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The Spirituality of Motherhood – Lessons from the REAL Masters

May 7, 2009

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!!

Namaste-

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…

34 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2009 11:30 am

    Lovely thoughts to share with us, thank you.
    My favourite is the Gangaji idea about already being free.
    A woman I know had her nanny come and take her boy when we were out for a coffee. The LO was in my carrier at the time asleep. When the nanny took him, the woman proclaimed with a huge smile and sigh of relief, ‘freedom!’. This has always stayed with me. And I have seen so many mothers feel the caring of a child a burden, a loss of freedom.

    I am not one of those mothers who adores every second of the daily tasks of mothering. I have to work at it. But one thing I always felt I did not want to feel, was like I had lost my freedom. Somehow this feels like I view my child as nothing more than a shackle, and that makes me sad.

    I recently posted about trying to do yoga, and how virtually impossible that was. But I appreciated the reason it was so difficult, and refused to see mothering as a loss of my physical freedom.

    As for books. Strangely, as a bookwhore and spiritual person, I don’t own a single spiritual parenting book. It’s been an unconscious choice. I realise that I didn’t want the journey stolen by other people’s words. That’s just MY choice and experience. I like picking up tidbits of thoughts along the way – like with this post.

  2. May 7, 2009 12:08 pm

    Beautiful stuff, Lisa, and well said! I think my personal favorite motherhood/spirituality quote came from that movie The Crow (Actually, I think it was one of the sequels) which said: “Mother is the name for God on the lips of children everywhere.”

    For a brief time in childhood, “Mother” really does equal “God”. Whenever we want something, we ask mom. Whenever we need something, we ask mom. Whenever we are hurt, we want mom to kiss it and make it better. Mom is the source of all, the one we turn to for whatever it is we need. Not that fathers (such as myself) can’t or don’t do those things or be those things, it’s just that moms (the good ones, anyway) are just so good at it.

  3. May 7, 2009 3:04 pm

    Mom is a concept that gains meaning through physical life experience. Every person has a mom even if you do not know her personally. Mom also evokes feelings of love and soul-level connections that go way beyond the physical world. Every person is evolving into who he already is. Its all because of the great mother Earth, the Universal mother and womb of all creation. Non-physical reality teaches the human mind that soul-level creation is timeless and eternal. Love and unconditional acceptance is a lesson taught by the Source. This is a mystical mom.

  4. mommymystic permalink*
    May 7, 2009 3:16 pm

    Mon – your post is great! I soooo remember those days. As for not reading on this topic, I know what you mean – I think for me a phase of reading everything I could after my first was my way of processing my struggle. I wasn’t used to struggling. And I had all this latent resistance to motherhood that I needed to work through. So letting go of the idea that solitude=freedom was big for me.

    Jay/Liara – this is something I think about often – that our parents are our first introduction to love, and lays the groundwork for how we relate to the divine later on. And that maternal love (for both the mother and child) is just a glimpse of the greater source. Thx for commenting!

  5. May 7, 2009 8:32 pm

    Lisa, The wings of unseen Higher forces wrap themselves around you to remind you the feeling of unviersal love. This is assocaited with the unwavering, unconditional compassion of “mom.”
    By the way, I respond to your post about the Age of Intution and welcome further dialogue.

  6. May 8, 2009 1:18 am

    I love how you provide depth to a topic. Your post is not the typical Happy Mother’s Day article. Yours invokes thought and lends a spiritual perspective.

    I resonated well with a lot of what has been said: being fully present, a collective intuition, lessons on patience, a push to examine our own insecurities, and not judging ourselves against any ideas of an ideal mother. I’ve been through all these.

    It’s been a journey of ups and downs and it was not easy when motherhood first started for me. More recently, I have managed to gain a bigger perspective to life, motherhood and things. I’m definitely not a perfect mother but I do the best I can. I find myself in greater acceptance, forgiveness and love.

    May your light shine bright too! Happy Mother’s Day!

  7. May 8, 2009 7:28 am

    I’ve read this three times, and have gotten so much out of this post. Love the quote about “cooking in the cauldron of motherhood” – so true, and such a wonderful image. And of course, in paganism the cauldron figures symbolically as the womb – of the Welsh goddess Ceridwen – and although I’m not goddess oriented myself, it’s still has resonance for me.

    It’s really interesting what you say about freedom and motherhood. I see this around me all the time – women feeling that motherhood has somehow taken away their freedom. I understand how they may feel that way, but personally I’ve felt quite the opposite in many ways. This has often surprised me, because I never considered myself a maternal or baby-oriented person. If anything I’ve always felt very freedom-oriented, and wondered how I would feel with a babe in tow.

    Although motherhood has certainly presented me with some challenges, and I’ll readily admit to finding some of the day-to-day stuff tedious and exhausting, on the whole, I’ve found motherhood quite liberating. It started with pregnancy and my relationship to my body changing, and feeling more free in my body, less a figure of objectification. I derived a sense of power from my body, and my creativity increased enormously.

    Then when the baby came, it was kind of my ‘excuse’ to be immersed in those natural, ancient rhythms of life – eating, sleeping, and going about my day in a way that reflected my child’s and my own natural rhythms, rather than those of the 9-5 world. It was release from a sense of obligation.

    I still struggle with being in the moment though, and continually have to stop myself from racing into some future moment!

    A very Happy Mother’s Day to you too!

  8. May 8, 2009 1:04 pm

    Hi Lisa – laughed out loud at your intro paragraphs.

    In astrology, the symbolism for creativity includes creating a child – we give “birth” to our creations. Loved the shining star story!

    You have touched on an area that brings up one of my pet peeves – I haven’t had children, and my friends would say how lucky I was because I was “free” – but I wasn’t “free” because I had health or emotional or money problems or whatever. They often had benefits I didn’t!

    People with children very often think that if they didn’t have them, their life would be like it was before they had them – and it wouldn’t be! – their issues would come up for healing, the same as they do with everybody.

    They could have got sick, or got into debt, or lots of things. I really do believe that we allow ourselves a certain amount of the good stuff, and this determines what we experience, not whether we have children.

    That’s why there is the phenomenon of a carer giving everything to, say, an elderly parent, and then when the parent dies, the carer gets some dreadful problem and everyone says isn’t it a shame, she just got to get some freedom. Hard to put this into a comment…

    cheers Lisa – Robin

  9. mommymystic permalink*
    May 8, 2009 8:17 pm

    Evelyn, I’m glad you liked it. I thought at first perhaps it was not upbeat enough, but I do think motherhood is an up and down journey for most of us, and wanted to reflect the ‘motherhood practice’ realistically. To me, I think the place of ‘acceptance, forgiveness and love’ that you have come to is the best we can all hope for, because then hopefully that is the approach our children will absorb in relation to themselves and others.

    DW – I love what you said about babyhood immersing us in the natural rhythms of life, rather than the ‘schedule’ of society. I had never thought of that, but you are so right, and in retrospect I found that freeing and empowering also (although sleeplessness dulled that appreciation somewhat at the time…) Now that we are into preschool and playdates and such, I do miss the open-ended of that period, and am looking forward to recreating a bit of it this summer…As for the cauldron passage, I loved that one too, and have found that in some of the Tibetan Buddhist women autobiographies – Yeshe Tsogyal, Mandarava, and the ones covered in Women of Wisdom – there are actually a lot of pagan-like mentions of cauldrons, vases, vessels and the like…

    Robin – I think I know where you are coming from – we are always projecting ‘if this were just different, or if that had never happened, my life would be better/easier/happier, etc.’, but in fact as some quote says ‘wherever you go, there you are’. Whatever issues/patterns/lessons we have or need will surface somehow, no matter what the external situation of our lives…

  10. mommymystic permalink*
    May 8, 2009 8:40 pm

    A reader just emailed me this link about Mother’s Day from the Peace Alliance site, and I wanted to add it here. Mother’s Day was originally intended as a Day of Peace:
    http://dopeace.us/forum/topics/mothers-standing-for-peace

  11. May 8, 2009 8:59 pm

    This was a great post. It brought up so much for me, about judgment, about the belief that my daughter sometimes gets in the way of my path to enlightenment. Pema Chodron often talks about our lives being all we need to wake up. I think you’ve expressed that beautifully with all the quotes and your supporting thoughts.

    Thank you!

  12. May 9, 2009 12:34 am

    Wonderful! I am coming back later and clicking through your links. I read a few already. So informative. And I’m loving the posts you are creating on Bella–and the links to follow. Learned much today from you…

    So just stopping, actually, to say Happy Mother’s Day, my friend. You are a terrific role model for many… xxxooo

  13. mommymystic permalink*
    May 11, 2009 8:12 pm

    Jan/Mermaid – hope you both had a lovely Mother’s Day, and thanks for your support. I love Pema too!

  14. May 11, 2009 9:01 pm

    I guess like with a lot of things, it depends on what you do with what you’ve got. For the Lama T.A., motherhood helped provide a greater understanding of universal love. Way over at the other extreme, I’ve known women who seem to contract with marriage and childbirth, the world that matters to them shrinking to matters relating to their immediate family.

  15. mommymystic permalink*
    May 12, 2009 7:58 pm

    Paul, yes this happens a lot. But of course it also happens with jobs, hobbies, romantic relationships and even spiritual practices. So I think the ego can take hold of just about anything, and conversely just about anything can be a spiritual journey of growth and opening rather than contraction.

  16. May 14, 2009 3:07 pm

    Exactly.

  17. June 2, 2009 6:25 am

    Hi Lisa – thanks for your reply – I’ve been meaning to drop back for a while to see what you said, and I have finally made it. That’s a good way of putting it!

  18. debbie simons permalink
    February 24, 2010 3:37 pm

    I absolutely love the spirituality of motherhood. My daughter is now 3 1/2

  19. April 13, 2011 6:51 am

    great insights. Very inspiring indeed. Thanks!

  20. April 13, 2011 5:49 pm

    Best Meditation – glad you are enjoying the articles. I’ll be by to visit you online soon!

  21. Individual Poet (see below) permalink
    July 8, 2011 3:46 am

    I really like what you say about how motherhood helps us discover who we are beneath motherhood! And obviously, it’s an ongoing process (I just wrote a piece on an angle of this today — http://carynmirriamgoldberg.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/the-77-launch-into-motherhood-everyday-magic-day-360/. Thanks for all you say here — I enjoyed this immensely.

  22. July 13, 2011 9:32 pm

    Thanks for your kind words, and I will check out your article as soon as motherhood allows!

  23. May 11, 2012 6:58 pm

    Reblogged this on Mommy Mystic and commented:

    For 2012 Mother’s Day, I had hoped to offer a new recorded meditation here, one designed to aid with energetic balance – something most of us moms often feel we could use a little help with from time to time! As it happens, actual motherhood has prevented me from doing that this week, so I will work towards getting a new recording up next week. In the meantime, I wanted to offer up a post I did for motherhood 3 years ago, which quotes many of my favorite spiritual teachers and authors on motherhood – Gangaji, Karen Maezen Miller, Tsultrim Allione, and more. I hope you enjoy it! In response to this post at the time, a reader emailed me a link to information on the history of Mother’s Day. It was originally created as a day in celebration of peace by Julia Ward Howe (a link to more info on this is in the comments of the post.) So Peace! – Lisa

  24. May 11, 2012 8:10 pm

    Momma Zen was the ONLY book that I read that I was pregnant that properly introduced me to the depths of motherhood. No woman around me at that time- besides my midwife- experienced motherhood in the way that I eventually would have and could not prepare me for the hugeness of it. I adore that book 🙂 Today, at the postpartum momma group I attend monthly, we talked about how honoring what it is that we mourn when we have children as well as celebrating what we birth. It was wonderful to share that with all the mommas. It was also great to share that we had all been birthing the mothers within many many years before we actually birthed the actual physical mother when our babies came. Happy Mother’s Day and thank you for this awesome post!

  25. May 11, 2012 11:46 pm

    Hi Pema, “we talked about how honoring what it is that we mourn when we have children as well as celebrating what we birth” – I love this, so true. I’m glad you liked this and Happy Mother’s Day!

  26. May 13, 2012 1:46 am

    FInally got around to reading your post and, as usual, love the wisdom, free of blarney, that comes through. Happy Mother’s Day!!!

  27. May 14, 2012 6:52 pm

    Glad you liked it Cate! XO

  28. May 14, 2012 10:35 pm

    Lisa,
    What a great chockful of reading I got from this post. I liked what you said about the mommy wars. Last year I was on this mommy website where you ask a question and get the opinion of other mommies. I don’t remember specifics but this one SAHM mom was thinking of putting her child in daycare a few days a week so she can get some errands, etc., done and wanted the opinion of other moms. Oh boy! big mistake. I couldn’t believe the insensitive and judgemental responses this woman was getting. You would have thought she had suggested leaving her toddler alone by himself chained to a table or something. no joke. mother after mother said that she was being selfish and that if you choose to stay home how can you even think of putting your kids in daycare, and how they never ask for help or don’t expect their husband to pitch in, etc.,. The laundry list of things these mothers said to this woman was looooong. And the whole time I kept thinking, “maybe this woman needs a break” “Maybe she’s a better mother to her child by realizing that she needs some time to herself before she spirals into some kind of depression or worse taking it out on her child. Either way I don’t think this lady ever returned to this website and neither did i.
    Hope you had a wonderful mothers day and looking forward to reading more of your thoughtful posts.
    Cheers!
    Nareen

  29. May 15, 2012 12:42 am

    Hi Nareen, Happy (belated) Mother’s Day to you too…so sad to hear your story about the forum, but I have seen that so often, on and off line. It’s really amazing that after thousands of years of human civilization, and thousands of different cultures each raising children differently, somehow one group of mothers in one time and place can think they have struck the one ‘right’ way to raise a child! And parenting can be such a stressful experience at times, it is a time when support from other women can be so valuable…hopefully you have found more accepting groups (I know I have, and it’s a great source of support for me.) I will say time seems to mellow/humble most moms, but those early years can be so tough! Glad you liked the post, thanks for commenting…

  30. May 6, 2015 3:31 am

    I just found your blog and I can’t stop reading! This line, “Part of becoming mindful is being honest about the darker thoughts that cross our minds, and motherhood triggers many of them.” hit me hard. I’m so happy to have stumbled upon this gold-mine that is your blog! 🙂

  31. May 6, 2015 8:22 pm

    Hi Nicholle, I am so glad it resonated. Yes, motherhood triggers so many things within us, doesn’t it? I feel true mindfulness is about opening to all of it…

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