It’s a Beautiful World: Simplicity Parenting
July 8, 2015 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting · Permalink · Comments Off on It’s a Beautiful World: Simplicity Parenting

by Bethany Saltman

Kim John Payne has spent the last 27 years studying families. As a school counselor, consultant, educator, and private family counselor, his work has taken him around the world, and he is a longstanding participant in the Waldorf movement. Payne’s latest book, Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids (Ballantine Books/Random House, 2009), pulls together his central ideas into one tight, smart, and compassionate argument: Just slow down. And Payne tells us how, through the four paths toward simplicity:

Environment: De-cluttering
Rhythm: Increasing predictability
Scheduling: Soothing schedules
Unplugging: Reducing the influence of adult concerns

While below are some highlights from our conversation, I encourage anyone interested to check out his book. Payne’s style is so warm and nonjudgmental, even the most overwhelmed among us can find some support.

Just this morning I had a conversation with a friend about how her two kids have too many toys and she doesn’t want them to feel disappointed by something going missing. What would you say to her?

I think we’re living in an undeclared War on Childhood, and that perspective comes form working in war zones. It doesn’t come as a throwaway comment; it is very serious. I think our children are suffering from sensory overwhelm, like a sensory tsunami. But we, unlike a lot of wars that we see in the world, can declare peace in our homes. There’s so much booming and buzzing in the world, so wanting to have a peaceful home is just establishing a balance.

In your book you talk about how we overwhelm children with words, as well as with stuff. Can you say more about that?

Explain less, and be more. Don’t just say something; stand there. Let them actually develop the inner experience. rather than they bring you a painting and you say,Good job, let’s bring that down to Kinko’s. Rather, just look at the painting with love in your eyes and be quiet.

Shouldn’t we help kids verbalize themselves in times of ordinary stress?

My take on this is that even with the most ordinary stress—for instance, bickering between kids—what’s happening is that the behavior that we have been told by society is normal doesn’t need to be. Our children, in their relationships with each other, are overcontrolling and micromanaging and being hyper-sensitive in their play with each other because they’re living an out-of-control lifestyle.
Even in a house like ours where we are mostly unplugged, very quiet, and unscheduled, you would say we are being overwhelmingly verbal?

That’s right. Shouting has become the new hitting, and now the new shouting is explaining.

What’s happening is we’re taking children to places that neurologically they’re not even close to being able to go. They can’t make those choices, or verbalize what we’re asking them to verbalize. When we ask children to go to their feelings or to use their words and they don’t have the frontal-lobe, neurological capacity to find the words we’re demanding or explain their feelings, what we’re doing, unwittingly, over and over and over, is saying to the child, “You’re stupid.”

I am beginning to see how this desire on my part to have my daughter verbalize can actually be aggressive.
It can be. I agree 100 percent. And we’re reinforcing this message that they’re not good enough. Some children get a kind of verbal diarrhea because they’re subject to too many choices, too many questions, and they either collapse, they flee, or they fight, and they become really feisty. And when people simplify, so many difficult situations disentangle. Does it heal everything? No, but in the short term it creates a sensible space to sort problems out rather than this stressed space of fighting for control.

I think I try resolve my ambivalence about our privilege by trying to educate my daughter about her entitlement, which can lead to a lot of talking and even shaming.
Our children, when they come into this world, what they need to understand, first and foremost: It’s a beautiful world. This is a world full of goodness and kindness and beauty, and you are welcome and you are safe here. The problem with making our three-year-old’s heads shine with information is that they become nervous and anxious. Too much information, and they do not have the neurological capacity to process it. They totally do not. It’s a fact. When people talk to their children about global warming, when they talk to their children about the guilt of enjoying out-of-season fruit, when we, at every mealtime, talk about some global catastrophe, when they’re little, what happens is when they’re 14 or 15 and we absolutely want to engage them in that kind of conversation, they’re done. They roll their eyes and say, There she goes again. This same effort to make children world-wise makes them world-weary.

You say we give our kids too many options. How do we respect our child’s desires and preferences and not overwhelm them?

In the early phase of life we really need to be benevolent monarchs. We need to be kind, warm, and firm. And that is what secures our children. This is vitally important. We parent little ones like we want to be their buddies, and then when they’re 14, 15, we try to become the dictator, and the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. Your child doesn’t get a lot of choices when they’re little because they don’t have the neurological ability to make them. It’s just quite bizarre to say to a four-year-old, Shall we get in the car?

So what do we do if tomato soup is for dinner and our little one doesn’t like tomatoes?

Okay, if the child goes into a gag response, then we wouldn’t make it with tomatoes next time. One of our children is very sensitive to food texture and we gave her the tiniest amount, like almost an eye-dropper, of broccoli, and we did that, and it took 10 to 12 times, and now she will literally eat anything.

And for the sake of argument, so what?

Well, that means, first of all, as a parent, I was in charge. I am a big fan of children learning creative compliance in their first seven years. But what mommy and daddy ask is fair, it’s doable—to learn the difference between a request, which is what most parents do, and a firm and warm instruction. To make the instruction small, stay close, and not ever go into negotiation, to not ever say anything twice. It’s ultimately about connection.

This article first appeared in Chronogram Magazine on March 31st, 2011.

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Minding Our Business
October 8, 2014 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Parenting · Permalink · Comments Off on Minding Our Business

By Bethany Saltman

T and I are scheduled to offer a retreat, along with other senior lay students/parents, on the practice of parenting at Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn, the city center of Zen Mountain Monastery. And I agreed to lead a discussion about parenting after being approached by a lovely new mom in Woodstock, and owner of Illuminated Baby, which will happen soon after. Oy.

As readers of this column can attest, I am not in much of a position to be doling out advice on how to be calm, cool, or collected. But even more than that, can talking (and/or reading) about Buddhism really help us be better parents, or might it just add to the list of things we should be doing?

The web is full of sites, articles, and blogs about how to “Use Buddhist Teachings for Better Parenting,” with subtitles such as “Learning to be a Calm, Compassionate Parent with Buddhist Teachings.”

Here are some tips from one I found:

Buddhism Teaches Compassionate Parenting If one just takes a minute to breathe, calm down, and react [sic], life with children will be happier and easier.

Learn How to Parent Mindfully from Buddhist Practices By being mindful, it is possible to pay more attention to what a child is really trying to say and to enjoy the small pleasures and details of a child’s life and convey the message that one’s children are truly valued and loved.

Being an Accepting and Understanding Parent Each individual is a Buddha and one must respect and accept that uniqueness.

Being a Responsible, Loving Buddhist Parent By setting good examples of responsibility and being loving towards others, parents can help children imbibe these important values.

Who could argue with such sound advice? Of course each individual is a Buddha who deserves to be respected. But what does that mean when the Buddha in front of you is flopping around in the bed, covers transformed into a cave, whining about being tired, and you have exactly 20 minutes to get said Buddha out of said bed, clothed, fed, teeth brushed, and out the door for her ride to kindergarten? And the reason for the rush is that you let her sleep in because she was on the brink of getting sick and as much as you love and respect her, you also know that her illness during this week filled with your deadlines would be treacherous, to say the least.

Responsible, maybe, but not very loving. You try to be patient, respecting her position, even paying attention to the small details of the wind rustling in the trees outside, try to hear what your little Buddha is truly saying; is there a message beneath that plea to just sleep one more minute, mama, please? You try to breathe. In fact, you do, breathe. But the sound of your own inner voice, screeching with irritation, reciting your list of things to do (in order to be respectable person in the world) wins out. And you growl at the little Buddha.

Buddhism teaches many things, but as far as I can tell it is all geared toward finding in ourselves what the Buddha called “an awakened heart,” which is also called “bodhichitta.” As Pema Chodron says, “This is a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound.” And unfortunately, this is what we have to move into in order to become mindful. Learning to calm down, even breathe and notice is of course part of it all, but the only way to get there is to do the first, hardest thing: Don’t try to change anything. Be, totally. Every aspect. Don’t add to my experience of the moment, regardless of how painful it is or how lame I think it is/I am.

As my teacher Daido Roshi used to say, “Really trust yourself.” Not to do the right thing or have the correct answer but to simply “do what you’re doing while you’re doing it,” another of his favorite teachings. Does this then mean that when I am growling, just growl? Maybe so. Chances are I will “make a better choice,” as we encourage our kids to do, when I am not adding so many layers to my own experience, getting caught up in what psychotherapist Karen Horney calls “the tyranny of the shoulds,” and just giving all my mean-animal sounds their moment of truth, even when they stay, as they hopefully do more and more, on the inside, and not shared with others. When I am truly apprehending the moment, whines, irritation, and all, that’s mindfulness, and over time, mindfulness definitely leads to less irritation. But there are no shortcuts.

I recently came across a lovely piece written by a Buddhist professor and practitioner from Sri Lanka named Lily de Silva called “Interpersonal Relations and Vipassana Meditation.” In it she writes, “Though essentially a social animal, the human being practically lives alone in a private world of his own, constructed by his sense experience.” Isn’t that the truth!? And it is that sense experience that we need to fully, totally contact in each and every moment. Our senses, our bodies contracting, smelling, tasting, thinking—regardless of the content or our beliefs about that content—that is mindfulness. Without minding ourselves, meticulously, we can only be an “accepting and understanding parent” when we feel accepting and understanding.

She continues, referring to a teaching of the Buddha called The Sakkapanhna Sutta, “Though people wish and make pious resolutions to live in harmony with one another without enmity and aggression, without recourse to weapons against one another, they in fact live in disharmony, harbouring anger and ill-will against one another, sometimes resorting to weapons to terrorize and kill one another. What is the reason for this paradoxical situation that in spite of wanting to live in harmony, they cannot do so?” This is one of my favorite questions. It is too easy to say how we want to behave toward our kids, our loved ones, even those we don’t like. But unless we actually see what the Buddha calls “unwholesome emotions” we will never be able to take the next step, which is to refrain from expressing them.

Buddhism is an incredible tradition that offers insanely detailed tools for seeing through our strong feelings, the various places in the mind we store them, the six realms of existence in which we meet and manifest them, the unfathomably myriad ways we can express our negative views, and concrete paths that lead to living a wholesome life in service to others. The Buddha saw for himself the cosmic nature of all things, the way everything arises, dissipates, and, unless unflinchingly clarified, arises again, in accord with karma and circumstance. This is heavy duty stuff that takes years and years to grok, to put into practice and to integrate. I am so grateful that I have a teacher and a sangha to help me along the way because it’s really hard!
Pema Chodron writes, “Many of us prefer practices that will not cause discomfort, and at the same time we want to be healed. But bodhichitta training doesn’t work that way.” There is no way to heal what ails us without meeting it first, really taking care of our most personal business, face to face, heart to heart.

This article first appeared online in Chronogram Magazine October 26, 2011.

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Will What’s Real About Childhood Please Stand Up?
September 3, 2014 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Parenting, Preschoolers, Toddlerhood · Permalink · Comments Off on Will What’s Real About Childhood Please Stand Up?

by Bethany Saltman

Last night I had the pleasure of sitting with Azalea and reading a fine book called The  World’s Biggest Tea Party. It is about the My Little Pony crew and how on “one bright spring day in Ponyville, a group of pony friends gathered at Sweetberry’s Sweetshoppe.” One pink pony named Rainbow Dash, Azalea’s personal favorite, posed the question of what they should do that day and they came up with the crazy idea of having a tea party, and not just any tea party, but, as suggested by Pinkie Pie, “the world’s biggest tea party!” Azalea was riveted.

It’s such a trip learning who my daughter is—what she likes and how her mind works. And the craziest part is that she really is just four and a half, meaning she’s not faking it. When T and I first got our Siamese cat Jimmy we used to joke that he felt to us so sentient, so totally aware, that he seemed like a human in a cat suit. And when I look at Azalea sometimes I see a grown-up in a kid suit. Not because she acts like an adult, but because I kind of can’t believe that her kidness is so real, so true, even honorable. Azalea really likes cartoons. She loves to put rings on her toes, a scarf around her waist, be tickled, and then jump from the couch to the chair, and then back again. Not only would I rather not do any of those things now, I don’t think I ever let it rip like she does; according to my family, I have always been pretty serious. It is just impossible to imagine myself popping up and down from the dinner table in order to check on my horses in the next room, or hiding under my covers, begging to be found. Again! To people who know what it’s like to feel that type of playful exuberance, perhaps my dawning realization that childhood is real might seem bizarre, or even absurd. But I actually think that we are all parenting based on some pretty funky assumptions about who our kids are and what they’re capable of.

The Buddhist term for these assumptions is conditioning. It often feels like what we believe about the world is utterly personal, idiosyncratic, and sometimes it is. But conditioning also comes from forces larger than ourselves or our families. One of my very favorite books about the cultural conditioning of children is called Preschool in Three Cultures, Revisited: China, Japan, and the United States. In the original edition of this juicy ethnography, the authors traveled (in 1984) to these three countries, spent time in preschools, interviewed teachers about their pedagogy, shot lots of video, then showed video clips to teachers in other countries, asking them to respond to what the other countries’ schools were doing. In the Revisited edition, the authors returned to the schools in 2002, asking the current teachers to reflect on their schools’ past practices, as well as what is presently happening in the other countries via updated videos. What results is a cornucopia of conversations about who we think children are, and should be.

In the 2002 edition, the authors discuss how, as they continued to travel around the world, one incident in the 1984 Japanese classroom persisted as the most controversial. The Japanese preschool was housed in a Buddhist temple, which is typical. The incident of intrigue, however, was not about Buddhism so much as Japanese ideas about children (though the two are certainly related), and involved a boy named Hiroki, who in our great land would have been given a hefty dose of Ritalin (or worse, see the New York Times article on medicating children, from September 1, 2010) right off the bat. He fought with other kids, pulled out his willie during circle, threw flashcards off the balcony, and sang loudly while other kids were trying to talk. And the amazing part is that the teacher did nothing to intervene. She sent the other children to fight their own battles with him and generally ignored his misbehavior. The authors, Western-trained educators, said it took everything within their power to not put their cameras down and tell the kid to cut the crap. Likewise, Chinese and American teachers who watched the video were appalled at the boy’s “spoiled,” disruptive behavior and what was seen as the teacher’s lack of control.

At one point the authors asked the principal of the preschool if the teacher ever punished Hiroki, and he responded by asking, “What do you mean? Like, tie him up or something?”

The Japanese teachers believe that deliberate and respectful waiting is the most effective strategy for working with children, and believe that Hiroki and his classmates benefit from learning how to deal with one another, becoming “more complete human beings.”  While we in the US tend to foster independence, Japanese preschools give kids as much space as possible to discover, for themselves, their amaeru, a word that describes the presumption of benevolence of others, and thus, dependency. Hiroki was not seen as a problem that needed to be fixed, but just a kid exhibiting tereru, the behavior of someone who is ashamed of his wish to be dependent.

When the authors asked the Japanese teachers what kind of children they thought they were shaping, they answered, “Kodomorashii kodomo,” which means “childlike children.” Cultivating child-ness in children. Something for me to consider.

And another thing to consider is how much all these people care. It’s heartbreaking, really. Human beings have wildly different opinions about childhood, education, and adulthood, not to mention radically different resources and capacities. And I think it’s really important to know where we are coming from and where we get our big ideas. And to ask questions. But it’s also incredibly healing to look around and see how many people try really hard to do the right thing for kids. Most educators just want a good life for their students. And parents love their kids! Around the world they get them ready for preschool, ribbons in their hair, favorite shoes on their little feet, little pockets stuffed with random things. Regardless of what I happen to think is real, there is something unconditioned there.

This article first appeared in Chronogram Magazine on September 28, 2010.

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Lessons From a Zen Mommy
September 29, 2011 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, K-5 Kids, Parenting, Toddlerhood · Permalink · Comments Off on Lessons From a Zen Mommy

 Slowing down and taking a few deep breaths can change your relationship with your kids.

By Bethany Saltman

My husband, Thayer, and I are Zen Buddhists. Before we had our daughter we lived in a monastery in upstate New York. Life was simple there. We’d wake up every day before 4 a.m. in silence, and we’d spend the day working at our assigned jobs. Our meals were shared with 40 other people. One week every month was spent in a silent-meditation retreat. Now, years later, though we live just down the road, things are pretty different. We have a 3-year-old daughter, so while there are lots of early mornings, there isn’t much silence. But the Buddhist teachings seem more relevant than ever. The practice of simple awareness has helped me to be happier, kinder, and more relaxed. And I’ve realized you don’t need to have lived in a monastery or even be a Buddhist to apply the wisdom of Zen teachings to the ordinary mama-dramas we all face.

Zen Wisdom

Do what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

Mom translation: Stop multitasking!

An important teaching in Zen is that our entire life is happening right now. The past is over and the future hasn’t happened yet. Therefore, all we have is the present. Our do-it-now, do-it-fast lifestyle tricks us into thinking we can do everything at the same time and not miss out. Who hasn’t tried to talk to a friend while playing Candy Land with her child? For me it’s always a fail. Both friend and kid feel ignored, and I feel inadequate. Then there are good days, when I remember to make a choice and stick with it. If Azalea and I are reading, I resist taking a call until we’re finished. Doing what I’m doing while I’m doing it makes us all happier.

Leave no trace.

Mom translation: Take responsibility for yourself and your mess. And teach your child to do the same.

In Zen we’re taught that the state of our mind is reflected in the way we create our home. Scary, right? A scattered mind likely equals a messy environment—and vice versa. This isn’t meant as a judgment—if you like chaos, no problem. But who can thrive in a house filled with piles of laundry, disassembled toy parts, and peanut butter smeared on the couch? Of course it’s not healthy to get all wound up about trying to keep everything spotless, but learning to notice all the stuff we leave in our wake is a good practice for everyone. At the monastery there were signs posted reminding us to “leave no trace.” Obviously, when you’re living with lots of other people, every stray item adds up. But even though there are only three of us, teaching Azalea that simple message is a great way for her to learn awareness and responsibility. For example, when she wants to dump all the Goodnight Moon game pieces on the floor, that’s fine. Let’s play! Oops, you changed your mind? Okay, but first let’s put the game away. If we don’t, the pieces will get lost.

Take just the right amount.

Mom translation: Limit acquiring too much stuff.

The question I’ve been taught to ask myself is: Do I really require as much (food, money, things) as I may think I do in the moment? Because we have no storage space in our house, we all have to periodically comb through our clothes, books, and toys. I used to do this behind Azalea’s back and then shrug sheepishly when she would ask, “Mama, where are my yellow shoes?” Then I realized, in the same way we shop together we need to give things away as a mother-daughter team. Just last month, our friend was sponsoring a toy drive. Azalea and I came home and went through our stuff, putting it all in piles. “Look,” I said, “you have three of those. You only need one. Choose the one you want and let’s give the rest to kids who don’t have any.” Using this method Azalea chose to give away a set of blocks, several dress-up items, a pile of books, and some stuffed animals. When we went together to put them in the box, I made sure to tell her that someone else would be able to play with them.

Practice patience.

Mom translation: Don’t beat yourself up over things.

I’ve been a Buddhist for more than a decade and meditated for thousands of hours, but I’m still a novice. Being a Zen student is a good way to be reminded that the journey is the goal. And it’s the same with being a parent. Of course we all want to be perfect. And we want our kids to be perfect too—responsible, generous, polite, nice. However, it’s a life’s work to become a decent human being. Because our kids are constantly changing, we’re always total beginners. We all need time to learn, make mistakes, and start over. But we live in an impatient world, and many of us—women especially—tend to beat ourselves up when we feel like we’ve fallen short. So it’s important to model patience. In our house, when Azalea makes a big mistake—like biting me when she gets excited or throwing a plate in anger—as much as I might have the urge to punish her, she usually gets a chance to “try again.” We redo the scenario and allow her to get it right. (My husband and I do this with each other too, as in, “That was a horrible goodbye. Can we have a do-over?” It works wonders!) If Azalea is totally unwilling to get dressed or sit down for breakfast, instead of getting irritated I try to take a deep breath and say, “Okay, come in when you’re ready.” Sometimes it takes several minutes for her to cooperate; other times, it’s immediate. Occasionally I’m really impatient and blow it. Then I get to model how I apologize. Being a good kid or a good parent doesn’t happen overnight. We all need to be gentle with each other and ourselves, practicing patience. Again and again.


Home Practice for Zen Moms


In the morning, after getting dressed, Azalea and I sit on the floor and make a vow for the day. I usually say something like, “I vow to be gentle with myself and Azalea today,” or “I vow not to raise my voice,” and Azalea usually says something along the lines of, “I vow, Mommy.”


Realize how fortunate you are. In the midst of the eighth load of laundry that week, I try to bring to mind how wonderful it is that I can keep my child clean and comfortable. When the boredom of cooking noodles threatens to overwhelm me, I take a moment to really feel in my body how grateful I am that I have enough to feed her. Not every mother is so lucky.


Often. And deeply. Maybe you have to make a pact with yourself that every time you do something routine (flush the toilet, open the fridge door, change a diaper) you use it as a cue to remind yourself to take a slow, deep breath. There is no underestimating the power of truly allowing yourself to simply be a few times a day.

 This article appeared in the August 2011 edition of Parents Magazine. 

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Are You Happy? Considering the Lobster Within
July 26, 2011 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Mental Health · Permalink · Comments Off on Are You Happy? Considering the Lobster Within

by Bethany Saltman

A few weeks ago, Azalea, T, T’s parents, and I returned from a spring break vacation to Saint Thomas. Since we were traveling with two of Azalea’s most doting and eager caretakers—her grandparents—I was actually able to do some reading, includingConsider the Lobster, a book of essays by David Foster Wallace, the much admired, and very depressed writer who killed himself in 2008.

It was around Day Three of vacation when I found myself alone, on the beach in a lounge chair, with Wallace’s book. From my chair, I watched random kids make sand castles, and heard some vague, depersonalized whining calling out over the smooth sound of waves breaking along the white sand. I read a little about the Maine Lobster Festival that Wallace attended and wrote about, his clever, but not too clever, observations of the visitors, the vendors, the whole vacation enterprise. I had a few thoughts of my own about my particular circumstance. I kept reading. T and I had been getting up early every morning to have some time alone and to do zazen at the beach before everyone woke up. So I was tired, but not at all fatigued or irritated by the wish that I were not tired. I read about whether or not lobsters feel pain. And then Wallace’s questions like, What is pain? Consider the Lobster. Just sleepy. Staring into the water and the pale yellow light, shadowless, over the ocean. I love the feeling of getting soaked in sun, so I allowed myself a little that, read some more, then started seriously sweating, so I moved my chair beneath a palm tree to get a little shade. A hot breeze. Staring into the sea. Drifting…

Consider the lobster.

And then. It wasn’t a dream, but a waking dream-like weirdness.

Of no longer just considering the lobster, but being the lobster!

Not in some literal way, like Kafka’s giant human beetle, but deeply, a flash of ancestral innocence, the part of me that is un-evolved, reptilian, simple, and fierce. Technically, lobsters are not reptiles, they are arthopods—insects—exoskeletal, antennaed, but as Wallace writes, “Like most arthropods, they date from the Jurassic period [otherwise known as the Age of The Ruling Reptiles], biologically so much older than mammalia that they might as well be from another planet.” Once I shook off the strangely soothing and kind of hilarious feeling of actually experiencing my most primitive self, I knew what was going on. It was something about happiness.

There are endless ways to understand our human lives, and since the development of sophisticated brain scans, neurological explanations have become popular, and I see the appeal. Instead of one brain, we actually have three, what scientists call a triune brain, and these three aspects correlate to our evolution into the large-skulled, thin-hipped, bipedal creatures we are today. The most evolved, human part of the brain is the cortex, the wrinkly exterior that we see on the outside, and this is the place where we can (and I am going to way oversimplify here) reason, plan, argue, etc. Just beneath that exterior layer is our mammalian brain—the limbic system—our emotional center, and this is where we can feel, remember and crave. And beneath that layer is our reptilian brain, where it all began, which is where we fight, flee, digest, and regulate basic things like breathing. These parts of our brain express themselves all the time, of course, in everything we do. And as a Zen practitioner, my practice is to bring awareness (and where that resides in the three part-brain I don’t know!) to the ways I am moving through the different states of being. When I am cold, on guard, and singular, that’s me, the reptile. When I rise above it all, make sense of suffering, that’s me, the human. When I am happy in my motherhood, I am resting in my mammalian nature, taking care of my warm, hairy, needy, adorable little offspring.

The crazy thing is to realize that this mammalian connection is a life or death situation. If babies are not touched, they actually die. If not attuned to by their caregivers, at least to a good-enough degree, they really suffer. And they grow into adults who can’t attune to their babies. We know where this leads (lizards raising lizards).

And yet, who can really know what happens inside a person? Or why a David Foster Wallace would hang himself in the house he knew his wife would soon enter. It is tempting to assume that his deeply curious, passionate, even, exploration of what happens when a lobster is thrown into a pot of hot water, is a body scan of his own day to day. He writes:

“However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around.”

And while he is willing to allow us the discomfort of descriptions like this, he rather concludingly states, “Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own.”

I know what he means, but I think he’s missing something. Something big, not just about misery, but about joy, and ennui, and absolutely everything, for that matter. We may not have direct access, but we sure are affected.

Azalea asks me all the time if I am happy, especially, of course, when she knows I am not, like after knocking over her juice for the third time in one breakfast. Her gaze into my face sharpens, and she kind of sings: Mama, are you happy? Sad, angry, upset? Frustrated? Disappointed? No amount of clarification soothes her (no honey, I’m just frustrated) because she knows I am pissed, especially when I have reverted to my reptilian state of being so irritated (i.e. threatened) that my capacity to feel anything is compromised. And that quick coldness is deeply threatening to our connection and thus, fundamentally, her survival.

As a human adult, my happiness is my business. And I guess I can resort to despair as I darn well please. But as a mammalian mother, my happiness is the juice of evolution. And seeing that connection clearly helps me come to life before being thrown into the pot.

This article first appeared in Chronogram Magazine on May 28, 2011.

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Something Good
April 19, 2011 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Parenting, Toddlerhood · Permalink · Comments Off on Something Good

by Bethany Saltman

Yesterday, Azalea and I met up with some of our friends for lunch at Mother Earth’s Storehouse. In the middle of their un-chicken nuggets, Little Friend #1 realized that the date would be over soon, that neither friend would be coming home with her, and she got so sad, so fast! Little eyes instantly filling up with big tears, face twisting into sorrow. Her mom, my friend, did her best to comfort her by pointing out the fact the date was happening, right now! But that didn’t do much to ease the agony of samsara for Little Friend #1. So her mom tried to lay down the law, and to stop her (very passionate) public display of affection. But what finally worked was the way her mom cleverly redirected her to what was happening right then, enlisting her help in matters at hand—the very wonderful business of buying cashews—and reminding her of the bag she could hold. More than a mere distraction, it brought Little Friend #1 back to reality.

The Buddha’s first noble truth is that our human life is one of suffering—samsara—of being uncomfortable. Never quite right. A subtle and pervasive feeling not unlike trying to get dressed during PMS: Forget it! The reason for this suffering is the Second Noble Truth: because we thirst for things, feeling-states, etc., attach to delusional plans about attaining them, and attempt to dodge the fact that e-ver-y-thing is impermanent. The good news is Truth #3: There is a way out of our incessant chasing by seeing through our attachments (see Truth #2). And the way to do this is outlined in the Fourth Noble Truth, which lays out the details of the Buddha Way: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. In other words: how to practice everything.

Which is another way of saying: a perfectly good playdate destroyed by a fantasy that it could last forever, then healed by the realization that right now is good enough—in fact, all there is. Sometimes people ask, Can kids practice? I know there’s a rule against answering a question with a question, but please allow me to ask three: Are they suffering? Do they want that suffering to stop? Can they drop their ideas about the way things are supposed to be and return to real life? Clearly the last question is the trickiest one, and that’s where we and our perpetual bags of cashews come in handy. The lucky thing is that we—adult or child practitioners—don’t always need to see ourselves see through our attachments or understand what is happening. For kids especially, they just need to be supported enough to actually feel the (inevitable) transformation of their experience, again and again and again. Without obsessive fixing. That’s practice: a commitment to letting go of the agonizing self and easing into the luminous pool of things as they are. And it’s a long haul, so lucky is the kid who starts young.

Azalea, like her friend, doesn’t know she is practicing, but she is learning a thing or two about the coming and going of satisfaction. For instance, my girl wants stuff like nobody’s business. Say we’re in the car, and she might suggest, Let’s talk about what I want. If I am in a let’s-see-where-this-will-go mood, I’ll say, Okay. And then I will get a Kingston-trip-long discourse on the pros and cons of various American Girl dolls; Rock ‘n’ Roll Barbie vs. Race Car Driver Barbie; Playmobils vs. Polly Pockets. A true-hell realm of desire if you ask me. Most of these items she has seen on boxes or in random CVS stores or at friends’ houses (though Grandma Kathy does love to take her to the American Girl store). We do not shop at Toys “R” Us for fun, nor do we have a TV where she can see commercials. She just sniffs the stuff out and longs for it. Most of what she wants she doesn’t get. She knows that. She just wholeheartedly wants it—all of it.

One of the four bodhisattva vows is “Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.” While Azalea has not taken such a vow, I have (which may be hard for some who know me to believe!) and so I know how difficult it is to navigate this particular brand of suffering. I am sure T and I could be more Spartan and less drawn to things, which may well inspire less longing for Azalea. And watching her finally get the ponies she craved and then lose interest in a matter of hours hurts, not because she rejected something new, but because of that inherent disappointment I know all too well. It’s painful to see her looking outside of herself for that magical moment, that bubble she imagines existing in some enchanted land filled with unicorns and plain noodles and never-ending playdates. And it hurts to see her very personal dreams come up short, which they are bound to do. But it is also heartening to see her unearth those desires and that disappointment because that means she can practice them. Watching her move through her own mind, I realize just how much I have come to trust the force.

We all know this has been one long-ass winter. I, for one, have felt deeply challenged during this string of bitter cold and snow days to stay on top of my work, and mostly my attitude. But in a pinch, nobody delivers like Julie Andrews, and Azalea and I have been listening to The Sound of Music soundtrack over and over (which suits our shared obsessive nature). And I keep coming back to the lyrics from one of my favorite songs, “Something Good,” the duet between Maria and the Captain: “For here you are, standing there loving me / whether or not you should. / So somewhere in my youth or childhood / I must have done something good.” It’s true! Looking at Azalea, her sweet friends, and even her toys, I know I did one thing really, really right in my relative youth: When I encountered the dharma for the first time, I went for it. All of it, every ounce of unrequited longing, poured into practice, and If I hadn’t done that, I shudder to think what might have become of me.
Obviously we live in a crazy culture, a nightmare of dissociative overindulgence. But as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “We do not have to look for something else,” not even—especially not—a way out.

This article first appeared in Chronogram Magazine on February 25, 2011.

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Ding, Ding! The Middle Way Wins Again
March 3, 2011 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Parenting, Pressure on Children · Permalink · Comments Off on Ding, Ding! The Middle Way Wins Again

by Bethany Saltman

Two articles about parenting came to my attention recently and have gotten me thinking. Both are interesting in their own right, but side by side they are even more compelling.

The first one I came across is by Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen priest and author ofMomma Zen. It’s called “Not Teaching Children to Meditate” and was posted on her blog. Her main point is that “Children don’t need to learn to mediate. Parents do.” She believes that children are “exemplars in the art of being” already, and that “how you behave in your home is their spiritual upbringing. I think we have to be careful with all forms of ideological indoctrination, and that is what spiritual training is in children: the imposition of a set of abstract beliefs and ideals.”

The other I heard about on the radio. It is by historian and Yale Law Professor Amy Chua, and was published in the Wall Street Journal. Titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” the piece is an excerpt from Chua’s forthcoming book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In it, she describes how she, as a Chinese mother (the Jewish Dad seems to be in the background), has raised two Carnegie Hall, performing, uberkids, beginning with a list of things her girls have never been allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violinSo on the one hand: an American Zen mom saying that she trusts her child’s innate goodness and capacity so much that she doesn’t even want to meddle as much as it would take to teach her to meditate. (I am glad the Dalai Lama’s parents and handlers didn’t feel this way.) Miller writes, “Isn’t it funny that the fact that our children are undistractedly doing what we don’t want them to do absolutely drives us crazy?! They don’t yet have problems concentrating! We more often have trouble loving and accepting them as they are, trusting that they are changing and growing all the time, and usually doing what they need to.” I hear what she’s saying, but….full-body-and-mind begging to play ONE MORE GAME OF UNO, PU-LEASE, IT WILL MAKE ME SO HAPPY may well be what Azalea really “needs to do,” but as her parent, I believe that what I need to do is “indoctrinate” her regarding a few “abstract ideals,” spiritual and otherwise, such as: Enough’s enough.

And on the other: “There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.”And herein lies all the juicy assumptions: What does it mean to turn out badly, or goodly? Chua writes that “tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence.” I don’t think anyone could refute that, but am I just betraying my totally pedestrian nature when I ask, how important is excellence? Do we all have to be the best at something? Professor Chua and her daughters look happy (haughty?) enough in their publicity shots, but we all know people who have suffered at the hands of these kind of driven parents too. And when white folks do it, we call it neurotic, helicoptering, get-a-life overparenting.

And yet, Chua has it right when she talks about teaching children to do anything, which includes, in my opinion, spiritual things: “This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.”

Yesterday morning, as all of this was percolating in me, Azalea expressed a desire to earn some money for a toy she was craving. Honestly, I am ambivalent about having her “earn money” at this young age because she should be helping to help. However, I thought it might be interesting to see what would happen. So I said, hey, I could use some help with these mountains of laundry, which is outside of the realm of her usual chores.“Okay!” she said, and was ready for the fun to begin.
She started by grabbing random items from the pile and making floppy little packages with them. If I hadn’t been so aware of this whole question of acceptance of what is versus pushing for excellence, I might have just said, “Thanks, honey,” and waited for her to lose interest in the whole shebang and go off and play. But instead I decided to foster a little of my own inner Chua-style Chinese Mother and actually teach her how to fold, like for real. Not exactly math drills, but a start.

When I got serious and slowed her down, really explaining how to lay the front of the shirt on the floor, line up the hems, fold the sleeves in, etc., she bristled at first, saying, “No, Mama, I want to do it my way.”

To which I replied, “Nope. You are going to do it my way. The right way.”

And she squeaked a few more times, saying she already knows how to fold. Ordinarily, I might have thought this was kind of tender, that maybe learning makes her feel vulnerable, thus she wants to avoid it, thus I shouldn’t push the matter. But this time I said, “No, you don’t. But I’ll teach you.”

I have to say, it felt great. No fussing about, oh, well, gosh, this is just my humble way of folding and maybe they do it differently in other houses or countries, so maybe I shouldn’t be forcing my conditioned ideas about folding onto my daughter. It was just, hey, let’s get you down with the laundry program.When one of her shirts had two sleeves inside out, Azalea immediately handed it to me, saying, “I can’t get it right.”

“Yes you can,” I said.

She tried and tried, pulling sleeves through sleeves, even cried a little out of frustration, but I just sat there, not budging, until she figured it out.

And then she hopped along to pack up some dolls for a playdate—the No. 1, most gloriously ordinary girl on Earth.

This article first appeared in Chronogram Magazine on January 31, 2011.

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Yoga Is A Natural Antidepressant
January 20, 2011 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Mental Health · Permalink · Comments (2)

It’s always wonderful to see empirical evidence to support things you know in your gut.  Yoga, the practice of postures and breathing, is an ancient healing tool. Anecdotally, anyone who practices yoga regularly will attest to its value in regulating mood, increasing feelings of well-being and that the effects transfer off the mat into regular life.

Research into mood and anxiety disorders has identified the neurotransmitter GABA (γ-Aminobutyric acid) is important in mood and anxiety levels. γ-Aminobutyric acid (GABA)-ergic activity is reduced in mood and anxiety disorders. The practice of yoga postures is associated with increased brain GABA levels. In a study reported by The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine researchers studied the difference between walking and yoga and it’s impact on mood and GABA levels in the brain.

The Study:

“Healthy subjects with no significant medical/psychiatric disorders were randomized to yoga or a metabolically matched walking intervention for 60 minutes 3 times a week for 12 weeks. Mood and anxiety scales were taken at weeks 0, 4, 8, 12, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy scans were administered as well.

The yoga subjects reported greater improvement in moodand greater decreases in anxiety than the walking group. There were positive correlations between improved mood and decreased anxiety and thalamic GABA levels. The yoga group had positive correlations between changes in mood scales and changes in GABA levels.

The moral of this story is that yoga is the bang for the buck, all purpose exercise. Strength, grace, and an anti-depressant in one. Om shanti!

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The Bad News
November 30, 2010 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting · Permalink · Comments Off on The Bad News

by Bethany Saltman

For Buddhists, every day is a good day to study impermanence. But for us hopeless melancholics, autumn is prime-time, showing off the flare and fade of another rotation around the sun, another moment spent here on earth, and the recognition that my own life span is ever decreasing. Yikes! And in the words of Emily Dickinson, “The things that can never come back are several,” which is, of course, putting it mildly. Were things ever here to begin with? Do we really have what we think we have? What are things?

And if autumn is prime-time for watching the great coming and going, parenting is a ringside seat. Walking through the world with Azalea, sages appear from behind cash registers and seated next to me, watching our kids at gymnastics class, whispering the truth in my ear: Oh, it goes so fast, they say, smiling at Azalea in her pigtails and perfectly poised awkwardness. Some even tell me flat out: Appreciate her nowMine is 17 and hates my guts. As jarring as these reminders can be, I am always grateful for the heads-up. And even though I know there is a deep sadness, even regret, behind some people’s words of wisdom, it is telling that nobody ever says: Ah, don’t bother. Instead, it’s Care, they say. Celebrate.

And so I have been trying. This fall I have been engaged in a three-month-long training position at the monastery, which involves early mornings, lots of sitting, some public speaking, and liturgy training. It is a big honor to be asked to do this, and also a big responsibility, which feels pretty daunting for the working mother of a four-year-old. And people in our community, noticing, I am sure, how often I am in their midst and thus not my family’s, sometimes ask, How is Azalea doing with all of this? And here is the bad news: She’s doing great. Turns out, the more I sit, the happier she gets.

Out of a mixture of necessity and garden-variety barriers, I have spent the last five years eking out a practice from what we might call maintenance zazen, hoping it was enough. I patted myself on the back a little bit for managing to sit at all, and more important, hoped that all the hard work I was doing off the cushion, including the effort to parent mindfully, would somehow replace the soft discipline of a lot of sitting. It’s not that all of that good work has been for naught. Or that there are some times in my life when sitting a lot is just not in the cards—for instance, when there are people in the house who need to eat from my body several times a night. It’s simply that I am seeing with alarming clarity how much groovier my life is when I sit more. Not a big deal in one sense, but a real drag in another. This particular fantasy, that I can just kind of coast along —that, as Daido used to razz us, “Everything I do is Zen”— no longer provides comfort. And that’s a loss. I know better than to think that from now on I will be up at three am every day, sitting for hours like I am now, but the undeniability of what is possible is a major chink in the armor of my self-soothing. And so from the perspective of the mind that is always on the lookout for a shortcut, this is a major bummer.

I might have guessed, based on an appreciation of Azalea and my interdependence, that my commitment to an intensified practice might positively affect her, though I would have imagined it to be much more cosmic and mysterious than her seeming so darn chipper all the time. After all, I am home less, always schlepping off to the monastery, sometimes deeply tired, even crabby. Just yesterday, recovering from a chest cold, an eye infection, and my period, feeling so raw the wind hurt me by blowing, I came home from the monastery at 7am, and out she came from her room, blue Christmas lights glowing behind her, sleepy and wanting to cuddle. I, on the other hand, wanted to make a fire. Alone. T, on the other hand, was shouting from the fridge, Which one’s my lunch? I basically barked to them both to leave me alone. As I moved through the morning with my little sidekick, noticing each gnarly sensation, then letting it go, then noticing another, etc., etc. Azalea finally asked, “Mommy, why are you so angry? Can you please calm down? I just woke up!” I hear you, I said, afraid to say much more, not wanting to melt down right there.

And then last night, home again from the monastery at 7:30pm, I tucked her into bed and wanted to just lightly affirm her reality, saying, “I was a real grump today, wasn’t I?” Filled with totally uncontrived forgiveness, she yelped, “Not anymore!” She was right. Just one of the things that will never come back.
After my first week of living at the monastery, in 1998, I talked to my friend on the phone, trying to explain why I was so excited, so deeply moved. I told her about standing in the zendo at 6:30am for service, and how I knew that some of these people had been doing this routine every day of their lives for many years, and yet the attention to detail, the quiet passion of the chanting, and the words themselves—songs of miraculous matter-of-factness—just caring about our human life so much, made every single regular morning feel like a special occasion. I don’t think I said it out loud, but I knew: That’s how I want to live. Not because I want it to last, which I do, but because it won’t.

This article first appeared in Chronogram Magazine on October 28, 2010.

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Learn to Relax
August 24, 2010 · Posted in Adult Children, Buddhism/Parenting, Communication, Mental Health · Permalink · Comments Off on Learn to Relax

The following exercises are ancient yoga breathing techniques shared by Francesca Bove, a registered yoga instructor in New York City.  One is called Sama Vritti Pranayama or “same length breathe”; the other is “alternate nostral breathing” or Nadi Shodhana in Sanskrit. These both work to calm the mind and body, clearing the way for sound thinking. Enjoy!

Sama Vritti Pranayama

Benefits: Calms the body and focuses the mind.


1. Come to sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position or on a chair with your feet flat on the ground and your knees hip width distance apart. Take padding under your seat as necessary.

2. Close your eyes and begin to notice your natural breath, not changing anything at first.

3. Begin a slow count to four as you inhale. Then also count to four as you exhale. The exercise is to match the length of your inhale and exhale.

4. You may experiment with changing the number you count to, just make sure your inhale and exhale stay the same length.

5. Continue breathing this way for several minutes.

Nadi Shodhana

The term nadi shodhana means the purification of the nerves.

1. Sit in a comfortable cross legged position, spine straight, shoulders down, and relaxed. Head centered between the shoulders, chin tipped slightly downward, eyes closed. Use the thumb, and fourth finger (ring finger) of your right hand. The two middle fingers can rest gently on your forehead. To avoid strain in the neck, and shoulders, keep them closed into the palm. The pinky is not in use.

2. Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring-little fingers. Open and exhale slowly through the right nostril.

3. Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it, and open and exhale slowly through the left. This is one cycle.

4. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then release the hand position and go back to normal breathing.


Lowers heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety

Said to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain

Said to purify the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body so the prana flows more easily during pranayama practice

Special Note:

Do not force the breath in any way. At the slightest sign of discomfort reduce the time of each inhalation, and exhalation or discontinue the practice, and check with a health professional.

Alternate nostril breathing should not be practiced if your nasal passages are blocked in any way. Forced breathing through the nose may lead to complications.

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