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Letting Your Life Teach You: Zen for Moms
by Bethany Saltman

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Photo by Jennifer Esperanza

When other moms find out that I lived at a Zen monastery for 2 years, met my husband there and still study and practice regularly with my teachers, they often can’t believe it because I seem so…well, not very “Zen” would be one way of putting it. I love my 3-year-old daughter Azalea like crazy, but am often impatient; I also love to drink beer and eat steak. I delight in shopping—for myself and Azalea— way more than my humble budget allows. So if I am still so grumpy, base, and clothes-obsessed, what’s the point?
It’s a good question, one that every now and then, I still ask myself. But then I remember, a little sadly, that Zen does not promise a personality transplant. In fact, all I can hope to get from the practice of Zen is the freedom to truly be myself. It’s often called enlightenment, or liberation, but what I think it means is to wake up to the precious nature of our very human lives, not to become some happy robot. Oh, well! Maybe next lifetime…

So what does this have to do with being a mom, especially one who is so not about to develop some super intense spiritual practice in the midst changing the 10,000th diaper today, cleaning spaghettios off the wall, or fighting a tantrum—her own! While it is true that meditation is essential if one really wants to practice Zen, there are some principles that I have found extremely useful in my life as a mom that might be helpful for other parents who find themselves at their wit’s end or just crave a little more meaning. And when things settle down—the kids get older, your nerves un-jangle or you just can’t wait anymore, you can try out the rest of Zen, too.

1.) Let your life be a question.
Instead of resigning yourself to everything you encounter—irritating people, sibling rivalry, exhaustion, jealous feelings, diarrhea—approach it all as a question, a puzzle that is worthy of your investigation. Assume you don’t know what’s going on, or the whole story. This doesn’t mean to ask silly questions you know the answer to; it’s just a matter of quietly, privately, wondering instead of reacting, as in, Oh my god my mother-in-law is making me CRAZY; I wonder why I react to her so strongly. Or, God, that other mom is doing that?; I wonder what she thinks about me.

2.) Move your awareness in, instead of out.
This is simple, but first it’s important to become aware of awareness. Imagine: you’re walking down the hall blah blah blahing in your head, planning, whatevering, totally not in your body and then you stub your toe on your daughter’s toy chest. OWWW! Immediately, you become aware of your toe where you hadn’t been before. That is an involuntary awareness, but we can move our minds to our bodies at will, too. And it’s a good idea to do this, as much as we possibly can.

When we get upset about anything, bring awareness to our bodies in whatever way we can muster: our racing heart, our streaming tears, clenched jaw. And when we feel happy, hungry, bored, again, move awareness back in. Relax the body. This doesn’t mean we get self-obsessed. It’s one of those great paradoxes and one of the central teachings of Zen: embodying ourselves is the only way to become truly available to everyone else, including our kids.

3.) Cultivate gratitude.
Easier on some days than others, I know. When kids are screaming, it’s raining out, you’re broke, you haven’t washed your hair in a week, and all you want to do is eat bread and butter, it’s tough to slow down the train of despair and get in touch with gratitude. But since so much of our agony stems from self-concern (the opposite of the embodiment discussed above), if what we really want is to feel some relief, it’s helpful to get some perspective. Take a moment. Look around. Is everyone healthy? Are you able to feed your kids? Do you have a home? Friends? Chances are, you’ve got something pretty incredible to be grateful for. Take a deep breath and start over.

Or maybe you’re not at all miserable, your bank account is stable, and you “have it all.” But you feel a little numb or out of touch. Again, moving our awareness to our good fortune can jumpstart a tired heart. And inspire us to dive in and be more generous in whatever way we can.

And then, when the time is right, you can dig even deeper.

Bethany Saltman is a writer who has lived in Phoenicia since 2002. Her non-fiction work can be found in magazines like Parents, Body + Soul, The Sun, Buddhadharma, Mothering.com, Shambhala Sun.com, Clean Eating, as well as a monthly column on being a Buddhist mom (which she is!) in the Hudson Valley’s Chronogram. She became a student of John Daido Loori, Roshi in 1997, has lived at Zen Mountain Monastery for years at a time, and now, since his death in 2009, she practices with one of his successors, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei.





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