Mothering As A Spiritual Path

by Melissa West, copyright 1996

So you're sitting in your living room on Saturday morning, drinking your first cup of coffee, trying to get your eyes open. What a night! Pick one: your baby was up for six feedings; your toddler cried all night with his zillionth earache of the season; your house looks like ground zero from your kids going nuts last night with their friends; your teenager finally came home three long hours after her curfew. Through the fog inside your head, you wonder why you're a mother. You dream about being with a gorgeous lover, childless, on a warm and sunny beach in Tahiti....

A knock on the front door jerks your out of your reverie. You pull your frayed bathrobe shut and cautiously get up and open the front door. The woman at the door steps into your house and offers you a once-in-a-lifetime deal, a spiritual path unconditionally guaranteed to deepen your spirituality in ways you've always dreamed of. It's yours, she says, if only you agree to a few conditions:

Would you take it? Would you sign on the dotted line? If you're a mother, you've probably guessed that you've already said "yes." This path is that of the mother: mothering as a spiritual path.

A chasm yawns in our culture between "spirituality" in all of its forms, and "mothering," that daily round of diapering, carpooling, homeworking, playing. Polly Berends, an author who writes extensively on parenting and spirituality, dreamt once that she and a man were waiting to be officially recognized as "spiritual beings." The man wore beautiful "spiritual" robes, was named Guruswamiananda Something-or-other, and carried an armload of degrees certifying his spirituality. All he had to do was to step forward and be recognized. When it was Berends' turn, however, she saw with dismay that in order for her to step forward to be recognized as a "spiritual being," she had to climb over an enormous mountain of kid's laundry.

I remember when I suspected I was pregnant for the first time. I was on a three-day silent retreat. My body felt swollen, my head stuffed with cotton wool. I couldn't concentrate enough to meditate. Oh no, I thought, is THIS what it means to be a mother? Do I have to give up my spiritual life for the next twenty years?

I found out through talking with many mothers, reading, and allowing myself to sink deeply into these questions, the answer is "no."

Contrary to what our culture and our religions tell us, mothering and spirituality are meant to dance with each other. In fact, mothering, like the offer above, can become one of the most rewarding of all spiritual paths, if we only learn how to let this happen.

Reflect for a moment on what the word "spiritual" means to you in your life. Ask yourself, "What difference would it make for me to integrate my mothering with my spirituality? How would a typical day with my children, with all its joys and frustrations, look and feel different if the two were integrated?"

I define spirituality in two ways: first, keeping one's heart open to oneself and whatever life brings; and second, staying rooted in the ground of one's being, the sacredness of ilfe, while going about one's daily routine. Such simple things, really, but such a challenge to work with amid the daily repetitive tasks of feeding, bathing, wiping runny noses, and all the other punctuations of a mother's life.

There are four imortant components to mothering as a spiritual path: keeping one's heart open; slowing down and opening to Now; letting go; and saying "Yes."

*Opening the Heart*

This is the primary practice of mothering as a spiritual path, and the most challenging. It's difficult, to say the least, to be an openhearted mother in this culture.

Mothers are assaulted with injunctions to be a "perfect mother" through the media, families, churches, and parenting books; they are reminded that any mistakes they make will be told to a therapist twenty years hence. What a challenge it is to open one's heart, especially to oneself, under these circumstances, and yet how necessary. When we as mother listen to these messages, we often feel anxious, afraid, and woefully inadequate. We then contract, both emotionally and physically, and lose a heart-full connection both with ourselves and our children.

We can let ourselves off the critical hook, open and soften our hearts to ourselves. We can learn to cradle our own self-judgment and discomfort on bad days with our kids as we would a sick or grieving child. We can let go of pursuing perfection as mothers and instead open to aliveness. When we let ourselves into our own hearts, there will automatically be plenty of room for our children as well.

Open-heartedness does not mean "idiot compassion," to use Chogyan Trungpa's phrase. We as mothers can be open-hearted while we say "no" to our children, set limits, and discipline. Open-heartedness is something we may practice at any time. All it takes is to stop, breathe gently and deeply, and let our hearts soften and open.

When we stop, breathe, and soften our hearts, we open ourselves to the ordinary grace of this world, grace and energy and aliveness available simply for the asking. As someone once said, the winds of grace are always blowing: all we need to do is raise our sails.

We don't have to mother alone. This support, this energy, this greater love in which we live is always there for us. When we open our hearts, this grace can move through us and out into the world of our children, blessing us greatly on its way.

I remember one of those afternoons-without-end with my daughter when the house was a disaster and both of us were tired and cranky, one of those afternoons where I wasn't sure we'd both survive until dinnertime. By late afternoon, after I shouted at her for knocking the cat food dish over, I remembered: I stopped, sat down, and breathed. I remembered that I was not alone. The image came of letting myself be a hollow tube, allowing that larger grace and love to flow through me and touch myself and my daughter. I relaxed. I can't say that the afternoon was transformed into The Perfect Day With My Daughter, but we were both able to laugh and be with each other in a new way. I raised my sails, and grace blew in.

*Slowing Down*

Eknath Easwaren considers slowing down to be one of the cornerstones of a spiritual life. Why? A clue lies in the Chinese ideograph for "busy," combined from two other ideographs: "heart" and "killing." When we become too busy, we lose touch with our hearts, with our bodies, with the present moment. Life lived in fast forward means no time for either ourselves or our children in any meaningful way.

There may not be much we can do as mothers to slow down our outer lives, but we do have choices to make about our own inner busyness. Imagine driving in heavy traffic, taking your child to soccer practice. You hunker down over the steering wheel, frown, mutter imprecations about the jerk who cut in front of you, hold your breath. Your heart and your stomach are tight and hard. You can't hear what your child is saying to you ("Mommy...Mommy....MOMMY!") over the din of your own thoughts.

Stop. Change channels. Gently remind yourself to slow down and breathe from your belly, let your heart soften, loosen your grip on the steering wheel. You now notice the blue-grey of the winter clouds above the freeway, the sounds and smells and sights around you. You listen to what your child is saying, or sit with them gently in silence as you drive. By slowing down internally, you allow heartfulness, "grace-space," to fill your body, your car, and your relationship with your child.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time, "chronos" and "kairos." Chronos is clock time, linear time. Kairos is sacred time, spirit blazing within matter, the "eternal present" of saints, animals, children. We are trained to believe that only certain times are sacred, but any time may be kairos. As I ask in my book, "If Only I Were A Better Mother," "What if all moments are sacred moments? What if we are all priestesses of the present? What if all ground is holy? What if ALL bushes are burning, as well as trees, stones, creatures, our children, ourselves, and all the spaces between?" Kairos is always there within and around us, no matter what we may be doing with our children. All it takes is an inner slowing down.

I have found two simple ways to cultivate inner slowness, "grace-space," throughout the day. The first way is to get up a half hour earlier, giving yourself some quiet time before the day with your children begins. Do whatever centers you: watch the sky change colors with the sunrise, meditate, drink your first cup of coffee in peace and quiet. The effects will stay with you throughout the day. Second, practice taking two minute "quiet breaks." Go into the bathroom, if that is the only refuge you can find. Give yourself permission to slow down, breathe quietly, come back to your body and your heart. Slow down and gently touch the Ground of your being. Both you and your kids will enjoy the benefits.

A. H. Almaas considers the single most important spiritual question to be: "Are you here?" When we slow down, open our senses and our hearts to the richness of the present moment, to the sacred Now, to ourselves and our children, we may answer, "Yes."

*Letting Go*

A client who was a mother and practicing Buddhist said to me once: "Teachers have always told me the importance of letting go, of opening to the impermanence of everything around me, but I never really got it until I had children." So true. In many ways, the primary task of mothering is learning to let go. We start learning to let go of our children at their birth, their first leavetaking of us, and the learning never stops.

Contracting around the endless repitition of daily tasks is so easy to do as a mother. We become myopic, diminished. When we open up our vision just a little, we can see how quickly this daily round of mothering passes, and how precious this time is with our children, all of it. Opening to the fleetingness of each moment allows us to see the grace, the sweetness, the fragility of everything we do with our kids, from cleaning their rooms with them to listening to the same knock-knock joke for the fourteenth time.

I sat on a back porch with my mother and daughter in Montgomery, Alabama, one humid southern evening last summer and realized that just one breath, one heartbeat ago, I was in my young daughter's place, sitting with my own mother and grandmother in the damp and fragrant heat. In yet just another breath, another heartbeat, I realized as well, I would be in my mother's place, rocking with my own daughter and granddaughter. How quickly time passes; how quickly the chance to practice openhearted mothering slips through our hands. How precious this brief time we are given with our children truly is.

Ask yourself: "If I were to go through one typical day with my children with this tender, bittersweet awareness of the fleetness and fragility of time in my heart, how would it change my life as a mother?" Try it.

*Saying Yes*

I remember so many times when I have said "No" to my daughter, not out loud, but an inner No. "No, I don't want to wake up in the middle of the night anymore." "No, I don't want to grit my teeth through another long temper tantrum." "No, I simply can't be a mom anymore." I strugle against the rigors of this path, the frustrations, the challenges.

So much changes when I can stop, take a deep breath, and find that final, heart-full "Yes" which lies beneath what seemed to be a final "No." When I reach deep and find an unconditional "Yes" to mothering, when I quit resisting what life brings my way in the form of my small child, my mother-life opens up. The present moment with my child becomes more spacious and sacred, no matter what is happening between us. I have learned that I can set limits with my child, say "no" to her around specific issues, and at the same time stay open, non-contracted, and soft, breathing "Yes" to the larger space that cradles us both.

Someone, I have forgotten who, said that when we find this initial Yes, "We realize that 'Yes' is the answer to every 'why?' and suddenly everything makes sense. In saying this 'Yes' we become what we are. Our true self is 'Yes.' " Such a gift, both to ourselves and our children, to practice Yes. This Yes is the password that opens the sacred door, reconnects us with our own hearts, our own children, and reweaves us once more into the great and sacred Web of Life.

Some final, practical tips for integrating these suggestions into your life. First and foremost, breathe. Practice soft-bellied breathing, when you're waiting at a stoplight, when you're playing with your children or putting them in time out. The more you practice breathing at non-stressful moments, the more you will be able instinctively to breathe deeply, instead of contracting, when a difficult moment happens with your children.

Next, practice softening. Soften your belly. Soften your eyes and your visual focus. Soften your heart. When you're holding your baby, when your child is sitting on your lap, or when you give your teenager a hug, soften into them. See what a difference it makes. Again, the more you practice softening in easy times, the easier it will be to soften when the going gets rough.

Post reminders to yourself in your house and car to practice the aforementioned. Tell yourself that whenever you see the stove, or the window above the sofa, or any object in your environment, you'll remember to breathe and soften.

Finally, see your time with your children as a precious opportunity to practice mothering as a spiritual path. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance that passes very quickly. Open to the wonders and gifts that this path brings your way, and breathe Spirit into your daily life with your children.

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