Winter Retreat Day 5: Parenting as Path

Adapted from an invited talk given at the Zen Center of Denver for The Holistic Homestead’s 2020 Winter Retreat by Zen teacher Hoag Holmgren who has lived with his family in Nederland since 1999. He’s an apprentice Zen teacher, an author of three books, one of them about Zen practice and realization called No Better Place: a New Zen Primer. He’s also a life/leadership coach (ICF certification expected in 2021). On Tuesday mornings at Tadasana Mountain Yoga in Nederland, from 7:30-8:30, he leads a small group of practitioners in Zen Buddhist meditation. 

Regarding the very important practice of bridging the gap, I think it might be useful to take a look at parenting and the contemplative path: how parenting unfolds in the field of lay practice, how parenting and formal practice inform and deepen each other, and how aspects of practice have a parenting element regardless of whether or not we’re parents. We all possess what the great Zen master Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253) refers to as Parental Mind or Magnanimous Mind.

Being a parent is without a doubt one of the central themes in the lives of a large percentage of practitioners, right up there with committed relationship and career.

Yet becoming a parent can be seen, initially at least, as sort of a
bummer in terms of formal practice for the parent or parent to-be. When
Leda (my wife) was pregnant for the first time, I had been practicing Zen
Buddhism for about five years and had done some sesshins (7 day retreats)
and was feeling more and more like this was really the path for me. And yet it was suddenly clear that I would need to reduce my formal temple practice (driving to Denver twice per week) if I were going to try to be a good father.

So, immediately, parenting and formal practice seemed to be mutually
exclusive. It was the simply the price I’d have to pay for being a parent.
The good news, of course (I may as well give away the ending) is that
spiritual practice and parenting are not mutually exclusive–just like brushing our teeth and spiritual practice are not mutually exclusive. From the perspective of practice, there is no such thing as “parenting” really. There’s just the act of waking up your child in the morning for school; just reading The Cat in the Hat aloud, maybe for the 37 th time, but really for the first and only time if you can disappear into each page; there’s just holding both your child’s hands and teaching her how to walk; there’s just discussing alcohol and drugs with your curious 12-year-old.
So raising children and practice can merge as long as there’s at least some
low-flicker practice going on: some daily zazen or meditation. Of course
there may be times, especially in the fleeting first weeks after a baby is born when there’s very little, if any, zazen. And this is OK of course. This may be especially true for parents who both work or for single parents or for new mothers who are healing physically in addition to doing round the clock nursing, feeding, washing, and acclimating to a new baby and to being a Mom for the first time.
But if it’s possible to keep our zazen alive, even just minutes per day or
eventually to find our way back to sustained practice once we get into some
kind of parenting rhythm, then there really is a chance for practice to flower as parenting and our parenting to flower as practice.

So let’s take a closer look.

One of the central things we’re asked to do as parents is to put someone
else’s needs before our own. We discover as new parents, over night, that
free time is no longer free at all. And it becomes obvious very quickly that
we simply have to do certain things whether or not we feel like it and
whether or not it makes us feel like a good parent and whether or not we’ll
get any acknowledgement or thanks. And these are often things that can’t be postponed. The obvious ones, with little kids, are feeding, bathing, changing diapers, listening to our child, playing with our child, or re-directing behavior like playing with an electrical plug. They get more nuanced as the kids grow up and we ask them to take more responsibility and do certain things for themselves. But over and over, throughout the day, in various ways, parents have to drop preoccupations and come forth without any agenda, plan, goal, or even a reason. When we see our child teetering at the top of the stairs, to give a dramatic example, there’s absolutely no thinking involved. There’s just instant reaching out and helping: what we call in Zen “appropriate responsiveness.”

There’s no gap, no weighing of options, no confusion, no choice. Our private self-centered concerns are completely forgotten in that moment.

This is not to say that parenting is always some kind of mystical,
transformative experience. On the contrary, precisely because parents
postpone their own personal needs and interests over and over, day after day, it can often be maddening, frustrating, and extremely challenging. Recently a friend of ours who has two pre-teen kids said to Leda, “Don’t you
sometimes just hate your kids?” Hate is strong word, but I think all parents
would admit to occasional strong feelings of frustration and sometimes even resentment, and a longing for the good old days of having no kids.

But can we just see and experience these feeling without wallowing in them
and making them worse, or beating ourselves up? Like all things, they arise
and pass away—but only if we see them clearly.

Without a doubt, we all fail from time to time as parents. But this is where
practice comes in. Zazen itself is sometimes called a practice of failing.
“Sweep as you may,” Keizan Zenji reminds us, “you cannot empty the
mind.” We all get swept away in thoughts and feelings and fantasies while
we’re doing zazen and while we’re walking the dog. That’s simply how it is.
The practice is to notice when we’re lost in the traffic of mind and then
without judgement return to the breath or to the bodily sensations of just
sitting. And parenting can work in the same way.

One of the things I’ve noticed along these lines is the ability to occasionally
sidestep habit when it comes to saying something or reacting in some way.
I’ll notice, for example, that I’m about to say to my son exactly the same
thing my Dad said to me—and suddenly a door opens that wasn’t there
before. There’s suddenly a little space where just a minute earlier everything seemed very narrow and almost predetermined. And I’m able to respond in a way that’s more authentic, something that’s more from me than from my Dad. It’s a very simple thing–just noticing a certain drifting into habit and then returning to the possibilities of right now. Yet for something so simple and obvious, it’s a tremendous ongoing challenge, at least that’s my experience for sure.

Because so much of parenting is putting another’s needs before our own, I
think we can see parenting as having a Bodhisattva aspect. Bodhisattvas, in
Buddhist mythology, dedicate their lives to saving all sentient beings
without any sense of separation or judgement, without any sense of helping, without any sense of personal gain, and with unshakeable compassion and love. Each one of us has this innate potential. Each one of us is Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, when we’re freed from the narrow canyon of self-apart. But this is difficult to realize without engaged and sincere practice. Why? Because the practice of meditation is the practice of forgetting the self in the act of uniting with the breath or with a koan. This is how we build the muscle of selflessness.
The notion of love or compassion is an area where I’ve heard lots of parents say nearly the identical thing. I’ve heard it in men’s sweat lodges and also when talking to mothers. What they say is, “I never knew I was capable of loving this deeply until I had children.” It’s hard to describe, in the original cartoon the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, right before he becomes the good Grinch, there’s an X-ray view of his heart breaking out of the picture frame and the narrator says “Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.” It’s like that when we become parents. If we’re lucky, with the help of ongoing practice, there’s a chance for it to stay open and not shut down over the years when our kids enter their teens and grow up and begin to prefer to hang out with their friends.

And this enlarged heart isn’t reserved for just our own kids. It can allow us
to see all beings this way.

The Beat poet Michael McClure has a great little
poem called “To an Inchworm.” Here are the last few lines:

Hey there! Run loose
among the flowers and the sedum,
even yogis and zen masters
have no more freedom
than an open-end permission
to chew on petals and wriggle through
the nests of bronzy thorns!
You and I are just the same
—we once were “borns!”
I love that the last word borns is in quotations:
You and I are just the same
—we once were “borns!”

Easy to take for granted, and to understand intellectually, but each one of us
is born which also means that each one of us will die, including each one of
our children. Kind of hard to be petty or selfish if we really see this. Kind of
hard not to appreciate each breath and each moment.

For about 2 weeks after Soren, our oldest child, was born, I felt like I had been let in on this great cosmic secret: every human being was once born.

It faded after a while but for a long time I’d see an angry, tough-looking guy
on the street but instead I’d just see this helpless little new-born. And I’d
want to say, “Dude, you can’t fool me. I know you were once this helpless
little peanut. Me too. We’re all in this together.”

And we can say the same thing about death and dying. It’s something
profound that we share with all beings. Yes, there’s no-birth and no-death,
and if we’re lucky we can experience this in our our practice. That’s what
our great tradition allows us to see and realize more and more deeply, for the benefit of all beings. And yet at the same time everyone and everything
comes into being and passes away. I’m reminded of that great line in Clint
Eastwood’s movie The Unforgiven when the character Munnie says to a
character named The Kid who is trying justify killing a man because “he had it coming.” Munnie says, “We all got it comin’, kid.”

An unexpected aspect of parenting that opened up for me was gratitude for
my own parents. I definitely appreciated them more after I had kids. I
understood more deeply their daily functioning insanity as parents, because I was experiencing it myself, and so I could forgive them. A good friend reminded me once that insanity is hereditary; you get it from your kids! So in becoming a parent I understood something first-hand about my parents’ lives–as parents–that I couldn’t have otherwise.
Indeed, parents and kids reveal to each other a profound inter-
connectedness, our fundamental interbeing. When my first child was born,
Hoag-the-father was born along with him and Hoag-who-has-no-children
died. When my father died, Hoag-who-has-a-father died with him, and
Hoag-whose-father-has-died was born. Birth informs and creates death, and death informs and creates birth.
So I think we have a chance to get a glimpse, as parents, if we’re lucky and
if we’re practicing, of what it means to be a Bodhisattva. With our own
children, yes, but also with other people: family members, friends, and
strangers. Seeing others, even fleetingly, with no separation, with a generous heart and mind, knowing that everyone without exception is on a profound and mysterious journey, and that we’re all in it together. This really is possible with practice.

Back to Beginner’s Mind

Another Dharma touchstone of parenting is the experience of Beginner’s
Mind. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who coined the term, says, “In the beginner’s
mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Parents are constantly being cast into the cauldron of beginner’s mind. What made sense or what worked yesterday as a parent is suddenly completely irrelevant today. We find ourselves with no script and in a new world over and over again as the children grow, outgrowing certain ways of being and growing into completely new ones. These range from the trivial—such as loving French Toast one day and hating it the next, to the challenging—a child suddenly saying he’s depressed.
One of the times I experience beginner’s mind is when my kids are sick,
typically in the middle of the night, when I get up to keep them company if
they’re throwing up, or to take their temperature, or call the doctor or drive them to the emergency room at three in the morning. There’s a clarity and focus that can arise because we don’t know what’s happening, or what will happen, or if the child has the cold or flu or pneumonia. There’s more space than usual and there’s often a deep peace and tenderness that arises, and I think it’s because the focus is so completely on the child. Everything else drops away, including all knowing.
Of course, beginner’s mind is not exclusive to parents nor is compassion and interconnectedness. Dogen, who didn’t have any kids as far as we know, writes in his famous Tenzo Kyokun, or Instructions for the Cook:
“…when you handle water, rice, or anything else, you must have the
affectionate and caring concern of a parent raising a child. Shakyamuni
took twenty years off his life expectancy to care for us in later generations.
What is the significance of this? It was simply a demonstration of Parental
Mind. The Tathagata did not do this in expectation of some reward or fame.
He did it unconditionally, without thought of profit or gain.” And later on in
the same text he says, “Whether you are the head of a temple, a senior monk or other officer, or simply an ordinary monk, do not forget the attitude behind living out your life with joy, having the deep concern of a parent and carrying out all your activities with magnanimity.”

Thich Nhat Hahn has his own version of this when he says we should wash vegetables mindfully because each one is literally a baby Buddha.

So yes, parenting with its challenges and rewards, can help wake us up if
we’re lucky enough to keep our formal practice alive. But parenting mind is inherent in everyone. Having kids or being a parent is not necessary, just like having kids in itself is not necessarily a spiritual practice.
But if we can engage walking meditation wholeheartedly and be completely each step, then we can also listen to a child who has something really important to tell us. And if we can listen deeply in our daily life, we can enter more readily into our zazen.

Parenting mind is really nothing other than Buddha mind, nothing other than what each of us is and always has been. Parents making cupcakes for the birthday party at school. Non-parents listening to a neighbor whose wife is in the 3 rd round of chemotherapy. The only question is: can we realize this mind and manifest it for the benefit of all beings.

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