The Practice of Parenthood

by Richard Brown

My child is sprawled sobbing on the floor, too exhausted to make it to bed. I am exasperated, weary and clueless, but the feelings of numbing fatigue and frustration begin to fall away as I to attend to the sound of moaning (mine or hers). I remember to set down my solid baggage, unpack and get into the adventure of raising my child.

Many years ago, Chögyam Trungpa said something that influenced how I have understood the practice of being a parent: “The proper upbringing of a child seems to be based wholly on the idea of not living out of a suitcase… Parents should be willing not to fall asleep, willing to pay attention, willing to join this adventure on a direct earthy level…” Our speedy, complex lives make it is easy to sometimes feel that we are barely functioning as either parents or meditators. To think of integrating the two may seem unfathomable. We can go all day without really meeting our children. Even when we are together, we may feel somehow disconnected.

During meditation we invite our whole being to be present on the earth. We pay attention to our breath and the momentary experiences of our everyday mind. Such grounded yet spacious attention gradually wakes us up to the sacredness of ordinary experience. If in the rest of our lives, and particularly as parents, we are living out of a suitcase—not on earth but just moving across the top of it—then the earthiness of meditation eludes us when we start to relate to our children.

The doorway to my teenage son’s room has become a reminder to me not to live out of a suitcase, to start fresh and just see what’s there. Sometimes when I enter while he’s at his computer I’m aware of some distance between his world and mine. I speculate about the dangers of computers or my fears of not knowing what to say to him. The dreamy look in his eyes, the hum of the monitor, or the sweet sadness in my heart may dwell for an instant in openness and appreciation. Rarely do these moments miraculously transform into an inspired, meaningful encounter between us. But there’s often a vivid moment of simple connection, spoken or silent.

With my daughter, I pay attention to the gentle tug of the brush against her tangled hair and notice the spaciousness in that moment. At that point, I feel available to her, even though nothing special is happening. In either case—taking a moment actually to be in my son’s room with him, relaxing into the experience of combing my daughter’s hair rather than racing through thoughts of the next “trip” I have to pack for—it’s a matter of staying around, just like on the meditation cushion.

The pressures we feel as parents, loaded on top of everything else we are doing, often make us want to toss a few things in a bag and head on down the road, if only in our minds. Unfortunately, this usually means keeping our experience hidden or packed away as we travel through our lives. Instead, we could pause to examine the contents, feel the texture and openness of our immediate experience as we spend time with our children. Of course, it doesn’t help to be too idealistic about it all either. We might be halfway through a mindless encounter with our children before the earthy smell of the encounter beckons us to stay around. Or we could go for days, weeks or years before we notice that a particularly challenging circumstance provides an opportunity for waking up. Our relationship with our children certainly takes patience. After all, it’s a life-long journey, at least.

Richard Brown teaches early childhood education at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.