By Melinda Burns My four-year-old daughter calls to me from the Cinderella video she's watching and I call back in the voice of the wicked stepmother, "Not now. I'm busy." I'm making her a special dress that I'm determined to finish in one hour while the pics are baking before we rush to Grandma and Grandpa's for a family celebration. My husband phones to say he'll be a little late getting home and I heap guilt on him like meringue on the lemon pie I'm making. As I rush us all into the car to leave, one eye on the clock, oven timers still ringing in my head, I notice my shallow breathing and a brittleness in my bones as if to not be on time would break me in bits.
Some days later, I was seated on a meditation cushion in a large room on the first day of a meditation retreat. I had stopped rushing for the first time in days (weeks? years?). It was surprising to me that a mother could go away. A friend told me about the retreat two days earlier, and my frenzied life told me I needed to go. I looked around the meditation hall and felt a quiet excitement moving through me. I noticed that the signs in the hall were all in Vietnamese. As the room filled with more and more Vietnamese people of all ages, from children to gray-haired elders, I began to realize that I was one of only four Westerners among over 100 participants at this retreat that would be conducted entirely in Vietnamese.
I came for the silence and the chance to sit quietly and see who's here when I'm not constantly rushing from one place to the next, not constantly being a mother. Now, with a foreign language all around me, I sensed a double silence where even the words couldn't reach or distract me. A brown-robed monk at the front of the room gave an introductory talk. As the soft cadences of the unfamiliar words flowed by me, I felt my breathing slow down, moving me into this meditative atmosphere. I looked again at the schedule which contained not one word of English and I laughed inside at how it confounded my time-obsessed self. A young Vietnamese woman volunteered to translate the presentation for the four of us. During the talks and ceremonies, I heard her quiet voice through my earphones, like a spirit whispering instruction and wisdom to me.
In the afternoon of the first day, there was a tea ceremony to help us learn to be present while drinking and eating. The woman monk leading the ceremony explained that when you are in the present moment, "You can see your parents, your children, your cup of tea." I thought of myself racing to complete the dress and how blurry my daughter's face was for me then. I remembered my hurry to get to my parents on time and how little I could see their faces once I got there. "If you aren't aware of your family, they will become ghosts to you and one day they will slip away because they can't live like that." The teachings were so penetrating and so gentle. I began to see the interconnectedness of what we do and how we feel, of what we give and what we receive.
All the meals were silent. I had looked forward to the particular joy of having three meals a day prepared for me, of not having to think of what to make, what to buy. I ate, not sitting on the edge of my chair, half-turned to my child's next need or spill, not involved in teaching manners or answering questions, just lasting, noticing, appreciating food.
As the retreat moved into the second and third day, the difference in language mattered less and less as we found a common language of gesture and intention. It was the slowing down that affected me most of all. I wrote in my journal, "Some part of my soul is rejoicing in this...I notice how my feet want to race everywhere, lake me straight to wherever my thought has me already. It was hard to slow down but I was so glad of the chance." I began to realize how addicted I was to hurry, and hurrying my child. I saw that to protect my child I would have to protect my own inner child as well, to slow down so that she could appreciate the moment.
Life with children was a constant theme during the talks. "A child of four is so fragile, so vulnerable, easily and deeply wounded by inattention. You must encourage children to speak out, slowly, with love and kindness. Show them 'I will listen to you with all my heart.'" Thay spoke of the loneliness of the young child. "The parents are so busy, lost in the past, lost in the future. The child comes for affection. They see they are disturbing the parents from their worries. The child is very disappointed, very wounded." I thought of my little girl, "disturbing me from my worries," her voice calling me from my time-obsessed, completion-focused self to play, to laugh, to dwell in the moment.
"Breathing in, I am holding my daughter in my arms. Breathing out, I am so glad she is alive." That cuts through to the essence of what we feel for our children. "Being happy yourself is the greatest gift you can give your loved ones." My husband and child picked me up on the fourth day and I was filled with joy to see them. My daughter clung to me and I held her little body with renewed appreciation and awareness.
I would like to end here and say we lived happily ever after and that I was truly and permanently enlightened, but such was not the case. Re-entry was difficult. There were two days of feeling mostly calm, riding on the waves of love and support I felt at the retreat. On the third day I began to feel some strain. Old shreds of impatience showed through as I rushed us out the door for a 10:00 a.m. meeting. And the struggle to be always calm, understanding, and patient began to wear on me, as if I was saying to myself, "You know how to do this now, it's so simple, there's no reason you can't be perfect."
At the retreat everything supported my calm, centered self—the beautiful natural surroundings, the quiet, the daily talks, the silent meals and slow movement, the mindfulness bell. I wanted a mindfulness bell with me now to make me pause and remember. And I wanted it to stop everyone around me too. I wanted traffic to stop.
I knew I was in trouble when I made a mistake using the bank machine and swore under my breath and my daughter wanted to pick up a dead bug and cried her eyes out when I said no and threatened to take her straight home if she cried more. All along, I was aware that I was mostly mad at her because I was blowing it. I hadn't changed at all.
But this time at least I recognized myself and my folly sooner. I so much wanted to hold onto the wonderful calm I felt at the retreat that I encased myself in rigid rules for proper breathing and correct response, erasing all sense of humor, spontaneity, and spark. I realized I had to integrate this new learning with who I was, not replace me with it. The next day, when I lost patience with Em's stream of questions and games while I was trying to get her dressed to go grocery shopping. I gave a pretend scream and to my surprise and relief she laughed and I laughed and we went on. I remembered Thay saying that we are not supposed to be saints, only mindful, only aware.
At the retreat I learned so much that was valuable to me as a mother—the possibility of not hurrying, not rushing from start to finish, but enjoying the middle steps along the way; the release from worrying and constant thinking and planning; the enjoyment of just breathing, of just being alive. How could I incorporate this into my daily life, full of schedules and appointments, noise and chaos, demands and needs?
The clue came from a friend when I described my terrible re-entry day to her. "Cherish the moment," she said. "We can visit but we don't live there." In a way, at the retreat I lived there for four days, and I didn't want to leave. Now, back in the real world, I remembered some moments in my "terrible" day that were actually wonderful—sitting on the balcony with my daughter, our cheeks pressed close together, watching the traffic below; having lunch together in the sun on the bench by the post office, my little girl in her polka-dot dress and pink socks across from me, drinking her juice from a bottle with a straw, so beautiful, so grown up, so infinitely precious and separate from me. And I knew a way to feel that more, to be aware of those moments, and breathe them in, breathe in my child. "Breathing in, I am seeing my child. Breathing out, I'm so glad she is alive."
Melinda Burns is a writer and counselor living in Guelph, Canada.