Having the Buddhas raise your children through you

There is no doubt that being a parent is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.  School, work, friends, no problem.  Being a parent, HELP!  It is non-stop, we never know what the right thing to do is, everything we do seems to backfire, there is nothing rational about it, and everybody is expected to somehow already know how to do it.  And the stakes are high, if you make a mess of things, you literally can ruin your kid’s entire life.  We are loathe to ask our own parents to help out, either because we are too proud or they are too busy, too old or just simply too obnoxious to have around!  We can’t afford to hire an experienced nanny to help out.  So what to do?  We need to accept that we don’t know what we are doing, and instead call in for enlightened help!

A wise person once told me, “it is only when you have tried everything else and realized that you can’t do it on your own that you are ready to go for refuge.”  Our ability to have the Buddhas raise our children through us depends first and foremost on our have humbly accepted that they would do a far better job than we can.

Wouldn’t it be great to have fully enlightened beings raise our children?  They would certainly know how to respond in every situation.  They never tire.  They have the power to be with our children 24/7, even when we are not around.  Most importantly, they have the power to bless their minds.  A blessing functions to turn the mind away from wrong paths and towards correct paths.  It comes from the inside, where the individual knows from within what the right thing to do is, not the outside like some external control.  This is exactly what our kids need!  Buddha’s know the past, present and future directly and simultaneously, so they see the big picture and how to prepare our children for the challenges that lie ahead.  They have perfect wisdom that knows how to transform any situation into the path.  Certain Buddhas have the power to prevent obstacles from arising and to arrange all of the perfect outer and inner conditions so that everything that happens to us becomes a cause of our enlightenment.  They are completely selfless and completely reliable.  How much better would they be at raising our kids than we are!

So assuming we want them to raise our kids for us, how practically can we bring that about.  There are several things we can do:

  1. When you go to spiritual teachings or study and practice the Dharma, do so with the intention of gaining the realizations necessary to be an enlightened parent for your children.  The motivation with which we practice determines the nature of the fruit of our practice.  If this is our intention, then as we receive teachings our mind will be blessed in a special way where we understand how to apply what we are learning to becoming a better parent.  But we should be careful to not fall into the mistake of listening to the instructions by thinking, “this is what my kid needs to hear and understand.”  No, we should listen to the instructions as personal advice for what we need to hear so that we can become a better parent for them.
  2. Always keep your spiritual guide at your heart.  One of the unique qualities of a Buddha is wherever you imagine them, they instantaneously go.  And wherever a Buddha goes, they accomplish their function, which is to bestow blessings.  In particular, it is taught that the Spiritual Guide is a gateway through which we gain access to ALL of the Buddhas.  So by imagining our Spiritual Guide at our heart, we in effect bring all of the Buddhas into our heart.  We need to come to view our ordinary body and mind as a vehicle or as tools.  They are not us.  We mentally hand over our body and mind to the Buddhas, requesting them to work through us to raise our children for us.  We might object to having somebody else take over control of our body and mind, but the profound truth is who we think we are does not exist at all, and who we really are is in fact one with all of the Buddhas.  They are our true selves, and it is only our ignorance which prevents us from realizing this.  So we are not really handing our body and mind over to somebody else, but rather allowing them to come under the control of our true selves.
  3. Whenever you don’t know what to do, request guidance for what to do.  Venerable Geshe-la explained a special method for doing this.  We first imagine that all of the Buddhas are at our heart, and we generate strong faith that they are indeed there and have united inseparably with our own root mind.  We then generate a very pure compassionate and loving motivation, free from any attachment, that our children be free from all suffering and come to enjoy perfect happiness.  In particular, we generate a pure motivation that we be blessed with the wisdom to know how to help and guide our children through whatever difficult time they are facing.  While holding this pure motivation and a mind of deep faith, we allow our mind to become completely still and quiet so that we can “hear” the answer to our prayers.  Eventually, a plan or image or understanding will arise within our mind.  We will understand the problem, know the solution, and see how everything fits together.  It will simultaneously feel like an answer that is coming from “somebody else” while at the same time being realized as our own understanding.  If at first we don’t get an answer, we can engage in some purification practices, trying to purify all the obstacles to our receiving a reply, we can offer a mandala to accumulate some mert, and then try our request once again.  When we get a partial answer, we can then go through this process again and again seeking further clarification until we know exactly what to do and how to do it.
  4. Post a permanent guard around our children!  Some really rich people hire special body guards to be with their children all of the time so that they never get into any danger or trouble.  We obviously can’t afford to do this, and our kids would probably come to resent it anyways.  But there is alternative, and it is free!  There is a special Buddha called a Wisdom Dharma Protector, and his job is to eliminate all obstacles and create the perfect conditions for our enlightenment.  Dharma Protectors can be requested to perform this function either for ourselves or for others, such as our children.  So we make the request with deep faith and again a pure motivation, “forever and always (meaning 24/7 for the rest of eternity), please always stand watch over my children, protecting them from obstacles and arranging for them the perfect conditions for their swiftest possible enlightenment.  Please bless them with the wisdom to always know how to transform any situation into an opportunity for their personal growth.”  Then imagine that the Wisdom Dharma Protector emanates a powerful protection circle around our children and everything that appears to their mind is now in fact emanated by the Wisdom Dharma Protector for their benefit.  It is important to remember that the Dharma Protector is only interested in our children’s enlightenment, not their comfort!  They are not a babysitter or a maid.  They will push our children to their limits, giving them unique challenges, but as parents we can know that these situations are exactly what our children need to grow and become better people.

If we do these four things, at worst we will become a much wiser and more effective parent, and at best we will become an open channel through which the Buddhas can directly raise our children.  Once we know how to do this with our children, we can then extend the same practice to our intereactions with everybody else.  The Buddhas stand ready to help us in every domain of our life, work, family and on the meditation cushion.  We simply need to accept we need their help, develop faith in them, generate a pure motivation for receiving their help, and then quiet our mind to be able to receive their guideance.  Once we become experienced with this, our daily practice will literally feel like a one-on-one daily session with our Spiritual Guide where he provides us with all the wisdom and guidance we need, both in and out of meditation.  This experience later becomes the basis for a very qualified divine pride in our Tantric practice.  Eventually this experience transforms into our becoming of one nature with all of the Buddhas, in other words, our own full enlightenment.

Your turn:  What is the most difficult situation in your life where you see clearly it would be better to have the Buddhas work through you than to have you deal with it on your own?

Overcoming attachment to gratitude from our children

Normally, when we are kind and generous towards somebody, at the very least we expect a little gratitude and appreciation for what we have done.  When it is not forthcoming, we become bitter towards the other person and develop regret for having been kind and generous.  We likewise develop the thought, “well, if they are going to be like that, then I won’t help them again in the future.”  What really drives us crazy is when we take our time to really help somebody, often times helping them do something which is not even our job, and then they criticise us for having made a mistake when we helped them!  Gen Losang tells the story of how he went into the kitchen at Manjushri Center and saw that the person who was supposed to have cleaned the kitchen did not do their job.  So, like a good bodhisattva, he decided to clean up the kitchen for them (this is a very big kitchen).  Then, just as he was almost finished, the person who was responsible for the kitchen came down, and instead of saying thank you, told Gen Losang in a critical way, “you missed a spot.” Just imagine how we would respond…

Being a parent is truly a thankless job.  When our children are babies, of course they don’t express any gratitude and we don’t expect them to because we know they are not capable.  But we do quite quickly become attached to them smiling back at us or giving us a coo or a kaw.  Generally speaking, though, we are able to give fairly unconditionally to babies.  Later, however, our attitude changes.  As our kids enter the middle to late toddler years, they grow extremely impatient with us.  They are so used to having us do everything for them, they are still not very capable of much, and they have a heightened sense of themselves being the center of the universe.  So if you don’t help them immediately, they start to get upset at you.  You do everything you can to help them learn how to do things on their own, and when they are finally capable of doing so, they get upset at you when you are no longer willing to do it for them.  When they reach 9 or 10, they learn the phrase “you are ruining my life”, and we hear this often.  When they become a pre-teen and early teenager, we become nothing but a source of embarrassement for them and they don’t want to have anything to do with us.  When they become a teenager, it is as if they are programeed to rebel against us and reject all that we stand for.  Also from about 9 on, we never stop hearing about how their friends have XYZ and they don’t, and how we are such bad parents because of that.  Or they say their friend’s parents never fight or never get upset at them, that we are the worst parents on earth.  As they get older, our function is reduced to being an ATM, and no matter how much money we give them it is never enough.  We may put them through college, enduring incredible sacrifices, but then they resent us for not having also paid for graduate school.  They then never call, never let us know what is going on, except when they get in trouble when they expect us to bail them out, and get upset at us if we do not.  When they have kids, their principal objective is to make sure they do not repeat all of the many mistakes we made when they were growing up.  At some point, life gets really hard for them and they can’t cope.  They then turn to modern psychology which explains that it is our parents fault that we are so screwed up!  So we become the object of blame.  Finally, when we are old and in need of their help, they are too busy with their own lives to be there for us.  They may help, but they do so with resentment, and we cannot help but feel miffed about their lack of gratitude.

One might look at all of this and think, “those little bastards, why would anybody want to have kids in the first place!”  But this is completely wrong.  In reality, we should be grateful for our kids being so ungrateful, because it is through their attitude that we can learn to give and care for others unconditionally.  Most of our interactions with everybody else in our life is some form of transaction, “I will do this for you if you do that for me.”  But with our kids, it is different.  We are willing to do things for them without expecting much in return except gratitude, but when they deny us even this, we can then learn to fully purify our giving and caring of expecting anything in return.  We give and we care because we want to train in love and virtue.  Virtue is its own reward.  If we take advantage of this opportunity, we will be able to quickly develop the minds of unconditional love and compassion, which are essential stepping stones on the path to enlightenment.

But we may object, “isn’t it our responsibility as parents to teach our kids to be grateful.”  The answer is, yes, of course.  But we have to make a very clear distinction between attachment to their gratitude for us and wanting them to learn the human quality of being grateful for their own sake.  If what we really want is gratitude for all our hard work and we nag our kids about showing gratitude, then we will get external expressions of gratitude but inside we will engender in them resentment towards us.  The attitude we should have is, “I don’t need your thanks, but as a human being you need to learn to be grateful for anything anybody does for you.”

But even though we ourselves don’t need their gratitude, from their side they still need to learn how to be grateful human beings.  So our job as their parents is to help them cultivate this grateful attitude.  The question is how?

There are several things we can do to help our kids learn gratitude.

  1. Set a good example of always being grateful for what others do for you.  When they see you having this attitude, they will naturally model it on their own (unless of course you nag them about how they need to be like you).
  2. Never be upset when people do not show gratitude towards you.  If they get upset about how others are not grateful towards us, then we can explain to them that we give because it is the right thing to do not because we expect anything in return.
  3. Develop within your own heart a genuine gratitude for your own parents, teachers, and those who have shown you kindness.  If you feel such gratitude, you will naturally express it and it will be naturally contagious to your children.  As you use roads, cars, buildings, tools, etc., develop a feeling for how kind everyone is for providing these things for you to use.
  4. Show gratitude for everything your kids do do for you.  It is especially important to be grateful when they show kindness to you because then they can learn the dynamic.
  5. Help them show gratitude towards others who help them, such as their teachers.  Help them really appreciate all that their teachers do by yourself being grateful and helping your kids do special cards or give special presents of thanks.  But you shouldn’t help them be grateful towards you, just others.  Whenever somebody does something nice for them, it is OK to encourage them to say thank you (just don’t nag them about it).
  6. Take advantage of birthdays, Christmas and mother’s/father’s day to help them get in the habit of showing their gratitude.  For example, as a father I should take the time to go to the mall with my kids so that they can get a gift for mother’s day.  On their mother’s birthday, I should help them realize if it weren’t for their mother being born, they wouldn’t be.  At Christmas, help them understand the cause of receiving (which is what they want) is they themselves giving to others in thanks.
  7. Help them realize, “nobody owes you anything.”  It is true, we tend to think that others, especially our parents, are obliged to do things for us.  But why is that?  Nobody is obliged to do anything for us.  If we expect people to do things for us and they do them, we dismiss their act as “normal”.  But if we expect nothing from anybody, and then somebody does anything for us, then we are naturally grateful.  It is all about our expectations.  If we can help our kids understand that nobody owes us anything, then we can help reset their expectations.

If we do these things, there is a good chance that our children will learn themselves to be grateful, but then again, maybe not.  We should not ‘need’ them to become grateful.  What we need is to learn how to give and love unconditionally.  One could even say it is our forewarned knowledge that we will likely never receive gratitude from our children, and in fact we will likely become the object of blame, that makes our giving and caring for our children today that much purer.  So we should embrace this fact, and indeed be grateful for it!

Your turn:  What act of kindness are you currently engaging in for which you still have attachment to receiving gratitude?

Compassion without wisdom

One of the advantages of having many kids is it gives you the opportunity to make every mistake in the book!  Probably one of the biggest mistakes we made in our early days of parenting is we were all compassion, no wisdom.  Compassion without wisdom is well intended, but in the end counter-productive.  If we truly have compassion for our kids and want to protect them from suffering, then our compassion must be informed by the wisdom that understands clearly the only way to truly protect them from suffering is to help them develop within themselves the inner tools necessary to protect themselves.

Compassion is explained as a feeling of we cannot bear to see somebody else suffer.  Fueled by a misunderstanding of what this means, we did everything so that our kid would never cry and never have to experience even the slightest problem.  But in so doing, we robbed her of the opportunity to learn how to manage her own experience and develop her own capacities to deal with life.  It is also crucial that we make the clear distinction between “attachment to our children not suffering” and “compassion.”  Attachment to our children not suffering makes our own happiness dependent upon the happines of our child.  So as they go up and down, so do we!  We need to be a steady pole in their life, not thrown about by the waves of a toddler’s moods.  Compassion is a wish to protect others from suffering for their sake, not our own.

An example of how we had compassion without wisdom is putting her to bed.  Because we didn’t want her to cry, we would rock her and walk around with her until she fell asleep, and then gently put her in bed.  When she would get up in the middle of the night, we would feed her her bottle, rock her some until she fell back asleep, and then put her once again in bed.  In the beginning, it worked like a charm and we congratulated ourselves on what great Dharma parents we were since our kid never cried!  “She must be an emanation of a Buddha”, we would proudly tell ourselves.  But over time, she became more sensitive, we would rock her to sleep, put her in bed, and then she would wake back up again instantly, so we would start over.  Everytime she made even the slightest squeak in the middle of the night, back we would go.  Well pretty soon, we were up all night, and so was she, so we all suffered.  What did we teach her?  That she can’t sleep on her own, she needs us to be able to sleep.

We made this same mistake with virtually every life skill.  Throw your plate on the ground, we pick it up; throw it again, we pick it up again.  What does this teach?  Can’t use a spoon without making a mess, we will do it for you until you can.  But wait, if you never practice yourself, how will you ever learn to do it without making a mess?  Same goes with pouring the milk.  Did you make a mess while playing?  No problem, we will clean up after you so that you can go do the next ‘fun’ thing.  The list goes on and on.  All we wound up teaching her was she was incapable of doing anything, and that she shouldn’t try do anything unless she can do it perfectly – but since you can never do something perfectly without first passing through doing it imperfectly many times, she never learns how to do anything.  It teaches the way to get what you want is to either cry or be demonstratably incompetent.  How does that help?  Again, compassion without wisdom.

We also made this mistake with discipline.  Kids need limits.  Why?  Because life requires so many skills and competincies that they just can’t be expected to make the right decisions.  Limits enable them to have clear zones where they are responsible for making their own decisions and other areas where we make the decisions for them until they are ready.  This enables them to focus their attention on learning the skills of their current level of development.  They also provide stability and predictability in their lives, which gives them the freedom to grow.  Limits help them develop a clear understanding of right and wrong, do’s and don’ts.  These are essential in life.  We often fall into either the extreme of “demanding obedience” or the extreme of “allowing anarchy” with our kids, but the middle way is teaching a “healthy respect for legitimate authority.”  But when we have compassion without wisdom, we think limits are a problem.  Limits make them unhappy because they cry when they don’t get what they want.  Oh dear, perhaps we will permanently emotionally scar her if she isn’t able to do whatever she wants.  Ridiculous!  Compassion without wisdom.

We also made this mistake with dealing with change.  Change is inevitable in life.  We cannot protect our children from it.  Rather, we should give them the skills necessary for embracing and adapting to change.  Transitions to new situations, new schools, new environments, even new countries can be difficult.  But it is working through that difficulty that our children can learn to grow and thrive in any environment.  When we protect our children from change, when we do everything for them, what we are really doing is sending the message to them that we don’t have sufficient confidence in them that they can do it themselves.  No!  We need to believe in them enough  to honestly say, “I know it is hard, but I know you can do it.”

We want to help our kids.  But what it took us forever to realize is we are not helping them by depriving them of the opportunity to learn how to do things for themselves.  Will they resist, will they cry, will they call us mean?  Of course.  But we know better.  If we cannot learn to accept our children crying, we will never a parent for themWe shouldn’t go to the other extreme with this, such as expecting a newborn baby to feed themselves their own bottle.  But if they are capable of learning how to do things, then we need to slowly and skillfully wean them off of dependence on us and give them opportunities to learn how to do it themselves.

Your turn:  Describe a situation in which you showed compassion but little wisdom.

Helping your children develop their own spiritual lives

When we first start to practice the Dharma and experience some of its powerful effects on our life, our first instinct is to try get everyone else to practice the Dharma as well.  This is especially true for our children.  We see clearly how the Dharma could help all those in our family, and we want them to be happy, so we want them also to come into the Dharma.  The essence of all Dharma instructions is Bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha so that we can help others do the same, so it seems only fitting and appropriate that we try help our children also practice the spiritual path.  But it is precisely because we want our children to also take up a spiritual path that we have to completely let go of the idea!

I once asked Gen Losang, “please give me a 100% guarranteed method for helping my children come into the Dharma.”  His reply was “send them to Catholic School.”  While he was of course joking, his point was well made.  The more we try push our kids into a particular spiritual path, the more obstacles we create to them actually following it.  The fundamental point is this:  the spiritual path only works if you do it from your own side because you realize you need it and you want it.  The same is true for our kids.  We can enculturate our kids into the Dharma, surrounding them with all sorts of Buddhas, take them to Buddhist teachings and temples, but we can’t ever make them practice.  Since Dharma is a process of changing our own mind, it is something that has to come from within them.  Like all other things with our kids, the more we push them into something, the more they will reject it.

It is very easy for our motivation wanting our kids to practice to become contaminated.  The more attached we are to them ‘being Buddhist’ or ‘practicing’, the more we guarrantee that they will run away.  When somebody tries to manipulate you into believing something, what is your reaction?  You reject what they have to say.  We become attached to them practicing because we have these fantasies of the whole family joyfully practicing Dharma together.  We become attached to them practicing because we want to impress our Dharma friends with how ‘into’ the Dharma our kids are.  We become attached to them practicing because we are tired of dealing with their problems, and we know the Dharma can fix them.  We become attached to them practicing because we think if they practice too we will have less obstacles to our own ability to go to teachings, festivals and the like.  We become attached to them practicing because we have a tendency to try have our kids live the life we wish we had lived, but didn’t.  We become attached to them practicing because we feel like we will have failed as a parent if they do not.  The list goes on and on.  Each and every one of these minds is an enormous obstacle to our children’s spiritual life, and we must abandon every single one.

A very senior teacher once told me, “Leave your children completely free to come into the Dharma from their own side, and in that space set a good example.”  He then went on to say, “and frankly, the same is true with adults.”  As long as our motivation is mixed with any of the above attachments, we are not leaving them completely free.  The reality is the Buddhist path is not for everyone.  We need to accept that it is quite likely our kids will never practice the Dharma (in this life, at least).  And this is perfectly OK.  For me, it has been so difficult to generate a genuinely pure motivation free from any of these attachments, that I have had to go to the opposite extreme and completely and totally forget about the idea of them ever practicing.  My job is to work on my own mind.  Full stop.  My job is to gain experience of the instructions within my own mind, nothing more.  I just need to go about my business of practicing the Dharma myself, transforming myself, becoming a better person, a better father, and if in so doing my kids develop an interest in the Dharma, then that is their business, not mine.  The interesting thing, though not at all surprising if we think about it, is the more I let go of any of my family practicing, the more they become interested in it.

We should only give our children Dharma instructions if they ask for it – many times, and genuinely from their own side.  We can always give them wisdom, because wisdom is equally useful for everyone, but we should only explain to them the Dharma as such based upon repeated requests on their part.  A mistake that I have made very often is when my kids do ask from their own side, all of my attachments come surging back up, and then I flood them with way more Dharma than they asked for.  The end result is they can’t digest it all, they wind up feeling overwhelmed, and so they reject what I had to say and they become fearful of ever asking me again.  It is far better to give them significantly less than what they asked for than even a little bit too much.  If you give them too little, they can then ask for more again from their own side.

Once somebody tastes or observes pure wisdom, they are able on their own to discern the difference between qualified and unqualified instructions.  A living example of somebody transforming themselves with the Dharma is infinitely more powerful than any words we can say.  If we ourselves are living our lives in accordance with the inner meaning of the instructions (not just adopting the external paraphanilia of a ‘Dharma practitioner’), then this will be the greatest teacher our children can have.  We should even let go of ‘trying to be a good example’ for them because this is just a more subtle form of manipulation.  No, we should just practice Dharma, and if this inspires others to do the same, then great.  If it doesn’t, then that’s OK too.

Your turn:  Describe a situation in which you were unskillful in encouraging somebody to practice Dharma.  

Wisdom phrases for parenting

In several of my previous articles, I have talked about using wisdom phrases again and again as a means of equipping our kids with the wisdom necessary to solve their daily problems.  What follows is a non-comprehensive list that we use with our kids.  Each entry below states the wisdom phrase, the corresponding Dharma concept, and when to use it:

Phrases associated with the Lamrim

  1. You need to assume responsibility for your life, noone else can do it for you. Assuming responsibility.  When they pass responsibility onto others.
  2. First change your mind. Inner peace, emptiness. When they are talking about how the external situation is the problem.
  3. You are responsible for your own experience. Inner peace, karma. When they are blaming others or their external situation for how they feel.
  4. Your life is what you make of it. inner peace, karma, precious human life. When they are bored or unhappy about their life.
  5. I will only help you do things you can’t do yourself. How to rely. When they are asking you to do something that they themselves can do because they are being lazy or not believing in themselves.
  6. We rely on others to learn how to do things ourselves. How to rely. When they are trying to get other people to do things for them, or when they are having a wrong attitude towards their teachers.
  7. If you come to me with something, you will not get in trouble for it. Reliance. When you know they have done something wrong, and in general have this be an understood rule of the house.
  8. In this family, we always…(some good thing, like always tell the truth, do the right thing). Reliance on sangha. Depends on circumstance.
  9. If you won’t be proud of this on your deathbed, don’t do it now. Death awareness. When they are tempted to do something wrong.
  10. What matters (in order) is good heart, hard working, then smart, then athletic. Death awareness, karma. When they are comparing themselves to others and feeling inadequate.
  11. The only thing you take with you from place to place is your mind and the causes you create. Death awareness, karma. When their priorities are not correct.
  12. Do what you need to do, then what you want to do. Precious human life. When they want to play before they have done their chores or homework.
  13. Don’t waste a moment of your life. Precious human life. When a special opportunity arises, NOT when you think they are wasting time (which would be nagging them).
  14. ABC creates the cause for XYZ. Kamra. All the time you want to help them understand cause and effect.
  15. If you want something, create the causes for it. Karma, effort. When they want something
  16. I cannot decide for you, it is your life, you need to decide for yourself. Karma, emptiness, superior intention, wisdom. When they are going to make a wrong choice that you disagree with.
  17. Would you want others to do that to you? Karma, moral discipline. When they are doing something not nice to others.
  18. We are all subject to the same rules. Karma, setting a good example, don’t be a hypocrite. When they try be the exception to something.  Also, you show that you live by the same rules you preach.
  19. Be on good terms with everybody all of the time. Equanimity. When they are fighting with somebody.
  20. Everybody is equally special, just in different ways. Equanimity. When they are comparing themselves to others and feeling inadequate.
  21. It doesn’t matter if they are your friend, you be their friend. Equanimity. When somebody says they are not their friend anymore.
  22. Everything is equally good, just in different ways. Equanimity, emptiness. When they are unhappy with what they have or will have
  23. Always others first. Cherishing others. When they are putting themselves first.
  24. Always treat others with respect. Cherishing others. When they are being disrespectful.
  25. Put yourself in their shoes. Exchanging self with others. When they are talking about how unreasonable somebody else is.
  26. The rule is everyone works until everything is done. Exchanging self with others, not passing your burdens onto others, living in community. When there are still chores left to do and they are playing.
  27. X difficulty is an opportunity to train in Y quality. Transforming adverse conditions into the path. When they are upset about something adverse in their life.
  28. Our job in life is to make ourselves useful to others. Bodhichitta. When the question comes up of what are they going to do in life, or why are they doing certain things (such as studying certain subjects).
  29. Be the change you want to see in the world. Setting a good example, emptiness. When they are complaining that others are acting in particular ways.
  30. Nothing is boring, it only becomes boring if you relate to it with a boring mind. Emptiness. When they say something is boring.
  31. Nothing has the power to bother you, you let things bother you. Emptiness. When they are bothered by something or somebody.
  32. There are no external enemies. Emptiness, equanimity. When they are talking about how somebody else is causing them problems.
  33. The only thing you have control over is how you, yourself respond. Emptiness, karma. When they are anxious about things beyond their control.

Phrases associated with abandoning delusions

  1. We only buy what we need, not what we want. Abandon attachment. When they are asking you to get them something they do not need.
  2. If you can’t afford it, you don’t need it. Abandon attachment.  When they want to borrow money to buy something now
  3. It doesn’t matter what other people think, form your own opinion. Abandon attachment to what other people think, develop your own wisdom. When they are bothered by what other people think, or when they are following other people’s wrong views.
  4. Never sacrifice your self-respect. Sense of shame. When they are doing something stupid to fit in with others.
  5. You are not your anger (or other delusion). Not identifying with your delusions. When they are identifying with their delusions and are down on themselves.
  6. How are you any different? Don’t look for faults in others, change yourself. When they are finding faults in others.
  7. Don’t blame others for your troubles. Assuming responsibility, blaming only delusions. When they blame others.
  8. Don’t expect anything from anybody, ever.  Nobody owes you anything. Abandon anger from false expectations. When they are upset because somebody hasn’t lived up to their expectations.
  9. Be happy with what you’ve got, not unhappy about what you don’t have. Contentment. When they wish they had something else, newer, better.
  10. There are no bad people, only bad minds. Separate the person from the delusion, blaming delusions. When they are saying somebody else is bad.
  11. That person is not mean, they are just confused. Separating the person from their delusions. When they are saying somebody else is bad.
  12. Don’t make excuses, just get it done. Abandon laziness. When they are complaining about obstacles or how hard things are.

Phrases associated with the six perfections

  1. Giving is the cause of receiving. Giving. When they want something.
  2. Never say anything bad about anyone, ever. Abandon divisive, hurtful speech. When they say something bad or hurtful about somebody else.
  3. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it behind their back. Abandon divisive, hurtful speech. When they say something behind somebody’s back.
  4. Never compromise with the truth. Abandon lying. When they are fudging the truth about something.
  5. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Abandon negative speech. When they say something not nice.
  6. Always do the right thing. Moral discipline. When they don’t know what to do, or are about to do something wrong.
  7. I will give you as much freedom as you prove you can use responsibly. Moral discipline is the cause of freedom. When they are asking for more freedom to do something.
  8. The price of freedom is responsibility. Moral discipline is the cause of freedom. When they are asking for more freedom to do something.
  9. In your heart, you know what the right thing to do is. Moral discipline, follow your wisdom. When they are unsure about what to do, and are tempted to do the wrong thing.
  10. Treat others as you would want them to treat you. moral discipline, karma. When they are treating others badly.
  11. Patience! Patience. When they are being impatient.
  12. Patience is the cause of beauty. Patience. When they are being impatient or when they are concerned about their looks.
  13. You have to accept… Patience. When something happens beyond their control.
  14. Life is hard, get used to it! Renunciation, patient accepance. When they are whining about things, and need to toughen up.
  15. A job worth doing is a job worth doing right. Effort. When they do something half-heartedly.
  16. You can do anything if you practice it enough (or …if you put your mind to it). Effort. When they are feeling discouraged.
  17. It is better to be hard working than it is smart. Effort. When they are feeling discouraged.
  18. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Effort. When they are feeling discouraged.
  19. Full effort is full victory. Effort. When they are being lazy, or doing things half-heartedly.
  20. First plan, then hustle. Things start in the mind, effort. When they have a big project, when they start acting before having developed a plan.
  21. Focus! Concentration. When they are becoming distracted, especially during homework.
  22. Only do one thing at a time. Concentration. When they do more than one thing at a time, such as their homework while listening to music.
  23. It is a bad habit to do two things at once. Concentration. When they do more than one thing at a time, such as when they are entertaining themselves.
  24. We only buy something if we decided to buy it before we entered the store. Follow your wisdom, not your delusions. When they ask to buy something while you are in the store.
  25. In this family, reason governs. Follow your wisdom, not your delusions. When they ask to do something, make them justify why with reasons.  When you want them to do something, justify with reasons – don’t use your power.
  26. Think before you act. Follow your wisdom, not your delusions. When they act impulsively without thinking.
  27. All of your actions should be deliberate. Follow your wisdom, not your delusions. When they act impulsively without thinking.

Your turn:  What wisdom phrases do you have to share that you have picked up in your life?

The perfection of giving in family life

To become a Buddha, we must engage in the practice of the six perfections of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.  What makes these practices a ‘perfection’ of giving, etc., is we engage in them with a motivation of becoming a Buddha for the sake of all beings.  While we can certainly practice all six of the perfections in the context of family life (subjects of future articles…), probably the one we practice the most is giving.  Virtually everything we do as a parent is giving in one form or another.  This is actually very fortunate, because whatever we give we create the cause to receive in the future.  So if we give abundantly and wisely, we will have ample resources in the future with which we can help others and also continue on with our spiritual trainings.

In general, we say there are four different types of giving:  giving material things, giving protection, giving love and giving Dharma (or wisdom).  I will discuss each in turn.

Giving material things.  When you think about it, we give our family everything.  We provide them with a home, food, clothing, toys, computers, phones, TVs, vacations, etc.  Most of the time, we ‘provide’ these things without even the slightest thought of ‘giving them.’  We just do them, but we don’t use the opportunity of providing these things to train ourselves in the ‘mind of giving.’  This is a waste.  It is very difficult to engage in spiritual practices if our basic needs are not met.  Why are our basic needs currently met?  Because in the past, we ‘gave’ to others what they needed to survive and thrive.  We should not just live in our home, we should mentally ‘give’ our home to our family.  We should think, “I am giving my family a home so that I will always have a home in which I can continue with my bodhisattva training.”  We can think the same with food, clothing, etc.  It is very important that we never impute ‘mine’ on any of these things.  When we think “my home” for example, the mental thought of possession functions to burn up the merit of having a home.  If instead we think, “I am giving this home to my family”, then instead of burning up our merit, we are accumulating new merit, or virtuous karma.  One way or the other, we will still live in the same home, but the karmic consequences of the two different mental attitudes is enormous.

Giving protection.  Especially when our kids are little, we are constantly protecting them from all sorts of dangers.  Each one of my five kids would probably be dead several times over if as parents we hadn’t intervened to save them.  One of our main responsibilities as parents is to provide our children with a safe environment in which they can explore and grow.  If a child does not feel safe, they do not grow.  We protect them physically and emotionally all the time.  We can think, “I am protecting my kids now so that in the future I will always be protected when I engage in my bodhisattva path.”  We need this.  If in the future we are not protected, we will not be able to continue with our spiritual training.  There is a difference, however, between “giving protection” and “being protective.”  It all comes down to their capacity.  If they are incapable of dealing with something in life, then of course we should protect them from it.  But if they are capable of dealing with it, then we are doing them a disservice by “being protective.”  Our job is to equip and train our children to be able to deal with any challenge in life.  If we are “being protective” we rob them of their opportunity to grow in capacity, and thus leave them ill prepared when they are forced to confront reality on their own.

Giving love.  Some parents make the mistake of thinking it is enough to give material things to their kids.  While welcome, material things alone have little meaning to our kids.  What they really want is our love.  They want to feel loved, feel supported, feel appreciated, feel like we are there for them when they need us, feel like we are a confident hand that will help them grow, and they want to feel we enjoy being with them.  Few parents take the time to really be with their kids, and even when they do, their heart usually isn’t really in it, so the so-called ‘quality time’ isn’t that quality of time at all.  If we are a grump or we project that we would rather be doing something else or that we are too busy for our children, then even if we are with them, they will not feel our love.  Giving a dead leaf with genuine love and excitement can bring far more joy than just trying to buy them off with even the most expensive toys.  There are three types of love we can give our children.  Affectionate love is feeling genuinely delighted to see or think of our kids.  Cherishing love is when we really consider them and their happiness to be important, a real priority in our lives.  And wishing love is actively working to help them find their own true happiness (from within).  Even if we have nothing material we can give our children, we can always give these three types of love. It’s free!  Their childhood does not last long and we only get one shot at this, so we must try make every moment with them count.

Giving wisdom.  This is without a doubt the most important thing we can give our children, because with wisdom they will be able to find their own happiness.  Wisdom is a special type of intelligence that always knows to do the right things.  Our children can carry the wisdom we transmit to them throughout their whole life, and in all situations.  It sets up habits of behavior and view that will carry with them throughout their life and indeed into their future lives.  There is no greater gift we can give than wisdom.  There are really two ways we can give our children wisdom:  directly through our words and indirectly through our family culture.  The former is effective, the latter is golden!  For giving wisdom directly with our words, the secret is to have a handy toolkit of key wisdom phrases that we give again and again in a variety of different contexts as the way to solve their daily problems.  Simple examples include, “a job worth doing is a job worth doing well,” or “you can do anything with enough practice” or “doing such and such creates the cause for XYZ.”  I will do a future article on the key phrases we use with our kids.  Frequent repetition of the same phrases but directly applied as the solution to their daily problems is what enables the wisdom to stick with them in the future.  My Grandma was the queen of this, and she passed several key wisdom phrases on to my father, who then repeated them to me, and now I find myself repeating them to my children.  Such is the power of wisdom.  But it is really through the osmosis of our family culture that we can transmit the most wisdom to our children.  Culture, in this context, means “how things are done or thought about” in a given grouping of people.  Culture operates in the background without people really being aware of it.  It is simply part of the fabric of their lives, and they assimilate it without even being aware of it.  If our family simply operates on the basis of wisdom, our kids will acquire that wisdom deeply within their own minds.  For example, if we never lie, if we always take bugs out instead of swat them, if we talk to each other with respect, if we assume our responsibilities, if we do what we need to do before what we want to do, etc.  All of these things are part of our family culture.  Some families have destructive cultures, such as always considering oneself the victim of the world, without choice in how to respond, or one that always blames others, or puts onself first over everyone else, or one that resolves disputes with violence, fear and intimidation.  All of these are part of one’s family culture.  We should really take the time to identify the culture of our own family and make sure that we make modifications if necessary.  It will be these family cultural norms and values that will be the real legacy we leave within our kids that will shape their whole lives.

In addition to giving these four things, we also need to work on improving the scope of the motivation with which we give.  When we start, in order to establish the mental habit of “giving”, it is OK to think, “everything I give I create the cause to receive in the future.  Since I want these things, I better give them now.”  As our scope improves, we can start to think, “giving is one of the main causes of obtaining a precious human life in the future, so I better give now while I can.”  Further, when we give we create the cause to “lack nothing.”  Lacking nothing is not a physical thing, but a state of mind, whose nature is that of contentment.  Paradoxically, when we attain liberation (which we do by letting go of everything) our experience becomes one of simultaneously having everything and lacking nothing.  As bodhisattvas, we think I need to give so that I can receive in the future.  Why do I want to have abundance in the future?  So that I can give even more!  A Buddha, finally, is able to give everything to all living beings all of the time.  They expereince the entire universe as emanated by them as their gift to all beings.  They are able to emanate countless emanations in infinite forms, each performing the function of leading all beings to enlightenment.  Other might not experience the objects of their life in this way, but that is only because we haven’t given them enough wisdom yet!

Your turn:  Describe the different types of giving you practice in the context of your family life.

Dealing with family conflict

The reality is this:  until all living beings have fully realized the ultimate nature of reality, and thereby abandoned any sense of independent self, conflict within families is inevitable.  Even if we have attained full enlightenment, others who still have these delusions will enter into conflict with us (though, at that stage, it certainly won’t be a problem for us!).  So the question is how do we respond to this conflict in a wise and constructive way?

Generally, in dealing with family conflict, people fall into one of two extremes:  “repressing” or “crusading”.  Repressing works as follows:  somebody in the family does something we do not like, such as harming us in some way, taking advantage of us in some way, etc., and because we do not want to “make waves” we just swallow it and pretend that everything is OK.  Essentially we sacrifice inner peace on the alter of outer peace.  The other person is completetly oblivious to the fact that we have a problem with them, which internally just infuriates us more.  They continue with the behavior we do not like, we continue to repress, until eventually we can’t take it anymore.  We then lash out against them in some typically dramatic fashion.  The other person thinks we have gone insane and cannot understand why we are making such a big deal out of such a small thing (they only see the most immediate event, not the pattern over time).  They then get very defensive, harsh words are said to each other.  Then, because neither side knows how to deal with conflict, each side just stops talking to the other for a sufficiently long time that all of this recedes into the past.  Time, however, never completely heals the wound, it just helps us forget about it and see it in a different perspective.  We never really forgive the other person, so when we do start going back with the other person, the seeds are still there for future conflict.

“Crusading” works as follows:  again, somebody does something we do not like and we know the faults of repression.  But so convinced are we of our self-righteousness and so determined to right every wrong that we are constantly on the attack against everyone for every error.  So we charge in, force people to confront their errors, and we do not stop until everyone is in agreement that we are (and have always been) “right”.  We feel completely self-justified in our crusade because we ‘know’ we are right, they are wrong, and the injustice cannot stand.  In the end, we tell ourselves it is for the benefit of the other person that we battle with them because once they see how we are right, they will be brought to the “higher level of understanding” that we occupy.  We may even convince ourselves that our constant battling with those around us is part of our bodhisattva path to lead all beings to enlightenment – they just don’t understand that yet, but in the end, when they see the light, they will thank us.  Obviously, I have explained each of these extremes in their extreme form, and normally we fall into a more subtle version of one of these two extremes.

So what is the middle way?  It is “re-solving”.  Both parts of this word have meaning.  The “re” reminds us that there was a time where we genuinely got along with this other family member, loved them, appreciated their good qualities, and were not in conflict with them.  The goal is to get back to that state where our relationship is one of love, appreciation and respect.  “Solving” means we fully acknowledge there is a problem (not pretend there isn’t one like with repression), and we actually solve that problem so that it is no more.  Together they mean we are not trying to get back to some nostalgic state of how things were, rather we are trying to once again get back to the point where our mind is free from all delusion towards the other person (and hopefully vice versa) having worked through whatever difficulty there was.  In other words, we try use the conflict as a means of deepening and improving our love and relationship with the other person.

We will now explore the three stages of resolving our family conflict, which are:

  1. Correctly diagnosing what the “problem” is, namely delusions.
  2. Abandoning the “need” for the other person to change.
  3. If necessary, skillfully approaching the other person with the intent of making the relationship better.

No doctor can heal any patient if they have misdiagnosed what the problem is.  From a Dharma perspective, the cause of all problem is our delusions, such as anger, attachment, jealousy, selfishness and ignorance.  Normally, we blame external circumstances or other people, but if we check deeply none of these things have any power to harm us.  It is our own deluded mental reaction to these things that harms us.  If we responded to these same things with wisdom we could learn to grow from them, so far from harming us, they would be helping us.  As explained in Transform your Life and many other books, if our minds are peaceful, we are happy regardless of how difficult our external circumstance is; and if our minds are unpeaceful, we will be unhappy regardless of how perfect our external circumstance is.  So in the end, our happiness depends entirely upon our ability to keep our mind peaceful and positive in all circumstances.  Delusions are, by definition, those minds which disturb our inner peace.

One mistake we commonly make is we say, “yes, delusions are the cause of all problems.  His or Her delusions are the cause of all the problems.”  No, it doesn’t work that way.  Your delusions are the cause of all of your problems, and his or her delusions are the cause of all of his or her problems.  Nobody can cause you problems, rather your delusions create all of your own problems.  There is no solution to your own problems other than resolving your own delusions within your own mind.  So the first step in dealing with conflict with family memebers is to take the time to honestly identify what are the delusions functioning in your own mind and to apply effort to reduce and finally eliminate them.  For a complete explanation for how to identify and abandon your delusions, see Eight Steps to Happiness, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, and Understanding the Mind.

The second stage is to abandon any need for the other person to change.  This is crucial for any conflict resolution.  As long as you are convinced that your happiness depends on the other person changing, any effort you make at conflict resolution will correctly be interpreted by the other person as manipulation and they will resist you and conflict will ensue.  If, however, you have no need whatsoever for the other person to change, then they will not feel like they are being manipulated or controlled, and their minds will open to resolving the conflict.

So how do you abandon any need for the other person to change?  You realize that their faults are exactly what you need for progressing along the spiritual path.  It really comes down to one thing:  what do you want.  If what you want is a life of ease free from difficulty and problems, then changing all those difficult people in our life will always be a priority for us and we will always be in conflict with them.  If, however, what you want is to make progress along the spiritual path, then difficult people will no longer be a problem for you, they will be a blessing – an indispensible asset in your spiritual training.  Each difficult person, each difficult situation gives you an opportunity to further train your mind to abandon your own delusions at deeper and deeper levels, whether it be your miserliness, your anger, your jealousy, your selfishness or your lack of skilfull means.  Each difficult person in your life is like a magical mirror that reveals to you a different fault you have in your own mind, and your relationship with them is a spiritual training regimen for overcoming that fault.  When you have such an attitude, you no longer need other people to change – their faults and difficult behavior are experienced and welcomed by you as exactly what you need.

One very powerful way of developing this constructive attitude is to rely wholeheartedly on the Dharma Protector.  The Dharma Protector is like our personal spiritual trainer.  His job is to eliminate any obstacles to our practice and to arrange for us the outer and inner conditions which are perfect for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  So if we are confronted with a difficult family member or circumstance, we can make the request to the Dharma protector, “Please arrange whatever is best with respect to this other person’s behavior:  if it is an obstacle to my spiritual training, may it stop; if it is best for my spiritual training, may it increase!”  Then, whatever happens after you make this request, you accept that this is exactly what your personal spiritual trainer has organized for you, and you get to work on transforming your own mind.  For more on how to rely upon a Dharma Protector, see Heart Jewel.

The third and final stage is to skillfully approach the other person with the intent of making the relationship better.  Again, before doing this, you must first abandon any need for the other person to change otherwise your efforts at approaching the other person will backfire.  The doubt may arise, “if I don’t need the other person to change, what is the point of me even approaching them at all?”  There are two answers to this question:  first, you are asking for their patience while you work through your own delusions; and second, you are giving them a chance to change themselves if they so choose.

When you approach the other person, your (sincere) attitude should be “I really love you and I want this relationship to work, and it is because I want things to be harmonious between the two of us that I thought I needed to come to you about some of the things I am working on.  When you do X, it triggers Y deluded reaction in me.  I know my attitude is wrong, and I am working on it by trying to be more Z-like in my attitude, but I just throught I would let you know.  So if I act strange or I sometimes lash out at you in W way, I just wanted you to understand where I was coming from and why it was happening.  I am telling you this because I very much value our relationship and I want to make things better between us.  Out of respect for you, and a trust that you too want our relationship to improve, I thought it was better to come to you than to just let this linger under the surface.”  Most people will respond to this as, “gee, I had no idea my behavior could be perceived that way.  Thank you for letting me know.  I will try be more careful in the future.”  It is also possible that the other person will tell you, “well the reason I am like that is because you do Q which really bothers me.”  If they respond in this way, it is important to not get defensive.  You need to understand that they too have likely repressed a good deal of delusions towards you and will want to express themselves.  So your response to this should be, “gee, I had no idea my behavior could be perceived that way.  Thank you for letting me know.  I will try be more careful in the future.”  As the old adage goes, be the change you want to see in the world!

There may be times when the other person is either unwilling or incapable of maintaining a harmonious relationship with you, but in such circumstances you should always leave the door open to them changing their mind in the future by saying, “Look, I love you and I want this to work.  If ever you change your mind and want to try work things out, then my door is always open.”  This stance by you will place a marker in their mind where in the future everytime they think about you they know what needs to happen, and in their heart of hearts, they know you are being eminently reasonable.  They might never see this and might never come around, but at least from your side you are doing the right thing and giving them a chance to do so.

The point is this:  until we attain enlightenment, conflict is inevitable.  Either we allow this conflict to destroy our relationships or we use it to make our relationships even stronger by working through our differences.  Marriages that last 50 years do not do so because there is never any conflict, but rather because the two people in the marriage know how to use conflict to deepen and strengthen their relationship.  The same is true with any relationship with any family member, and even any relationship between any two people (or countries).

Your turn:  Describe some family conflict you have had and how you used the Dharma to resolve it.

Helping your kid get through the middle school years

When I think back to my life, the worst years I had were from ages 13-15.  When I was in primary school, I was very popular and everybody liked me.  I did well in school and all was good.  When I showed up to 7th grade, for no apparent reason, I became the lowest of the low, a loser even amongst “losers.”  I didn’t change any, I was the same person I always was, but everything around me had suddenly changed, and it was awful.  Nobody would talk to me for fear of associating with me and being ‘tainted’ by how uncool I was.  People would literally spit on me as I walked down the hall.  I remember there was this one guy, Bret, who literally took great delight in tormenting me and leading his friends to do the same.  I would go home crying very often.  Nobody had any good advice to give me.  I was lucky, though, in that there was one friend who stuck by me.  He didn’t care what others thought, and if it weren’t for Ben, I don’t know how I would have survived (metaphorically, not actually).  The sad thing is this:  my experience is not all that uncommon.  I sometimes wonder if Buddha had been around in modern times whether he would have said there are four lower realms (instead of three), one of which being Middle School!

These middle years are awful – we want to still be a kid, but we are scorned if we do.  We try to be an adult, but we have no idea how and everything is ackward.  We start to have a billion hormones rage through us in countless directions, and we have no idea how to deal with them.  We don’t feel like we can turn to anyone reliable – we don’t dare turn to our parents because they are just so embarrassing and they still think and relate to us as a kid, we can’t turn to our teachers because then we are a brown-noser.  We can only turn to our friends, but they are just as lost as us.  We are not allowed to like anything, because doing so is a sign of weakness – we are somehow twisted into believing we have to hate everything that is good as a sign that we are not a kid anymore.  But above all, we are completely obsessed with what other people think of us.  We would sacrifice anything on the alter of getting people to like us, but the more we do so the more we become entwined in pain and endless drama.  Many kids turn to cigarettes, drugs, alcohol or sex in a desperate effort to “fit in” and “not be a kid anymore.”  It is at this age where being ‘cool’ becomes much more important socially than being successful in school, sports or activities.

And here is the really sad and scary thing:  it is all starting much earlier now for our kids.  11 is the new 13.  All of our kids are going to have to go through this stage of their life, there is simply no way around it.  Some might be lucky and get by OK, it does happen, but many more will find these early teen years to be the worst of their lives.  So what are we as parents supposed to do to help?

Probably the most important thing you can do is make yourself somebody they feel free to come to for advice.  If they don’t come to you, you become directly useless to them.  You can still set a good example for them (and never underestimate the importance of this), but our ability to directly help them becomes very limited.  So how do we become somebody they want to come to?  There are four keys to this:

  1. Wait for them to come to you.  This is so hard to do, but it is vitally important.  When others give us unsolicited advice, what do we do?  We reject it and we become defensive.  Our kids are the same.  But when they come to you on their own, then they are open to what you have to say.  You may wind up saying less, but what you do say will stick and be well received.  A great time for this is when you put your kids to bed.  We have a policy of “you can ask one questions before you go to bed.”  Since they want to stay up, they get in the habit of asking you questions, then when things bother them and they trust you, they ask questions about how to deal with the problems in their life.  Your first instinct may be to say, ‘we will talk about it in the morning’ because you want to get on with your own evening, but these times with our kids are precious and we should not waste them.
  2. Don’t judge them. When people judge us, do we feel like going to them for advice?  Of course not, so why would our kids be any different?  We should never judge, but instead be an understanding advisor who has traveled this path before and can offer some friendly advice.
  3. Respect that their actions are their choice.  This too is vital.  When others try to control or manipulate us, what do we do?  We rebel and do the opposite of what they want just to show them whose in charge.  Well teenagers do this doubly so!  We genuinely need to respect the fact that they have to make their own choices and decisions.  We tell them, “you have to decide what to do, I can’t do it for you.  I can only help you make your own decision.”  The interesting thing is the more we put the responsibility for making decisions onto them, the more responsible they become with the decisions they make.  And it is true, it is their choice.  We can’t control them even if we tried.  Yes, we can blackmail them but we can’t control them.  The sooner we accept this truth, the sooner we start helping our kids become responsible for themselves.  There is a huge difference between lecturing our kids and helping them solve their own problems.
  4. Don’t get mad at them regardless of what they come to you with.  Establish early on a policy which says “if you come to me first with something you have done, I promise you won’t get in trouble.”  This is very important.  If they know that they won’t get in trouble, then they will come to you.  But if they do get in trouble when they do come to you, then they will hide everything from you and you will enter into a dysfunctional game of cat and mouse with them.

Finally, let’s examine some parenting strategies during this challenging period of our children’s lives.

  1. Start preparing our kids early.  Start identifying and working on what will be their greatest weaknesses.  After a kid turns 8, they become more or less self-sufficient.  From 8 to about 12, you can still work with them.  You should view this entire period as laying the foundation for what is to come.  It is like preparing for battle.  You need to think about what middle school will be like for them, and how they are likely to get themselves into trouble, and start working on those things now.
  2. It seems to me the number one common weakness to most middle school kids is attachment to what other people think.  So when you see early signs of this, you need to repeat thousands of times, “it doesn’t matter what other people think, you need to form your own opinion.”  Every occasion we have to transmit this idea, we should use it.  It does not matter if it becomes obnoxiously repetitive for them where they are repeating it back to us in a mocking way everytime we say it.  Keep saying it.  By doing so, we will drive it deep within them and we can only hope that it will echo within their minds when they are lost in their darkest hours.
  3. Another common pitfall for middle school kids is to go to the other extreme of completely isolating themselves from everybody else.  From one perspective, we might think this is a good thing, but how many of us are strong enough to not get lost with no healthy support network around us?  We all know people who isolated themselves in these years and never really recovered – they remain people who really have no life and don’t know how to relate to other people at all.  So if we see those tendencies in our child, then we need to apply effort to get them out of the house, off of the video games, or their nose out of their books.  Obviously books and video games are not all bad, but if we notice that our kid is using them as an escape to avoid having to deal with people then this is an early warning sign for trouble down the road.
  4. It is likewise very important to start preparing them early for what is to come.  Sometimes we think it is best to not talk about things that are coming, but I disagree.  Within reason, of course, I think it is very important to prepare our kids in advance for the challenges we know they will face, such as bullies, quickly turning friendships, drugs, alcohol, porn, sex, etc.  Yes, all of these are very difficult subjects, but if we don’t educate our kids early about these things then their friends will do the job for us later on.  They first start hearing about these things around 8 or 9.  They will often even ask you about them.  The conventional wisdom is to tell them they are too young to think about these things, but I think this is when we should be talking to them about.  Tell them straight up, in a forthright manner, what these subjects are all about and how people get themselves into trouble with these things.  They will ask lots of questions that make you uncomfortable, but don’t hold back.  Answer them honestly.  Your doing so will earn their trust and respect, and with that they will listen to your advice about how to deal with these things.  Explain to them what are the healthy ways of dealing with these things so that they know.  Tell them the truth about where these things lead if taken to extremes, and how easy it is to start doing these things in an effort to fit in, but then how easy it is to become sucked in by them where we find it difficult or impossible to stop.  Don’t be afraid to make them scared, because frankly, they should be.  Don’t moralize about these things, just try equip them so that they can make responsible choices.  It is helpful if we ourselves do not drink, smoke or do any drugs.  If they see us doing it, we are implicitly giving our kids permission to do the same.
  5. Help your kids know that there is something on the other side.  While I know it appeals to not the best part of me, my father always used to tell me that “in the end, the nerds rule the world.”  How many “Kings of High School” wind up lost in life?  Many.  We need to help our kids see through the shroud of the middle school years to what lies on the other side.  When they can see this, it will act as a compass for what is important and help them not get swept away.
  6. Adopt a policy of “you have discretion within a box.”  Kids naturally want the freedom to make their own choices.  So we tell them, I too want you to be free.  I will give you as much freedom as you can use responsibly.  So you define for them a box within which they have the freedom and discretion to do as they wish.  Then, the deal you make with them is if they use that freedom in a responsible way then you will expand the box of their freedom; but that if they use it in an irresponsible way, you will shrink the box.  It won’t take long before they understand the dynamic – they will get their freedom, you will get your responsible kid.
  7. Don’t be bothered by them spewing venom towards you.  Our kids will say all sorts of hurtful things towards us about how we are ruining their lives, they hate us, they can’t wait to get out of the house, etc., etc., etc.  If we allow such comments to bother us, then we give our rebellious teenager power.  Think “water off a duck’s back.”  When a patient in a psychiatric ward verbally assaults their doctors, the doctors remain unphased because they understand that it is the person’s mental sickness talking, not the person.  In the same way, during the teenager years, our children are possessed by the host of delusions of the middle years, and so it is their delusions talking, not them.  Don’t let it bother you.  If you do let it bother you, you feed the dynamic and it will only get worse.
  8. Hold your breath (and pray)!  A very experienced friend once told me you have until about 12 to shape a kids personality.  But after that, for the next 6-12 years all you can really do is hold your breath and hope they come out OK on the other side.   During these times, all you can do is accept and pray.  Your acceptance protects you from developing attachment to your kids making certain choices (this is important because if you are attached to them making certain choices, then you will start to manipulate them into making these choices, which, as we saw above, just leads to rebellion).  And your prayers protect them internally.  You have a very close karmic connection with your kids, and you also have a close karmic connection with the Buddhas, so you are in many ways a bridge between the Buddhas and your children.  Buddhas have the power to bestow blessings.  The function of a blessing is to turn somebody’s mind towards correct paths.  This is exactly what our kids need.  The power of our prayers is entirely dependent upon three things:  our faith in the Buddhas, the purity of our compassion (free from attachment) towards our children, and the depth of our karmic connections with both the Buddhas and our children.  We need to actively develop all three so our prayers have maximum effect.  A deep understanding of emptiness is also a very powerful way of increasing the power of our prayers.

Just as these years are some of the most difficult for our children, they are also some of the most difficult for us as parents.  In the movie “the Weatherman”, Nicholas Cage has a very famous line, “easy is not part of the adult vocabulary.”  It is not easy, but spiritually speaking it will be a time of tremendous growth for us.  Ultimately, we have no control over what happens, and learning to accept that is a huge part of our spiritual path.

Your turn:  What is your worst memory from middle school?  What spiritual lesson can you learn from it now?

Dealing with the toddler years

I have a “theory” that before they turn three, our children are not yet “human beings”!  I am not quite sure what they are, but you certainly can’t reason with them, you can’t expect them to be able to do anything, and you can be guarranteed they will do the opposite of whatever you want them to do!  Of course I am joking, but sometimes I do wonder…  Before our kids turn one, they are just babies and don’t get into too much trouble.  But from the time they can crawl around until about three, three and a half, kids are at their most difficult (until the teenage years, of course).  Once you get past three, it generally gets easier and easier.

During the early toddler years, our kids have a very well developed sense of “no-dar”, meaning they head straight for whatever is the most dangerous thing in whatever room you find yourself in!  I remember when my first child was 18 months old, and she thought it was really funny to climb up on top of my desk everytime I would turn my back and then start jumping up and down on it like a monkey going “yeahn yeahn yeahn yeahn”!  By the end of this period, our homes are virtual fortresses, with baby gates, security clips and barricades everywhere.  Anything of value, well frankly everything we own, is put up on shelves beyond their reach.  There is just no deterring them, they are like the Energizer Bunny!  So for about a year, all the hear is “no” as they head for the wires, the knives, the garbage, etc.

It is no surprise then that between ages two and three we have what are affectionately known as “the terrible twos” where they only know one word – “NO”.  But this time, it is them telling us no!  Everytime we try elicit their cooperation for basically anything, they are pre-programmed with one response – “NO”.  By this age, they have discovered our weaknesses.  When we go out in public, they know we will do anything so they don’t throw a fit and embarrass us, so what do they do?  They threaten to throw a fit everytime we don’t give them what they want.  For example when we go to the store, if at any point we made the mistake of buying them something they asked for at the store, then from that point forward everytime we go to the store they will ask us to buy them something and threaten to throw a fit if we don’t.  Stores know this which is why there is so much candy and little kid plastic crap toys in the checkout lanes!  (Note for any future parents:  a good rule is “we only buy things we decided to buy before we got to the store”.  If you never say yes once, then you avoid this dynamic).  They also know we are at our most vulnerable when we get on the phone or when we have guests over.  Look out!

So what is a parent to do during these difficult toddler years?  The following are the things that have helped me:

  1. Accept this age as purification for your own past toddler years.  When we were toddlers, in all of our countless past lives, we too did the same things.  So we happily accept this as purification.
  2. We remind ourselves that this is entirely normal.  Especially for first time parents, these years can be terrifying – oh dear, I am raising a monster!  But don’t worry, every parent has gone through the same things, probably even Ghandi’s mother.  It passes, so don’t worry.
  3. Don’t feed the behavior by responding to it in an animated way.  If you show that the behavior bothers you, then you can 100% guarrantee you will get more of it.  Remember, at this stage of their development they are trying to figure out how the world works.  If I push this red button, Elmo sings a song.  If I go digging in the garbage, mommy freaks out.  Look, how fun!  We need to maintain total equanimity with respect to everything they do, not freaking out, just dealing with the situation calmly.
  4. Just accept that your house will have to be completely baby proofed for several years.  Some parents think they can somehow teach their kids to not keep pushing the power button on the TV.  Maybe some succeed, but I have yet to meet any myself…  And even if they do, at what emotional and mental cost?  Not just for our own sanity, but actually for the child’s development, I think it is better to create giant “safe to go” zones, where they can roam around freely and do anything without exposing themselves to danger or breaking anything valuable.
  5. The less words you use the better.  It is useless to try lecture them or reason with them.  In general, the more we talk to our kids, the more it becomes an endless “blah blah blah blah” to them and they learn early on to just tune us out.  As the proverb goes, actions speak louder than words.  If they are putting their hand in the blender, don’t talk, just act – physically remove them from the area.  They will kick, they will scream, but you just act – clearly and decisively, without hesitation (if they smell the slighest hesitation in you, they will exploit it to the end).
  6. Primarily tell them what they can and should do, not what they can’t and shouldn’t do, “the DVDs are for watching movies, not plates for your dolls” or “the silverware is for eating, not banging on things.”  In particular, it is good to start developing “wisdom power words” that in one word communicate everything they need to do.  For example, many of the problems come when our toddlers have to wait for us to be able to help them because we are doing something else.  When they start to smolder, say “patience” in a loving way.  At first they will have no idea what you are talking about, but when done again and again they will start to understand, and then with just one word you help them know what they should be doing with their own minds.  Other good examples are, “calm” or “calmly” or “share” or “gentle”.  Doing this early and often helps lay the foundation for later when you use wisdom phrases which are more complex (I will do a future post on this).
  7. Redirect to try minimize the times you need to say no.  Generally, at this age they are programmed to explore.  So you have to find something more interesting than what they are currently looking at and redirect them towards that instead.
  8. First time gets a “pass”, second time gets a pre-explained “natural consequence.”  Very often our kids will do something wrong, and then we punish them.  But they didn’t even know it was wrong to begin with, so it seems very unfair to them.  Instead, the first time they do something wrong, you should say, “what you did is not correct for X reason.  That object should be used in Y way.  If you do that again, then I will apply Z natural consequence.  Then verify that they agree.”  A real life example was “hitting your brother on the head with your dolly is not correct because that hurts him.  Dollies should be loved, not used to hit people.  If you hit your bother again with the dolly then I will take the dolly away for the rest of the evening.  Do you agree?”  Then, have them acknowledge what you say and agree in advance to the consequence.  Then, if they hit their brother again with the dolly, without saying a single word, just take the dolly away and put it some place beyond their reach.  If they protest and scream, which they will, you just remind them that they agreed.  Then you let them cry and throw their fit, but don’t give in.
  9. When they are out of control, be prepared to put them in their room or crib until they calm down.  Toddlers throw fits.  That is what they do.  How we respond is our choice.  Sometimes they get themselves so worked up that there is really no talking them down.  At such times, it is generally best to just give them a time out in their room.  First, you should give them a warning, “if you don’t calm down, then you will need to go to your room to calm down.”  If they still don’t calm down, then again, without saying a single word, you pick them up and take them to their room.  When you put them in their room, tell them in a loving voice, “once you are calm and once you are ready to say sorry, then you can come out.”  When you leave the room, they will FREAK OUT.  You need to accept this and let them cry and scream.  This is harder to do if you have neighbors who can hear your kids screams.  To deal with that problem, you can do two things:  let go of your attachment to what other people think and in a non-crisis time go have a talk with your neighbors letting them know that your kid is a toddler and you are not beating them, but just giving them a time out until they calm down and are ready to say sorry.  It is a training, and you are sorry for the noise, but you just wanted to let them know.  Most will understand and when they do scream, you will not worry so much.  You can’t really do this for kids under 20 months, but after 20 months you can.  In terms of how long to leave them crying, the rule of thumb we use is we check back in with them avery 3 to 5 minutes.  When we check in, we say, “are you calm yet?”  Obviously they are not since they are still screaming, but asking the question gives them a chance to say yes and then they calm down.  If they don’t say yes, then you go back out for another 3-5 minutes and repeat the cycle.  Once they say yes, they are calm now (and they actually start calming down), then you ask, “are you ready to say sorry?” Remember, these were your two conditions for letting them out.  They might not be, so you go back out and start over until they answer yes to both questions.  Then you pick them up, give them a big hug and lots of love and have them sit on your lap for awhile cuddling, so you can recharge them with your love.  Then you ask, are you ready to go back out now?  Then off they go!  The first couple of times you do this, it will take a long time, but once they learn the pattern, it will get quicker and more and more effective.  Just stick with it.

The key spiritual lesson of all of this is to realize it is because we love our kids that we need to set and enforce realistic limits for them.  Sometimes we feel so cruel when we let our kids cry, but that is compassion without any wisdom.  Our kids need and in fact want clear (but fair) limits because it actually simplifies their life.  Our attachment to their being happy (something quite different than compassion) prevents us from living up to our responsibility of actually being a parent for them.

Your turn:  Describe some challenging/funny situation you have had with a toddler and what spiritual lessons you learned from that situation.

Loving others as we do our own children

Just before I was to get married I was at the Summer Festival in England.  I went up to what was then the Protector Gompa (a special meditation room dedicated to the Dharma Protector).  I felt like getting married was the right thing to do for my spiritual practice, but I still had doubts.  So I made as sincere of a request as I could that my path be revealed to me.  What happened next was the only time something like this has ever happened to me.  I was meditating, my eyes were closed, but in my mind a Buddha who I understood to be Tara approached me.  She was made of a silvery metalic liquid, but very much alive.  In her hands was a baby – in normal flesh and bones that I could see as clearly as I could see any person out of meditation.  She then handed me the baby and said, “this is where you will find your heart.”  And then everything vanished.  I can still vividly remember and see this within my mind.  All doubt was then dispelled and I knew what my path was to be.  Thirteen years later, I now have five kids!

Prior to my being a parent, I was very much a Vulcan – heart-felt emotion wasn’t really part of my personality, and I was very intellectual in my approach to the Dharma (I still am, unfortunately, but it is slowly changing…).  I really struggled with feeling any Dharma realizations like love and compassion in my heart, and as a result I tended to shy away from such meditations and instead to focus on emptiness and other philosophical or technical topics.  “Finding my heart” was (and still is), in many respects, my greatest spiritual challenge.

To my surprise, the love I have for my children is not some sappy, mushy sort of thing, but is rather very active.  It can best be described as “there is nothing I wouldn’t do for them.”  It is a feeling of a fortunate assuming of personal responsibility for their welfare – I am glad it is me who is responsible for them, because I wouldn’t trust that anybody else would look after them the way I would and I very much want them to be taken care of.  It is a love that ‘knows them’, in many ways better than they know themselves.  I know and understand how they work and think, so I am always sensitive to what is best for them.  It is a love that happily works for their benefit.  It is a love that would rather me have the hardest tasks or the worst things so that they can have the best.  It is a love that somehow can see past all of their faults and understand where those faults are coming from and develop compassion wishing to protect them.  It is a love that literally laughs out loud when I see their summer portraits and the unique goofiness in each of their expressions!

And here’s the thing:  all of this comes naturally.  I haven’t worked to develop this love, I just naturally feel it.  Venerable Geshe-la explains the reason for this is because we have special karmic connections with these particular beings from our previous lives where we now spontaneously feel a pure love towards them.  Of course there are times when our minds are full of delusions towards our kids, but compared to everyone else we feel the most natural love for our kids.  It is thanks to my kids that I ‘found’ my heart, I realized what it means to feel an active love for somebody.

The work and spiritual training of a Kadampa parent is to learn to extend and replicate this feeling we naturally have towards our children with everybody else.   I had a very good friend who once said, “I only need two things to attain enlightenment, my son and my Spiritual Guide.  On my son, I impute all living beings, so by caring for and loving him, I am caring for and loving all living beings.  On my Spiritual Guide, I impute all of the Buddhas, and by relying upon and receiving blessings from him, I am relying upon and receiving blessings from all the Buddhas.”  There is actually tremendous wisdom in this statement.  Practicing in this way is really the doorway for extending our love to others.

Then, when we see others, the trick is to impute “this is my child too, so therefore I should love them as I love my own kids.”  How can we understand this to be true?  We all know the meditation of all living beings are our mothers.  Well, by extension, this also means that all living beings are our children.  If our child died, would we think the person is no longer our child?  Of course not.  In the same way, all of our children have died but they have all been reborn as the beings around us.  So we can correctly say that each and every person we meet not only was our child, but still is our child.  Therefore, we should cherish them as we do our own children.

Another more profound way we can consider all living beings to be our children is to consider their emptiness.  The teachings on emptiness explain that everything is a mere appearance to mind arising from our karma, including others.  Basically, emptiness says that everything we see is all a dream.  If we dreamt of having a family and children, where do these children come from?  Likewise, where do the various people we encounter in our dream come from?  They all come from our own mind (and karma).  In the same way, if our waking reality is simply the dream of our waking mind, if we are ‘dreaming’ our current family and we likewise are ‘dreaming’ of the other beings we encounter in our world.  Where do all of these beings come from?  Our own mind (and karma).  They are all, quite literally, the offspring of our karma and the nature of our own mind.  What is our child if not our offspring?  Seen in this way, we can understand Venerable Tharchin’s statement that “all beings are our spiritual children.”

By training in the recognition that all beings are in fact our children, and recalling the love we have and actions we engage in for our children, we then apply effort to do the same for others.  In the beginning, yes, it is a bit artificial, but with training it becomes habit and more and more natural.  Gen Losang said, “What is natural is simply what is familiar.”  With effort, we make it familiar, and then it feels and becomes natural.

When we understand all of this we will feel so lucky to have our children.  We will cease to view them as obstacles to our spiritual practice.  Yes, it is harder to go to festivals and teachings when you have kids, but every day is a spiritual training.  We see how they are a stepping stone for our enlightenment and how without them it would be impossible for us to really progress along the spiritual path.  Our feeling lucky to have them will then increase our love even further, creating a virtuous circle of greater and greater love and progress along the spiritual path.  Fantastic!

And this is not even to speak of how we can use the love we have for our children in the context of our Tantric practice.  We train to be the Vajra Father (or Mother as the case may be) of all living beings.  We can bring all of our parenting experience into our self-generation practice.  This will not only help our self-generation practice, but it also creates a virtuous feedback into becoming a better parent too.

Your turn:  Take the most difficult person in your life right now.  How does viewing them as your child change your mind towards them?