"My 18-Year Retreat" is a series of posts by sangha member, and teacher trainee, Paloma Cain, on the topic of "Mindful Parenting." This is the first post in the series.
I've been awake since 4am when Luca woke up restless with teething pain and shouting, "Mama!" He would settle down and sleep when I lay next to him, rocking him, so that's what I did for the next 3.5 hours. Until he opened his eyes, patted my face, and beamed a playful smile at me, letting me know that it was time to get up and start the day.
Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, in their book, Everyday Blessings, liken parenting to an 18-year, or longer, retreat and that idea intrigues me. I'm interested in the experience that bridges so that my parenting is not "other" from my practice life. I've been asked to write about mindful parenting here, and hopefully it will be a place where we can explore this a bit together.
Appropriately enough, it was my mother who introduced me to meditation. She started practicing when I was three years old, so the sight of meditating adults was familiar to me, and annoying. For us kids, meditation sessions were tedious exercises in trying to behave while feeling ignored.
Now Luca is napping and I would be too — really, I have actually learned to do that — but there is someone here working on the house and he needs intermittent input, so I am blogging while the baby sleeps instead. In my previous (pre-parenting) life, if I had been up since 4am, it would have been because I was on retreat meditating, greeting the day in deep silence or surrounded by clouds of incense and chanting. Today, I was just tired and wishing that I had gone to bed before midnight so that I would have gotten a little more sleep.
My relationship to practice shifted when I was 19 and mom took my brother and me on a trip to India. For the first time, I met meditators my own age who were following an inner urging to seek something that their upbringing had been lacking. A notion of my own good fortune at having grown up with meditators began to dawn. Tibetan monks spent all day in puja in the dim temple, emerging radiant and joking at mealtimes. Western monks spoke with us in the courtyard about watching thoughts cross our minds like clouds across a pure blue sky, leaving no trace.
Much like the moods of a toddler, I reflect now. Luca can be adoring and angry in the same breath as he tries to figure EVERYTHING out and looks to me to explain this world to him. And right now he is looking for simple answers. He wants to know how basic things work, like pouring water from a cup. We worked on it all morning.
Now Luca shouts in his sleep and I pause, listening, wondering whether it's a full wake-up. He is cutting some molars right now and has frequent bouts of restless peevishness. Silence. I draw a deep breath. So far, the hardest part about parenting has been not being able to take away his pain. The traditional teachings of meditation say much about suffering and how to work with it, but I find it more challenging in this context. How do we apply what we have learned in our practice to parenting? How does the solo adventure of sitting on a cushion translate into the ceaseless activity of parenting?
My interest in meditation continued to grow as I attended UCSB where I studied with renowned scholar and former monk, Alan Wallace. Then, after college, when I found myself ungrounded during a breakup, my mother invited me to join her on retreat and, for the first time, I accepted.
The retreat had a profound effect. It showed me the relevance of practice to my journey. Meditation became a refuge from the stormy and unmanageable waters of my emotional life. The teachings on the inevitability of suffering that I had formerly found so depressing became inspiring as I applied them to my own circumstances. The cherished relationship, the feelings I clung to… the impermanence of these things was unavoidable.
I look at Luca now with admiration as his emotions flow through and leave without a trace. My little teacher. He holds nothing at this stage. My heart aches and I want to tell him to hold this purity. But, alas, impermanence. He holds nothing, not this state of being, not anything.
My work is to rest with him through it all, not abandoning him in his anger or praising his sweetness, but letting it all in. I can hear him talking now, softly naming the animals in bed with him, almost whispering as he wakes up gentle and rested. I have been playing with the idea of his voice as my meditation bell, my call to practice. I get up now, remembering that this is my 18-year – or longer – retreat.
Next: My journey continues and I find my way to Insight L.A.
Paloma Cain was raised in an American Buddhist family in Northern California. She claims that she didn't like meditation until circumstances drove her to it, but now she can't imagine living without it. An artist at heart, she holds degrees in art and psychology and has interned as a hospital chaplain. She is a former director of Tara Mandala Retreat Center in Colorado, and is currently in Insight L.A.'s teacher training program. She and her husband live in Los Angeles with their young son, Luca.
photo credit: Margie Woods Brown