parenting

Presently Minding My Children

By Cynthia Marie-Martinovich Lardner mb42-Presently1

One of my core beliefs is that parenting, in and of itself, is a form of mindfulness. My experience of mindfulness in the family, however, recently underwent a metamorphosis. This happened after good seeds were watered at the 2005 Summer Family Retreat at Maple Forest Monastery. The catalyst for this change was a bacterial infection that dragged on for over three months.

Before taking ill, I felt I was mindfully parenting my four children: Maddie, 6, Patrick, 7, Nicole, 9, and Emily, 16. This included planning vacations, making plans with friends, keeping the children involved in activities, and driving children to play dates. I was busy keeping us busy. This busy-ness disappeared, not by choice but because of the infection. For three months, I was fatigued, sore, and unable to engage in our usual whirlwind of activities. Inertia ruled many of my days. Helplessness, frustration, and guilt became emotional themes. Being a single mother exacerbated the situation.

But I discovered, while often stuck in bed, a new repertoire of parenting skills: listening deeply, looking with compassion, and cuddling. Soon each child’s unique set of needs and strengths emerged, traits I had not noticed while I was busy parenting.

Children as Teachers

Now I was not busy making plans, running errands, scheduling events, talking to friends, logging on to the Internet, or tending to thousands of other things. I only had time to be with my children, who were quite happy having my undivided attention.

A deeper aspect of mindfulness had crystallized. I had learned to be present with my children without other people, events, or props. Sometimes my children were bored, but they were calmer, happier, and easier to be with.

I began to take to heart Thay’s teachings on watering good seeds so they can grow stronger and more available for use in our daily lives. I recalled how genuinely my children had enjoyed being with the monastics at the retreat. I realized it was because the monastics give their undivided attention to children: they are truly present whether baking chocolate bread, collecting flowers, picking tomatoes, playing a game, or singing a song.

I also learned from my children. Perhaps they were my best teachers. My six-year-old daughter, Maddie, found a dragonfly with an injured wing. I watched as she gently picked it up on a stick and tried to feed it grass. Many adults walked by; a few children also passed. They were too busy to stop. Then after a while a small group gathered around Maddie. The dragonfly had long lacy wings and big blue-green eyes. Its legs were long and graceful; they tickled Maddie’s little hand as it unsuccessfully struggled to take flight. Maddie carefully placed the dragonfly in a flower garden. What a gift to be truly present with my daughter and to see her joy and laughter in such a simple thing!

I played Lego with my son Patrick, which required me to pay close attention. I took time to understand my sixteen-year-old Emily’s push for autonomy, and her need to struggle against me, something that required patience and energy.

Breaking the High-Tech Habit

As a parent, it is hard to slow down and just be with my children in their world—not the world I created for them, which is all too often defined by schools, activities and events—but to be with them in their world. In this high-tech era it is hard to disconnect: to turn the cell phone off, to leave the Palm Pilot home, to not check my e-mail or voice mail several times a day, to even let the mail sit for a day. Research indicates many teenagers and adults experience distress even while on vacation if they do not have access to the technological world left at home.

Now, as I regain my health, I try to avoid a symbiotic relationship with these high-tech trappings. I have learned to say no to many opportunities that I would enjoy, even greatly benefit from professionally. I just want to focus on being a parent: being a parent in a simpler way.

Ajahn Chah said, “Everything is a hassle, everything is presenting obstacles—and everything is teaching you.” My intention is to be fully present, with undivided attention, to these moments in my daily life—and with my children.

Cynthia Marie-Martinovich Lardner, Radiant Nourishment of the Source, lives in Troy, Michigan. In addition to being a mom, Cindi studies Tae Kwan Do, is learning to speak Thai, and is looking forward to finishing her Master’s Degree in Counseling later this year.

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Step by Step out of Despair

Parenting a Child with Special Needs By Laurel Houghton

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We were at home and I went to pick her up. She was blue, and her arms and legs limply dangled between my arms. I thought she was in a deep sleep. Then that she was dead. My first child, three days old. Not yet recovered from giving birth, I called her name, trying to bring her back to life as her father sped us to the ER. She’d had the first of many seizures that would only be stopped by literally putting her brain to sleep with drugs.

mb60-StepByStep2From that moment on, I lived in fear. I entered into a noble, instinctual struggle to save her life, changing in a few days from a scholarly doctoral student into a ferocious mother tiger. Meditation practice didn’t calm my parental instincts. Despite my ten-year morning and evening meditation practice, as she lay in Intensive Care hooked up to blinking machines and IVs, as she was prodded for blood tests, I lost my solidity. And between the pounding walls of the MRI, holding my tiny baby for a brain scan, I lost my faith.

She survived her birth, but we never found out the cause of the seizures and massive nervous system disorganization. One day she struggled to crawl and then gave up, flopping limply on the living room rug. Our baby was unable to talk, crawl, or walk. Her babble didn’t have normal sounds. It was then that I dropped my doctorate to study speech, occupational, physical, audio, and cutting edge therapies, usually staying up until midnight at our kitchen table as I studied specially ordered texts and planned an intervention program. I refused to accept her bleak prognosis, and solving her disabilities became my full-time work. For me, there was no balance and no breathing. My abdomen became rock hard.

Healthy mothers are often willing to give their life for their child. In my case, my personal determination to change her injured nervous system would dominate my life and become almost lethal. What I didn’t know or understand at the time was that trying to force a huge karmic drama of life into any particular outcome can eventually bring exhaustion and deep despair. Our efforts may be noble, but when we chronically stop breathing as we do our work, we are most likely caught in an ego- and fear-based control over life as it is. And giving my life to save my baby would nearly take both our lives.

My husband tried to help me notice what was good and easy in our family, but I couldn’t hear him. I was too frightened for my child. The already weak marriage became more conflicted and distant. An old family sexual secret that I’d been holding for years was eroding and splitting my psyche even more. Well-meaning friends tried to comfort me with: “God never gives you more than you can bear.” These well-intentioned words can be empty and irritating to a desperate person. What I needed was a powerful voice of wisdom and compassion; I needed to hear the Dharma from a teacher who knew trauma and war and could teach me how to emerge from trauma with clarity and love.

By my daughter’s fourth year, I’d become suicidal. Thoughts of suicide happen when you can no longer bear your life. Not willing to desert my baby daughter, I was feeling more frequent urges to die together with her. I heard the sad news of a Japanese mother in LA who committed suicide by taking herself and her children into the ocean surf with her. Other people were shocked, but I understood deeply. Even when life has become unbearable, a loving mother doesn’t leave her babies behind. Fortunately, years of meditation had strengthened the witnessing part of my mind, and I didn’t follow the despair that I felt. Instead I entered therapy, which brought deep understanding and healing around the roots of suffering in my family of origin.

A Bell of Happiness

In my spiritual practice, there was no one who seemed to speak to my suffering. In the Buddhist community, there seemed to be no one who warmly welcomed children. Then I heard of a monk who had been in war and came out of that violence speaking about flowers being fresh and mountains being solid. It was a faint bell of hope heard by an exhausted, traumatized mother who was struggling with too much and wondering if her child would live.

I went to hear Thay with hundreds of other people in the open meadows of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the early 1990s. Seated beside him on the platform were two beautiful young children. He appeared to inhale their sweet youthfulness. This teacher who came from war, violence, and exile, and who loved children, impressed me. His clear words were an anchor to a quiet place that was deeper than my yelling fears, and a lifeline out of shock and sadness.

It was four years after my daughter’s birth and the cause of her problems was still unknown. The fear in her baby eyes as she fell into another seizure on the porch of our little cottage in San Francisco still flashed in my consciousness. It was as if I were trying to emerge from a bomb shelter. I couldn’t feel any trace of “present moment, wonderful moment.” So I changed it to what I could honestly say: “Present moment, nothing bad is happening right now moment.”

Balancing fear and fatigue with inhaling the present moment, I played Thay’s Dharma talks at home and in the car, and attended every retreat on both U.S. coasts with my daughter in arms. I took her to Plum Village. She would lie in my lap and gaze up into Thay’s quiet and loving face during Dharma talks. She loved the slow, quiet, smiling community, a respite from an impatient culture that moved and talked far too fast for her. And over the years, though we didn’t keep the silence and she ate lots of commercial peanut butter at the retreats, I could feel Thay’s words watering a new consciousness in me.

Present Moment, Not Bad Moment

Then, one year, as I looked at my daughter, a change happened. I was able to honestly shift to a tiny new step and silently say: “Present moment, not bad moment.” It wasn’t a change in her disabilities; it was a change in my consciousness that started to ease the fear and trauma. Noticing the sweet moments of raising a child had started to shift my consciousness like rain streaming into a dried southwest desert creek. Bathing her soft skin in the bathtub with me, I started to notice that the present moment had become an okay moment.

Slow steady changes started to flow within me as I made a powerful intention to live with a persistent practice, and not in fear. I looked at the beauty of camellias when we walked the neighborhood. As my daughter did crawling exercises, I would adore the cuteness of her thick thighs and nibble her tiny toes. While still forcing my growing toddler to make sounds by holding back her carrot juice when she was thirsty, I smiled into her eyes and noticed progress in her flat and incomprehensible sounds. I learned to breathe more deeply as I listened to her various therapists. I worked with the sometimes heartless and bureaucratic schools by walking into her education planning meetings very slowly, breathing, with the soles of my feet touching the earth.

In this mothering practice, I started holding my fearful heart as tenderly as I did my growing child. Eventually, lighter moments of honestly feeling “present moment, wonderful moment” started forming one by one, like deeply lustrous pearls on a strand of our happier life together. It took about seven years of intensive practice to steady myself and diminish the internal drama.

Twelve years ago, for my ordination application, I was asked, “Are you happy?”

I still wasn’t sure. The fears and worries still yipped loudly, like a large pack of coyotes at dusk. But I understood that this barking was the natural, earthly, loving nature of a mother and child. And I’d learned to take good care of the barking worries by simply checking on my daughter’s safety and the multiple to-do lists for her disabilities.

Breathing in Beauty

What is different is this: alongside the fears passing through me are the thoughts of the rosy cherry tomatoes in our organic garden, and the miraculous memory of my daughter dancing a choreography, and now, after many years of parenting, a train adventure in Thailand together. Am I happy? Yes, mostly, I am happy. And it’s possible to still have fear for her. But now, fears don’t sweep me away from the wonderful moment.

Along with holding my daughter’s special needs, I also hold my own heart and fears more gently. I believe that Thay’s presentation of Buddhist teaching and practice was one essential part of literally saving my life from suicide and possibly the life of my baby daughter as well. He taught me to breathe in beauty and balance in the midst of fear and trauma.

My daughter—Mirabai Collamore, Joyful Clarity of the Heart—is part of the first generation of Thay’s American children, having walked hand in hand with him as a little girl and having learned to make a lotus with tiny fingers. Two years ago, at age twenty-two, she chose to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The Dharma light shines in her. The disabilities that were so frightening have been chipped away to almost nothing by her hard work. She attends a university where the worries of college studies and exams are held in gratitude as the precious jewels of a normal life. When nervous about her studying, Mirabai listens to her childhood cassettes of Thay, and at night she falls asleep in the arms of his Dharma talks.

As teachers of the Dharma, may we not rush the practice. May we all remember that just the next honest and mindful step, and then the next, and then the next, can gradually walk us out of despair and out of any dark consciousness.

To Thay, dear teacher, my lifelong prostration of deep gratitude.

mb60-StepByStep3Laurel Houghton, True Virtue and Harmony, has opened Flowing Waters Retreat at Mt. Shasta, California, a mindfulness practice center, where she hopes to offer a place to alleviate suffering through Dharma practice, the singing crystal pure waters, and the joy of wild spotted orchids growing under the cedars.

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Heartsong

By Brother Phap Sieu mb60-Heartsong1

The most common question we are asked as young monastics is, “Why did you become a monk?” I find that I often answer differently. The responses are all true but vary depending on my experiences that day, or who is asking. This process gently reflects that there is no clear stream of events, or even one particular moment, that opens the way to monastic life. The more I recall, the broader my scope of memory becomes. I must conclude that it is a continual process, which may have begun with a mother’s compassion for her son, extending into the present and onwards. However, there are a few particular memories that shine.

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Once during a camping trip organized by the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association, two group leaders got into a very heated argument. Just when it seemed they were about to come to blows, the older one announced, “I’m going to breathe,” and promptly vanished into the trees. At thirteen, I waited as long as I could (about five minutes) and then followed. The smiling man, now sitting calmly under a tree, was unrecognizable as the one who had been yelling just moments before. Later he explained that he had learned how to take care of his anger while living in a monastery in Southern France. But the first time I met the Plum Village monks and nuns was completely against my will.

Miraculous  Brotherhood

There was no way I was going without a fight. A meditation retreat? At the beginning of summer! But kick and scream as I might, it was fruitless. The agreement was made: if my brother and I were to go for just the week, we would get a whole month of summer to ourselves—no extra-curricular activities, no youth camp, no book reports!

The orientation was boring. How could it not be? One thousand people sitting, watching some monk speak in Vietnamese. I understood about one word in twenty and was too cool (or proud, though I never would have admitted it then) to ask for translation. But the chanting was neat. The bell was pretty cool, too. There was something about how an entire room completely stilled—and if you’ve ever been in a room filled with Vietnamese friends, you know what a feat that is.

It was with the slumped shoulders and defiant eyes classic to many teenage boys that I approached the room marked “Teen Program.” Double-checking my bag to see if my CD player and headphones were on hand, I stepped through the door.

A few days later, one would not have recognized the irrepressibly smiling, glowing young man I’d become. The Teen Program was  awesome! Who knew monks and nuns could be so… cool! They even took us to the beach—even rolled up their pants and played in the waves, splashing! But most miraculous was my sense of brotherhood with the other teens. Who could believe that in just five days I could be so open, feel so embraced by these kids whom I’d just met earlier that week? Certainly not me—nor the other teens. It was with continuing wonderment that we shared, laughed, and learned together.

The drive back to San Francisco from San Diego was about eight hours. As we neared our house I woke up briefly. “Mom…I have a question.” She seemed a bit startled; I’d been so quiet most of the trip. “Why did we wait so long before coming to these retreats?”

The Pursuit of Consumption

So tired. That was the thought that followed me to bed every evening, then waited, crouching by the headboard, to greet me every morning. College was everything I had expected it to be, for the first year. That was before having to worry about rent, essays, job applications, clothes, parties, friends, what I would do with the rest of my life. All I wanted was to find a meaningful direction that truly resonated with me. Instead I was taught how to be “successful”: how to make money and keep it. I ignored the happiness of my heart in favor of the calculating logic of my mind. I began to lose touch with the verve of life. Friends began to tell me I seemed down, needed to get out more. Teachers asked about late assignments, and roommates wondered if I wanted to go out Thursday night.

The absence of a spiritual practice and community support was really beginning to show. The Plum Village Retreats seemed ages ago; I was too “cool” now, too mature for singing circles and handholding. There was no way that stuff would work in the real world.

So instead of returning to my body and my breathing, and taking care of my emotions, I partied. At first the partying was filled with real enthusiasm, excitement, and perhaps even happiness. Then the partying became mandatory. Upon meeting friends on campus, instead of “How are you doing?” or “How’s your day?” the common greeting was, “How was your night?” Without enough courage or mindfulness to face the suffering within myself, to stop I was flung headlong into the whirlpool of consumption.

Suddenly I could not wait for the latest movie, book, or CD, could not wait for the next restaurant to open. Life dwindled to nothing but seeking the means to fulfill my need to consume. Later, in my aspiration letter to the monastic community, I likened the pursuit of consumption to a day in an amusement park. Stand in line for roller coaster: three hours; experience twenty-five-second adrenaline rush; get out of roller coaster; get back in line.

Magical Antidote

One day I received a letter in the mail. It was from Mom. Frustrated by my evasiveness on the phone, she finally put everything she felt to paper: all eighteen pages of it. The first three pages expressed concern for my well-being; the following three pages were full of comfort and encouragement. The next six contained detailed charts and graphs depicting just how much my college education cost. The final five revealed a candid account of Mom’s own experience upon first arriving in the U.S.: the humiliating struggle through high school as a complete alien, being responsible for six younger brothers and sisters, acclimating to a completely new continent—all without even the benefit of a common language.

It was a magical antidote for me. Hand-written and drawn, it was a mother’s true love for her child given form. Reading and receiving the contents accomplished what years of consumption, partying, and even counseling tried to hide: I recognized my suffering. I was no longer victim to my own self-pity, helplessness, and apathy. Reading the letter was the beginning of a re-opening of the heart. It also removed any assumptions about the practice being “kiddie stuff.”

Soon afterwards, I found myself driving south to Deer Park Monastery. I continued to visit Deer Park regularly every few months, commuting up and down the California coast, choosing to spend the weekend or spring break there. It was during one of these trips, windows down, speakers blasting the classic Plum Village CD, Rivers, when something clicked. I must have driven up and down the same highway over fifty times at that point, and never had I once recognized the beauty of the setting sun on my left, the soaring mountains on the right. Was there ever anything so beautiful? How could I have driven right by all these years without ever seeing? My heart was filled with a vast and immense joy. In that moment I made an oath to myself to do whatever it took to continue to live fully in the moment, to no longer be blind or deaf to the wonders around me, to life! It was but a small step from there to Plum Village, where the arms of the Sangha enfolded me.

mb60-Heartsong3Phap Sieu (Dharma Transcendence) is an energetic monk who loves sharing the Dharma with young people. He especially enjoys drinking tea and playing with the brothers. He resides in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

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