Turning the mind into a monster trainer.
My eight-year-old daughter has monsters in her closet.
There’s also a big snarly slobbery werewolf type-critter behind the curtains and a skeleton in her sock drawer. I know this because I have heard all about them a few times a week for the last six months.
Some nights, in my infinite parental wisdom—the kind that arises quite naturally and spontaneously at 9 pm, after a solid 15 hours of wiping dirty faces, hands and countertops, singing silly songs, reading silly stories, reviewing silly homework, scaling Mt. Laundry, conquering Mt. Dishes, and descending Mt. Crazy again and again and again—I automatically deploy the same strategy that my own exhausted mother used when I was a paranoid eight-year-old with a closet full of monsters: I yell up the stairs at her, “Go to sleep. There are no monsters, but if I have to come up there, you’ll be scared alright!”
This is actually a considerable softening from the response my mother and her 11 siblings got: “Shut up before I murder ya.”
Other times, when my patience, nerves and mind are a little more intact, I’ll go to her when she calls, wearing my best “Buddha smile.” I listen compassionately to the details of her fears with my best “Buddha ears.” Then, I’ll deliver my parental anti-monster spiel in my best “Buddha voice,” telling her—gently, of course—that there are no monsters except the ones we create.
That she must become more aware of her thinking.
That she should shift her focus from the imaginary slobbers and snarls of monsters to the ebb and flow of her own breath.
And after 20 or 30 minutes of Buddha smiles, Buddha ears and Buddha voice, I often find myself breathing deeply into my child’s persistent confusion, and offering these words of wisdom: “Look honey, there are no monsters. End of story. Just think about unicorns or rainbows or puffy pink clouds or something. Because really, you need to go the hell to sleep before I lose my ever lovin’ mind. For real.” Said gently, with a big Buddha grin, of course.
The success rate of both these strategies is high, assuming your definition of success includes a sharp decrease in your kid’s sense of security and emotional validation and a sharp increase in the sense that you are a bad parent and an even worse Buddhist.
Yes, if there is one thing my meditation practice has taught me, it is how to be present and bring mindful awareness to decidedly un-glorious parental moments like these.
To see clearly my patterns, my ego, my unskilled words and actions as they unfold, and how they create suffering for myself and others.
To notice what an ass-hat I can be sometimes. Gently, of course.
And because of this openness to seeing my self-centered intentions, my unskillfullness and my own ass-hattery, on occasion I am blessed with a dose of genuine inspiration. Inspiration to hold myself and those around me in true lovingkindness. Inspiration to drop the fake Buddha grin that conceals tightly gritted teeth, and to really relax into things exactly as they are. Inspiration to do something different. Like working with the monsters in the closet.
That is what happened the other night.
My daughter hollered down the stairs with her usual “every-time-I-close-my-eyes-I-see-monsters” complaint. Right on cue, I began my usual “it-is-9pm-and-I’ve-had-a-long-day” stomp up the stairs, unsure as to whether I was going to meet her with the fake Buddha smile, or in scary snarling mom-ster mode.
But as I sat down on her bed and looked into her big chocolate colored eyes, something shifted.
Something in my body, my mind, my heart.
I flashed on the experience I had on the cushion that morning, when I found myself deluged by big, strong, scary feelings, which felt monstrous in their own right.
Pushing them aside, burying them deeper, or trying to rationalize them away had not worked. Nor could I transform them into rainbows and unicorns and shiny happy affirmations.
I let myself feel them, and then got curious about them. Where were they coming from? What could I learn here? What would happen if I leaned into my own fear and pain instead of chasing it away or trying to distract myself from it? I contemplated how I could work with those feelings—my neurosis, my monsters—without building more stories of denial or victimhood or aggression. My head didn’t explode in a halo of enlightenment, nor did I arrive at any definitive ass-hat abolishing answers, but it did feel like a little breakthrough. My monsters were workable.
And in that moment, my face and my heart softened as I said to my daughter, “Maybe it is time to train the monsters.”
Her eyes widened. “What? You can do that?” she asked incredulously.
“Sure, why not.” I responded, flying by the seat of my pants into the world of using meditation teachings for the purposes of monster training. I suggested that she could get curious about these monsters. What do they want? How might they be useful? What if she approached them with gentleness and compassion instead of fear and aggression? Her face lit up, as her mind begin to play with these questions.
The monsters probably just wanted some attention. They were probably used to being hated and misunderstood.
The werewolf-ish one behind the curtain would probably be a good protector, and would do funny tricks for dog treats. The skeleton in the sock drawer could dance and make music, and would like to drink some milk to keep his bones strong. The monsters transformed, becoming less mysterious, less frightening. Totally workable. And my daughter became more relaxed and confident as she saw this other side of something she feared, and more certain that she could use her own mind to tame it. She hugged me tight and snuggled under the covers, still giggling about the things she would train her monsters to do.
Then she said “Thanks Mom. I needed that.”
In that moment of open, fresh simplicity, in the complete absence of fake Buddha features and asshattedness, I turned around and said, “No sweat, kiddo.” As I went back downstairs, in my head, I thanked my eight year old daughter. I thanked my rocky morning meditation. And I thanked both our monsters. Because I needed that too.
Amy Spurway writes, mothers and monster-trains in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. She used to be a werewolf, but she’s alright noooooooowwwwwwwww.
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Editors: Elysha Anderson/Kate Bartolotta