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Lessons From a Zen Mommy

zen parenting

Peter Ardito

My husband, Thayer, and I are Zen Buddhists. Before we had our daughter we lived in a monastery in upstate New York. Life was simple there. We'd wake up every day before 4 A.M. in silence, and we'd spend the day working at our assigned jobs. Our meals were shared with 40 other people. One week every month was spent in a silent-meditation retreat. Now, years later, though we live just down the road, things are pretty different. We have a 3-year-old daughter, so while there are lots of early mornings, there isn't much silence. But the Buddhist teachings seem more relevant than ever. The practice of simple awareness has helped me to be happier, kinder, and more relaxed. And I've realized you don't need to have lived in a monastery or even be a Buddhist to apply the wisdom of Zen teachings to the ordinary mama-dramas we all face.

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Mom translation: Stop multitasking!

An important teaching in Zen is that our entire life is happening right now. The past is over and the future hasn't happened yet. Therefore, all we have is the present. Our do-it-now, do-it-fast lifestyle tricks us into thinking we can do everything at the same time and not miss out. Who hasn't tried to talk to a friend while playing Candy Land with her child? For me it's always a fail. Both friend and kid feel ignored, and I feel inadequate. Then there are good days, when I remember to make a choice and stick with it. If Azalea and I are reading, I resist taking a call until we're finished. Doing what I'm doing while I'm doing it makes us all happier.

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Mom translation: Take responsibility for yourself and your mess. And teach your child to do the same.

In Zen we're taught that the state of our mind is reflected in the way we create our home. Scary, right? A scattered mind likely equals a messy environment -- and vice versa.

This isn't meant as a judgment -- if you like chaos, no problem. But who can thrive in a house filled with piles of laundry, disassembled toy parts, and peanut butter smeared on the couch? Of course it's not healthy to get all wound up about trying to keep everything spotless, but learning to notice all the stuff we leave in our wake is a good practice for everyone.'

At the monastery there were signs posted reminding us to "leave no trace." Obviously, when you're living with lots of other people, every stray item adds up. But even though there are only three of us, teaching Azalea that simple message is a great way for her to learn awareness and responsibility. For example, when she wants to dump all the Goodnight Moon game pieces on the floor, that's fine. Let's play! Oops, you changed your mind? Okay, but first let's put the game away. If we don't, the pieces will get lost.

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Mom translation: Limit acquiring too much stuff.

The question I've been taught to ask myself is: Do I really require as much (food, money, things) as I may think I do in the moment?

Because we have no storage space in our house, we all have to periodically comb through our clothes, books, and toys. I used to do this behind Azalea's back and then shrug sheepishly when she would ask, "Mama, where are my yellow shoes?"

Then I realized, in the same way we shop together we need to give things away as a mother-daughter team. Just last month, our friend was sponsoring a toy drive. Azalea and I came home and went through our stuff, putting it all in piles. "Look," I said, "you have three of those. You only need one. Choose the one you want and let's give the rest to kids who don't have any." Using this method Azalea chose to give away a set of blocks, several dress-up items, a pile of books, and some stuffed animals. When we went together to put them in the box, I made sure to tell her that someone else would be able to play with them.

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Mom translation: Don't beat yourself up over things.

I've been a Buddhist for more than a decade and meditated for thousands of hours, but I'm still a novice. Being a Zen student is a good way to be reminded that the journey is the goal.

And it's the same with being a parent. Of course we all want to be perfect. And we want our kids to be perfect too -- responsible, generous, polite, nice. However, it's a life's work to become a decent human being. Because our kids are constantly changing, we're always total beginners. We all need time to learn, make mistakes, and start over. But we live in an impatient world, and many of us -- women especially -- tend to beat ourselves up when we feel like we've fallen short.

So it's important to model patience. In our house, when Azalea makes a big mistake -- like biting me when she gets excited or throwing a plate in anger -- as much as I might have the urge to punish her, she usually gets a chance to "try again." We redo the scenario and allow her to get it right. (My husband and I do this with each other too, as in, "That was a horrible goodbye. Can we have a do-over?" It works wonders!)

If Azalea is totally unwilling to get dressed or sit down for breakfast, instead of getting irritated I try to take a deep breath and say, "Okay, come in when you're ready." Sometimes it takes several minutes for her to cooperate; other times, it's immediate.

Occasionally I'm really impatient and blow it. Then I get to model how I apologize. Being a good kid or a good parent doesn't happen overnight. We all need to be gentle with each other and ourselves, practicing patience. Again and again.

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Develop Rituals
In the morning, after getting dressed, Azalea and I sit on the floor and make a vow for the day. I usually say something like, "I vow to be gentle with myself and Azalea today," or "I vow not to raise my voice," and Azalea usually says something along the lines of, "I vow, Mommy."

Count Your Blessings
Realize how fortunate you are. In the midst of the eighth load of laundry that week, I try to bring to mind how wonderful it is that I can keep my child clean and comfortable. When the boredom of cooking noodles threatens to overwhelm me, I take a moment to really feel in my body how grateful I am that I have enough to feed her. Not every mother is so lucky.

Remember to Breathe
Often. And deeply. Maybe you have to make a pact with yourself that every time you do something routine (flush the toilet, open the fridge door, change a diaper) you use it as a cue to remind yourself to take a slow, deep breath. There is no underestimating the power of truly allowing yourself to simply be a few times a day.

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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