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Buddhist Parenting

by Karunagita

Buddhist Parenting by Karunagita

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM780

Talk given at the Buddhafield Festival, Devon 2006

Kavyasiddhi: 'Dharma Warriors' — how do you become a warrior? What weapons do you have? What tools do you use? What areas are you working in? What's your battle ground? We've got a series of battle grounds that we work in; a series of areas that we're engaged in — we engage at work, we engage in our families, we engage walking down the street, we engage with the planet as a whole — so we've got a series of symposia, talks from different perspectives on each day. It just means different people giving their perspectives. So, if you stay for the whole morning, you get a bigger perspective!

Today's area for the 'Dharma Warriors' is 'Parenting'. It is an area that I am guessing most of you are familiar with, definitely as a child, and probably as a parent! So, you have found yourself in this area — what do you do? How do you practice? What is the best way? Karunagita has got a book coming out in the autumn: 'Growing as a Parent — What Buddhism Has To Offer' — fantastic! — so she's going to be talking about that...

Karunagita: Ok, thank you very much indeed.

I just want to start by saying a bit about how I came to be standing here, really — and going back in time to when my first child was born, which was 1994. By then I had already been around the FWBO, going to retreats and meditating, for about four years, and it was a big part of my life and a real priority for me. I didn't call myself a Buddhist — it took me a very, very long time to start referring to myself as a Buddhist — but it was really important in my life.

And then when I had my first child, for the next two and a half years I managed to carry on doing that. I carved out space from life as a working mother — you know — whenever my baby went to sleep I went straight to meditate, and when he was about 18 months old I went back on retreat. It felt like I was very fixed on doing this: 'I need to keep on doing this; I need to keep meditating; I need to keep going on retreat; I need to keep up as much as possible with my spiritual life as it was before I had children.'

But then I had another baby after about two and a quarter years, and once I sort of surfaced from that... I realised it just wasn't possible!... [LAUGHTER] ...you know — there wasn't that time; there wasn't the 'baby goes down for the nap, I can meditate; baby goes to play- group, I can meditate,' — because one [baby] went, but the other was still there, and awake! — and, you know, wanting to play.

Before [the second baby] was born, I would do this, 'OK, I can meditate, because he's in this space' — but quite often something would happen: he would wake up early, he wouldn't sleep, it wouldn't work out the way I had planned it all. And then I'd get quite frustrated and quite resentful. I was quite focused, and if it didn't work that way I would get quite twitchy, or if I'd missed my meditation I was quite irritable... and it was all a bit tentative.

And anyway, once Ella was born that all fell apart. I couldn't do it any more; it didn't work anyway. And I went through this quite brief phase of: 'Argh!' — you know — 'what do you do?'

And then this thought came up — you know, when these thoughts come up from somewhere in your body rather than your mind!... [LAUGHTER] ... it was like, 'well, I can't step out and go and do Buddhism any more... I'll just have to bring Buddhism into my life!'

At the time it felt like just this sense of resignation: 'Oh, no, I can't do that any more, so I'm going to have to do it differently.' But actually, what started then (nearly ten years ago) was a journey of exploration that hasn't by any means culminated in writing this book and giving this talk, but is very much ongoing. But it certainly has brought me to this point, and it's been quite a journey.

Throughout that journey, that whole process of writing has helped me to clarify and confirm and feel much more positive about the context of being a parent, and also about trying to have a spiritual life, to develop spiritually.

But throughout that exploration the whole question has been: 'Well, how? How do you do it?' — you know. It's very much a practical thing: 'I know it's possible, but how? I know it's quite easy, but how?'

And so, as part of that exploration, I volunteered to do a book for Windhorse, which is coming out in the autumn. And during the process of that, I have interviewed a lot of Buddhist parents — about 25 or so — quite a few of whom (or some of whom) are in this room, and many others are somewhere else wandering around in this festival!

What I did was I interviewed lots of people — and I also, obviously, have been trying to DO this [Buddhist parenting], in practice, for years — and then drew all of that information together into separate themes, which form the chapters of the book. And what I have decided to do today is just pick out three of those themes to talk about — because seven is far to many to have all in one go.

Within each of those themes, it is very much about all of them being opportunities; they are all opportunities to develop spiritually in the context of being a parent, and most of them also have with them their own sort of pitfalls, you know — there are also pitfalls.

So throughout this process of exploration, it's about, 'well, how can we make the most of all the opportunities that are actually there — and embrace those and enjoy them and benefit from them — without spending too much time so deep in the pitfalls that you can't see beyond the surface?'

So I have chosen three areas from the book to talk about today...

Growing In Love

The first of them is about 'love' — about love and about letting go, and those two things taken together — because love and letting go are so much part of being a parent, and when we talk about spiritual growth and spiritual life, what we are talking about is growth in wisdom and in compassion — in love — so love obviously is fundamental to the spiritual life.

Love is one of the great gifts that is sort of handed on a plate, if you like, by becoming a parent. In fact, the Buddha draws on the idea of parental love — mother love — in a very famous sutta...

'Just as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, it is that much love that we are aspiring to feel for all people, for the whole of the universe, all of the time.'

...It is unconditional love. What parenting gives us is an insight into what it actually means to love unconditionally.

One of the fathers that I interviewed for the book (who I've actually never met, so he may even be here — it was on the phone!) — one of the things he said in the interview was: 'Well, my life began when my son was born.'

And I said: 'How do you mean? What began?' — and he paused for a minute, and then he said: 'My heart'... he just felt like his heart had suddenly opened and really engaged with life for the first time when his son was born.

It is that love, that strength of love — unconditional love — that is the natural order of things. That is what we are capable of feeling for all beings, for all of creation, for everything around us, all of the time. And actually being able to feel that, in response to our children, just gives us — even if it's momentarily... I mean, it's not something we live all the time, year in, year out, as parents, but even if it's just flashes at times — that gives us an insight into what we are actually capable of feeling all the time.

So one of the things I emphasise is just to accept that as a gift — it's a gift of heart-opening — and really embrace that, and use it, and draw on it.

Also — if we are living our lives in the context that we are on a spiritual journey, we're on a spiritual path, we're looking to develop spiritually — you are feeling that love in the context of, 'this is what I am aspiring to feel'. So you don't see it as, 'this is just my mother-child (or father-child) bond.' It's like: 'This is love — this is what I am aspiring to feel for everybody, all the time.'

And you can just take moments, sometimes, to reflect on that.

Obviously, it comes with a pitfall — you know — one of the pitfalls is, 'it's all so threatening out there, and I love this being so much,' you can sort of close down into a little family unit, trying to seal off everybody else, because it's all so threatening... So, it's about making the most of the opportunities, really. And it's not about, 'we'll instantly radiate love to everybody, just because we're parents!' — if that was true, the world would be a really different place, because so many of us are parents. But, you know, maybe you will suddenly notice you're getting a bit more tolerant, a bit kinder every so often, with people that irritate.

Linked to love very closely, one of the things that Buddhism teaches us is that we cause our own unhappiness so much of the time by trying to hold onto, and hold fixed, things that aren't fixed; things that we can't own. We can't own anyone, we can't own anything, we can't hold onto them, we can't expect them to be ours or to stay the same for ever. You can't hold anything fixed as it flows past. And that's what we try and do so much if we love somebody — you know — it's a natural, human, conditioned tendency, to want to hold on.

But actually everybody changes, all the time, ...

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