The Act of Parenting Is Folding the Towels in a Sweet Way
by Krista Tippett, host
I picked up Sylvia Boorstein’s lovely book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, years ago and loved it. Then, several years later, I found myself on a panel discussion with her and loved her in person.
I was struck in that discussion by one story she told, about a man who participated in one of her meditation and Metta or “lovingkindness” retreats; she conducts these for Buddhist practitioners but also for rabbis and clergy and lay people of many traditions. As this man prepared to pack up and go home, he described an unsettling sense of vulnerability, of openness to life which also meant that his defenses were down. He felt blessedly sheltered in the context of that retreat but far too exposed to take his newfound vulnerability out into the world.
This has its corollary in becoming a parent, I think. One’s sense of sovereignty and safety goes into freefall — and stays there. But no one tells you this in advance! As the French theologian Louis Evely beautifully put it:
“(W)hen one becomes a father, or a mother, one suddenly sees oneself as vulnerable, in the most sensitive part of one’s being; one is completely powerless to defend oneself, one is no longer free, one is tied up. To become a father is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”
So how to live, how to love, how to know what we can do (and what we can’t) to raise children who will participate in the world’s beauty and its pain and be safe inside their skin. This too is a conundrum, a daunting challenge that we rarely name together. But it is always there if we are raising children not merely to be successful (and there’s lots of advice about that), but to be good and grounded and kind.
I went into this conversation with Sylvia Boorstein hoping for some practical wisdom about imparting such qualities of character. In the course of our time together, some of it in exchange with an audience of people with children in their lives, we circled back to the simplest and most daunting reality of all: our children are likely, in the end, to act and live as we act and live. Nurturing their inner lives means nurturing our inner lives, for their sakes.
I couldn’t have found a better conversation partner on this. Sylvia Boorstein has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and her spiritual practice is blessedly reality-based. Buddhism, of course, is at its core about embracing reality head on, about minimizing suffering in life by first acknowledging that suffering is a fact of life and resolving not to make it worse.
So, as she describes, this spiritual practice has helped her grasp that her lifelong tendency to worry is simply a quality she possesses, no more remarkable than the fact that, as she puts it, she is short and has brown hair. Others of us may have a tendency towards anger, or to reach for sensory comfort when life throws its curve balls. The trick for achieving balance and joy in our own lives — a trick made both harder and more important by the presence of children who exhaust as well as delight us — is first to know this about ourselves.
Spiritual parenting, as Sylvia Boorstein describes it, is not about adding work or effort to our overly busy lives. It is about self-knowledge and “wise effort” that helps us live gracefully moment by moment. It is manifest as much in how we fold the laundry as in how we discipline or praise our children. She offers this, for example, as a simple piece of effort that can reorient our attitudes and responses in all kinds of situations. Rather than asking, “Am I pleased?” in any given situation, we can ask instead, “In this moment, am I able to care?”
Recalculating with No Road Ahead
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“Sometimes not even the GPS can really tell you where you are.”
This dear listener with a fine sense of humor submitted the photo above, along with the subsequent caption in response to our show “What We Nurture with” Sylvia Boorstein. During her conversation with Krista, the Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist shares this analogy about “recalculating” one’s life like a GPS unit:
Dr. Boorstein: I’ve never said it in a public audience, but I just thought about it recently. I decided that — I’ll find out soon if this is a good analogy — but I was thinking about the GPS in my car. It never gets annoyed at me. If I make a mistake, it says, “Recalculating.” And then it tells me to make the soonest left turn and go back. I thought to myself, you know, I should write a book and call it “Recalculating” because I think that that’s what we’re doing all the time.
If something happens, it challenges us and the challenge is, OK, so do you want to get mad now? You could get mad, you could go home, you could make some phone calls, you could tell a few people you can’t believe what this person said or that person said. Indignation is tremendously seductive, you know, and to share with other people on the telephone and all that. So to not do it and to say, wait a minute, apropos of you said before, wise effort to say to yourself, wait a minute, this is not the right road. Literally, this is not the right road. There’s a fork in the road here. I could become indignant, I could flame up this flame of negativity or I could say, “Recalculating.” I’ll just go back here.
Ms. Tippett: So this is an example of technology instilling us with spiritual discipline — we find so much to criticize.
Dr. Boorstein: And no matter how many times I don’t make that turn, it will continue to say, “Recalculating.” The tone of voice will stay the same.
Ms. Tippett: That’s good. I think it’s a good analogy.
Reminder of an On-Stage Exchange Thanks to Kungfutofu
- Ms. Tippett: So Sylvia, one thing following on that. Lovingkindness meditation is also towards one's self. You share a story in your writing about precisely that, but you share what you often say to yourself when you're in a moment of anxiety. OK. So I think this is just great advice. I'm going to hang onto this. "Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax, take a breath, let's pay attention to what is happening, then we'll figure out what to do." I think that's a fabulous sentence for one's self and for one's children.
- Dr. Boorstein: I'm so pleased that you found that. It's tremendously pleasing to me because I meet people in some significant numbers who tell me that they say to themselves in moments of distress. I say — they say, "I say to myself, 'Sweetheart, you're in pain. Relax, take a breath.'" I love that. A whole bunch of people out there saying to themselves, "Sweetheart."
Lovingkindness (Metta) Meditation with Sylvia Boorstein
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
In mid-February, we partnered with WDET to hold a live event in a quaint suburban village outside of Detroit. The topic: raising children in complex times.
Krista’s conversation with Sylvia Boorstein was rolling along quite nicely — stories were being told, approaches to child-rearing were being shared — when somewhat unexpectedly, Boorstein (a Jewish Buddhist teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California) offered to lead a lovingkindness, or metta, meditation for a crowd of more than 300 folks.
With that size of a crowd who hadn’t necessarily attended for a mindfulness retreat, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What resulted was a magical experience in which the audience fully participated in this impromptu moment of reflection.
If you’re game, we’d like you to use this as a guided meditation. As a producer, one’s never certain if an impromptu experience like this works because it was part of a particular time or if it translates into a fruitful experience for others online. What do you think?
Photo by Trent Gilliss
Correction (June 11, 2011): This post mistakenly referred to Ms. Boorstein teaching at Split Rock Meditation Center, and has now been revised to Spirit Rock Meditation Center.
“Got Faith? Your Life Has Meaning: Live It. Love It. Pass It On.”
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer (from the road)
Great event yesterday afternoon at Maria Shriver’s 2008 Women’s Conference. Krista moderated a wide-ranging and lively conversation with Benedictine sister and author, Joan Chittister; Tim Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics; and spiritual teacher and author, Sylvia Boorstein. Ingrid Mattson, professor and president of the Islamic Society of North America was scheduled to participate but had to cancel due to a family emergency. Regrettably, the hour-long discussion among the four was so moving that there was no time to include questions from the audience.
A rough transcript of just one of the highlights:
Krista had just mentioned that often, some religious leaders appear to have all the answers to the large questions of meaning, not only for themselves, but for everyone. And that there is value in the questions, and we need to honor that mystery.
Sylvia Boorstein: Instead of saying, this is how it is, start with, “In my experience…”
Krista Tippett: I can disagree with your opinion, but I cannot disagree with your experience.
Tim Shriver: There are a lot of questions that have nothing to do with God […] I think God is a starting point, not a possession. “God is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, but he is mine.” What a ridiculous idea.
Joan Chittister: A period of questions is a period that takes us into the soul, where less and less is more and more, where we can let God be God. Without questions, you never move off of the place where you are.
Tim Shriver: We are always asking the questions. The questions are the journey. Get comfortable in that search.
The Women’s Conference concluded with a keynote speech by Bono, who described himself as a salesman who, at times, has new U2 albums to vend and now comes calling with his plea for ending global poverty and disease through the (RED) and ONE campaigns.
Being fully aware of our rational inclination to focus our attention inward at such a challenging time, Bono’s closing remarks included a plea to Americans, “We are not asking you to put another man or woman on the moon. We are asking you to put humanity back on earth.”
Bonnie Raitt followed up with a great concert, but I was so tired I could only stay for two songs. Man, did she sound good!