Published in Natural Health magazine, March 2011.
Dirty nappies, being woken up in the middle of the night, a house full of screams and squeals, food splattered all over the walls, toys strewn chaotically over the floor, no more late nights out, no time to read books or go on courses or retreats? What could be spiritual about bringing up children? Isn’t spiritual development just one of the many things we sacrifice when we have kids?
Many spiritual traditions would agree with this view. That’s why priests and monks have always been celibate. To be spiritual we’re supposed to live apart from the normal world, in monasteries, forests or in the desert, meditating and praying in solitude. Nothing is meant to divert us from our spiritual practices – least of all a family, which takes up so much of our time and energy.
In India, there is a tradition that spiritual development belongs to a later stage of life – roughly after the age of 50. First we have to live through the ‘householder’ stage, bringing up and providing for our children, and living a ‘worldly’ life. But once our children are grown up, we can turn our attention to the inner world. We can start meditating regularly, and living more quietly and simply.
However, many parents find that – far from hindering it – bringing up children furthers their spiritual development. Seen in the right way, parenthood can itself be a spiritual path, bringing a heightened sense of love, wonder and appreciation.
The journalist Abi Foss was once a follower of the late controversial Indian mystic, Osho, who advised his female followers not to have children, as this would hinder their spiritual growth. ‘Although I can understand why he said this to people who needed a lot of therapeutic work, I have to say that I totally disagree with him,’ she says. ‘I now have a four year old son and I can’t think of anything better for your spiritual growth. Motherhood is the hardest yet most rewarding job in the world.’
‘When I was younger I was never in the same place. I was so restless, constantly travelling and never knowing exactly what I wanted. But having a child has grounded me, made me feel rooted. And I think you needed that sense of rootedness to develop yourself.’
Abi’s little boy has taught her the true meaning of love as well. ‘When you have a baby, you feel a love that you’ve never felt before. It’s so deep it’s overwhelming. And then you’re wiping their bum, getting up every night for two years – that’s what real love is. It’s completely selfless.’
Part of the reason why bringing up children can be a spiritual experience is because children are such strongly spiritual beings themselves. They naturally have many of the qualities which, as adults, we try to cultivate through spiritual development.
For example, children are naturally mindful. They always live fully in the present, and the world is always a fantastically real and interesting place to them. As the child psychologist Alison Gopnik puts it, ‘Babies and young children are actually more conscious and more vividly aware of their external world and internal life than adults are.’ They have what she calls an ‘infinite capacity for wonder’ which we adults only experience at our highest moments – for example, when a scientist is inspired by the wonder of the physical world, or a poet is awestruck by beauty. As she puts it, ‘Travel, meditation and Romantic poetry can give us a first-person taste of infant experience.’
I have three young children myself, aged one, three and seven. When I go walking with my baby son through the fields and paths close to our home, I’m always amazed at how long it takes us to get anywhere. What should be a ten minute walk by the golf course to the nearest post office can last anything up to 40 minutes. This isn’t just because his tiny legs mean that he’s a slow walker, but mainly because he stops every few seconds to examine everything. Trees, bushes, stones, leaves, wire fences, puddles, even discarded crisp packets and coke cans – everything is a source of wonder. His world is filled with fascinatingly different textures and colours and shapes and patterns and smells and sounds. He can spend ten minutes examining a leaf, staring at it, stroking it, brushing it against his face. One of the reasons why it’s always so difficult to get him out of the bath is because he loves to just sit there and pour water down from a cup, transfixed by the bubbles and splashes and ripples.
Normally I walk to places like an arrow heading to its target – focused on my destination, paying little attention to my surroundings, my mind on other things. But walking with my children has reminded me to stop and look. It’s reminded me that almost everything is fascinating if you just take the trouble to pay attention to it. I’ve realised the joys of just ambling along, staring at the sky, looking at the plants and bushes and trees around me, taking in the reality of the moment rather than thinking about the future or past.
Becoming Children Again
This illustrates one of the most positive effects of having children: they help us to become children again ourselves. As Dr. Elliot Cohen – a psychologist at Leeds Metropolitan University who has a 1 year old baby – describes it, ‘There is a new life helping you to see the world anew. In the Jewish spiritual tradition, there is an idea that through having children, you become more child-like yourself. You see the world through the eyes of child, with a new freshness and intensity.’
There is a similar idea in the Taoist tradition. The ancient Chinese Taoist text the Tao Te Chingadvises us to ‘Return to the state of the infant’, and says that the person who ‘has in himself abundantly the attributes (of the Tao) is like an infant.’
As Elliot Cohen notes, ‘In Taoism, the ideal is to be as spontaneous and curious as a child, with that openness to experience. And the same applies on a physical level too. The aim of the Taoist cultivation practices – like Tai Chi and Chi Gung – to help the body to become as supple and flexible as a child’s body. Your body should reflect your mental attitude, with the same openness and flexibility.’
The playfulness of children can bring out the child in us too. As Abi Foss says of playing with her four year old boy, ‘The innocent playfulness of children is really priceless. Your own children can bring you back to that innocent place. My head might be full of worries, but when my little boy and I do silly things together and we fall about laughing, all that stress disappears, it brings me right back into the moment.’
All the world’s spiritual traditions tell us how important it is transcend our own selfishness, to stop seeing ourselves as the centre of the universe, and trying so hard to satisfy our own desires. They advise us to help and serve others, so that we can move beyond our separate ego, and connect to a transcendent power. Buddhism even suggests that desire is the root of all suffering in our lives, and that the only way to become truly content is to overcome desire itself – literally, to stop wanting and to accept our lives and ourselves as they are.
The eightfold path of Buddhism aims to cultivate this selfless state, and ideally the path of parenthood can too. It’s impossible to be a good parent without being prepared to put your children first. As anyone who has stayed up through the night with an ill child knows, parenthood is all about self-sacrifice. As Alison Gopnik puts it, ‘Imagine a novel in which a woman took in a stranger who was unable to walk or talk or even eat by himself. She fell completely in love with him at first sight, fed and clothed and washed him, gradually helped him to become competent and independent, and spent more than half her income on him? You couldn’t bear the sappiness of it. But that, quite simply, is just about every mother’s story? Caring for children is an awfully fast and efficient way to experience at least a little saintliness.’
The poet William Wordsworth described how children see the world ‘apparelled in celestial light,’ with ‘glory and freshness of a dream.’ Wordsworth also describes how, as we become adults, this vision ‘fades into the light of common day.’ However, having children of our own helps us to reawaken some of the ‘celestial light.’
Perhaps this is what Jesus meant too, when he told his disciples, ‘unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ This makes sense if we think of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ as a place not in the hereafter, but potentially in the world now. Heaven is the state of wonder and natural well-being which children exist in – and through being in their company, we can re-enter that kingdom.
Treating Parenthood as a Spiritual Path
- Don’t be tempted to rush your child; try not to be impatient at their slowness. Walk at their pace and be mindful with them.
- Try to cultivate children’s fresh, intense vision. Imagine how the world looks through their eyes.
- Let them ‘teach’ you the marvels of the world around you. Be as open and curious as they are, not taking anything you know for granted.
- Give yourself wholly to play with them, allowing yourself to step outside your mental world of worries and responsibilities
How to Stop this Natural Spirituality Disappearing in you child
- Don’t be irritated when children ask ‘Why?’ questions. Encourage their sense of wonder.
- Try not to be irritated by their exuberance and excitement – wear ear plugs if necessary!
- Try to limit the amount of time they watch TV or playing computer games
- Encourage them to use their own creativity, by inventing games or drawing or painting
- Have periods of quietness, relaxation and meditation, which make them feel more at home within their own being