Embracing Family

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Many people are exploring possible congruences between parenting and practice. The consensus so far: no easy matter! For example, a parent with access to formal training in a Buddhist community may yearn to participate in an intensive meditation retreat yet balk at leaving her children for a week. When the choice is to go on retreat (and proper child care is arranged), troubling questions continue to arise.

Consider what Victoria Kieburtz, a mother, writes:

With my own "suffering" diminished and the dust settled, I had fallen into a duality which identified the sufferers as outside myself, outside my zazen [meditation]. In order to help them, I had to be with them in real-time. How could I fulfill my duty to truly help anyone, other than myself, if I was isolated in sesshin? We are told that sesshin benefits beings on seen and unseen levels, but I failed to feel that in my bones. What I did feel was that my children were home for an endless week without me, and that my absence was a source of pain for them.

What is the skillful path in such a situation?

It is as hard to get the children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha hall on a cold morning. One move is not better than the other.

Gary Snyder

The obverse of this same dilemma, not attending retreats, is that it is a constant challenge to treat common household activities, on the scale of making beds or settling arguments, as a fully authentic path of awakening. "It is as hard to get the children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha hall on a cold morning," asserts poet-activist Gary Snyder (who has done both). "One move is not better than the other."

Newly articulated practices and principles are often applicable beyond Buddhist circles. "Part of your work as a parent is to keep growing in self-knowledge and in awareness." "Try seeing the children as your teachers." "Instead of sitting up all night in meditation, sit up all night when the children are sick."

Thich Nhat Hanh recommends “hugging meditation”:

Hugging is a beautiful Western custom, and we from the East would like to contribute the practice of conscious breathing to it. When you hold a child in your arms, or hug your mother, or your husband, or your friend, if you breathe in and out three times, your happiness will be multiplied at least tenfold.

If you are distracted, thinking about other things, your hug will be distracted also, not very deep, and you may not enjoy hugging very much. 


In a monastery, a bell calls monks to meditation; in a home, a bell can call family members to mindfulness. A mother in the San Francisco area reports that a household bell has become a natural part of family life:

It lives on the altar in Jason's room, where anyone can get it at any time and bring it to sound anywhere in the house. Whenever the bell is sounded, we all stop whatever we are doing and breathe three times. Then we continue mindfully with what we were doing. Our bell has been sounded to greet new guests, on the way to the bathroom, in the midst of bustling dinner preparations, during meals, in the heat of arguments, and directly after angry outbursts.

Buddhism was originally a monastic tradition. Does family practice stray too far from original Buddhism?