I recently listened to an interview with the Buddhist monk and psychologist, Jack Kornfield.
He said he’d graduated from an Ivy League college but had “only half an education.”
“Nothing in my education,” he explained, “taught me anything about my emotional life or my values.”
So he became a Buddhist monk.
To educate his heart he turned to spiritual practice.
Isn’t that the truth?
I considered myself to have a slight advantage in the “educated heart” department because I’d majored in English, and art deals directly with what it means to be human.
Once I was in the Big World, though, I realized my education had only just begun. Getting married was my first graduate course in the heart, but motherhood has been my PhD.
Who needs to become a monk? Every bit of motherhood is a spiritual practice.
How can motherhood be a spiritual practice?
Spiritual practices are meant, ultimately, to help us to properly see ourselves, the world and our place in it so that we can be free. There are many paths to choose from, but generally they share the following four characteristics.
1. An Inscrutable, Tireless and Loving Teacher.
In religious practice, it’s a spiritual mentor. In motherhood, of course, it’s our baby.
Western culture teaches us really well how to work hard, mind the clock and achieve. That’s good as far as it goes, but—as Kornfield says—that’s only half of it.
Because they are unsocialized, babies remind us of our fundamental nature. Fully present in the body and free from judgment, they ask for what they need without apology: food, comfort, closeness. Those needs met, insatiable curiosity and desire for mastery lead them to play and play and play. . . until they need to rest, which they do—again without apology.
Their presence in the moment reintroduces us to wonders we have stopped seeing. Their unself-conscious, full-body engagement with the world in all they do is magnetic, and it reminds us who we are.
2. Undoing of the Ego.
When a spiritual initiate is received into an order, she sheds the outward appearance of her old life: her hair is shorn and she relinquishes possessions and social ties. The old dies so the new can be born.
Becoming a mother is similarly disorienting and humbling. When your baby is born you leave your old life—little of which prepared you for the work, solitariness and encompassing responsibility you feel. It can be painful at first to lose your bearings so completely.
But, like the spiritual novice, the sooner you surrender to the changes, the more clearly you see the beauty in their simplicity. You release your pride and find joy in the next two elements of your practice.
3. Rigorous Discipline.
One aspect of discipline is repetition. The cycles of repetition in mothering can be mind-numbing. In spiritual practice, repeated mantras and rote prayers are mind numbing, too. That’s the point. A quiet mind is a portal to another level of consciousness.
Another aspect of discipline is the surrender of personal choice. We do the work in front of us because it needs to be done and because our teacher tells us to. When the bell rings at four a.m. for morning prayers, we get up. When the baby cries at four a.m. to be fed, we get up. We accept fatigue. We accept round-the-clock responsibility and accountability.
For once in your adult life, we just do, without argument or negotiation. Like repetition, surrendered doing is a portal to another level of consciousness.
4. Sacredness in the Mundane.
Like the spiritual initiate, we submit to this rigorous discipline not to punish ourselves. We do it for love.
Love infuses with sacredness the mundane that now utterly preoccupies us. Sacredness and our baby’s magnetism combine to pull us into the moment. We’re surprised to discover that we look forward to the midnight feedings and diaper changes, to hanging the laundry.
This bewilders people who don’t have children. From the outside it looks like some kind of tedious bondage. On the inside it often feels a lot like bliss.
In a culture where everything associated with the care of children and the home is low status and poorly paid (when it is paid at all), seeing motherhood as a spiritual practice elevates it. It keeps me humble and learning; gives me strength when I want to give up and hide; gives context and meaning to the mundane; acknowledges the value that I get from being a mother, which is so, so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Unlike an overtly spiritual practice, enlightenment is not the primary concern of mothers. Our children are, and love is both our fuel and guide. Personal transformation and an educated heart are the glorious residue of a life lived for love.
Author: Allison Mecham Evans
Assistant Editor: Rebecca Lynch / Editor: Toby Israel