There are two days in my life that have left a bigger impact on me than any other days: the day I learned Vipassana and the day my son was born.
When asked when one should first sit a course, Goenka answered in the mother’s womb, before birth. My son was fortunate to experience this. The course was quite late in the pregnancy, and he was already a little wild. Placing my hand on his mother’s belly, I would often feel him moving about, kicking his little legs. But during the course he calmed down completely, and it continued like that until he was born. Even after he was born, he seemed aware of his surroundings, always looking around.
His mother had been meditating daily for some years, which helped her handle the birth equanimously. Having a calm and balanced mother instead of one deeply reacting to the stress and pain had a positive effect on our son’s birth experience.
Letting go of my needs, even the need to meditate two hours a day
a parent was a big transition for me. It took me a year or so before I
became used to this new way of life. Suddenly, I was not the most
important person anymore. This gave rise to a variety of new feelings:
anxiety, claustrophobia, inadequacy, tiredness, anger and much more. I
most likely would not have encountered these impurities on such a deep
level had I not become a parent.
I had to set aside my own needs so many times to attend to my newborn child—and to do it with the most positive feelings I could summon. Because I was tired a great deal of the time, the loving-kindness thermometer would often climb only a few degrees. Had I not been practicing Vipassana, surely the degree of loving kindness would have been below zero.
But just as children grow, so do parents. Although the different phases the child passes through bring up new situations and emotions, the average temperature on the loving-kindness thermometer has been slowly, but gradually rising. Reflecting now upon setting aside my own needs, I no longer distinguish between my needs and my son’s. They go together, since his well-being is my well-being.
When he was a baby, sometimes it was difficult for me to find time to go to the bathroom, so imagine how it went with sitting two hours a day. Adding to that challenge, the only rooms with a door in our apartment was his room and the bathroom. So, when I needed quiet, I started meditating in the bathroom! It also helped to be more flexible by splitting up the sittings into shorter sessions. Many people might think that babies sleep a lot. Sure, but when the child finally sleeps, I was thinking of sitting on the sofa and not on the meditation cushion.
Becoming a new parent made me more relaxed around our tradition’s prescribed daily meditation schedule. As a serious meditator, my life centers around the Dhamma, just in a different way. Having a child has shown me how I used to cling to my two hours a day of sitting and has taught me to shift to a more balanced attitude that is aligned with my new reality. Not that I meditate less, my approach is just different.
My child, who is now seven years old, has helped me put my life and Dhamma practice in perspective. Even though sitting two hours a day became difficult the first year or so, eventually the time returned again. And when there is a little bit more free time, that’s when new choices are to be made. After a long day of work, preparing dinner, and attending my son, I generally have a few hours before my own bedtime.
When my son was a toddler and began sleeping on a regular schedule, I would always meditate while he was sleeping so that he would have my full attention. At times I would even miss the morning meditation if he decided to wake up at the same time as me. But now that he is a little older, we have an agreement that he watches television wearing headphones when I meditate in the morning. Although I hear him move, laugh and so on, it usually doesn’t bother me, and should it do, I acknowledge that this is my life and something I have to observe. I also believe it is good for him to see me meditate.
If I haven’t made him a sandwich before I sit, I can be sure he will come and ask. And I believe it is important to let it be on his terms, so I do my best to continue the meditation as I make him a sandwich. Or if he wants to tell me something, I need to listen to him.
As Goenka taught, family comes first, and one should never choose to meditate rather than attending to one’s young child.
Dhamma living and learning
It is not easy to have this lifestyle of sitting and serving courses every year and meditating two hours a day while also raising children. But as a father, I would not have it any other way even though it would give me more time to focus on Dhamma practice and center-related service. The close relationship one develops with one’s child is a precious gift. The Buddha called his son Rāhula, which means fetter or hindrance, and I cannot deny that attachment develops, but as a householder I see it as something to grow and learn from. As the years go by, the joy of parenting continues to grow and evolve.
I try to make use of the insights I develop as a meditator while interacting with my son. My mother always said that we can never give our children anything we have not received from our own parents. In other words, we become our parents. For example, my father was often absent-minded with me, and I have inherited this absent-mindedness when I am with my son. However, Vipassana has made me aware of this pattern and has given the tools to alter it so that I am more present with my child than my father was with me. So being aware how my mind is running off when being with my son, I can be there for him and at the same time break that pattern in my mind.
Similarly, as a child, I often reacted to life with frustration and irritation. In turn, my parents’ response to my frustration and irritation was more frustration and irritation. And – surprise, surprise, I react in the same way when my son is frustrated and irritated. But, with Vipassana, I can see that my reactions have softened, and I can better cope with his frustration and irritation. Being a father, I am confronted with situations I cannot escape, and this helps me become more whole.
The Dhamma spreads
At seven years old, my son has meditated a little. In the beginning he would sit for two breaths, then would very happily say, “I have meditated!” It was so sweet. A year back there were a few times he was very upset and crying when trying to sleep. I had him focus on his breathing, and he calmed down within seconds. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
When he was younger, and I asked him if he wanted to meditate, he didn’t always feel like it. I didn’t insist. I didn’t push him further. If he feels like it, he feels like it. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. Lately we have started meditating as a routine before he goes to sleep, and he reminds me as often as I remind him, “Daddy… we forgot something!”
I have heard that when one’s child is born, an 18-year course starts! The seventh year is over and I have eleven more years to work! But even then, I know that the parenting journey won’t be over. Parenting, like Vipassana, is a lifelong commitment with a lot of joy and happiness.