"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 second post in the series. Read all the posts in the series here.
A deep breath. A sigh. Bringing myself back to the writing. Luca is playing downstairs with a friend of mine and I can hear his robust laughter and his strong voice. He loves this friend who is always ready to read books with him. Whenever she walks in the door, he runs excitedly forward shouting, "Books! Books!" Then he clumsily gathers a stack and invites her, in his own ways, to sit down with him. And they begin the game of naming everything they see. Luca usually shouts everything twice, "Bear! BE-AR!", and, "Firetruck! FIRE-TRUCK!"
Lisa Hills, InsightLA sangha member, writer, teacher, and parent, will post here every couple of weeks with her reflections on "the dragons in our lives." You can read her other posts here.
My two-and-a-half-year-old son, Owen, screams. His mouth stretches open; his eyes squeeze out tears; his body arches away from Ana, the woman who takes care of him while I work.
“No Ana! Momma, Momma!”
I stand uncertain, my throat tight, my head foggy. I breathe deeply and focus on my son’s face. His mouth resembles a dark cavern; mucus runs from his nose. My mind races through the parental protocols for leaving: acknowledge his feelings, reassure him that I will be back, tell him the plan, say good-bye, and walk away.
I gather his body back into my arms, hold him against my chest. He quiets.
“Momma is going bye-bye. You’re sad and angry that Momma is going bye-bye. Ana will hold you and you can cry as long as you need. You are going to play with Ana, have lunch, and then rest. When you wake up from your nap, Momma will be here.”
His sobs resume immediately as I place him in Ana’s arms and resolutely walk away.
Owen and I have been separating and coming back together for most of his life. He, Ana and I had a routine that worked. He greeted Ana’s morning arrival with a wide smile. After breakfast, I kissed him good-bye and left for work. I returned before he woke up from his midday nap. When he turned two-and-a-half, this routine broke down. He became less happy with Ana’s arrival and more insistent that I stay. “No Ana! No Ana!” he declared repeatedly. “Momma stay!” Our good-byes lasted longer and longer. And my anxiety mounted.
Intellectually, I knew that toddlers experiment with the power of their nos. Ana reassured me that moments after I left, he happily resumed playing. When Owen cried, however, I felt like a terrible mother. My rising panic and doubt created a cloud of confusion between him and me. I couldn’t see what he needed and I didn’t believe I could provide it.
Luckily, my meditation and mindful writing practices have familiarized me with this self-doubt. I knew how to explore it (read my first post here.) I started by writing as I do when I have writer’s block and when I have this frozen, panicky feeling with Owen. I asked myself how I felt. What felt intolerable? What associations did I have with this feeling? I wrote without stopping, without demanding answers and with curiosity about the emotions that arose.
My own childhood experiences with separation emerged. I often did not know where my parents were or when they would return. I frequently experienced terrifying loneliness. My need for connection was inconvenient in a family of four children with two parents who had demanding careers. Owen is an only child. I spend a good chunk of each day playing with, attending to and connecting with him.
Once I felt the differences between my childhood and Owen’s, I sought out information. How could I make separation feel safe for both Owen and myself? What reassured two-and-a-half year olds? A call to my friend, co-teacher, fellow meditator and parent educator, Tandy Parks, provided the reassurance and information I wanted. She let me ramble as I recounted Owen’s tears, detailed our daily schedule, and defended my writing career. “Your schedule is fine,” she began. “But you don’t sound happy. What schedule do you want?” In all my writing about Owen’s and my separation anxieties, I had not asked myself this. A clear answer immediately appeared. I wanted to lounge with Owen, connect and play with him, and then leave the house to write. Our schedule accommodated my desire to work in the mornings, but my needs had changed. I wanted my fill of Owen before I left.
After I changed my schedule, Owen and I developed some sweet good-bye rituals. We read a book together before I go. He draws a “bye-bye window” with an erasable pen on our glass front door. After I hug him, we kiss through this window and I leave. He cries less often but still fiercely. I can now more clearly hear these cries. He doesn’t want his Momma to leave and he knows she’ll come back.
Through this open-ended attentive writing process (what I call mindful writing), I learn about and even welcome the intense emotions that parenting can animate. Talking to a non-judgmental friend like Tandy helps me make sense of the stories I’m telling myself about these intense emotions. Once I more clearly understand my own feelings, I can gather information and develop strategies that enable Owen and I to experience challenging situations together. For those who don’t have a parent educator like Tandy in your life, mindful parenting classes exist that support this process. InsightLA is offering a six-week "Mindful Parenting" class on Friday mornings starting in January. You might also check out UCLA Commons, or contact Tandy Parks for her classes.
In addition to being a meditator, Lisa Hills, Ph.D. is a writer, teacher and parent. She has been practicing meditation with the support of Trudy Goodman, InsightLA and her kalyana mitta (spiritual friendship) group for seven years. Since the birth of her son, Owen, two years ago and the completion of her English Ph.D. at UCLA, Lisa has focused on parenting and writing plays and personal essays. She currently teaches a mindfulness and writing workshop for parents with Tandy Parks in Santa Monica.
Every couple of weeks we'll feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire. This is Michael's fifth "dharmablog" entry. To get caught up, go read his other posts here.
It was the best of metta, it was the worst of metta...
In the summer of 2005, I attended a seven-day metta retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA. The little I knew about metta -- a Pali word usually translated as "lovingkindness" for one’s self and others -- felt like a non-starter to me. Compassion for myself? Please. I went because the retreat happened to fall at a convenient time.
James Baraz, one of the teachers, began by explaining that instead of practicing Vipassana, we would be silently repeating four phrases during every waking moment for the entire seven days. (Some variation of, “may I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be at ease.”) The sinking sensation in my stomach reminded me of when I was 10 and was instructed to play the piano in front of an auditorium full of people.
I resolved to stick to good old Vipassana. It would be my little secret. And if I got busted, what could they do to me? Send me more loving-kindness?
Then my competitive streak kicked in, and I decided if everyone else could do metta, so could I. Worst case, I’d return to Vipassana or run screaming from the magnificent meditation hall. I stuck with the phrases as much as I could, and lo and behold: The experience was sheer torture. Getting through that week was an exercise in pure endurance, like running a marathon with no training and an aching Achilles tendon. Except for the last day, which was fantastic. Because it was over.
This past summer, exactly five years later, I completed the same retreat -- same place, food, time of year, most of the same teachers and instruction. But this time, repeating the phrases felt natural -- as everything slowed down, I felt as though the prior metta retreat, and the intervening years of regular Vipassana and metta practice -- had built up my meditation muscles, like swimming or practicing the piano every day had trained me for those activities. At retreat’s end, I was euphoric; it was as though I’d completed that marathon with energy to spare. Of course, I was also thrilled it was over -- I hadn’t changed that much!
I know it’s not a good idea to practice meditation with any particular outcome in mind, but there’s nothing wrong with being mindful of the wonderful changes that accrue from intense practice. According to Rick Hanson, co-founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplation, focusing on positive mental states creates grooves in the brain that can help reroute a lifetime of zero-sum conditioning.
Our Spirit Rock teacher James Baraz, whose recent book Awakening Joy fleshes out these themes, suggests that noticing and appreciating moments of happiness or joy -- even fleeting ones--just a few times a day can, within weeks, cause our everyday minds to incline more towards these states. Imagine the potential of a week’s worth of this kind of focus.
Thanksgiving season can pressure us to “be grateful” and express that gratitude. And science tells us that grateful people are generally more satisfied with life than those who aren't; they even exercise more and sleep better! But real gratitude can’t be forced. Practicing metta is as good a way as any I know of to cultivate authentic gratitude. Because it arises from compassion.
Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company. He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint. He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond. Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.