfulness when the bishop came, I started to see the parable in a different light. It became particularly useful to see each of the three characters as parts of myself.

In the parable, the prodigal son convinced his father to divide his estate and give him his inheritance. He then journeyed "into a far country, and wasted his substance with riotous living." After he squandered his inheritance, a famine arose, "and he began to be in want." He went to work for a farmer, feeding his swine and eating the husks that the swine left. He suddenly realized that his father's hired hands lived better than he did. He decided to go home and ask his father to "make me as one of thy hired servants." But when he returned, the prodigal son was overcome with guilt, and said to his father, "I am no more worthy to be called thy son."

In relation to my practice, I am the prodigal son when I live in forgetfulness and self-centeredness. When I hurry my children through our morning routine or allow irritation to creep into my voice because I am attached to my agenda, I waste the precious gift of life in the present moment. When I come back to my breath, I seek the peace of mindfulness, but often I experience the guilt of the prodigal son for having strayed and causing others to suffer.

When the prodigal son returned, the father told the servants to bring his best robe for the son and to  kill the fatted calf: "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." The father accepts his son with loving-kindness and rejoices at his return. He greets the prodigal son warmly and rejoices at his return. The father's response is a model for how I can treat myself when I stray from the path of mindfulness.

The third character, the elder son, remained faithful to his father while his younger brother squandered his inheritance. Upon hearing the celebration for his brother, he "was angry and would not go in. His father came out, and entreated him: 'Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.'" The story does not explore the elder son's feelings, aside from his anger. I can easily imagine him also feeling resentful, wounded, and suspicious. These feelings are familiar, for I have held them toward others and towards myself. When I wake up to the suffering caused when I stray from mindfulness, I feel critical and suspicious of myself. When I have strayed from my goal of mindful parenting, I sometimes feel the sting of shame as I take a deep breath and re-attune to my children. I feel both the guilt of the prodigal son, and the angry suspicion of the elder brother toward myself.

Each time I catch myself living in forgetfulness  and feel the prodigal son and his brother in my heart, I try to remember the father. The father does not reject his younger son for having strayed, but rejoices  at his return. The father also does not rebuke the elder son for his anger and resentment, but invites him to join the celebration. I try not to cling to or repress my shame and anger. I notice these feelings and return to my breath. My feelings cannot be removed with aggression. I recognize them as part of the fold, and each time I return to the path, I say to myself (paraphrasing Thay),"I have arrived; welcome home."

Mark LeMay lives in Jefferson City, Tennessee, practices with the Thirty Good Leaves Sangha, and teaches parenting at a community mental health center, where he and his wife are psychologists.

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