For years, Buddhist practitioner Leslie Davis felt she was too busy being a mother to practice Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition of “Engaged Buddhism” properly. Eventually, she discovered that parenting itself is a form of Engaged Buddhism.
When I first learned about Buddhist practice, I immediately saw its parallels with parenting. The two practices share the same basic tenets for living an ethical life. We are asked to transform suffering. We practice non-violence, loving speech, and deep listening. We vow to do no harm, protect our children from sexual misconduct, and practice mindful consumption. As a Buddhist practitioner, I was attempting to live by this code of ethics, but I wanted to go deeper. My role as mother seemed the perfect place to begin.
At the time, my two teenagers were just a toddler and an infant. I sat in meditation when I could, but it wasn’t often. After my first retreat at Deer Park Monastery, I was inspired to make mindful parenting my daily practice. I tried to remember to breathe as I changed diapers, picked up Legos, and stirred oatmeal. I mindfully cleared tables of paints and Play-Doh, trying not to complain about the mess. I aimed to view my tidying up as providing a clean canvas for my son’s next creation. It was difficult at first. Following my breath helped me reframe my complaints into gratitude. I could smile at the gift and privilege of having a healthy, creative, and messy toddler.
You cannot stay in a meditation hall and be a parent.
But it was exhausting to be mindful all the time. I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I experimented in short blocks of time. I would set a timer and bring as much presence to the present moment as I could for just 15 minutes. And then I would stop. That was all I could handle. I gave myself a lot of leeway and permission not to practice mindfulness perfectly. It’s a practice after all, and I had to keep practicing, embracing my imperfections as I stumbled along.
I started learning about what my Buddhist teacher, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, called Engaged Buddhism. Referencing the Vietnam war and his tradition of socially engaged Buddhism, Nhat Hanh said, “Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time.”
I’ve found the same to be true with parenting — you cannot stay in a meditation hall and be a parent. You have to be in the trenches with the present moment.
For years, I thought I wasn’t practicing “Engaged Buddhism” because I wasn’t as politically, socially or environmentally active as I wanted to be. Being a mother of two children, one with special needs, took most of my energy. I had a nagging and harsh judgment of myself that I wasn’t doing enough. But, eventually, I realized that day in and day out my children demanded that I show up for them and be in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there.”
Buddhism was there as I helped my kids brush their teeth. As I drove the carpool, grocery shopped, tied shoes, and wiped noses. As a mother, every moment is an opportunity to practice. Parenting was my spiritual practice, and parenting was indeed a form of Engaged Buddhism.
Thich Nhat Hanh also says that to be an Engaged Buddhist is to be connected to your breath and being present in every moment of daily life. For parents, the word “every” is a tall order. I don’t try to be present in every moment. I try to simply be as present as possible for as many moments as possible. Practicing this way, I am more connected to myself and my children. I experience more joy. When I forget to bring mindful attention to individual actions, entire days slip by in a blur. When that happens, I find myself harboring regret and guilt. When Buddhism is there, I suffer less.
Meditation has deepened my ability to accept what is actually occurring with my family instead of focusing on what I would prefer to occur. When children are young the quality of the moment can change in flavor and intensity quite rapidly. When anger flared and food was thrown, yelling inevitably happened. I used my breath to anchor myself and tried to calm everyone down. It didn’t always work, that’s for sure, but with practice the kids were soon reminding everyone to take a deep breath.
“Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time,” says Thich Nhat Hanh.
If I stay connected to my breathing and respond mindfully to homework stress, and struggles with a disability, then my actions are a beautiful meditation.
Children and teens suffer, and their suffering is very real. They need our action and support as they navigate their own difficult experiences. As a mom, I have the opportunity to see my actions as meditations every day. If I stay connected to my breathing and respond mindfully to homework stress, and struggles with a disability, then my actions are a beautiful meditation.
“As a mindfulness practitioner, we have to be aware of what is going on in our body, our feelings, our emotions, and our environment. That is Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that responds to what is happening in the here and the now,” says Thich Nhat Hanh.
This awareness of the body is so important for parents. Are we sleep deprived? Are we in physical pain? Are we sad or lonely? What is happening right now in our environment whether we’re at work or in the grocery store? Tuning in to these conditions allows us to respond more mindfully to our ourselves and our children.
When I sit and meditate on my cushion, I can bring the quality of my meditation into my daily life. The very essence of the sitting experience — awareness, presence, calmness — carries over into my mothering. It is at the root of how I treat myself, my spouse and our children. When I practice Engaged Parenting, I experience it as a deep spiritual practice that brings me joy and transforms my suffering.
As parents, we may not think we are doing enough, but mindful parenting is enough. “The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment,” says Thich Nhat Hanh. As we care for our children in the present moment, we care for the future. That is Engaged Buddhism.