May 12, 2010

Growing Up Buddhist: Fish Sticks

One day, when I was about five or six years old, my brother Jon had just finished cooking fish sticks in the oven. The oven door had been opened and the fish sticks were sitting there on the pan cooling. For at least a minute, nobody was around but me.

I was hungry and getting impatient waiting for Jon to return.

I didn't know if the pan was hot or not but I remember thinking the five-year old equivalent of "screw it, I’m just gonna touch it." I reached down and put my thumb on the pan. It sizzled. I was burned.

In a panic I ran upstairs frantically searching for my mother, tears streaming down my face through gasps of panic and fear. Up until that day, my mother had been just like most other mothers where if one of her babies was upset she was there to kiss it and make it all better. Even just a few days before this she had lovingly attended to a scraped knee of mine so I was expecting at least that same level of care and comfort on this occasion, especially because this was a more serious and painful injury.

I found my mother sitting in our shrine room. I screamingly thrust my rapidly blistering thumb in front of her face and to my shock and disbelief, she just stared back at me coldly. I started to seriously lose my mind at this point. I was in pain and my mother was watching me suffer! She wasn’t doing anything! I kept on pleading with her for help and she just sat there with no expression until she abruptly grabbed me, pulled me onto her lap, took my wrist, opened up my little clenched child-fist exposing the burn on my thumb to the sting of the air, and held my thumb in front of my face while I fought her. I was terrified. Yet, no matter how much I struggled, she kept me there with the burn right in front of my eyes. I would try to close them and she would say flatly, "Open your eyes Monty."

She then began to give me instructions. She kept on telling me, in a monotone and distinctly non-motherly voice that was utterly foreign to me, "Look at it", "Feel what it feels like", "WHAT does it feel like?", "Be with it", "Don't fight it", "Feel it" etc. It is important to understand that at this point, the burn was not past the 'apply cold water' stage and was still very treatable. It had just happened and she knowingly did not do what you are "supposed to do" in such a situation. But there she was saying, "Feel the pain. Be one with the pain. Forget about what you think it feels like. WHAT DOES IT REALLY FEEL LIKE?" After a while, I actually did stop fighting and listened to her, and was very surprised at what I found. It's not that it didn't hurt, because it did, but once I let go of all the panic and fear and simply felt the sensation for what it was, I saw that it was nothing more than a warm pulse throughout my body that started at a slight sting on the thumb, and it wasn't anything to cry over.

At this point, being only five or six years old, I had not meditated for more than three minutes in my entire life, but I knew what meditation was and had received basic meditation instruction. The last thing she repeated to me as she continued to hold my now blistered thumb in front of my face was, "This is why you meditate. THIS is why you meditate. This is why YOU MEDITATE." She then took me downstairs, put ointment and a band-aid on it, and she and Jon served me lunch.

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bsalie's picture

I keep coming back to this story. I think because there is more than one lesson to take from it. Calm rational parenting and a healthy meditation practice makes for kind compassionate rational people. Thanks for sharing this aha moment.

Monica's picture

Ha! Sounds like my mom. Except she never meditated a moment in her life, but she woulda sat their calmly and said something to the effect of "Well, that's what happens..." She'd bandage the injuries but never in a rush. I think she didn't want us to feel rewarded by her attention every time we did something studpid and painful to ourselves. She figured we'd learn better how to deal with pain if she didn't make it seem like pain was a big deal. By the time I was seven, I was bandaging my own blisters and pulling my own splinters. And I've got to say, my brother and I never spent as much time crying as the kids who's parents would rush right over with the hugs and the poor-little's, so we got to spend more time being happy. So thanks, Mom!

Rebecca's picture

Sounds like mom was more than just a mom. Mama's a teacher. Challenging! But rewarding to say the least. Must be nice.

CB's picture

If a child is experiencing pain because he or she experiences rejection (didn't make the basketball team, poem wasn't accepted for publication, etc.) I can understand asking them to sit with the pain. But if a child is injured physically, the injury needs to be treated before a lesson is taught. A burn causes more damage the longer it goes untreated. It is equally important for children to learn what pain is not "ok."

Joe P.'s picture

The lesson here is that something external will not help you through the pain that your mind imposes on the situation. Yes - the mom could have reacted more compassionately by "coach[ing] child through some deep breathing" after taking care of the bodily pain, but it wasn't like the child had broken an arm. Parents nowadays, including myself, try to cushion any pain our kids receive as if they don't deserve or "should" feel any pain in life. Or that we want to delay the pain for them as if there are only certain ages that are appropriate for feeling the pain. How about kids who grow up getting injured in a war torn city - how should they learn to FEEL WHAT IT'S LIKE?

Gwen's picture

I was enlightened by this story. Having 2 young children of my own, I can understand the reactions of Monty as well as his mother's strength to know to hold her own panic at bay, in order to be the most useful. Parenting is such a difficult job. It is full of shades of grey. It is so useful to be in the moment. (I just wanted to defend the mother's actions a little by saying that the mother's actions probably occured in only a few seconds---her calm words---and most likely aided in attending to the first aid in the most effective way---I know it's easy to judge another and in this society we have a tendency to criticize parents and blame them unrelentlessly, but I'm sure that she is and was a competent mother with altruistic love and compassion---with respect for other's comments and opinions, please try to be gentle, it is so hard to be a mother in this day and age).

ERS's picture

Hmmm. This Buddhist mom would have taken another approach: calmly get off the cushion, apply ice to the burn, and coach the panicking child through some deep breathing. Reading the story above, I feel a lot of sadness for that child.

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Charles Dietrick's picture

Lovely! Thank you for your story.

Linda Alvarado's picture

Very nice essay on being in the moment.