Learning to let go: lessons from a 1yo baby

Why do I feel relieved when my 1yo daughter goes down for a nap?

Why do I not reach for the same feeling of relief while she is awake?

Isn’t it just my own resistance?

The Dao of parenting…sleep deprivation edition

Parenting is really really demanding.

But it’s our own resistance that makes those demands difficult to meet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to preach here; last night was one of the most challenging I’ve had in a while, so I want to move forward on this subject.

It helps to see these challenges as bringing to attention our own pockets of resistance.

But don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t feel like that right now.

When things feel really tough it’s not the best time to reach for answers. At those times the best we can do is to find the barest positives like “at least we’re all still alive!”

Here comes some resolve!

But this morning I’m feeling a little more focused. I know last night was an unwanted experience. I know I didn’t reach for relief. I know I can do better and by doing better I mean feeling better.

So I intend to remember the things I learned and applied with our first child.

Our first child was a steep learning curve and there were tough times for sure. But I recall moments of real clarity and focus that I now think were even more powerful than I realised at the time.

Be like water

The Dao is often likened to water, because water flows without effort, never holds itself back, is content to take the lowest position, but in the grand scheme of things is unstoppable in its influence.

Interacting with an infant or young child, being like water means being sensitive and adaptable without contrivances or resistance.

After all, children want to be happy and feel good. We don’t make them happy, we merely provide the basic things they need.

Happiness comes naturally.

In Chinese this kind of nature is 自然 ziran and I love this word because it basically means “flows from oneself”.

So the happiness of a child flows from itself.

But that’s not how it feels. It feels like the little darling wants to scream and cry and be constantly dissatisfied.

How can happiness be natural when the kid is so often inconsolable?

Let go of resistance

It may not be obvious at first, but there is a natural flow and it is most likely our resistance to that flow that comes before the screaming and crying kick in.

We need to be sensitive and let go of our own demands and arbitrary deadlines and procedures. In effect, we need to be guided by the child.

But the guiding can’t start in the midst of a meltdown. Start when things are relatively easy.

She has to eat!

Here’s my first point of resistance. She has to eat, and it’s vital that she eat at this time because she needs to sleep at this other time, or else she’ll be overtired and the whole schedule will fall apart and she’ll probably get sick and we’ll all die horribly..

Okay that last part is exaggerated.

But notice that before she gets upset, I’m approaching her with a determination that she must eat a certain amount of food at a specific time or else everything will fall apart!

What if she’s not hungry?

What if she’s teething and it hurts to eat?

What happens if she doesn’t eat right now?

Have a little faith

If she doesn’t eat right now, she’ll eat later when she’s hungry.

If she doesn’t sleep right this minute, she’ll sleep later when she’s tired.

And guess what? Feeding her later and sleeping her later will be so much easier if I haven’t spent the past hour or so fighting with her to eat when she’s not hungry and sleep when she’s not tired!

A little bit of faith in nature is essential. And if you talk to anyone who’s had a few kids their faith is heavily seasoned by experience.

Speaking of nature as “flowing from oneself”, our 1yo hadn’t pooped for three whole days. But we knew from our first child (and yes we worried back then) that this is totally normal.

Make sure they have plenty of water, make sure their diet is good. Otherwise just sit back and wait because it will inevitably flow from themselves!

And when it comes, it will come abundantly….

But what about my schedule?

If your schedule works, then keep doing it. But if you’re finding that “nothing works!”, if you’re at the end of your tether, then consider no longer fighting, resisting, or struggling.

What I’m reminding myself is that when I let go of my preconceptions and resistance and have the intention to just flow naturally, I become more relaxed and more sensitive to what is going on.

I’m better able to read her moods and wants and needs and she seems to adapt to my greater ease and letting go of the struggle.

We create our reality

My problem is not that I’m forced to care for a difficult child single-handed. My problem is that I’ve let worries and cares and resistance accrue for a while and I’ve only gone looking for relief when I felt completely overwhelmed.

It’s taken time for me to acknowledge I want life to be different on this subject.

And then it took more time for me to know how I want it to be different, the kind of difference I’d like to see.

It’s not about the baby, it’s about me and my habits of reaching for better feelings, or digging more firmly into resistance.

So to come full circle – she’s asleep right now, not because I made an effort or was super patient, but because I felt suddenly inspired to leave the house and go for a walk with her.

She fell asleep about twenty minutes into the walk, but I hardly noticed because I was busy looking at the beautiful houses and trying to work out which house owned a tiny little driveway that I’d never noticed, tucked away between two other houses.

It turned out to be the rear entrance to a massive heritage estate, taking up about 4,000 sqm of land right in the midst of ordinary suburbia.

I’d never noticed it before, but isn’t that a wonderful omen? In the midst of “normalcy” we might stumble upon the path to something amazing and beautiful, so long as we are open to that experience!

The Way of abundance

The way I lost weight and the way I healed my autoimmune pain had a lot in common.

One of the commonalities was my underlying belief that health is natural. Our bodies naturally incline to a healthy weight. Our immune systems naturally protect the body rather than attacking it.

According to Daoism it is our interference in nature and our contrived efforts to control nature that end up causing illness and dysfunction.

So the whole time I was searching for the solution to these physical problems, I had great faith that my natural state of health would re-emerge if I stopped interfering.

And it did. I took away compulsive overeating, listened to my natural hunger, and my weight decreased naturally.

I stopped pushing myself and let go of various stressful thoughts, and my pain and inflammation went away.

What about life?

But when it came to the rest of life, that faith dissipated.

Why?

Partly because “nature” is easier to associate with the body than with society, economy, and meaning in life.

These “higher order” subjects are usually associated with the problem of human interference, rather than with the movement of the Way.

But it’s also partly because physical health is not under our direct control. It makes sense that our health would follow nature, but how can our career choices, income, daily interactions, or the flow of traffic?

False dichotomy

I didn’t give up on finding the Way in daily life, but because of this dichotomy between the human and the natural I concluded that finding the Way in everyday life was much harder and required more effort.

I was fixated on the problem of “ego” and the Daoist idea of being free from desires. I thought I had to attain a special spiritual state before I could find my Way.

It didn’t occur to me to equate living a good life with the natural health of my body.

Yet health and wealth are not so different. The Dao or Way that governs my physical body and draws it naturally to health is the same Way that guides my life into ease and abundance.

So by inference, what I require is faith that the Way wills abundance in my life just as it wills health in my body, and the only obstacle to both is my own interference.

I don’t need to attain a special spiritual state, just stop interfering in the natural flow and movement of the Way.

Health and wealth

Wealth is not just about money and property. The word itself actually means “well-being” and comes from the same root as “weal“.

In fact health isn’t just about the absence of illness and disease either. Health is wholeness and completeness, and by extension well-being also.

Daoism teaches that the Way nourishes and cares for all beings. Reminiscent of “Consider the lily” or the birds of the field, the mysterious power of the Way assures us of well-being.

How do we get out of our own way? How do we stop interfering with the wholeness and well-being that flow to us?

As I’ve been learning, the answer is twofold: first and most importantly, appreciate and savour the well-being that already flows to you, because in so doing, we tune into the source of that well-being and reaffirm its full availability to us.

I did this automatically with my health issues: recognising that the rest of my body functioned perfectly well; and even going so far as to recognise that being overweight was actually a healthy response to overeating, and that my autoimmune pain was a healthy reaction to internal stress and emotional tension.

The second part of aligning with our natural well-being is to recognise that it is our negative thoughts and ensuing emotions that interfere with this well-being.  The Way does not abandon us, we are the ones who deviate from its path.

In that sense, our negative feelings and the absence of well-being is an indicator that we are straying from the path. The gaps in our welfare and happiness are self-inflicted, if we stop entertaining them our natural well-being will quickly reassert itself in our experience.

Imagine, then, the streams of well-being flowing to you from the Way, the mysterious being that governs and nourishes all things, nourishing and guiding you into the wholeness and well-being you desire.

Remain in that stream, appreciate the goodness and relief and happiness it contains and let it carry you forward in grace.

Unpacking Pride

I’ve been quoting an excerpt from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in which he describes precisely how Lucifer wished to be “like God” and so fell from grace:

he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

What exactly does this mean? It is a very Thomistic statement, and the language could do with some elaboration for a contemporary audience.

His Last End

An end is a goal. It is the intended conclusion or outcome of an action, or the use or purpose or action of an object.

This sense of the word is retained in the phrase “to what end?”

The end of a coffee machine is to make coffee. The end of drinking the coffee is enjoyment, stimulation, quenching of thirst, or social connection.

The last end is the ultimate purpose or action. When it comes to human beings, our last end is something we have been trying to figure out for millennia, usually through philosophy and religion.

In orthodox Christianity the last end of humanity is to know and to love God.

Beatitude

Aquinas tells us what he means by beatitude in a section dealing with the beatitude (or blessedness) of God:

nothing else is understood to be meant by the term beatitude than the perfect good of an intellectual nature; which is capable of knowing that it has a sufficiency of the good which it possesses, to which it is competent that good or ill may befall, and which can control its own actions.

Trying to explain Aquinas using Aquinas is a bit recursive, so lets quickly note that “the perfect good of” means a perfected, complete state of being. “An intellectual nature” means a being with intellectual faculties, ie. “capable of knowing”. “Competent” just means suitable or fitting.

In other words, beatitude for a human means our most perfect and fulfilled state of being, a state in which we lack nothing that is good for us. This includes knowing that we lack nothing that is good for us.

This is paradise. To want for nothing, and have no doubts about being in true paradise.

The Virtue of His Own Nature

“Nature” here means essence. When we say something is “not in my nature” we are describing ourselves in our most intimate and essential being. Forget “mother nature”, this nature is the essence of who and what you are.

“Virtue” is a little tricky. We use the phrase “by virtue of” to mean “because of” or “caused by”. Virtue comes from the Latin vir meaning ‘man’. A virtuous man is, in a manner of speaking, a manly man. In other words, to be virtuous is to have all the qualities of an ideal human being.

But the term can be applied to anything. The virtue of a knife is its ability to cut things. the virtue of a coffee machine is its capacity to make good coffee. So when we say “by virtue of”, we mean “thanks to this quality”.

Defining Pride

Paraphrasing Aquinas our own pride consists in desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

Thanks to our quick dip into Thomistic terminology we can say that pride means wanting our most complete state of perfection to be something that can be attained through our own qualities.

The orthodox Christian idea of perfection cannot be attained without God. To know and love God requires a relationship with God that is beyond our natural capacities. So perfection, paradise, cannot be attained through our own qualities.

The Irony of Pride’s Perfection

The irony is that our pride causes us to settle for a much lesser perfection. Hence Milton’s Lucifer deciding it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

While we still desire happiness, insisting that we attain it by ourselves immediately lowers our aim. Our last end becomes whatever trace of perfection we can strive for, though in reality it mostly devolves into endless striving.

In pride, our last end of beatitude becomes a distant promise of perfection towards which we can only ever struggle in the hope that we will find it fulfilling.

In other words, our struggle for happiness in this broken and frustrating world is already the perfection we obtain by our own powers. This is the dismal paradise that our feeble nature built, and the only consolation is the impression that we built it all by ourselves, and the hope that things will get better before the end.

As God said to Jeremiah:

my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Yet the promise of the Gospel is that God is ready with his grace at every moment to restore His relationship with us, to bring us to a blessed state entirely beyond our own nature and capacity.

The only obstacle is the one we ourselves present, in our recusant desire to do it on our own, for ourselves, and in our own way.

Has “natural” been de-natured?

My latest MercatorNet piece looks at the supposedly lost meaning of the word “natural”:

We are so deeply in agreement on the actual quantities of numbers that there is no room for controversy in basic mathematics, only for error and correction. Yet when it comes to language our capacity to bend and distort the meaning of words undermines even the efforts of a wise man like Socrates to appeal to the reason of his interlocutors.

By analogy, it is as though most of us are not entirely sure how many is “two”. We know that two is usually less than five, but we’ve never taken the time to work it out precisely. In a society where two can be several different quantities, math cannot really take priority, and the insistence of a Socrates that two is always and everywhere 1+1 will be viewed as merely a firmly held belief, one opinion among many.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/why-natural-is-not-a-meaningless-word

The lost vision of our ethical heritage

I never had much time for ‘ethics’ until I came upon the natural law tradition.  I’ve since learned that ‘virtue’ is of course inseparable from the path of spiritual development, and so it is frustrating to find time and time again that many people relegate ethics to questions of political control and permission.  Ethics is much more than that; however much we fall short of the ideal, it is surely better than rejecting the ideal entirely?

My latest piece on MercatorNet attempts to clarify some of the context and purpose of natural law theory, for those who are interested:

While it may be feasible to reach a conclusion on the basis of non-heredity and rarity, the fact is that natural law does not approach attraction or desire from quite the same perspective as something like the loss of a limb. Rather, the whole point of natural law theory as an ethical system is to guide and inform those who are not content to accept their own desires at face-value, but who wish to shape their desires according to a more complete understanding of what it is to be human, with the goal of what Aristotle enigmatically terms eudaimonia – a term not entirely captured in the translation “happiness”, but which is often rendered “flourishing”, and in a literal sense implies the protection of a benevolent spirit.

The Dao of Parenting

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A fence in a Japanese Buddhist temple. Nothing Daoist about it!

Raising a child is admittedly very frustrating, and I worry that I am not doing it right, that I am not a good influence on my child, that he might turn out like a more deficient version of me.

For example, our son loves the computer and wants to play with it constantly.  I worry that this is not a healthy pastime, that it may be inculcating an excessive reliance on the high artifice of technology, maybe even harming his neurological development.

But its not simply that computers and smartphones are attractive to him – he also sees that his parents spend an inordinate amount of time working, communicating, and playing on them.

So immediately we encounter the parental double-standard: I want him to “do as I say, not as I do”; I want him to behave contrary to the model I am providing.  If it’s unhealthy for him, isn’t it unhealthy for me? Or if it’s okay for me, shouldn’t it be okay for him as well?

I think this example reflects a deeper awareness that our lives are not as they should be.  We do not live in a paradisiacal state, yet this is what my idealism pushes me towards.  So when my son starts to throw a tantrum because I won’t let him play with the computer while I try to work on my PhD, I cannot shake the sense that something is going wrong.

Ideally he would not be throwing tantrums, but I’m not sure that the problem lies in him. He is, after all, an innocent child, and the real cause of the tantrum is that he’s presented with an enticing object (the computer) to which his parents are clearly devoted, yet he is not allowed to join in the very interesting activities of hitting buttons and moving the mouse and making the screen do interesting things.

As a parent, I wouldn’t show my child enticing food if I didn’t intend to feed it to him. Yet showing him the computer but not letting him play is akin to showing him food and not letting him eat it.  His behaviour is quite natural; is mine?

The Daoist approach – indeed much of Chinese thought in general – is preoccupied with the idea of the natural.  Natural is generally superior to the artificial, since it is in our nature as human beings that we find our virtue, our power.

From the Daoist point of view an innocent child exemplifies nature.  He is uncontrived, he does not plot and plan, he does not act according to elaborate schemes. He eats when he is hungry and (largely) sleeps when he is tired.  He doesn’t harm himself by pursuing strange and inordinate desires contrary to his nature. The child is reminiscent of the sage.

Or at least he is until he starts throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way; and in this we find an example in miniature of the broader Daoist perspective on human life.

Our instinctive response to a child throwing a tantrum is to make him stop, raise our voices, tell him off, or distract him.  We would institute rules and discipline to teach the child not to play with the computer.  We would erect artificial boundaries to stop the child from doing what comes naturally: emulating his parents.

A more ‘natural’ response might be to examine the causes of his behaviour, but this would require an uncomfortable degree of self-scrutiny, since the primary cause of his behaviour is my behaviour. As the ancient Chinese text The Classic of Change puts it:

If someone is not as he should be,
He has misfortune,
And it does not further him
To undertake anything.

– Yi Jing, 25: Innocence

It is I, rather than my son, who “is not as he should be”, and all my undertakings – my efforts to impose discipline and better behaviour in him – will not improve the situation.  After all, if I am not addressing the root of the problem, I can only add to the dysfunction.  He is already responding naturally to an unnatural situation; my attempts to change his behaviour directly can only result in him responding unnaturally to an unnatural situation.

I think the better solution is to be open to rethinking our way of life right to the core.  Giving up employment has been a good first step, but our lives are still unbalanced and far from what they should be.  The Daoist ideal is to put things right, which means putting things back in accord with our underlying nature, removing the obstacles and impediments, the desires and schemes which constitute our departure from the way.

This is, however, a long and difficult process, and the raising of a child cannot be put on hold until things are perfect.  What are we to do in the meantime? How are we to act, when all our actions might betray some unwitting error or insufficiency in ourselves? Again the Yi Jing provides an answer:

The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.

– Yi Jing, 54: The Marrying Maiden

As the commentary explains:

Every relationship between individuals bears within it the danger that wrong turns may be taken, leading to endless misunderstandings and disagreements. Therefore it is necessary constantly to remain mindful of the end.If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine. If on the other hand a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.

What this signifies is that our interactions as parents with our children must be coloured and shaped by ‘the end’, which in this instance can be none other than the development of a strong and secure bond of affection.  If we lose sight of this end, we will be lost amidst worries and concerns, doubts and uncertainties.  But if instead we are always mindful of the end, though we may not know how things will ultimately turn out, we can at least be sure of the affection we have nurtured and developed.

I think this has to be the way forward: I will surely make mistakes, but so long as I am mindful of the ideal – a loving, enduring relationship with my son – I will have done at least one thing right.