The Spirituality of Motherhood – Lessons from the REAL Masters
With Mother’s Day coming up, at least in my part of the globe, I thought I would combine 2 themes of this blog – the spirituality of motherhood and interfaith explorations. My plan was to compile a series of uplifting and soul-inspiring quotes about motherhood from history’s greatest spiritual leaders and teachers.
Except I couldn’t find many.
Oh sure, there were a few along the lines of ‘love everyone like a mother loves her children’, but that was about it. Turns out that historically motherhood really has not been a hot topic of conversation among the world’s greatest spiritual leaders and teachers.
So, I moved on to Plan B. Plan B is to turn to the present, and yet another professed theme of this blog – books. Books, and their authors, have been my friends and spiritual guides my whole life. I love recommending them, and getting recommendations from others. So I have compiled a list of favorite passages from books on the spiritual journey that is motherhood, and organized them according to some of the insights they brought me. I hope you enjoy them, and feel free to share your own recommendations, or your own lessons from motherhood, in the comments…
[Note: The book title links connect to Amazon, and the author names connect to their websites or blogs, if I could find them.]
I wrote a lot about Motherhood and Creativity in the 2nd Chakra series, so I won’t belabor that theme here, but I did find this passage connecting the two also, in Crossing to Avalon by Jean Shinoda Bolen:
“A woman may also give birth to her own creative work, in which she has had to plumb her own depth as a woman and labor to bring it forth. The work comes out of her and draws from her talents and experience, and yet it has its own life.”
This passage is written in the context of presenting the different ways we draw upon our maternal power, including creation and nurturing others, to make the point that being a biological mother is just one way. Although this is a Mother’s Day post, I think this point is so important – I can’t stand the social subtext that implies motherhood is a woman’s only path to fulfillment. All too often this line of reasoning has been used by the world’s religious traditions to exclude women from certain teachings or practices. So let’s put that one to rest, shall we?
That being said, this post is mostly about the lessons gleaned from mothering children, and I think one of the most powerful is learning how to be mindful, how to be fully present in our (and their) lives. This is a theme Sarah Napthali covers beautifully in her book, Buddhism for Mothers:
“Our children bring to our lives an abundance of special moments: their birth, their first smile, their first word, starting school. But caught up in a fast-flowing stream of thoughts we miss so many of the more everyday moments and, indeed, the potential for every moment we spend with our children to be special. Awake to the depth and texture of the present, we open ourselves to appreciate and enjoy them more.”
Part of becoming mindful is being honest about the darker thoughts that cross our minds, and motherhood triggers many of them. One of the hardest to accept for me was the judgments mothers make of other mothers’ choices, ala the ‘mommy wars’, and the tendency of my own mind to judge others. Vivian Glyck covers this theme well in The Tao of Poop:
“Our insecurities…contribute to the bad habit of comparing our kids and comparing ourselves as mothers. The seduction of comparison constantly beckons me, and a nasty voice starts in my head: ‘Oh, if I could just have a chance, I’d fix that baby’s (sleep, eating, discipline) problems.’ I have a deep underlying belief, however, that women share a collective wisdom, intuition, and experience that transcends this kind of fearful chatter.”
Releasing our judgments, and indeed releasing the entire judgment-creating machinery of our hyper-analytical mother brains, is a big opportunity, I think. Motherhood brings so many unexpected issues to the foreground of our attention that we are pushed to question our assumptions, upend our routines, redefine our values. In short, we have an opportunity to see what we’ve been gripping, and to let it go. Karen Maezen Miller talks about this opportunity in Momma Zen, urging us to ask ‘Why Not?’ whenever we find ourselves saying ‘never’:
“Never place your children in the care of another? Why not let others love them too?
Never manage without a nanny? Why not try it yourself?
Never consider quitting work? Why not sacrifice money for love?
Never going back to work? Why not introduce your child to the rest of you?
Never spend the night away from your child? Why not prove that you always come back?
Never give up your night out? Why not forgo the movies for awhile?
Never have your child immunized? Why not believe what doctors say?
Never doubt your pediatrician? Why not trust your instincts?
Never have chocolate pudding for breakfast? Why not have fun today?
Never have time to cook a homemade meal? Why not start right now?
Never have another child? Why not appreciate what comes?
Never have an only child? Why not accept things as they are?”
When we let go of judging ourselves and others, the opportunity for true compassion arises. We often say motherhood ‘opens our hearts’ and of course this is true, but it also challenges our equanimity on a daily basis. Lama Tsultrim Allione speaks eloquently on this topic in the addendum to the preface of her book Women of Wisdom. Prior to becoming a mother, she had been one of the first Western women to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and had spent four years engaged in intense practice and training before returning her monastic vows and marrying. She often longed for solitary practice in the early days of motherhood, and was saddened by her seeming ‘failures’ as a Buddhist and mother. Over time, she came to see the great opportunity motherhood afforded her to develop a love and compassion not dependent upon solitude:
“How often I felt my failure to enact boundless compassion and immeasurable patience. Through becoming a mother I irrevocably lost the realm where compassion for all beings is visualized from a retreat cabin…
Gradually, however…I began to see mothering as a great practice opportunity…
As I cooked in the cauldron of motherhood, the incredible love I felt for my children opened my heart and brought me a much greater understanding of universal love. It made me understand the suffering of the world much more deeply. This has been an important thread for me, both as a practitioner and as a human being.”
I mentioned earlier that motherhood has often been presented as the primary spiritual role of women within religious traditions, but the opposite has also often been true – motherhood has been seen as an automatic disqualifier to traversing the higher realms of spirituality, especially in Eastern yogic and monastic traditions. Overcoming this idea was a big theme for me, as I came to motherhood late in life, after many years of intense spiritual practice. Gangaji addresses this concern in a question and answer session printed in You Are That, with her usual gift for cutting straight to the heart of the matter:
Question: I’ve believed my child to be the one obstacle between freedom and myself. It feels like I can’t be free and responsible.
Gangaji: This is the great fear of a parent. Isn’t it a joke? We have considered freedom to be freedom of the body, and we imagine freedom of the body as the following of the desires of the body. Yet we know that following personal desires is very often narcissistic indulgence. As you know, bondage to personal desires causes enormous suffering.
What is inherently free is who you are. Who you are does not become free. It is free. In recognizing this, there is the natural ability to respond. Before that, responsibility is a concept of duty or of something to be shouldered. It may be tempered with love and care, but it is also something to be born. Therefore, your child becomes an objectification, a separation between you and that which you really are. This is a deadly joke! You are this very child. Recognize this and you are not searching around for personal freedom. Then nothing can be an intrusion.
Motherhood teaches us to discover who we really are, beneath the role of motherhood that we play. This can be tough, as this role has many facets, and we can get trapped in them. In When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd discusses the various ego masks women adopt, including one she calls the ‘Tinsel Star’. We are wearing this mask when we try to perform to gain people’s affection, or as she puts it, when we:
“…invest ourselves in the notion that those who shine the brightest are loved the most…We buy into the widespread notion that ‘light’ emanates from our achievements, not from the divine fire within our soul.”
In this same section, Ms. Kidd tells a beautiful little story illustrating our tendency to judge our worth – and others – based on the ‘size’ of our role:
“When my daughter was small, she got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal, she burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. ‘What exactly will you be doing in the play?’ I asked her.
‘I just stand there and shine,’ she told me. I’ve never forgotten that response.”
Of course her daughter had the best part of all.
So mothers of the world, may you stand and shine by your own light this Mothers Day!!
Please share your own relevant books, quotes, or ‘spiritual parenting’ lessons (Dads welcome too, and don’t worry, you’ll get your due next month) in the comments…