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Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Motherhood Retreat

It all started with an intense search for the way to peace and strength. The search led me to this book called ‘Buddhism for Mothers’ that my friend and mother pointed me to. 

In a Zen (Buddhist) retreat, one would ‘withdraw from the worldly busyness’ and learn to sit with oneself, breathe deeply, become mindful of simple things like eating, walking, bathing, etc. and sometimes sit in silence. In essence, one would learn to slow down and become intensely aware of the present moment, realizing that there is really nothing more important than that. Motherhood (especially spending the early years with one’s child) is a huge life-time opportunity for a beautiful experience. Here are all the various aspects of the retreat. Acknowledging and honoring all these made my second year of motherhood a powerfully transformative experience. 

Living one moment at a time. I came face to face with my own addiction to being busy and packing my day with lots of things to accomplish. I had truly lost my ability to relax along with the ability to be fully aware of what is going on inside and around me in the present moment. Young children (whose minds are free from fear) are oblivious to the past and unconcerned about the future. They are fully present in their bodies seeing objects, people and events with fresh eyes and a sense of wonder. I am learning to bring back my attention to the present moment in two ways. When there are a few things screaming for attention at the same time, like Isha falling down and getting hurt, the water on the stove boiling, the phone ringing, the door-bell ringing, it is easy to succumb to the madness of running about in a state of frenzy, feeling like a helpless victim of the situation and cursing it. In those moments, I’ve learned to breathe deeply, taking complete responsibility for that situation, becoming intensely aware of what is required of me in that moment. This has always helped me to think and prioritize clearly, and act calmly without being flustered. There is really no moment to ‘wish away’ or ‘wish to extend’. Every moment is special and is asking for our fullest attention.  The other way she helps me live in the moment is to drop what I am doing when she wants to share something with me. Not all the time and every time (it isn’t possible), but many times.

‘Living in the moment’ is not to be confused with ‘not caring about or planning for the future’. Even that planning happens one moment at a time. We travel a lot – within and outside Chennai – to people’s homes, to interesting places to explore. And there is a fair bit of planning involved in it – packing things, mode of transportation, coming back before bed time, etc. But Isha inspires me to make every thing a mindful and fun activity. No task is a chore. No moment is dull. I’m learning to enjoy packing my bag (as if that were the whole purpose of my being, in that moment of packing). Life takes on a different colour when you live it moment by moment.

Quietening down. Children are naturally quiet many times. Yes, even the most active and intense children naturally like to spend time in silence. I’ve been learning to tag along and just be with Isha when she is quiet, without disturbing it. Lazing on the bed when she wakes up, going on walks, watching the ant. It amazes me how hard it is to simply ‘be quiet’ and observe and soak in the experience without letting my noisy mind take over. These days, I don’t let go of a single opportunity to experience stillness and silence with Isha. I also think it is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, the gift of learning to stay still and silent. Actually, they have it in themselves. Our gift to them would be ‘non-interference’ with it.

Child rearing as worship. I’m learning to see what an honour it is to watch a child grow and be a part of it. I’m increasingly seeing it as a blessing from God; a gift placed on my hands with love and trust. Every little thing that Isha did for the first time – there were at least a few every day – has been a thing of such immense joy for me. I am not talking about challenging moments, but quiet, cute, beautiful ones where children do such beautiful things. I have felt more and more compelled to drop everything simply to watch it. Like Swami Vivekananda said “Every soul is the Soul of God. Look upon everyone as God. You can only serve. Serve the children of the Lord if you have the privilege. If the Lord grants that you can help any of His children, blessed you are. Blessed you are that that privilege was given to you when others had it not. Do it only as worship.’

Every single time as if it were the first time. Children love repetition. When Isha likes a story, song or a game, she’d say ‘Once again!’ asking me to repeat it for her. And it can go on for as many as twenty times without a break. Yes, telling her the story about how the elephant went looking for water repeated twenty times. And each time, she’d listen to it with rapt attention as if she were hearing it for the very first time. When I sense irritation or boredom about narrating the story, I get the cue that I am not tuned into the present moment. I quickly learn to look into her wonder-filled eyes, let her excitement infect and inspire me, align with the moment and repeat it once again. I realize that it is very special to experience the elephant’s surprise at finding a tiny pond each time the story is being narrated. It is an amazing exercise in building awareness. I go on until my Zen-master is done with it herself.

Witnessing the miraculous in the mundane. “Amma, come look at these ants.” Actually, I’ve never seen ants with the kind of amazement that I’ve learnt to see them of late. They’ve always been around; been a nuisance. At best, they have been tolerated. That’s about it. But actually they are one of the most amazing creatures. When there is spilt food in the corner of the room and ants come to get it, we just let it be and keep watching it once every few minutes. They really clean up the place for us and leave! Isha can play with her shadow against the light streaming in through the window without getting bored about it. I am learning to see that the most mundane things can be the most miraculous.   

Connecting to people: Taking Isha’s help, I have been able to connect to so many people I otherwise wouldn’t be able to.  Once we were sitting inside a bus in a bus-stand. A frail old beggar came up to us and put his hand up asking for alms. As I was reaching for my purse to get a few coins, Isha shook hands with him thinking that that was what he was asking for. It immediately brought such a beautiful smile onto his otherwise pained face. My eyes welled up! What an unexpected, pleasant surprise it must have been for him! I’ve seen countless long-faced people whom Isha is able to touch with her love, beauty and innocence. It is so healing to watch their frowns turn into exuberant smiles instantly! And I get to smile with them too. How often do we get to smile at people who are frowning? She connects to table cleaners in restaurants and ragpickers on the streets making them feel special. How easy is it for us adults to be able to do that?

Exploring things I’ve never done or haven’t done in a long time! Motherhood is a time to explore and get engrossed in little things that we do less and less of as we grow older, and things that were forbidden to do when we were young. Getting wet in the rain, dancing wildly to music as she’d call out to me ‘Amma, neeyum vaa!’ (please join me), singing along on the road, painting and crafting, watching the stars and really taking it all very seriously; getting really involved in life.

Understanding spirited children. Another understanding that helped me a lot was about children who are more intense, perceptive, energetic, persistent and sensitive. These children who can react strongly to any disturbance are more spirited than normal. But our society which likes ‘docile, quiet and obedient’ children who listen without questioning or disagreeing, labels these spirited children as ‘problematic’.  Isha is a demanding and intense child, and very often reacts to things strongly. In spite of having a lot of freedom, being spoken to respectfully, being given choices, she is a kid who would like to assert herself, push my buttons, test my patience, stretch my boundaries, etc. just to see my reactions. All toddlers who are figuring out their sense of ‘selfhood’ do these things. And her tantrums and crying can sometimes be intense.

Understanding ‘spiritedness’ of children has helped me understand myself better. Times when her reactions are strong or her demands high are reminders for me to ground myself, take a deep breath and learn to diffuse the tension. The first step is to ask her ‘What is it?’ It helps her express what her emotional reaction is related to by pointing at the object (let us say, a book) that was taken away from her, for instance. Then the next step is to help her get in touch with what she is feeling and verbalise it. ‘Are you upset that the book was taken away from you?’ She’d nod her head. ‘Do you know why? You were very angry and were beginning to tear the book, which is not at all ok! I tried telling you many times not to tear it, but you were not in a state of mind to listen to it. And so I had to pull it away from you. Can I give you a hug until you feel ok?’ Well, she might agree or not depending on her mood. But at least, she’d soon settle down knowing that she was heard, and seeing that what she actually went through was acknowledged. And soon enough, she’d see that I was actually being reasonable. Actually, this works with adults too. Getting in touch, acknowledging and allowing the other person’s negative feelings without judging them, helps them feel at ease and become more cooperative.

Learning to let go. Conscious motherhood gives us a huge opportunity to learn to let go of our ideas about many things. Like a father of six children said “Before my children were born, I had six theories about raising children. Now, I have six children and no theories.” Each moment unfolds with its share of surprises. What she loved yesterday, she is completely disinterested today, and vice versa. Until yesterday, Isha disliked coconut chutney so much. Somehow today, she called it her ‘most favourite food’. If I ask Isha to come do something with me because she loved doing it yesterday, she can surprise me by refusing and instead badly wanting to do something that I begged her to do yesterday, which she had refused to!  

Feeling and expressing gratitude. The motherhood experience in an urban nuclear family setting can make it look like it's all loaded against the woman. It usually brings up a lot of issues for me about 'being a woman'. It took me a while to reconcile the fact that the mother's role is indeed different and more intense than the father's, and to be able to acknowledge all the wonderful ways that Rajeev was actually being there. Learning to express gratitude allows very soothing life-energy to flow through you! It really deepens relationships.

What about career? Though I never had a 9-to-5 job, I did pursue my own career in ‘saving the world’. Activism (wanting to change the world from an egoic space) is highly addictive. If we don’t watch it carefully and do what we are doing from a perfectly grounded non-egoic space, it can keep giving us a ‘kick’ that we are ‘doing something very important, without which the world would go to the dogs!’ Well, I had been on this trip for a very long time. Even as recently as when Isha was only seven months old, I was actively involved in coordinating the campaign against Bt Brinjal. I burnt myself out after three months of intense action, since so much was already happening in my life even otherwise! In the first year of motherhood, I liked to believe that my life wouldn’t change much at all after Isha. I wanted to be unlike all other women, being able to do everything and carry on with life as though birthing a child was just another event in my life. Until I got burnt out and suffered exhaustion to the point of being forced to go on a retreat.

Slowing down has helped me take a break from everything to be able to reflect on and take stock of many things on many fronts; questioning my ‘work’, ‘relationships’, 'plans’, etc. Most times, all other jobs and careers have paled in front on the most important job of all times, being a conscious mother. And this retreat away from working on ‘social change’ has made me get more in touch with my true inner callings, which would not take me to any of the things I used to do earlier. I badly needed this time and space to re-evaluate things in my life. And I am grateful for it!

I personally don’t understand or feel the need for a career in my life. I know of some others who do, like being a dancer, singer and such. I am not to say what would be good balance for them! What is working for me is to live my motherhood fully, while getting short but regular breaks to do my own things.

Predictable breaks. Deciding to make my breaks more regular and predictable also helped hugely to remove anxiety. Once I started knowing when exactly to expect my space and time, I could relax more easily and be with Isha more fully. Yes, it’s absolutely important for the mother to find alone time, finding expression for things that cannot in the presence of a child. Again, let’s remember that never before in history has the mother had to spend all her time engaging with children. All said and done, it is unnatural. Haven’t we all heard our mothers say “Those days, kids just grew up on their own!” The truth is that there was an entire community of people who the child grew up with; community of neighbours and extended family.

* I hope this post does not read like 'I have attained enlightenment'. :) I have a very very long way to go. There are a lot of times that I lose it, feel frustrated, complain, give unwillingly, etc. But yes, I've wholly set myself up on the journey and it has been incredibly rewarding so far.

* Though I take a lot of inspiration from books such as ‘Raising your Spirited Children’ and ‘Buddhism for Mothers’, I find that they don’t question the larger framework of the modern society. It takes the ‘schools’, ‘offices’, ‘nuclear families living in apartments’ etc as the given and helps us with tools to cope with that living. But I think that such a lifestyle is itself unnatural and unhealthy. The way I use these tools is to find my peace in this moment, but keep my questions about fundamentally restructuring our lives from that grounded space. 

'Buddhism for Mothers'  can be downloaded here.
Raising your spirited child can be downloaded here.
* This article won’t be complete without acknowledging the role of family and friends in holding the space during emotional melt-downs, and taking over whenever I felt exhausted. :)


Hazaron Khwahishein said...

Being a mother, rather a parent and going through the process day in and day out also does something really great... It makes us realise how our parents felt and gone through... and appreciate them, their efforts and forgive their weaknesses... Understand why they behaved that way and said what they did... What do you say about it, Sangeetha?

Sangeetha Sriram said...

Absolutely HK (since I've not been able to figure out your name! :)

Naomi Poole said...

beautiful. THanks for sharing. Inspiring, touching and reminding of the sacred nature of motherhood and its ability to take us to the deepest parts of of our own divinity

Maha said...

Sangeetha, your articles on motherhood,parenting n understanding kids are really awesome. I followed few things with my daughter and it's really works and our understanding got better than earlier. Thank you so much for sharing excellent experience from which others can also benefitted. is there any other way to download the book as the link is not working fine or can you let me know the author of the book so as to buy?

Maha said...

Did you get a chance to look at my request? I would really interested to read the book, can you help me?

Sangeetha Sriram said...

Maha, may I know which book? Please email me at sriram.sangeetha@gmail.com and I'll reply with the details.