Several years ago I had a therapy client call me the “dalai momma.” She loved the way I integrated spiritual practice into my life with my children, and how I brought it to the therapy circle as a mother and therapist. We would have a good laugh whenever we saw each other because she’d call out, “How’s the dalai momma doing?” And while I was always flattered by the nomenclature, I was also secretly ashamed. I felt like a phony.
The truth is, I still got angry at my kids. I still yelled and totally lost my temper from time to time – sometimes even daily when my son was moving through the dreaded “terrible twos.” I was struggling with my practice and feeling increasingly frustrated with myself. I lacked the dignity that my client had lovingly bestowed on me.
I’m also known to be particularly hard on myself. I have high expectations, and so the Buddhist principles of right effort and discipline have been sources of great inspiration and pride. They’ve also been obstacles. Treading the Buddhist path is not easy in the beginning or in the middle, although I think most of us hope it will be effortless by the end. We have to face difficult, unpleasant, and ugly truths about ourselves. We wade through the impacts of our previous actions as we breathe through the karmic results.
And then comes parenthood hurtling into your Zen space, smashing all your hard-earned tranquility to pieces. Your child throws their cereal bowl across the kitchen when you’re already late for work. Just when your baby vomits all over you while you’re standing in line at the grocery store, your toddler is on the floor in a full-blown meltdown.
How do you cultivate patience in the midst of such constant and unpredictable chaos? How do you even muster the time each day to train your mind?
I became a mother at the same time that I was renewing my commitment to the spiritual path. I knew I wanted to parent my children differently – hopefully better – than my own parents. As a therapist I wanted to bring real helpfulness to my clients – not just temporary relief, but perhaps a nudge in the direction of liberation. Instinctively I know that it all begins with me and that the transformation I make on the cushion is what will make me effective off the cushion. But I became rigid. Discipline and right effort downgraded into obstacles.
“Not too tight, and not too loose.”
Five years ago, I thought I had that mastered. I no longer fell asleep in my meditation sessions, and I had calmed the rampant thoughts enough to cultivate insight. I could sit with relative ease for several hours. I was proud of myself.
That was before kids. Becoming a mother and practitioner changed all of that. In response to the chaos and sleeplessness, I believed I had to push myself harder. I was desperately tired from parenting, and yet I had to make time to train. I’d get up at 4am, practice for two hours, and feel great throughout the day. My patience was readily accessible.
After a few days of early morning wake-ups, my practice suddenly fell apart. I slept through the next morning practice. I would beat myself up for missing a session. That would move into hopelessness and self-pity. I wouldn’t return to the cushion the next day, or the one after that, because I judged myself a “bad” practitioner for lapsing in my discipline.
A week later I tried to pull it together and start the cycle all over again with my 4am sit. This increase of tension and pressure in my practice only made me more irritable, and frequently disappointed. After a few years of this rigidity, I entered a state of spiritual distress.
In the summer of 2017, sitting in front of Rinpoche and queued to speak about how the last year of practice was influencing my work as a therapist, I broke down into tears. I poured out my exhaustion in an emotional burst that felt like the relief of letting go of something that I had been clinging to by my teeth for decades. Rinpoche was so kind, and so compassionate. He listened patiently and once I finished blubbering and had quieted down, he responded.
At first he seemed to speak to the circle of practitioners gathered around us. I was mortified by my loss of composure. What Rinpoche said surprised me. “This woman does more than me. I do a lot around the monastery and traveling to so many places, it’s true.” Then he looked at me. “But the difference, my dear, is that I know how to rest.”
Rest. What does it mean to rest?
As most of us often find with Rinpoche’s pith instruction, it took months for me to unpack this precious teaching. When I returned home from retreat I decided it meant that I was given a get-out-of-jail-free card. I slept, and slept, and relaxed. I didn’t wake up at 4am anymore. I meditated in my office for about 20 minutes most days and that was it!
But I had also received the pointing out instruction on that retreat. We were to cultivate our awareness of the nature of mind and accumulate 400,000 recitations. Five months later I realized that while I indeed needed the physical rest I had also stagnated in my development.
I felt confident that I’d seen the nature of mind. A few glimpses here and there had occurred. I filled the rest in with a lot of reading and came to the conclusion that yes, I know the nature of the mind and now I know how to handle this human life. It’s all clarity-emptiness. No big deal. But I still got angry. I still yelled at my kids. I still lost my temper.
Back to the early-morning sits. I kick-started my discipline with a birthday gift of an in-home 3-day retreat. For the next several months I awoke at 4:30am instead of 4am. This was a little better. I encountered joy in my effort when I began to see emotions arise as empty appearances spontaneously in the midst of challenging moments. I saw results from the practice that were more than recognition of the nature of mind. I continued to read dharma books but no longer told myself that I had it all figured out and that I could simply kick back.
Something shifted for me again while I was reading Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s book Carefree Dignity. He explained that our recognition of the nature of mind and subsequent transformation don’t happen all at once. It’s a culmination of many small glimpses repeated again and again.
While I knew this already, I hadn’t been practicing that way. This wasn’t going to be something that I could sit down at 4:30am and by 5 or 6am I’d have finally tapped into and “poof!” I’d be transformed. That’s when it dawned on me what true effort and discipline looks like. I don’t have to seclude my training and hinge all of my transformation on this single 2-hour sit in the morning. That’s way too much pressure!
I began to relax in a different way, and to spread the training out. As a mom, I don’t have the luxury of sitting down for formal meditation whenever I want. By 8am I am at my desk at work, by 6pm I am wrangling two preschoolers through their evening food-bath-bed routine, and at 9pm I am falling asleep sitting up on the couch.
But I can train for 10 minutes between clients. I can train in the 35-minute car ride to and from work. I can train for 5 minutes sitting on the toilet, or 8 minutes walking to lunch. These moments began to fill in all of the spaces of my life.
What does it mean to rest? When I am at the stove making dinner for my children in the evening, I remember to look. When I recognize the nature of the mind, I rest. A few minutes go by and I look again, then rest. When my children ask me for the hundredth time if dinner is ready yet I smile, and pat them gently on the head. I don’t bark at them anymore, or become frustrated.
When difficult emotions arise, I remember to look directly at their empty nature and then rest. I’m not perfect at this, but I feel confident and joyful in knowing that it’s shaping me with many small glimpses repeated all day. I don’t have to cling to an incorrect view of what training should look like. It doesn’t work that way as a “dalai momma.”
Jamie, from Marietta, Georgia USA, is a mother of two and works as a mental health therapist and victim advocate. She has been a meditator for ten years, and is trained in cognitive based compassion training. Her passions are nature, poetry, and cuddling with her kitten Suki.
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