Awakening at Home
Distinguished teachers, scholars, venerables and practitioners, thank you so much for this opportunity to share what I’ve learned about teaching Buddhist thought and practices to mothers. There are over 2 billion mothers in the world. Making Buddhist wisdom accessible to them is the surest way to support the flourishing of Buddhism in the 21st century. In order to make these thoughts and practices available to mothers we need to address their everyday realities, speak their language and offer practices that are meaningful to them. I have been studying this population, inside and out, as a mother and a teacher, for over 37 years. I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you.
A mom’s dharma needs to take into account getting up in the morning, brushing our teeth making breakfast, strapping the baby onto our chest or getting the kids dressed and fed, and stepping outside the front door, sometimes even before our first cup of coffee. We have errands to run, bills to pay, meals to prepare, and daily decisions to make that impact the lives of our families. In contrast, the monastic usually has a more deliberate rhythm with time to reflect, read and meditate. This contemplative model of spiritual practice has been predominant in Buddhism where family life is often regarded as a distraction and, indeed, if you are trying to reflect, read or meditate a child can be perceived of as a distraction.
Yet our dharma is every bit as powerful and lovely as our contemplative sister’s dharma. Ours is a dynamic dharma requiring a more “on the tarmac” approach than the traditional path. The lavender lotus and blue sky are ours as well, we just see them reflected in the dish water. Little bodies, little sincere kisses, little dreamers telling us their dreams, the juxtaposition of emptiness and luminosity are ours as well. We walk down the street and there is no “I” walking just the sensation of air and movement. We smell the sweet pea our child picked for us and experience a moment of blissful at-onement with everything. The emptiness and luminosity are the same but the approach to their realization is, by necessity, different.
The Buddha spoke with sensitivity to the varied realities of those he taught. When he taught a king he employed metaphors about ruling and warfare. When he taught a farmer he used metaphors about the ox, the yoke and the plow. Mothers need unique metaphors as well, metaphors about achingly powerful love, metaphors about giving birth and pregnancy, metaphors about driving and cleaning and balancing work life with home life, metaphors about sitting up all night with a sick child and giving until you no longer recognize yourself in the mirror. We live our lives in a very physical, practical and heart centered fashion. Our approach to spiritual unfoldment requires a paradigm and way of practicing that is relevant to this ground level reality if it is to speak to us. Going on a retreat once a year is very helpful for re-centering ourselves in our practice, and this is something I did as a young mother. But retreats require time and money that a family may not always be able to afford, long periods of meditation require quiet we may not always be able to find in our homes, and reading, well reading is often done in bits and starts.
But the mother has some advantages as well. She is thrust into an experience of real, visceral unconditional love, she generously gives her body over to nature in order to create the next generation and, if supported to understand giving birth as a spiritual transformational process, she is fundamentally changed by the experience. A conscious mother practices selfless service everyday without calling it that. Love for her family makes her aware of her shadow, bidding her to grow for the sake of her family. A conscious mother will go to lengths for her family she would never go for herself alone. It’s important to take this into consideration when developing teachings for her.
This is the work and aim of Hearth. We are committed to building a structure that is truly family friendly and are willing to draw from any tradition that offers insights leading to awakening to further these intentions. We do not have the luxury to be translating an already existing home enlightenment tradition from another culture or continuing an established Buddhist mothering lineage. There are very few home enlightenment traditions in any religion, just some small windows up so high we can hardly see out to the expanse beyond and walls made out of bits and pieces of traditions that often either glorify or demonize mothering. It’s shocking how few traditional stories and practices there are for mothering dharma given that mothers make up such a large portion of the population. What little stories there are have so many problems we may as well just throw the debilitating myths into the dumpster, and build anew with an eye to greater kindness.
But the foundation for any authentic Buddhist system does exist. It begins with the core of all Buddhist traditions, the truth of suffering and the way out, the four noble truths, and annica, annata, dukka. These are the weight bearing beams for our home. Mother’s are no strangers to the truth of impermanence, no self and suffering. These are everyday realities for us. We develop awareness of impermanence as we watch birth turn to aging. Just when we figure out how to deal with our child’s current developmental stage they move on to the next. Nothing stays the same from one day to the next, from one moment to the next, and we need to constantly adjust. We develop selflessness while spending time making meals which are consumed leaving us with dirty dishes, waking up at night to take care of a sick child when we really want to sleep, and forgoing things we’d like to do in order to take care of the needs of our family. The truth of suffering is not a dry, nihilistic teaching to mothers but one we experience viscerally as our hearts have been broken open by love. The wisdom teachings can be employed to support mothers to accept things as they are, allowing the luminosity to break through unimpeded by fear or denial. We can guide mothers to use their life’s challenges for awakening and to realize that there is not something wrong with them, that their struggles have real value and meaning.
The way out of suffering, the 8- fold path, is the time- tested blueprint for our structure. The first 4 steps on the path; right thought, right speech, right action, and right livelihood, easily translate into action for mothers. They help guide our everyday encounters and inform the decisions we make. The next three steps speak of mental training; right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Right effort brings us to our practice each day. It is through right effort that we return to the present moment again and again. Right mindfulness is a useful practice for mothers, much touted by current teachers in the West. Mindfulness for mothers is a great tool, but there is so much more. But right concentration, well that’s a bit trickier for moms. How do you stay focused when you’re called in so many different directions? We need to learn how to develop concentration amidst activity.
The last step on the 8- fold path is right view, or wisdom. We develop wisdom by becoming intimate with the Wisdom teachings and by honoring the wisdom we are cultivating as we engage in conscious mothering. The suttas, as well as other teaching stories, further help in the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings. In translating these stories for mothers we need to eliminate any misogyny otherwise women will feel shame and turn away from them. We need to reframe the myths, like those of Yasodhara and Mahajapati, and create new stories that women can see themselves in. We want a home tradition that will serve our sons and daughters for years to come, a home that is warm and friendly in which we can experience our deepest unfoldment. Koans, gathas and poetry are wonderful bite sized wisdom tools for mothers. We moms often take our coffee and our dharma on the run. A structure that best serves us needs to take this reality into consideration.
Mothering dharma is not about being a “good mom”, home schooling or public schooling, working outside the home or being a stay-at-home mom or any other personal family prerogatives. It is not about being “perfect” or always saying and doing the “right” things or looking a certain way or never yelling at our kids. If the dharma is to nourish our growth we need to feel comfortable within it. It needs to take into account our human frailties, our unique personal styles and our challenges. Rather than hide who we are or think of dharma as a way to get beyond having any challenges, we can reform challenges into the nails and wood that build the walls of our home. We start where we are and draw ever closer to our own illumination using the raw materials in our everyday lives to sculpt the doors and stairways. The process is creative because each family’s circumstances are unique and ever changing. Each family requires different structures but we all share the same need for a strong foundation if the home is going to stand.
There is no need to water down the teachings for moms. We can take the real stuff. If insight can be found in all places it surely can be found while rocking a baby or making breakfast after a sleepless night. There is beauty and luminosity in tired eyes, in bowls of cereal and in our hands as they touch loved ones. This is our dharma. We are not afterthoughts and, although we love to serve, we are not handmaidens. We are the weavers of the cloth of civilization. As the keeper of the home goes, so goes the world. Please join me in supporting the women at home.