Mothering, Multi-tasking, and Buddha: Part 1

So. It’s been, what, nine months since I last blogged? Nine months. One explanation for the extended radio silence is probably that I’ve been blogging in one place or another since 2004, for chrissake, and it was time for a little sabbatical. The other explanation is that, mentally at any rate, this last year was pretty much the bottom of the barrel, in this Squab’s experience. I have really been struggling, and the horrible, dreary, never-ending winter we had this year sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I mean, man: this was a rough winter. Rough enough that I think it deserves its own special name. Let’s call it the WINTER FROM HELL, shall we? That has an appropriately evil ring to it. So the WINTER FROM  HELL came along and brought with it a fog of depression that simply refused to disperse. Here’s a fun thing about depression and blogging: Just when you could probably benefit most from the support of your lovely blog readers, you’re too fucking tired to write. Or do anything, really, except lie on the couch eating junk food, fending off your children, feeling guilty about fending off your children, and counting the minutes until your partner gets home to cope with things. (See? It’s even depressing to READ about it!)

So. There was depression and the WINTER FROM HELL and lack-of-coping. And then there were anti-depressants and beginning-to-cope. And then there were even more anti-depressants and thawing temperatures, and now we’re coping at basically normal levels, which means there’s still considerable room for improvement but Mr. Squab is no longer responsible for literally every household task and I can look toward the future with reactions other than “meh” or “I cannot DO THIS.”

Except that, actually, I’m trying not to look towards the future so much, because I’m working on living in the moment. And that’s because I’ve had the white over-educated middle-class middle-aged liberal agnostic version of a spiritual awakening. That’s right, folks: I’ve found Buddha. I mean, it’s not like I’d never encountered Buddhism before. There was a family friend who joined a buddhist monastery and would tell funny stories about it, for example. And my acting teacher in college both engaged in and taught a lot of Buddhist and Daoist practices, which for a while I also engaged in regularly. In a mostly uneducated way, I thought Buddhism was “cool,” sort of like yoga and vegetarianism and non-violent protests were “cool.” But it was never something I looked to for spiritual satisfaction.

And then I had kids, and I obscurely felt like I should have some formal approach to their spiritual and moral education, but I couldn’t find anything that felt like the right fit. In past eras I’ve been a practicing Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopalian (not, obviously, at the same time), so I thought of re-entering those communities first. As a child and even through college I was quite firmly christian in my beliefs, if a bit denominationally vague, but since then I’ve gotten more and more agnostic about the whole thing, and attending a christian church seemed like it would tax my sense of moral honesty. In grad school I regularly attended a lovely Unitarian church, which worked in part because you can pretty much believe whatever the hell you want and still be Unitarian. It’s a good haven for the ex-faithful who like the community aspect of religion but are a bit iffy on the dogma. So I thought about checking out my local UU congregation, which would be a handy place of worship (do you worship at a UU church? Seems more like a place of ponder. Or maybe a place of discuss? But I digress), since it’s attended by approximately 65% of my circle of friends. But that didn’t feel quite right either. It looked good on paper, but I couldn’t seem to summon the wherewithal to herd my family there of a Sunday morning. So I let the spiritual education issue slide onto my mental back burner and hummed happily along, until the WINTER FROM HELL hit and suddenly it wasn’t my kids who needed a community of faith so much as it was me, desperate for some kind of spiritual rope to cling to so I wouldn’t drown in my own sea of malaise. (Note to self: Sea of Malaise would be a great name for an Emo band.)

Where was I? Oh, right: drowning. Well, as none of you will probably remember, a couple of years ago I was discussing Asian religions with my kids’ pediatrician, like you do, and he offered up the Zen phrase “expect nothing” as a good mantra for parents of young children. “Expect Nothing” as in, don’t go projecting into the future about what will happen to your children, who they’ll become, how you’ll fail them or not fail them or ANY of it because the truth is, you have no goddamn idea what’s going to happen and thinking about it is just making you crazy. Sort of the Zen version of not borrowing trouble and crossing that bridge when you come to it. This phrase really resonated with me, probably because it’s a concept almost totally foreign to my nature. I expect shit, you know? All kiiiiiiiiiinds of shit. Good shit, bad shit, and every kind of shit in between: I expect it. But I can also really see, especially since I’ve had kids, how much trouble – how much needless trouble – that expectation causes, and how much better off I’d be if I could get a little more Zen. So I started trying to catch myself when the expectation mode kicked in, and remind myself to “Expect Nothing.” Round about the same time, I discovered John Muth’s wonderful children’s book Zen Shorts, about a Zen panda named Stillwater who moves in next door to three kids and becomes a beloved friend and companion. Muth based the book around a series of classic Zen parables, and, like the phrase from our pediatrician, these stories kept coming back to me. You know how people talk about the universe giving you signals? I don’t know if I believe in that, but … looking back, I can also kind of see what they mean.

OK, so fast forward to the WINTER FROM HELL, the struggling, the drowning, etc. In an effort to do something – anything – to claw my way out of the morass, I started meditating now and then. It’s something I used to do semi-regularly in college and grad school, and I thought it might be a way to get some much-needed mental space. Wanting to find techniques for more effective meditation, I dug out some old comparative religion books from school and flipped to the eastern philosophies section. I started getting more and more interested in Buddhism. What was the philosophy? The history? What differentiated the various schools of Buddhism? I approached it like the scholar I’ve been trained to be. I sought out more comparative religion books, bought some Buddhist magazines to see what the contemporary literature was, got some of that literature – I basically went on a Buddhism reading orgy, and y’all: it made a lot of freaking sense. I dunno exactly what it was, but something about the combination of having kids and trying to survive the WINTER FROM HELL made me, like, the perfect receptacle for Buddhist wisdom. Life is suffering? YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT IT IS. Suffering is caused by attachment? I FINALLY GET WHAT THAT MEANS. Suffering can be eliminated? YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HAPPY THAT MAKES ME. The means of relief is following the teachings of the Buddha? SIGN ME THE FUCK UP!

And that’s where we’ll leave it for tonight. Tune in Friday for Part 2, in which I will actually address the first two-thirds of the post title: Mothering and Multi-tasking.

8 responses to “Mothering, Multi-tasking, and Buddha: Part 1

  1. I remember a critical moment of L’s babyhood as my “zen mama moment”–he would *not* nap unless I lay down with him, and he woke up if I tried to sneak away, and I had “things to do.” But finally I realized okay, this is what motherhood is going to be like: the “things to do” WILL get done, but they will get done when I CAN do them, not according to some schedule of when I “should.”

    It’s been largely true, and a really helpful thing to remember.

    (And I feel you on the winter depression, as you know.)

  2. That’s exactly right, T. It’s the thing about accepting reality as it IS, instead of being attached to how you think it’s SUPPOSED to be. It’s really fucking hard, but yes, extremely helpful when you can remember it in the moment. And parenting really seems to be a time when the universe just rubs your face in how not-in-control you are, or at least that’s been my experience.

  3. My version of the “shoulds” and “s’posed to be’s” was always the little demon editor sitting on my shoulder. If Bhuddism chases him away, that makes me happy.

  4. Away from you, I mean.

  5. Awesome post, girl! Can’t wait to read part 2. Someday we can get together and talk about how winter ’10-’11 just about killed us. Because my experience was very similar to yours. I feel like I barely survived until May 15th (when the sun came out for more than half a day at a time), no exaggeration.

  6. Maybe Buddhism is what I need. I think we’ve been walking parallel paths, my friend. I’m finally throwing my hands in the air and trying to nix everything that brings me unnecessary stress so I can live my life with some modicum of happiness and enjoy my children while they’re children. I’d love to have some reading recommendations if you care to share.

  7. Ooh, Stacie, I do! Read Buddhism for Mothers by Sarah Napthali. Great introduction to the topic and a really wonderful book for ANY parent to read, regardless of interest in Buddhism. Lots of very practical, immediately applicable advice for how to be calmer, more patient, less anxious, etc. I honestly felt more peaceful even when I was reading it. She’s got two other books, too, but this one is a good one to start with. If you read it let me know what you think! (I miss being able to have regular conversations with you!)

  8. Christopher Tassava

    Wow. I just read these two posts, and I’m tearing up a little bit. I had no idea that the “Winter from Hell” was so bad for you. I wish I’d been able to do something for you!

    On the other hand, I find your embrace of Buddhism quite interesting, both as a “white over-educated middle-class middle-aged liberal agnostic version of a spiritual awakening” and as a coping/growth mechanism. Of all the major world faiths, Buddhism is the only one that resonates even slightly with me, for a lot of the reasons that you mention here and in the other post. (But also: Ashoka was a badass Buddhist.) I hope it does give you whatever it is that you need – wisdom, guidance, reassurance – and that you keep posting about it.