Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Balance amid the everyday storm

I'm convinced that those whom the gods wish to destroy they make mothers first. No doubt it is the ego that is being destroyed, and though it sounds noble and beneficial, it is not exactly an endearing process. It's the most excrutiating ordeal one has to ever go through, if only because it's not something that knocks you on the head one day and disappears, but something that you have to constantly negotiate every waking(and sleeping) hour of your life. A hundred constant pinpricks take more spirit and depth to tolerate than one hard slam you can be over and done with.

My toddler is teething molars and hence very needy and clingy, has not been a biped for too long and hence not too stable on his feet, is not too verbal yet and hence constantly resorting to tantrums when the world gets too much for him. I have to have all my attention on him at all times to save him from tripping on thin air and getting his face walloped on the floor for the umpteenth time, to listen to and encourage his fledgling words, to keep him engaged in relatively less destructive activities. I have to have infinite resourcefulness to be cutting vegetables and getting lunch ready while keeping him from falling head first into the big trash can he's investigating. So I head him off instead into taking the ladles one by one from their drawer and popping them in the trash can. It'll buy me enough time to get the cooker on and keep him safely occupied in the meantime. After all, I can fish out the ladles, wash them and put them back in their place when he's napping. And that's one of the better days. On the bad days, all he does when I'm cooking is cling like a limpet onto my legs with both hands and cry to be picked up. Try taking a few steps across the kitchen with your whining heavy toddler dangling off your legs, getting the lunch ready on time, with the telephone ringing off the hook and someone sounding the doorbell. It's enough to make me want to spontaneously combust into a million particles, especially if it has been a while since I meditated. I used to have a regular meditation practice before my little boy appeared on the scene. But having to look after the entire existence of another human being, complete from clipping their nails to putting on their shoes, seems to somehow suck every moment of time away, and before I know it an entire year has passed - and the combustible circumstances are only on the rise.

So many spiritual teachers and traditions point out the fact that mothering, or any other duty for that matter, itself is a spiritual practice, if done with the right attitude. Brother Lawrence, a Christian mystic, wrote
"The time of business does not differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament."

How enviable is that? The Gita refers to it as “inaction in the midst of action” (4:18), and also prescribes the regimen that will get one there, perfectly summarized by Eknath Easwaran in his book on the Gita: daily meditation, chanting the mantra at every opportunity, restraint of the senses, and putting the welfare of others first. Giving up self-seeking especially is the constant refrain of the Gita:
Who serve both friend and foe with equal love,
Not buoyed up by praise or cast down by blame,
Alike in heat and cold, plea­sure and pain,
Free from selfish attachments and self-will,
Ever full, in harmony everywhere,
Firm in faith - such as these are dear to Me.

Easwaran says in his translation, "There is no barrier between us and God realization except self-will. That is all that keeps us thinking that we are separate from the whole. The more we love, the less our self-will - and the less subject we are to time and death. All of us have moments when we forget ourselves in helping others. In those moments of self-forgetfulness, we step out of ourselves: we really cease, if only for an instant, to be a separate person. Those are the moments of immortality, right on earth. Stretch them out until they fill the day and you will no longer be living in yourself alone; you will live in everyone."

It struck me that from the moment your child is born, you have willy nilly signed up for an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute stripping away of self-will. When all you want to do is sleep like the dead, your baby wants to be fed. When all you crave desperately on a rainy day is to curl up cozily and escape into a book, your child wants you to play with and entertain him. When you really want to take a break from cooking and eat out, your conscience will insist on a healthy home-cooked meal for your child. Let alone indulgences, being able to take a few minutes alone to shower becomes a luxury. And your own personal pint-sized little spiritual master knows exactly how to put you through the hoops and will enthusiastically scrounge out even the hidden pockets of self-will tucked away in remote corners of your personality. No spiritual aspirant practicing in his cave could have set himself a tougher regimen. But of course, the saving grace in all of this is the love that keeps the wheels of duty turning smoothly. Kahlil Gibran expresses this beautifully

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire,
that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast.

All the threshing and sifting, however, can get old pretty fast if it is not balanced by some inner work. Something Bo Lozoff said in one of his wonderful articles struck a chord with me - "Trying to dedicate yourself entirely through outward activity will sooner or later chew you up and spit you out if you don't take time for inner silence. It's like trying to breathe out all the time without breathing in. Be sure you breathe in, so that you're helping others from a deeper place."

That's where daily meditation comes in. On the few days that I happen to manage it, the difference is amazing. I'm so spacious and accepting that I can bear anything, juggle anything - all with a cheerful smile and sense of humour intact. The challenges are a pleasure to take on; the days are "lit from above". If I've let myself slide and not meditated in a while, I find myself getting reactive and irritable, teetering on the edge of a bad case of mommy burnout. Lao Tzu declares, "Don't think you can attain total awareness and whole enlightenment without proper discipline and practice. This is egomania. Appropriate rituals channel your emotions and life energy toward the light. Without the discipline to practice them, you will tumble constantly backward into darkness." Tumble constantly backward into darkness! Ouch!!

Whether I am travelling through good times or bad on this amazing journey of mothering, some things remain the same - it always is interesting, and it sure makes life worthwhile! There's really nothing else I'd rather be doing.


  1. Thank you, my friend. Thank you, thank you.

  2. Love Eknath Easwaran's Gita - Thank you, Mangala, for introducing me to his works a while ago, and how down-to-earth his spiritual practices are!