Sarah Napthali’s book Buddhism for Mothers appeared in my life at a good time, a time when I was finally ready to reconnect with meditation and expansive stillness. Its development is not especially deep, but the resonance of its ideas certainly can be. So, if you decide to read it, I’d suggest doing so a little at a time, not because it’s dense or difficult–it’s not–but because it’s simple and short and useful.
I’m going to swerve from the spirit of the book for a moment to, um, complain and stuff. My main gripe is that the book is very much molded by mainstream, ultra-gendered parenting culture. It’s that way from the title (why not Buddhism for Parents? do children not need calm fathers? do men who are primary or joint caregivers not need peace and joy and support?) straight through the text. If you are also sensitive to these issues, I’d advise skipping the first chapter. I almost quit reading because I found its dismissive treatment of partners (meaning male ones) and its assumption that mothers don’t work outside the home (and fathers do) so alienating. That would have been a bummer, and a mistake. But come on:
What about our partners, the people who signed up for the term of this life-long commitment to parenting? In fairness to them, only a saint would be capable of achieving a deep understanding of the physical and psychological challenges we confront. And let’s face it, not many of us found ourselves a saint. Even if we did, they’ll probably be at work most of the time. (2)
Really? I cannot even begin to unfold the ways in which this snippet sets aside my own and my partner’s life experiences and abilities as non-saintly human beings.
Moving on to the good stuff, though …
meditation and mindfulness practices
Napthali writes about various forms of formal meditation practice, and that part’s great and very practical. (For instance, she describes the basics of mindfulness of breathing meditation and loving-kindness meditation.) But perhaps even more usefully, she also writes about living mindfully, parenting mindfully, not (just) in sitting meditation but as we move through our hectic, distraction-filled, emotionally complex days. For instance, she quotes from Tenzin Palmo’s Cave in the Snow:
You can meditate walking down the corridor, waiting for the computer to change, at the traffic lights, standing in a queue, going to the bathroom, combing your hair. Just be there in the present, without the mental commentary. (30)
Awesome. Napthali also mentions that Palmo “suggests we start by choosing one action we do daily, such as drinking tea, during which to meditate” (30). Another parent, Kamala Masters, was advised by her meditation teacher to try doing two concrete and common activities–washing dishes and walking down her hallway–with mindfulness (31).
Napthali herself practices what she calls the “one-minute grab”: when she finds herself with a free, quiet minute, she uses it to breathe mindfully (32). That last one is particularly striking to me, as a person who tends to use (waste?) that minute geting started in some task–which inevitably leads to frustration when I don’t finish the email or whatever it is.
Relatedly, Napthali writes:
practicing and parenting should be as one [...]. If your child cries when you are halfway through your meditation, your concentration needs to flow smoothly, without resistance and mental comment, to what is required of you in that moment: comforting your baby. (32-3)
Over and over, as in this passage, the book suggests that we might encounter life with the question: what does this moment require? Not what do I need to get done? or how do I respond to this sort of situation or is this what I expected/wanted? but what is the appropriate (or best, or most loving, or most wholesome) response to the present moment? I find that simple suggestion quite useful.
impermanence and hospitality toward (impermanent!) emotional states
Another aspect of the book (and of Buddhist spiritual traditions) that particularly resonates for is an emphasis on impermanence, which it does not treat as a bad or distressing thing–just as a basic part of reality: ”With its emphasis on impermanence, Buddhism helps us [...] acknowledge that the mood will pass, that we won’t feel like this for long and might even feel quite happy in a few hours’ time; we can weather it for now and aviod assigning it any major significance” (44). Napthali sees this understanding and acceptance as something we can teach our children, too, a gift we can give them as they deal with their own scary emotions.
She intriguingly suggests treating our emotions with “hospitality” rather identifying with (and being tossed about by) them. The emotions can come and go, and we can acknowledge and sit with them … without letting going with them on their wild rides. We can, at least theoretically, learn equanimity:
Buddhist teachings often speak of our tendency to give ‘inappropriate attention’ to minor events and work ourselves up into a state of anger. At times, we become obsessive and repetitive in our thinking, revisiting past events and stewing over them. We need to be mindful, catch ourselves paying inappropriate attention and refuse to continue. (74)
The book, particularly the chapter on “Worrying about our Children,” takes a gentle and low-stress attitude toward children’s individual abilities, interests, and realities: we create suffering (for ourselves and for our children) if we insist that they be a certain way or excel in certain areas or hit developmental milestones at certain moments. Napthali’s respectful attitude toward children is another strength of the book.