I live in the kind of town where you can only tell a woman’s age by looking at her hands. It’s the sort of place where you only see the rough edges if you squint. There are many benefits to living in a place where perfection is the norm. The outdoor spaces are beautiful, your dinner companions are almost always attractive and everyone is working very hard to maintain this sense of timeless perfection. In fact, after enough time has passed, it starts to seem normal.
In the story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, he is kept by his parents in a world devoid of suffering. It’s not until his twenties, when he sneaks beyond the boundaries of the castle and encounters sickness, aging and poverty, that he is even aware that suffering exists. This realization sets him on the path of becoming the Buddha, and working to awaken the Buddha nature that resides in all of us, all the time. The understanding that we all posess “Buddha nature” or basic goodness just because we exist, is a teaching that should be at the center of everything we do.
As a parent, the temptation to shield our children from suffering is overwhelming. I can identify with the young Siddhartha’s parents. We all want our children to live untouched by disappointment or sadness. Choosing to parent this way is only perpetuating our own suffering, we cannot protect our children from cruelty or sorrow. It isn’t possible.
If we cannot protect our children from suffering, then what is our role as parents? This is something I think about constantly. I think that the greatest gifts I can give my children are resilience, and clarity –to see things as they are, and not to hinge their sense of success or happiness on an external, constantly shifting landscape.
If they come to believe that happiness depends on a certain lifestyle, or an ageless face, then they will be disappointed. If they wear good deeds as some sort of Karmic armor protecting them from future sadness, they will be disappointed. If they spend their days believing that happiness exists anywhere outside of their own view, then they will be disappointed.
My efforts as a parent are spent teaching my children that they should work to see things as they are. Acceptance of ourselves, our situation and reality as it is, is the root of sustainable happiness.
My children see me meditating in the morning, and will often come and lay across my lap as I near the end of my practice. I love feeling their sweet, sleepy warmth, and I love that they see me in stillness. If our children never see us at ease, if they never see us still, and without distraction, how will they know this is possible?
I encourage my children to sit for meditation, as many minutes as they are years old. It is not mandatory, but I try to create an environment that supports their curiosity about why I sit. I also use words like “mindfulness” and “awareness” in conversation. I encourage them to let go of emotions and conflicts that don’t serve them. It is easier when the source of their conflicts are Lego and dessert. If I plant the seeds now, maybe the awareness will grow with them, as they get older. And, as their understanding of suffering increases, maybe they will be able to recognize their own role in its origin.
Being a parent has made me more naked and vulnerable to my own perceptions than anything else I have ever done. It also motivates me to live truthfully, in a way that aligns with my values.
I live in a place where the suffering is not caused by bombs overhead, but of a quieter more insidious dissatisfaction. I hope I am teaching my children to see things as they are, to recognize that timeless perfection is not a product that you can buy on a shelf. Beauty exists in everything, old hands and faces, rough edges and disappointments.
Happiness is an inside job.