Words & Pictures

The Hardest Thing

 
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As a parent, the hardest thing I do is witness my children’s suffering.

Four months ago the Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro—an elvish man with protruding ears, a wicked grin, and a British accent—came to speak in Ann Arbor. He spoke of three principles, espoused by an ancient sage:

 

1.     Don’t push; just use the weight of your own body.

2.     Don’t diagnose; just pay attention.

3.     Don’t try to help, but don’t turn away.

 

Since then, I think of these principles regularly with respect to parenting.

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As I said, I find my children’s suffering excruciating. So if they’re crying wildly, claiming people don’t like them, or they don’t like themselves, or they don’t like their lives, all I want to do is fix it, as quickly as possible. I want their suffering to stop, and I want the expression of it to stop. Because I can’t stand it.

 

My usual pattern, when faced with this situation, is first to offer comfort, then to offer solutions, and then, after a period of time, if neither of those help, to get mad and tell them sternly to stop. And then, if even that doesn’t work—which it usually doesn’t—to walk away.

 

I’m not espousing this as an effective parenting strategy, mind you. I’m just trying to paint you a picture.

 

Don’t push, just use the weight of your own body.

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This is the most cryptic of the three principles, yet I sense its meaning viscerally. I think we can all feel the difference between pushing a point in an active, even aggressive way, and simply giving the true weight of our being to our convictions. So if, metaphorically, I settle into the experience of being with my children with the full weight of my body, allowing them, perhaps, to lean their weight into mine, that feels intuitively different from pushing them in any particular direction.

Learning to sit with their pain without trying to fix it or make it go away is not so different from learning to sit with my own pain. Observing what arises within us exactly as it is, without clinging to positive sensations or pushing away negative ones is a core element of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. Over twenty-plus years of practice, I’ve learned to do this with my own emotions, sometimes. It’s much harder to do it with my kids.

 

Don’t diagnose, just pay attention.

You mean I’m not supposed to tell them that people actually do like them? Or quiz them on who they’ve had positive interactions with and suggest inviting them over? Or say that maybe they should join a club where they’d meet more friends?

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Maybe not. At least not at first. Not as a way of shutting down their feelings. Later, perhaps, mutual solution-seeking could arise. When I rush to present solutions right out the gate, I’m suspicious of my motivations. Am I trying to solve their problems quickly so that I don’t have to witness their suffering?

 

When they were young, I’d cure their owies with a kiss. They’d fall and scrape a knee, then run to me. I’d kiss it, and they’d feel better. This was not, I believe, because of the antibacterial properties harbored in saliva (though I hear those do exist). It was the act of giving love and attention to their pain that eased it.

 

Why was this so much easier when they were little? For one thing, I knew what to do, and I felt confident that I was doing it right. I knew, too, that the suffering caused by a scrape was short-lived. As they’ve gotten older, their suffering has become both more complicated and longer-lasting. Now, at ages 10 and 15, I might think a problem solved, only to have it resurface days or weeks later.

Likewise, my responses sometimes seem to make things worse rather than better. If they say I don’t have any friends, and I say What about so-and-so?, they might scream, So and so hates me! They might even pull away from my touch. Feeling helpless to relieve their pain increases my panic. I no longer have faith that my simple presence – the metaphoric kiss on the scrape – will be enough. I might even experience a moment of bitterness, thinking, Fine, if you don’t want my help… And while taking a brief break to calm myself might be just what the doctor ordered, my stomping off in a petulant huff seems the exact antithesis of the second principle.

 

Don’t try to help, but don’t turn away. 

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This one continued to perplex me throughout Ajahn Amaro’s presentation, so I raised my hand.

 

I don’t get the third one, I said. Shouldn’t we go out of our way to help others if at all possible?

 

Ah, he said, it doesn’t say don’t help. It says don’t try to help. There’s a difference. When we try to help, we may be acting out of an ego-based conception of what kind of person we are and what such a person should do. If we’re truly paying attention, a helpful action will arise naturally, without our trying.

 

Which makes this one a lot like the second one. In fact, the deeper I look, the more it seems that all three of these principles are one and the same. They seem to be telling me that, in parenting, as in all things, genuine presence and attention are what matters most–not trying to help, but not turning away.

 

These principles, on the surface, may appear to encourage passivity. Don’t believe it. Deep attention is far from passive, and, as Ajahn Amaro said, naturally gives rise to wise action. And certainly deep listening and wise, skillful action are desperately needed in our world.

 

When it comes to parenting, though, there may be times when merely paying attention is the wisest course of action. There’s another Buddhist saying: Don’t just do something; sit there.

 

And that, in this age of non-stop doing, may truly be the hardest thing.

 
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