A Mean Animal Practices the Hard Way
November 12, 2009 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Parenting · Permalink · Comments (3)

wildthingsBethany Saltman lives with her family in the Catskills. She is a frequent contributor to magazines like Parents,  Body + Soul, Shambhala Sun, Mothering, Clean Food, Buddhadharma, and The Sun. You can read her column on being a Buddhist mom in the Hudson Valley magazine, Chronogram.

People often ask if we are raising Azalea as a Buddhist, and, if so, what that means. It’s true that we have Buddhas in the house; we sit, we chant, do services, light incense, spend a lot of time at a monastery, and have many shaven-headed monk friends. So there is all that. But Buddhism is a little different from the Judeo-Christian tradition, where there are certain doctrines we could teach a three-year-old; for instance, that God exists, and He loves you. It’s not that Buddhism has no core beliefs, but the heart of our practice is based on some fundamentals that are a bit trickier to translate in a Sunday school setting. And they are meant to be realized by each individual in their own lives, not accepted as true.

So while Azalea is not asked to memorize any basic principles like Form is emptiness and emptiness is form; form is exactly emptiness and emptiness is exactly form, catchy though it may be, we hope that by growing up with practitioners—her parents and the larger sangha—she’ll get the gist, perhaps some merit, or at least benefit from our effort. But the bottom line is that in order to raise a Buddhist, we need to actually practice Buddhism. What exactly does that mean for a family, beyond carrying on in some Buddhist fashion? There is, of course, no one answer, or the perfect Buddhist-family style, but one thing is for sure: As the late Tibetan teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote, “Inasmuch as no one is going to save us, to the extent that no one is going magically to enlighten us, the path we are discussing is called ‘the hard way.’”

For instance, take the other day. It was the first day back to preschool, and there was indeed a crispness, a certain bustle in the air, which got me into my favorite feeling-state of happy melancholia, filled with a longing to wear cable-knit tights. But instead, being the parent now, I packed Azalea’s ham with mayo on pita bread with back-to-school delight. I even tied up a butter cookie in waxed paper, with a note written on a heart I cut out from a yellow post-it note: Happy first day of school, Azalea! I love you, Mommy.

Okay, I confess. The little heart thing got me feeling pretty darn good about myself. Kind of puffed up, even. Like the only mom in the world who added a little extra touch to her kid’s lunch that day.

So when Azalea strolled in to the kitchen from where she was eating her breakfast and leaned against the fridge, staring up at me, and said, “Mommy, I wish I could be just like you,” I was kind of not totally surprised. I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to be just like me, right? And then I asked in an almost rhetorical way,

“Why’s that, honey?” To which Azalea replied, “Because then I could be angry all the time.”

Wow!

“Do you really think I’m angry a lot?” I asked.

“Um-hmm,” she answered, nodding.

And then I figured if I kept asking questions about the specifics of this…interesting…statement, I might be able to crack the witness and get her to confess that she was making the whole thing up!
So I asked, “What do I look like when I’m angry?”

“A mean animal.”

Uh-oh.

The masochist in me couldn’t stop, so I followed up with, “And what does the mean animal look like?”

And there before me stood a perfect mirror.

It would be nice if I believed that God was up there, loving me, and I could have prayed to Him to grant me wisdom in that moment, but no such luck. Instead, as Trungpa Rinpoche writes, “The whole point of the hard way seems to be that some individual effort must be made by the student to acknowledge [her]self, to go through the process of unmasking…to stand alone, which is difficult.”

So this is what I did:

1) Noticed the impulse to berate myself: You bad, bad, mean, animal! Then I let it go.

2) Noticed the impulse to soothe myself: At least you’re not as bad as that other, really bad mom. At least your kid can come up with a vivid metaphor! At least she’s honest! And then I let go of all that.

3) Noticed the impulse to fix the situation. Quickly. Feeling remorse for all the permissive growling I do, I noticed the urge to have a totally indulgent and inappropriate conversation with Azalea about how sorry I am for all the times I lose my temper or speak harshly. And how I vow to change, really I will, I promise!

And then I let go of trying to fix anything, including myself.

4) Finally, I remembered to move my awareness back into my body and my wild (animal) mind, to just let the sting sting (angry all the time? Dang!), and just stay there in the kitchen, reconnecting with the ground, with Azalea, with getting ready for the first day of school. As Trungpa Rinpoche writes, “We have committed ourselves to the pain of exposing ourselves. It will be terrible, excruciating, but that is the way it is.” And indeed, that is how it was.

But then you have to let go of that, too.

The mean-animal incident happened a few days ago now. It is still with me, and I am definitely making more of an effort to use kind speech, be patient, and not give in to my inner mean animal as freely. After all, letting go doesn’t mean giving up. Lord knows if there is anything I am passionate about, it’s not giving up: Whether you call it being a Buddhist or just being a real person, whether you believe in God, strive for enlightenment, both, or neither, I know in my heart that by not moving away from whatever it is that hurts, I stand a chance of connecting to what I love. And what I love keeps growing.

So what does it mean to raise a Buddhist? The easy part is sharing our tradition with Azalea. The hard part is practicing that tradition, together. But when I’m lucky, the youngest person in the family can help me back onto the path, demanding that I take off my ridiculous Buddha mask.   

This article first appeared online in Chronogram Magazine, September 28, 2009.

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Ego, Interrupted
October 8, 2009 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Parenting · Permalink · Comments Off on Ego, Interrupted

balance

Bethany Saltman lives with her family in the Catskills. She is a frequent contributor to magazines like Parents,  Body + Soul, Shambhala Sun, Mothering, Clean Food, Buddhadharma, and The Sun. You can read her column on being a Buddhist mom in the Hudson Valley magazine, Chronogram.

As I worried my way through winter, grumping at this, feeling bleak and insecure about that, I often wondered, God, what kind of mother am I? What happens to Azalea when my dark side threatens? I have tried to take solace in the descriptions of mothers I have read over the years, and the way their adult children view them, appreciating their imperfections, hoping maybe I could get away with the stuff literary moms seem to. I thought a lot about the mother in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye who was pissed at her daughter for throwing up but cleaned it up anyway, roughly placing a scratchy blanket beneath her to soak it up, all the while cursing under her breath. This woman had bigger fish to fry. But when she left the room, her daughter knew she was loved. That’s what stayed with her. Are my maternal superpowers strong enough to provide security even through my self-absorption?

The truth is that I never felt drawn to motherhood, and believed I was way too selfish to look after someone else. Plus, I thought motherhood looked boring. In fact, for many years, as a young writer/waitress living in Park Slope, I felt real disdain for moms—and their kids—looking down my snotty nose at them with their sippy cups and crumbs. Moms and kids were just not very “interesting.”

Luckily, I later sensed that motherhood might lead me somewhere I needed to go, and dove in. I would be lying if I said I am never “stimulation-challenged” by the task, and I can still be pretty solipsistic, but I am also in the thick of this parallel universe of mothers and their kids, and it’s fun! And from a Buddhist perspective it’s always good news when we see ourselves embody someone who once seemed so distant (or abhorrent, better yet). Now I’m one of them, one of those women who says things like, “She’ll have the plain noodles, and can you bring them right away?” And as far as Azalea is concerned, I am totally her mom, a grown-up lurking deep within her internal landscape, cleaning or not cleaning, attending or ignoring, cooking grilled cheese or an “I don’t like this” dinner. Nothing mothers do is neutral. Never ignored. Ah, to be ignored. To have the middle-of-the-night screech “Maaaaaaammmmmmaaaaaa!!!!!!!! I NEED you!!!!!!!!!” be for someone else. For my time, space, and even my insanity to be my own. Those days are over, of course, though that reality is something not even Tolstoy could communicate to the uninitiated. The total life commitment of being a parent is impossible to describe. I guess in that sense it is like what the teachers tell us about spiritual awakening—a state of mind we have to taste for ourselves in order to understand.

Unfortunately, spiritual awakening doesn’t come with the territory of paying attention when we don’t feel like it, from our egos being interrupted. If it did, the world would be filled with realized people (and lots of them would be women, which would be very cool). But I guess if Buddhism teaches anything, it’s that our lives are actually never our own, regardless of whether we choose to procreate—the whole We are all one reality thing. That intimacy is delightful when I’m in the mood, when I’m sunk deep in the middle of a meditation retreat with a quiet mind, listening to the mountain awaken after the long winter freeze—those glimmers of no separation. But when I’m shut down and just want to waste my life on Facebook, I don’t want anyone to even notice, let alone be affected. Can’t I be a separate self, just for a little while? So when the little pat, pat, patter comes a-calling “Mama! Where are you?” sometimes it takes everything I’ve got to return the call, “I’m in the study, honey.” But I have to! So I swivel on my chair and face the person whose little legs, feet, arms, and hands used to be all curled up in my body—a wet knot—eyes closed, filled with the swoosh of my heart, and now, three years later, just wants to keep tabs. On really tough days, I conjure the part of my ego that doesn’t want to read about myself as some withholding old hag in my daughter’s adolescent short stories.

Recently I interviewed the writer Kathleen Norris. She talked about our culture’s ego-inflation, how we are so full of ourselves that we expect the VIP treatment wherever we go. If someone has the audacity to cut us off on the freeway, or make us wait at a ticket counter, or, I would add, demand that we re-adjust the barrette for the 50th time, we go ballistic, as in How dare you? Don’t you know who I am?

We really want to be somebody with important business here on Earth. I know I do.

In the sutras there are descriptions of thousands, even billions, of bodhisattvas—important people gloriously devoted to being nobodies—filling a hall, or a park where the Buddha spoke, every dharma realm bursting with beings. I love to imagine them all sitting next to each other in their topknots, groovy crowns, flowing robes, snacking, gossiping, nodding off, sliding into deep samadhi. And I like to remember that each of these home-leaving, bliss-bestowing monks (and laypeople!) has a mom. And if the moms weren’t so busy, they might gather, too, for as far as the eye can see: mothers in their faded saris, drinking tea, making an effort even in their sleep. Mothers releasing themselves from their own ego-attachments—consciously or not—by serving their kids, and serving the dharma, by letting their children go.

At this point I don’t know which party I would rather attend. Nor do I really know how I am impacting Azalea, though when I pay attention, I can take a good guess: putting myself first, we both feel interrupted. When I don’t feel interrupted, even I don’t know who I am.  

And even more to the point, just because our family is relatively low-tech, kind of crunchy and un-ambitious (so far), that doesn’t necessarily mean that the really important stuff—attachment, connection, relatedness, repair—is in good, working order. They are two very different things: parenting style and parenting substance. And it can be easy to forget that. I have no idea how Azalea is experiencing our life here in Slow Shangri-la. Maybe she feels, as I did about my mom, like I am more interested in creating a nest than nourishing the child plunked in the middle of it. I know that one of the reasons Azzie is so good at playing by herself is because I am often too busy “slowing down” to engage with her: baking bread, gardening, doing zazen, keeping the house cozy and tidy, doing dishes around the clock. And all of that on top of all my job-work! In the blink of an eye, slow turns inside out and I am determined to cross items off my list of things to do, caught up in trying to satisfy some idea of how I think my family should be, look, operate. I get mired in the parent trap with everyone else, thinking more about myself and my need to have things a certain way, than my child.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to create a life, or luxuriating in it. And maybe getting lost in the details of slowness is better for a child’s development than getting lost in the details of overachieving, but it is lost nonetheless. So how do I find my way? I’m not sure, but I think the little voice singing in the other room will tell me.  

This article first appeared online in Chronogram Magazine, March 30, 2009.

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The Slow Parent Trap
September 10, 2009 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Parenting · Permalink · Comments (1)

Baby girl smelling giant roseBethany Saltman lives with her family in the Catskills. She is a frequent contributor to magazines like Parents,  Body + Soul, Shambhala Sun, Mothering, Clean Food, Buddhadharma, and The Sun. You can read her column on being a Buddhist mom in the Hudson Valley magazine, Chronogram.

Last week it seemed that everywhere I turned in my meager daily media diet, I saw something about “slow parenting,” the latest buzz from the movement, which got its start with “slow food” in the late 1980s. Essentially, this newsflash points to the fact that kids need unstructured time and space in order to develop into well-adjusted adults. Apparently all the jacked-up schedules, toys, and extracurricular activities that privileged, type-A, “helicopter” Überparents have been pushing are not only unnecessary, but can also actually be harmful. Obesity, attention-deficit disorder, plummeting test scores, spoiled brat behavior, anxiety disorders, violence: Turns out, Baby Einstein wasn’t the brightest bulb in the batch. So lots of people are turning down the dial and trying to, as New York Times blogger Lisa Belkin titled her latest piece on the matter, “let the kid be,” making an effort to connect with nature, the world, other people. Slow parenting advocates are encouraging people to relax, and to release their kids from their anxious, narcissistic expectations of them. This can only be good. And yet the whole thing makes me feel funny.

I grew up in a small town in Michigan at the end of a dirt road. My parents practiced a form of retro-slow parenting bordering on neglect with me and my two older brothers. My dad worked—he was an auto-parts salesman who eventually bought, then lost, his own store—and my mom stayed home. I am not sure what she did all day, but I guess she cleaned the house while we were at school or in our playpens because it was always spotless and she certainly never hired someone to help her like so many of us do these days. Things were different then. My mom talked on the phone, watched soaps, loaded us kids into the station wagon sans car seats or even seat belts to “run errands,” did laundry, chain-smoked, had friends over for coffee, and cooked things with method-based descriptors, like chicken-fried steak and twice-baked potatoes. And we watched TV, played in our rooms, beat each other up (or tried to, in my case), developed the psychological wounds that make us who we are today.

We were in different worlds: kids and mom. My mom had a vague sense, I’m sure, of what I was doing in school—learning to read and write, for instance. But nothing like the “how much homework do you have and let me help you study for the math test” kind of (s)mothering that is expected these days. If it hadn’t been for a buddy from English class who insisted I apply to Antioch College, I never would have gone beyond my barely passing high school “education.” My parents were pleased when I was accepted, but not very involved in the process, to say the least. The dark side of being a free-range kid.

So for me, allowing Azalea to play by herself in the backyard for hours is not hard. Saying “She’ll live” is no big deal. It’s easy for me to give her space to grow. And if you’re like me, a person who gets over-stimulated by call-waiting, it’s a necessity to raise a child without all the beeping frenzy that’s making people crazy and distracted, and the benefits are clear: This morning I caught Azalea standing perfectly still near the front door of the screened-in porch. I asked her what she was doing and she said, “listening to an owl.” Cool! She eats chocolate chips in increments, savoring each bite, stashing some away for later. She doesn’t get that kind of impulse-control from either of her parents, so perhaps it really is our quiet, no-TV, sit-by-the-side-of-the-river-for-fun life. In our house, slow parenting comes naturally, and truly is delightful. But as we hear in Zen, even golden chains can bind.

Let’s be honest: Parenting is really tough and it’s a hell of a lot easier to fixate on appearances than to understand the subtle workings of relationships. And it’s compelling to point to the over-the-top hoverers, the helicopter parents, and cluck in disdain: Gigantic, expensive birthday parties?! For infants! Putting a GPS in their backpack?! SAT prep in 5th grade!? Mandarin-speaking nannies!? Following them to college!? People! Get a life! I can see how this kind of behavior could turn kids into objects and parents into perpetually unsatisfied puppeteers, trying to control their kids into fulfilling them. But I have to say, as someone who grew up with the opposite problem, the thought of having parents so interested in me is kind of appealing.  And even more to the point, just because our family is relatively low-tech, kind of crunchy and un-ambitious (so far), that doesn’t necessarily mean that the really important stuff—attachment, connection, relatedness, repair—is in good, working order. They are two very different things: parenting style and parenting substance. And it can be easy to forget that. I have no idea how Azalea is experiencing our life here in Slow Shangri-la. Maybe she feels, as I did about my mom, like I am more interested in creating a nest than nourishing the child plunked in the middle of it. I know that one of the reasons Azzie is so good at playing by herself is because I am often too busy “slowing down” to engage with her: baking bread, gardening, doing zazen, keeping the house cozy and tidy, doing dishes around the clock. And all of that on top of all my job-work! In the blink of an eye, slow turns inside out and I am determined to cross items off my list of things to do, caught up in trying to satisfy some idea of how I think my family should be, look, operate. I get mired in the parent trap with everyone else, thinking more about myself and my need to have things a certain way, than my child.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to create a life, or luxuriating in it. And maybe getting lost in the details of slowness is better for a child’s development than getting lost in the details of overachieving, but it is lost nonetheless. So how do I find my way? I’m not sure, but I think the little voice singing in the other room will tell me.  

And even more to the point, just because our family is relatively low-tech, kind of crunchy and un-ambitious (so far), that doesn’t necessarily mean that the really important stuff—attachment, connection, relatedness, repair—is in good, working order. They are two very different things: parenting style and parenting substance. And it can be easy to forget that. I have no idea how Azalea is experiencing our life here in Slow Shangri-la. Maybe she feels, as I did about my mom, like I am more interested in creating a nest than nourishing the child plunked in the middle of it. I know that one of the reasons Azzie is so good at playing by herself is because I am often too busy “slowing down” to engage with her: baking bread, gardening, doing zazen, keeping the house cozy and tidy, doing dishes around the clock. And all of that on top of all my job-work! In the blink of an eye, slow turns inside out and I am determined to cross items off my list of things to do, caught up in trying to satisfy some idea of how I think my family should be, look, operate. I get mired in the parent trap with everyone else, thinking more about myself and my need to have things a certain way, than my child.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to create a life, or luxuriating in it. And maybe getting lost in the details of slowness is better for a child’s development than getting lost in the details of overachieving, but it is lost nonetheless. So how do I find my way? I’m not sure, but I think the little voice singing in the other room will tell me.  

This article first appeared online in Chronogram Magazine, June 30, 2009.

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Picking and Choosing: Mindful Eating for Kids and Families, Part 2
August 13, 2009 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Feeding, Parenting, Preschoolers, Toddlerhood · Permalink · Comments (2)

apples

Bethany Saltman lives with her family in the Catskills. She is a frequent contributor to magazines like Parents,  Body + Soul, Shambhala Sun, Mothering, Clean Food, Buddhadharma, and The Sun. You can read her column on being a Buddhist mom in the Hudson Valley magazine, Chronogram.

In last month’s column, I indulged my obsession with feeding my toddler by interviewing three experts on kids and/or food and/or mindfulness. I promised that I would consider what they said during the following month, and conduct a little anecdotal research, then report back. As a recap, these are my wonderfully willing experts:

Dr. Harvey Karp: Dr. Karp is the best-selling author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block. He is a professor of pediatrics of UCLA School of Medicine and travels extensively, talking (lovingly) about kids.

Nina Planck: Nina wrote the critically acclaimed Real Food: What to Eat and Why a couple years ago. Her most recent book is Real Food for Mother and Baby. Both are gems.

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Osho (Ryushin Osho): Before moving into Zen Mountain Monastery in 1991 to become a monastic/priest/teacher, Ryushin Osho was a pediatrician and a psychiatrist.

I asked them all the same three questions, based on my own concerns, as well as what I hear from other parents. This is what I gleaned from their answers and how it all played out at our table.

What is the best way to raise a mindful eater—someone who appreciates food but is not obsessed with it?
Dr. Karp: “Each child is different, but many go through seriously picky eating stages. And others just aren’t that into food.”
Nina Planck: “Don’t be obsessive about wanting your kids to be mindful.”
Ryushin Osho: “Remember that food isn’t just food. It’s love, it’s attention and it’s play.”

I got the message pretty loud and clear on this one: Re-lax! Why I ever thought that being a robot—no-dessert-if-you-don’t-eat-your-meatball-just-try-it-okay-lick-it-good-job-you-did-it…repeat—would encourage a shred of mindfulness for any of us is beyond me. Poor Azalea, innocently enjoying a bit of space in that clear mind of hers and I am filling it with the kind of control-seeking anxiety I have been trying to let go of for years on my meditation cushion. What was I thinking?

So now I am more willing to let Azalea find her way through her meal, and if she wants to be excused before she has eaten what we consider a satisfactory meal (which varies depending on the day/menu, etc.), I will simply remind her (once, maybe twice) that the food on her plate is all that is being offered, so if she is hungry later, she won’t be having applesauce, dessert, or anything else. Unless, of course, we decide to throw the whole thing out the window and just bring on the ice cream. I don’t have any hard data on whether or not her eating has “improved,” but our time together sure has!

Indeed, it has been intriguing to consider the possibility that preparing food is not the only way to offer love at mealtimes. There’s also this thing called…um…let me look at my notes…I think it’s fun? I had heard of this before, but I was pretty skeptical. But then one night Azalea insisted she was finished receiving my love, I mean eating her salmon, and I recalled Ryushin Osho’s Polish grandfather doing the whole whale routine (see last month’s column). I felt ridiculous and not at all optimistic, but I gave it a shot: Look, it’s a whale going into the cave—fish on fork, aimed at her mouth, as if she were a…baby…or small child! Immediately, she opened up and ate. Okay. That totally worked. Just this morning, with her cream of rice cereal, she said: “Mommy! Pretend it’s a bunny hopping in!” Gulp.

In order to get a picky eater to try new food, is it okay to bribe kids—for example, “If you eat your broccoli, you can have ice cream”?
Dr. Karp: “Absolutely.”
Nina Planck: “I don’t think it’s fatal, but it seems sort of limited as a tactic.”                                                                                        Osho: “I think I would be cautious, but at the same time, what the hell do I know?”

Thanks, Dr. K.! Just last night we told Azalea that she could have dessert (apple juice; should I feel guilty about this?) after she tried her roasted red pepper. So she started with the lick, then we told her she had to take one bite and swallow it (recently she has developed the spit-out avoidance technique). So she did. “It’s good,” she announced. Then we all let it go. So it may take 50 more appearances for the red pepper to become part of her repertoire, but at least they’ve been introduced—Azzie and the pepper—and they’re even kind of friendly.

Should we serve picky eaters special foods at mealtimes?
Dr. Karp: “It’s not wrong to indulge your children as long as when you have to set a limit, they know they have to respect your limit.”
Nina Planck: “We don’t have a separate shopping list for [real] kids’ foods. In deciding what’s for supper, I treat my son’s considerations with equal weight to mine and my husband’s.
Ryushin Osho: “I never experienced that, so it would be difficult for me to imagine what that would feel like.”

This was the most thrilling part of my interviews. Ryushin Osho’s family never offered special meals, and he didn’t starve, so if I don’t want to, I don’t have to!

Nina Planck says that “kids’” food—cheddar bunnies and the like—are unnecessary (her genteel way of saying gross), but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to please our kids’ palates. We can all eat real, tasty food together.

And Dr. Karp spun the whole question in a very helpful direction. He basically gave me permission to be as indulgent or persnickety as I want when it comes to the dinner table, because it’s not the rules that matter as much as our ability to enforce those rules skillfully. When our family sits down to eat, of course, nutrition is vital, but so are our relationships that form around the food.

So what have I learned? I’d say that raising a mindful eater doesn’t mean that Azalea won’t always be picky or have strong preferences or even be that into food. She may never swoon over bright green olive oil the way her mother does. But by creating a loving, playful, nourishing environment, maybe she can be relaxed enough to truly taste it.  

This article first appeared online in Chronogram Magazine, May 27, 2009.

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Picking and Choosing: Mindful Eating for Kids and Families, Part 1
July 9, 2009 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Parenting, Toddlerhood · Permalink · Comments (3)

orange_pepper

Bethany Saltman lives with her family in the Catskills. She is a frequent contributor to magazines like Parents,  Body + Soul, Shambhala Sun, Mothering, Clean Food, Buddhadharma, and The Sun. You can read her column on being a Buddhist mom in the Hudson Valley magazine, Chronogram.

Yet, though it is like this, simply, flowers fall amid our longing, and weeds spring up amid our antipathy.

— Dogen Zenji, Genjokoan

Feeding my fabulously finicky toddler has been a challenge, to say the least. The more she resists my efforts, the more frustrated I become. Our positions quickly get fixed into the classic power struggle: me the desperate mother, filled with a craving to feed, and she the indifferent Noodles, please! toddler. Buddhism is actually filled with teachings on mindful eating, but there isn’t much on the nitty-gritty of raising a mindful eater, so I decided to ask some folks for help.

I found three great people to talk to:

Dr. Harvey Karp: Dr. Karp is the best-selling author of The Happiest Baby/Toddler on the Block (Bantam Books, 2004). He is a professor of pediatrics at UCLA School of Medicine and travels extensively talking (lovingly) about kids.

Nina Planck: Nina wrote the critically acclaimed Real Food (Bloomsbury USA, 2007), and her most recent book is Real Food for Mother and Baby (Bloomsbury, 2009). Both are gems.

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Osho: Before Ryushin moved into Mount Tremper’s Zen Mountain Monastery in 1991 to become a monastic/priest/teacher, he was a pediatrician and a psychiatrist.

I asked them all the same three questions, and this is what they had to say (in 1,000 words or less!):


What is the best way to raise a mindful eater—someone who appreciates food but is not obsessed with it?

DR. HARVEY KARP
Number one, every child is different. Food and drink are important triggers of our internal reward center or dopamine opiate center, as are friendship and touching. So for some kids eating is a huge part of the reward center and for other kids it just doesn’t mean that much to them. Number two, there’s some intrinsic sense of what the body needs, early on. That gets overridden later when kids get into this very finicky period, usually anywhere from 15 to 30 months. Kids get really rigid. They want things they can hold with their fingers, things that are white, which is why cheese and pizza and pasta and bread become real favorites at that point in time. And the third basic understanding is that there are battles you can win as a parent and battles that you can’t win. For example, candy. You don’t want to give her candy, you don’t give her candy. You can win that every single time. Eating broccoli is a different issue. If she really wants to, she’s going to win that one. But ultimately, if you can outwait them, they’re probably going to come around to your diet without you having to plead and beg and negotiate.

NINA PLANCK
By example. It’s the only answer you can give. Your toddler is psychic. And don’t talk about it. Just serve the food and eat.

I believe you could train your toddler to sit in his chair, never drop his spoon, and eat all his food, but you’d have to smack him every time he drops his spoon or leaves food on his plate, and then you’d have a terrified, tortured individual. You wouldn’t have a mindful eater. You’d have an abused eater and a totalitarian mother.

RYUSHIN OSHO
Frequently, we forget that much of early childhood eating is not about eating; it’s about being with the parent. Our basic learning about taking food in is extremely closely connected to how we’re being held, looked at, what the mother is doing, feels like, and then goes from there.

I remember it from my own upbringing, of what a meal felt like when we were sitting together—when I was three or four—and it was an occasion for the family to come together. But I remember that the meal wasn’t just about food; there was attention to it, but it was an opportunity to connect and to have people’s attention, directed to you, as a kid. I remember my grandfather playing with my sister—“The whale is coming in…”—and it was play. The other thing is that we were an extended Polish family, so the emotionality around food wasn’t just narrowed down to me and my mother, where I’m locked in and suddenly this becomes the currency of our struggle

In order to get a picky eater to try new food is it okay to bribe kids—i.e., “If you eat your broccoli, you can have ice cream?”

DR. HARVEY KARP
Absolutely. I wouldn’t call it bribery. I think that’s a morally loaded word. Ultimately, you don’t want to always have to give ice cream to get what you want. But that is a bridge to get you in the right direction, and then you start decreasing the amount of ice cream you give, and you start replacing the food reward with other rewards. People get bent out of shape, like, “Don’t praise your child and don’t reward.” And it’s nonsense. You can’t not do it.

NINA PLANCK
I don’t think it’s fatal, but it seems sort of limited as a tactic because it requires that you always have a bribe handy the minute the child says no. [My son] tends not to get dessert if he hasn’t eaten. They’re related tactics, though he can always have fruit, even if he hasn’t finished his supper.

RYUSHIN OSHO
There is a kind of conditionality—in order the get this, you have to have that—there must be some sort of resentment that is being internalized within a person with respect to that, so I think I would be cautious, but at the same time, what the hell do I know? I can definitely understand why there are moments when this can become, literally, a life-or-death struggle between a parent and a child.

Should we serve picky eaters special foods at mealtimes?

DR. HARVEY KARP
It’s not wrong to indulge your children as long as when you have to set a limit, they know they have to respect your limit. We have to set limits, and the key is that when you do it, you’re really clear that you’re not to be messed with. So you could be indulgent about meals or not indulgent. You get to do what feels good to you. As a parent, you’re just trying to get through the day.

NINA PLANCK
There’s a long list of real foods. And we don’t have a separate shopping list for kids’ foods. They all come off the list of real foods, and then in deciding what’s for supper, I treat my son’s considerations with equal weight to mine and my husband’s.

RYUSHIN OSHO
I never experienced that, so it would be difficult for me to imagine what that would feel like. I would feel special—how frightening that would feel to me, to have food prepared just for me, outside of the circle of the family. That level of attention can crawl inside of your skin.

Tune in next month to see if I am able to actually put these wise words to good use.  

This article first appeared online in Chronogram Magazine, April 30, 2009.

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Buddhism-Some of the Best Tools for Motherhood
June 11, 2009 · Posted in Buddhism/Parenting, Mental Health, Parenting · Permalink · Comments (1)

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We had the pleasure of crossing paths with Bethany Saltman and her very real life approach to Buddhism and motherhood. Buddhist practice, mindfulness, yoga and breath are some of the most helpful parenting tools there are. We are thrilled to introduce Bethany to the Soho Parenting community and hope she will be a regular contrbutor to “Parentalk”‘

Bethany Saltman lives with her family in the Catskills. She is a frequent contributor to magazines like Parents,  Body + Soul, Shambhala Sun, Mothering, Clean Food, Buddhadharma, and The Sun. You can read her column on being a Buddhist mom in the Hudson Valley magazine, Chronogram, or online at http://www.chronogram.com/issue/2009/6/Whole+Living/Flowers-Fall.

Zen for Moms: Letting Your Life Teach You
By Bethany Saltman

When other moms find out that I lived at a Zen monastery for 2 years, met my husband there and still study and practice regularly with my teachers, they often can’t believe it because I seem so…well, not very “Zen” would be one way of putting it. I love my 3-year-old daughter Azalea like crazy, but am often impatient; I also love to drink beer and eat steak. I delight in shopping—for myself and Azalea— way more than my humble budget allows. So if I am still so grumpy, base, and clothes-obsessed, what’s the point?
It’s a good question, one that every now and then, I still ask myself. But then I remember, a little sadly, that Zen does not promise a personality transplant. In fact, all I can hope to get from the practice of Zen is the freedom to truly be myself. It’s often called enlightenment, or liberation, but what I think it means is to wake up to the precious nature of our very human lives, not to become some happy robot. Oh, well! Maybe next lifetime…
So what does this have to do with being a mom, especially one who is so not about to develop some super intense spiritual practice in the midst changing the 10,000th diaper today, cleaning spaghettios off the wall, or fighting a tantrum—her own! While it is true that meditation is essential if one really wants to practice Zen, there are some principles that I have found extremely useful in my life as a mom that might be helpful for other parents who find themselves at their wit’s end or just crave a little more meaning. And when things settle down—the kids get older, your nerves un-jangle or you just can’t wait anymore, you can try out the rest of Zen, too.

1.) Let your life be a question.

Instead of resigning yourself to everything you encounter—irritating people, sibling rivalry, exhaustion, jealous feelings, diarrhea—approach it all as a question, a puzzle that is worthy of your investigation. Assume you don’t know what’s going on, or the whole story. This doesn’t mean to ask silly questions you know the answer to; it’s just a matter of quietly, privately, wondering instead of reacting, as in, Oh my god my mother-in-law is making me CRAZY; I wonder why I react to her so strongly. Or, God, that other mom totally sucks; I wonder what she thinks about me.

2.) Move your awareness in, instead of out.

This is simple, but first it’s important to become aware of awareness. Imagine: you’re walking down the hall blah blah blahing in your head, planning, whatevering, totally not in your body and then you stub your toe on your daughter’s toy chest. OWWW! Immediately, you become aware of your toe where you hadn’t been before. That is an involuntary awareness, but we can move our minds to our bodies at will, too. And it’s a good idea to do this, as much as we possibly can.
When we get upset about anything, bring awareness to our bodies in whatever way we can muster: our racing heart, our streaming tears, clenched jaw. And when we feel happy, hungry, bored, again, move awareness back in. Relax the body. This doesn’t mean we get self-obsessed. It’s one of those great paradoxes and one of the central teachings of Zen: embodying ourselves is the only way to become truly available to everyone else, including our kids.

3.) Cultivate gratitude.

Easier on some days than others, I know. When kids are screaming, it’s raining out, your broke, you haven’t washed your hair in a week, and all you want to do is eat bread and butter, it’s tough to slow down the train of despair and get in touch with gratitude. But since so much of our agony stems from self-concern (the opposite of the embodiment discussed above), if what we really want is to feel some relief, it’s helpful to get some perspective. Take a moment. Look around. Is everyone healthy? Are you able to feed your kids? Do you have a home? Friends? Chances are, you’ve got something pretty incredible to be grateful for. Take a deep breath and start over.
Or maybe you’re not at all miserable, your bank account is stable, and you “have it all.” But you feel a little numb or out of touch. Again, moving our awareness to our good fortune can jumpstart a tired heart. And inspire us to dive in and be more generous in whatever way we can.

tIf anyone is interested in receiving beginning instruction in Zen meditation, there are several options in the city. The place where I am a student is called is in called Fire Lotus Temple, also known as Zen Center of New York City. The phone number is 718.875.8229.

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