What shall I learn of parenting or parenting of me?

October 2012

There is a hardly unrecognized paradox in Zen teaching: From a Zen perspective, teaching and all its baggage—e.g., the idea that there are things (practices, ideas) to learn—has nothing to do with enlightenment. Every minute a student spends trying to grasp or master some something that a teacher, or indeed the world, might have to teach is not only a minute without meaning, but a minute whose meaningless is likely being resisted. The paradox may be more apparent when one reads in a Zen (or Chan, Seon) text that study is not the way to enlightenment.

I have been led to set down these words in part as a result of reading a popular magazine article about the contemporary challenge of trying to have a successful career and be a good parent. An implication of the article was that there were right and wrong approaches and that there were policies and programs that might be adopted to make this task easier. The author, for example, had given up a high-level job in the US government in order to devote more time to her children, while also returning to full-time university teaching and her active writing career, and while continuing to give about 40 speeches a year at various places around the country or the world. She described, for example, one of the rules she had often lived by, which was that dinner time was family time: From 6 to 7.30 pm she ate dinner with her family and was not available, say, to attend meetings.

It has not been my experience that one can be much of a parent (mother or father) with this level of commitment. There is not space here (or in the universe?) to explore all the possible meanings and implications of a phrase such as “good parenting”—e.g., what is the “good” we are trying to achieve? If we are trying to produce a product, a “good adult,” what should be the goodness of such a being and why do we call it goodness? And are we producers thinking of our children like cars on assembly lines and trying to avoid “lemons,” and . . . ? In the midst of all this I will propose that my experience has led me to place a good deal of faith in the idea that children thrive to the extent that their parents (fathers and mothers) spend a lot of time playing and just being with them, and give them their undivided attention during these times. (E.g., no cellphones.) Thus, for example, travelling around the country giving speeches would not be a way of being a good parent, nor would, for example, lying on one’s couch re-reading John Blofeld’s introduction to his translation The Zen Teaching of Huang Po and then turning on the computer to start drafting an essay. (Writing, too, has its assembly-line-like qualities.)

But there is a larger point here. For all to me reading and writing have been great gifts, great drugs, great pleasures, and for all I can imagine the thrills and engagement of high-level government jobs and of university teaching and of speaking to eager audiences, such activities pale in comparison to parenting. (Although, would I say that the relative pallor of writing can be, nonetheless, exquisite? And drawing concentrates the mind in an extraordinary way, and there is a warmth and connectedness in playing music, and there is the enthusiasm of going all out with other people, working on a project, playing on a team, and . . . ) A central memory: 2, 3 a.m., lying on a cold and drafty floor in a little house in upstate New York, holding Jonah’s hand through the bars of his crib—sometimes it would be for an hour or more, and I was not lost to how uncomfortable I was, nor to the fact that I wanted nothing more than to stay there—forever, if need be—until my son fell back asleep.

Jonah is now 12 and the government official/professor’s children were apparently in high school. We might say that it is easy for parents during this stage not to be so all-absorbed and often to feel unwanted and in the way. We struggle with letting go as our children struggle with going. It could well be easy to accept an invitation to speak in Singapore, and for some large sum of money, when one’s children are looking so pleased by the prospect of having the house to themselves and no one to get up from her or his computer to tell them to turn their own computers off. But my overarching point here is that if we are speaking in a vaguely Buddhist or religious way of higher forms of existence, then—the occasional Dickinson, Mozart or Picasso excepted—what sense does it make that so many give so much more time to policy deliberations, speech making, essay writing, teaching or the arts (or selling shoes or drugs, or writing code, driving a truck, drawing blood) rather than to spending time with children?

Ironically, even from a policy perspective, it is hard to see the sense in how we allocate our time. Since The Republic at least we have had an idea that the thriving of a society depends on the moral, intellectual and practical education of the youngest generation, and Freud and many another have helped call our attention to the importance of the care and attention children receive in their very first years. But I would make my particular point in another, seemingly better way. It is thought to be “good” for a child if her or his parents have undistracted time to play with and just be with her or him. In my experience it is also “good” for the parent. That is, it can be a lot of fun, and it is engaging on a very deep level. When we “choose”—or, more likely, are forced by (brutal) economic forces and social pressures, and by our fears of deeper engagements—not to spend time with our children, it is we, the parents, who are losing out.

Finally, the destination of this essay has been to say that there are a fair number of people who already know all this, in their bones as it were. These people are not high-ranking government officials, distinguished university professors or compulsive essay writers. As a result of events, circumstances, fate or any number of choices, large and small, that they have made, they can and do give lots of time and attention to their children. They are people whose primary occupation is parenting. From one perspective they—and perhaps their children as well from some perspectives?—have paid and continue to pay a tremendous price for having gone into this line of work. Unless they are lucky inheritors, these people and their children do not have the social status or money of those who have gone down other paths. (And likely they are missing out on great artistic and intellectual experiences as well!) These people do not write magazine articles or essays or practice Buddhist meditation. Likely they have few hobbies, and such hobbies as they do have are not particularly challenging or awe-inspiring. They do not have stunning gardens or compete in triathlons or play in a quartet. But they may well be closer to living the lives that various experts and philosophizers, myself included, can’t stop talking about. I would not propose that these people are enlightened, but if it makes sense to speak of farther and closer in this regard, I would say that these people may be closer to “knowing”—in their bones, again—what enlightenment might indeed involve.

One of his Thoreau’s books is A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River, and I would pause to note an implication in the “A Week” part of the title: In the midst of the glandissage, the farting around, of a human life, we may have a few moments—all told a week or two—of deeper connection. In any case, at one point Thoreau writes of men who

have been out every day of their lives; greater men than Homer, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, only they never got to say so; they never took to the way of writing. Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what they have not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and harrowing, and ploughing, and subsoiling, in and in, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.

We might think of this as a polyphonic passage. One voice forms part of Thoreau’s repeated critique of economic man, living to produce and accumulate, and thereby not really living at all. Another voice embraces rather than critiques these farmers.

Adding one of my voices to this latter, embracing voice, and now also coming back to the Zen paradox with which I began, I note that the person who has, by whatever lucky accident, found a way or ways of escaping from subject-object duality is not giving classes or writing books. The parent who knows the fruits of parenting is not giving classes or writing books or seeking out high-level jobs. The farmer who is fully farming has no need to save a little time to ask himself or pose as a question for others “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?” (From a wonderful passage in Walden.) We might say that the parent who just parents, like the farmer who just farms, has a tendency to be overlooked, and to overlook themselves. And “good” for them.

Readers intrigued by the Buddhist moments of this piece may wish to dip into the final section, on “The absurdity and our mythmaking,” of the following review: Sutra as Power Play.


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