The Zen of Parenting

One of the most interesting questions regarding maintaining a meditation practice in the midst of living an ordinary life is the matter of how to practice if you have children. The classic books about meditation tend not to address this subject because they were generally written by celibate monks who, even when they did try to address how to practice outside the monastic setting, didn’t have any first-hand knowledge to draw upon when it came to having kids. Though there are a handful of books and websites out there on the subject of “mindful parenting” the subject still seems under-represented in the literature.

I myself have much the same problem when it comes to this subject as those ancient Buddhist writers did. I don’t have any children of my own. So I put the word out to parents who read my blog posts and have a regular meditation practice.

Stephen Belotti told me, “I don’t think anyone without children can really understand how much energy children suck out of you. Young children generally require constant attention, constant affirmation, and have zero ability to understand that you need some time away from them to regroup your energy. Your marriage changes quite a bit with children — especially with more than one child. There were days when the kids were younger that with my rising so early in the morning, a full day of work, getting home and helping out with the house-chaos, dinner, bedtime, teeth brushing, stories, games, etc. then having to do errand-type stuff if you could finally get them to stay in bed, that at 9:00pm, I would just pass out from exhaustion.” 

One thing everyone told me is that if you want to meditate with kids in the house, you have to be able to be flexible. You can’t be too precious about your meditation time. You have to give up any idea that anything less than the full forty minutes or whatever you’ve allotted is a waste of time. It’s not.

Meditation is still valuable even if you only get five or ten minutes before having to rush off to change a diaper, deal with a scraped knee or manage a hormonally induced teenage breakdown.

Dogen’s first instructions on how to meditate say to find a quiet room free from distractions and put aside other obligations. But for parents — especially new parents — this is not always an option. That does not mean that you should just give up.

Matt Ryan, father of 11-month old Agnes Boo told me, “With a young very active baby you don’t get that much time, as it seems I’m always on the go — feeding, changing nappies, playing, reading, etc. Then there’s always a chance that Agnes will wake up during my sitting so I’ll have to go and make sure she’s ok. Sometimes she’ll go back to sleep and I can go back to my sitting. Otherwise the sitting is over, like it or not.”

Jeffry Gonzalez advises parents to, “give up on the idea of having a undisturbed quiet experience while practicing. At first there was this underlying thread of paranoia during practice because I was hyper-vigilant in listening for problems with the kids, etc. Eventually you sort of just trust it will be ok. You can’t really tune it out, but you don’t pay attention to it so much.”

Matt Ryan says, “I think the main thing is to accept that the practice might stop at any moment and that’s just part of the practice.” Matt, by the way, sometimes deals with this situation by doing his meditation with Agnes strapped to his chest.

Robyn Love told me, “I have to be patient and have a lot of trust.  I guess those two things are what parenting are all about in any case, but especially in this case.  And, so far, so good.”

Reworking your schedule is another way to make sure you get your meditation on each day. Sometimes this works better than other times. Caroline Anderson said, “I have a regular practice every day, for 20 minutes.  Mostly when this does happen, it’s often late at night when both the children are in bed.  I think the ages of children are significant.  My two are 15 and 10, which means they are both relatively independent.  Babies can require immediate attention, so there’s a difference in age groups for parents I think.”

Jeffry Gonzalez told me, “I have to get up very early, usually at 5:00 a.m. as I have to leave for work at 7:15. I also have a job where I get to work from home sometimes, so on those days I can do it in the middle of the day. Part of this was getting over my teacher’s advice that we always practice first thing in the morning (‘or else it just won’t happen’). As a parent, if you can sleep in a bit – you do it. It doesn’t happen often.”

There is also the matter of your partner’s needs. Since childrearing tends to be a joint effort (though not always) it’s important to be sensitive to this. Jeffry Gonzalez says, “Challenges include making sure that my wife, who also practices meditation, has opportunity to practice as well. Sometimes it is literally tag-team. I start, I finish, she starts.”

Paul Erlandson told me, “Morning sitting was just a matter of task orchestration with my wife. I would generally wake before her, and sit while she started on breakfast. Evening sitting and group meditation happened after the youngest kids were in bed (not always quietly so), and my daughter was doing homework or watching T.V.” Sometimes you gotta learn to meditate to the sounds of cartoons playing in the next room. Again, it’s better than not meditating at all!

Often, though, our significant others aren’t as into this meditation thing as we are. Caroline Anderson told me, “When you’re in a relationship with a non-mediator this can be difficult, as you feel that after a hard day and when the kids are in bed, that’s your time with your partner.”

Paul Erlandson addressed the issue of what happens when the feelings of peace and equanimity provided by your meditation suddenly get shattered by rambunctious children. He says, “I think one thing I had to grapple with was getting greedy for peace. Meditation, of course, does not always leave one in a peaceful state of mind, but often it does. Whilst reveling in the warm fuzziness of that, having peanut butter smeared on your pants, or a temper tantrum, or being head butted in the solar plexus, can really stir up some irritation. OK, those things can always be irritating, but I found them more so after meditating, ironically.”

I like that he used that phrase “greedy for peace.” It’s a good one that even meditators without children ought to be aware of. He elaborates, “In the grand scheme, it’s just another flavor of greed, and in time I learned to hold on less tightly to those warm states.”

Paul furthermore recommends meditation for parents even when it isn’t all bliss and peace because, he says, “I found that it helped me to be a better parent. More authentic. More patient. Less enmeshed. The results of a daily meditation practice are hard to measure, but I think it’s safe to suggest that it is unlikely to make someone a worse parent. I’ve always felt that to a child the difference between patience and love is a nuance. Anything that enables you to be more patient with your children, will be experienced by them as being loved.”

It’s also completely acceptable to put the needs of your children before your own needs as a meditator. Meikan Estudo told me that for her, “My children come first and sometimes that means missing something that I have scheduled for my practice. In the summertime, I am at home with them. I rarely get a moment to myself. Trying to read something like Dogen is nearly impossible. It’s difficult for me anyway but with constant interruptions more in depth study practice is hard. I can hardly have a thought of my own much less think on things with any depth.”

Patience is crucial. As Robyn Love told me, “For me, the greatest challenge has been to have patience.  Once I encountered the dharma and found the place where I wanted to practice and found my teacher, I was eager to dive in (I had spent a lot years just reading about Buddhism – it took me a long time actually want to find a teacher and really practice).  At that time, my kids were around six or eight years old.  It was quickly apparent that I didn’t have the time available to become a formal student or even practice as much as I would have liked.  

“At first this seemed like a sacrifice but over time I realized that it allowed me to really look at why I wanted to take up Zen and, specifically, become a student of my teacher.  By the time my children were older and it was possible to engage more formally, I felt pretty solid with my practice and with my decision to deepen it.  But it was hard to be content with what felt like less.  On the other hand, it was clear to me that my children were the first priority — always.  Of course, parenting is non-stop practice but it sure helps to have a steady sitting practice to support it.  Balancing the sense of urgency I feel about practice with the reality of my responsibilities has been my biggest challenge.”

Chris Amirault brought up another important point. “I’m not sure that those with children have fundamentally different issues than those without children. Most lives are busy with loved ones, obligations, work, and other matters that it can feel you simply don’t have enough time. Using meditation to avoid personal intimacy or responsibility; blaming or resenting others for your inability to find ways to sit; being a bodhisattva to the grocery clerk but not the people with whom you live: kids aren’t the only humans who can get caught up in your dukkha (suffering).”

When your kids are older, it’s perfectly OK to tell them that meditation time is important, that it’s special “alone time” and that they should be quiet when mommy and/or daddy go into the meditation room.

This doesn’t always work. Caroline Anderson told me, “I have tried zazen when the kids are awake, however even when I’ve said ‘Hey, I’m off to sit some zazen, please keep the noise down and no interruptions’, I get a barrage of interruptions, ranging from shouting requests up the stairs for something to eat, to arguments downstairs, to my little boy walking in mid-session and saying ‘can I join you?’ It’s almost like quantum superposition, the awareness that you’re doing something that involves stillness provokes a reaction that’s unpredictable. Something like that anyway!” Even so, most of the time kids do understand this sort of thing and will be respectful of a parent’s need to do something for themselves.

Caroline also told me about how parenting issues sometimes find their way into her meditation practice itself. She says, “If you’ve had a bad day with the kids, i.e. maybe they’ve been tearing each other a new arsehole and you’ve gotten angry and yelled at them, later in the evening that comes up in zazen.  I know for me, I can get feelings of guilt and regret come up in the practice — actually it’s guaranteed. Thoughts like ‘I’m a bad parent, what kind of effect will being like that have on my kids? Have I scarred them, what kind of damage have I done by shouting?’” 

She says, “I don’t think this is a bad thing, it’s just a thing.  I don’t hold onto it or analyze it its just a residue from the day. The kids are relatively unique individuals, well balanced and happy and I’m doing the best I can.  But I didn’t think like that before practicing, I’ve just accepted that with time.”

As your children get older, the time may come when they want to talk to you about your practice. I don’t recommend trying to force children to meditate. I know most parents wouldn’t even try. Why add that kind of extra stress? It’s better to let children come to it on their own.

Caroline had a lot to say on this subject. So let’s hear from her. She says, “My son is very interested in the practice.  He’s ten and had Aspergers and ADHD.  His interest admittedly stemmed from hearing me prepare for my zazen when he was tucked up in bed.  I think initially he thought it would be an opportunity to stay up later, so asked me what it was I was doing (or not doing) and asked if he could try.

“At first he found this difficult, as he has an attention deficit disorder.  He finds it hard to concentrate on being still. During across the first few sessions he talked incessantly.  But the key thing was patience and non-judgment.  The first session he sat for two minutes.  The second three minutes, the third, five minutes.  After a while, he started to settle into it. I remember the milestone of fifteen minutes of stillness.   We tend to stick to a ten-minute zazen session, because that feels just about right for him. And he closes his eyes, because he finds he gets distracted very easily (attention deficit).  And it’s when he wants to engage in it, there is no pressure.  It’s come and bring your cushion if want to join in. 

“It also bought me closer to him, because after each session we would have a chat.  This basically entailed us sitting together and saying ‘how was that for you’?  Where he would open up to me about the practice, what he found difficult, what he experienced, what had come up for him, like problems at school etc. 

He really enjoys sitting.  Partly because of the practice and partly because its time together, when everything slows down and we can be still.  It’s not something we experience much during the day, with school, work, household chores, homework, socializing.  Being still together brings something to our relationship that I didn’t think was possible, there was a gap in our understanding of one another, zazen bridged that gap in a way.”

It doesn’t always work out that nicely, though. Robyn Love told me, “My kids’ interest comes and goes.  For my son, he mostly doesn’t want to hear about and rolls his eyes when I mention anything Zen-related (he is seventeen).  On the other hand, he occasionally comes out with some observation or statement that makes it clear that he has some pretty remarkable insights about people and human nature, which I think would never have come out if he hadn’t been raised in household with a parent who is a practitioner.  My daughter is a little more open to it and attends some of the programming for kids and teens at the Temple and Monastery.  She also comes to the annual Enlightenment Vigil (all night sitting) at the Temple.  For some reason, this has captured her interest.  She has a pretty sweet relationship with my teacher too. (She is fifteen).  At this point, I am very hands-off about it.  I trust that they will decide to take it up if/when it is the right time for them.”

I’ll leave you with Robyn Love who says, “My recommendation is to just begin and see what happens.  There are no rules — if you can sit every day for ten minutes, then that is what you do.  What we do with our minds is our decision, whether it is in sitting or in the rest of our daily life.  Everyone has access to that.  The other thing I would say is to be gentle on yourself.  Parenting is hard and exhausting and we live in a world that does not reward or encourage either staying at home and being with your children in meaningful ways or sitting still, so it’s a double whammy.  Anyone who is taking up a sitting practice and trying to be a good parent is already a brave, strong person so try to remember that and be kind to yourself.  Also, your kids are getting older and they will not need you so much soon enough.  It’s a cliché, but there you go…it’s true!”


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