In Asian philosophy, there is the concept of “the path” (道). If one follows the path one can achieve enlightenment. What enlightenment means varies depending on the philosophy (Taoism versus Buddhism, for instance). Boiled down, the path is simply applying some form of deep engagement to an activity.
Many arts—such as flower arrangement, archery, painting and martial arts—are practiced in order to find this deep engagement and to gain insight into one’s self and life in general.
In this article, I will explore some of the principles of this deep engagement and how you can bring them into your path as a parent.
Sitting With Discomfort
Most of the arts that are considered a “path” incorporate some meditative element. A common misconception of meditation practice is that it is simply relaxation. Though relaxing can be a part of the experience, the primary intention of most meditation is to be extremely present with the moment you are experiencing.
Often, this takes the form of paying attention to your breath. As your attention wanders (it will—it always does), you bring it back to the experience of breathing.
As simple as this is, it is far from easy. We spend almost every waking moment avoiding being completely present. When we stop distracting ourselves, try to sit still and pay attention to nothing but our experience in this very moment, it can be frustrating and very uncomfortable.
But a meditation practice can train your mind to be still in that discomfort–to sit still without reaching for a phone, remote, snack or some other form of distraction.
What is the value of this?
By developing your ability to sit with discomfort, you increase your responsiveness to life and reduce your reactivity to it. You become more choiceful in how you go through your day and how you interact with others. You become more deliberate in what you do and what you say.
Working on this skill can have a powerful impact on your parenting. Kids are frustrating, confusing and, at time, terrifying. Being uncomfortable is one of the central themes of being a parent. Some of the parenting moments that we are least proud of happen when we are the most uncomfortable. Learning to sit still with that discomfort rather than reacting to it can help you engage with your child more deliberately in the moments they need it the most!
This is a concept that comes from Zen Buddhism, and I wrote an article about it a few years back. Basically, beginner’s mind, or Shoshin (初心), is viewing an activity as if it were new to you, even if it is something that is not new to you.
The more you do a thing, the more you develop patterns and habits around that activity. This can make you more efficient, but it also makes you less present and shuts down creativity. As the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
When you are confronted with a new, unfamiliar task, your brain switches into problem-solving and learning mode. You engage the task more deeply because you are in the process of discovery.
In order to survive parenthood, we establish rhythms and patterns. If we don’t, kids do not get to school, get fed, go to bed or any of the other hundreds of things required to keep them alive, healthy and ourselves in sanity and out of jail.
But this also means we spend a lot of time on autopilot. During those moments, we are doing parenting but we are not necessarily being parents. We are not engaging with our children as much as we are driving them through the day, like cattle through a chute.
A consequence of this is that we lose our creativity as parents and we miss out on discovering new things about our children.
As often as you can, stop and interact with your child as if you have never met him/her before.
In Zen arts, an activity is often stripped down to its essence in order to increase the practitioner’s presence of mind and thus make it more meditative. In this video, you can see someone practicing Kyudo, the Zen art of archery. He releases one arrow, but the process is slow and deliberate. Despite the editing, you can tell that it takes a few minutes for him to go from first picking up the bow to firing the arrow. Through the entire process, he is deeply engaged and meditative.
Clearly, it would be difficult, if not impossible to achieve this meditative state while parenting. But you can simplify. Create opportunities to simplify your time with your child. This could be where you have nothing to do (can get super boring, but can also give you the space for deep connectivity) or where the shared activity is simple and with little definition (going for a walk or hike together are great examples).
When you simplify, you create the space for you and your child to deeply and directly engage. Going to a movie or watching TV together are not good examples of activities that create such a space. Though you are setting aside time for your child, you are not engaging each other. You are passively receiving an experience in parallel with your child.
The Parenting “Path”
Practicing sitting with discomfort, beginner’s mind and simplifying can help you engage more deeply with your child, be more creative and effective in your parenting, and be less stressed out by the parenting grind. These skills can be very difficult, but remember that they are skills. The more you practice, the better you will get at them!