Using children’s books as a tool to clear the mind.
“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew, just go right along and you’ll start happening too.”― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
When I’m uptight, irritable or I’ve just said something grumpy to my husband or my child, or when Opal is a tyrant or in the midst of an inexplicable meltdown, my instinct is to flee. I am in desperate need of some clarity and wisdom, but instead I want to either get away (go into my room and shut the door, which disturbs Opal to a point of irrational trauma), to numb it out (by way of a glass of Malbec with lunch) or to over think and not be so kind to myself (by gobbling up parenting books in the hopes of doing it all perfectly next time).
Here’s an amazing thing:
What I have found is that sitting down with Opal and a book that requires my full attention to read—my utter, unwavering engagement—settles me in a way that is shocking.
This approach allows me to remain connected with my daughter, while, at the same time, not being drunk at noon. In addition, I have abstained, at least for the time being, from the toxic fixation with getting it all just right.
The attitude-adjustment comes from something like this:
Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches Had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort,
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking
They’d hike right on past them without even talking.”
~ Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches.
And as a Buddhist, chanting is part of my meditation practice, though I admittedly am not doing much of it at the moment. When in a group, chanting is visceral, more of an ocean of sound to get lost in, than a string of specific words.
The choral aspect of it is buoying, transcendent at times. There are other times—like with anything— when the practice is met with resignation, speed and wanting to get to the other end as soon as humanly possible. But chanting—especially when there are others there with you—does not allow you to rush.
Chanting alone has its virtues, as well. There is something about hearing your own, individual voice boom through percussive beats and rhythms of language that is liberating. You can be big even when it’s just you there, with the cat. You can be powerful, even if there’s nothing at stake.
You can have a real voice, at 9:23 p.m. on a Monday morning. And the words settle on you in that space like seasoning on a dish, measured out and intentional.
But, like I said, I haven’t officially chanted in quite some time.
Not intentionally, mind you. My formal meditation practice has dwindled down to the dregs since Opal was born. And she’ll be four-years-old this month. I love meditation—I should say I love what meditation does for me, that would be more accurate—but I have gotten into the habit of having other things take priority.
This is an age-old story for all humans, not just parents.
We must discern how to spend our time with children as well as without children. I admit to filling those blessed without-child chunks with writing, yoga, naps and reading. And by the time dark rolls around, I can barely keep my focus on a New Yorker or an episode of Key and Peele. My practice of coming-back to the breath often takes place in a horizontal position.
It’s not for lack of trying.
I have set up elaborate schedules using colored pencils and have tried numerous times to set my alarm in the morning. That push, that strategizing does nothing more than to inspire anxiety and works as a relaxation-repellant. When the goal is meditation, this is certainly an off-way to get there.
What I am saying is this: during this time when “official” meditation is simply not finding its way into my day, perhaps I can practice some lovingkindness. Perhaps I can be creative and institute what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called Meditation in Action.
In his book, Meditation in Action, Trungpa Rinpoche pointed out that through ‘simple, direct experience, one can attain real wisdom: the ability to see clearly into situations and deal with them skillfully, without the self-consciousness connected with ego.’
In kind, I have discovered that many seemingly arbitrary—often domestic—activities are shockingly centering when done with intention.
Enter, Dr. Seuss:
“When the Star-Belly Sneetches had frankfurter roasts, Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts, They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches. They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.
They kept them away. Never let them come near. And that’s how they treated them year after year.”
I have found there are many kid’s books that have the cadence and rhythm of a good old-fashioned chant. Some are tongue twisters, some are lyrical, some rhyme, some make no sense what so ever. But, if done properly, reading them aloud guides me along a short path to being entranced.
I try not to miss any words; I try to keep the pacing steady as if there were a metronome ticking away on the shelf. And I’d be lying if I said that when I do miss a word, I am tempted to go back and start from the beginning until I get it all right. (This is notably not a Buddhist thing to do.)
The Sneetches,The Cat In the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham—you know them all as well as I do.
But who ever knew that they were a blissfully sneaky way to practice mindfulness? That the reading of them—especially aloud— has the potential to cleanse the inside of the mind to a near-glistening state?
All the rest of that day, on those wild screaming beaches
The Fix-It-Up Chappie kept on fixing up Sneetches.
Off again! On again! In again! Out again!
Through the machines they raced round and about again,
Changing their stars every minute or two.
They kept paying money. They kept running through.
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one … or that one was this one
Or which one was what one … or what one was who.
Then, when every last cent of their money was spent,
The Fix-It-Up Chappie packed up
And he went.
~ Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches.
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Ed: Cat Beekmans