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The Path of the Parent: How Children can Enrich your Spiritual Life

by Steve Taylor

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.

Natural Mindfulness

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.”

This illustrates one of the most positive effects of having children: they help us to become children again ourselves. The ancient Chinese Taoist text the Tao Te Ching advises 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.’ 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.

Beyond Selfishness

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 the psychologist 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 in 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

Steve Taylor's latest book is Waking From Sleep, described by Eckhart Tolle as ‘an important contribution to the global shift in consciousness.’ His next book

Out of the Darkness will be published at the end of this year. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com

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