We are of the nature to get sick, grow old, and die. So are our children.
On a bright fall morning circa 1999, as we kicked fallen leaves along a New York City sidewalk en route to her daycare, my 3-year-old daughter, Willa, gave me a rundown of the areas of expertise she and her friends commanded at school: “Abby knows all about baby sisters,” she announced. “I know all about dogs. And Darcy knows that mommies always come home.” Poignant, if questionable, knowledge, I thought: Abby’s little sister had yet to be born, and Willa’s expertise around dogs was gleaned from Clifford books and an occasional episode of Sesame Street. But what struck me most about her catalog of early childhood truisms was my daughter’s confidence in the universal reliability of mothers. It was an assurance often given to Darcy because her father had not come home one day—he had fallen terminally ill and died in a hospital, and it was very important to Darcy, and everyone else, to know that mommies still come home. Of course, it is common sense and compassion, not to mention developmentally appropriate, to assure young children that they will be safe, that someone will care for them no matter what, and that everything is going to be okay. In most cases, kids internalize this (as Willa, and perhaps Darcy, had), and in the best of cases, we can make good on some of those avowals, some of the time.
Sooner or later, though, the promises we so want to make cannot be kept. The version of okay we sell to our kids and to ourselves—the okay that parents are meant to provide in this world—is untenable. As Buddhists, we chant the Upajjhatthana Sutta—Subjects for Contemplation—as a reality check to all the sorts of assurances and dissembling in the world and culture around us: “I am subject to aging, to illness, to death . . .” So, indeed, are our children. They are also of the nature to talk back, use drugs, get bullied, suffer from depression, commit suicide, and countless other things hard or impossible to remedy. Like the subjects for contemplation, this stuff is largely beyond our control; it is part of our inheritance as sentient beings and, in special ways, as parents. The writer Nicole Krauss sums up the chimera of parental agency in the voice of a character from her novel Great House. “I [came] to understand that to be a mother is to be an illusion,” she writes. “No matter how vigilant, in the end a mother can’t protect her child—not from pain, or horror, or the nightmare of violence, from sealed trains moving rapidly in the wrong direction, the depravity of strangers, trapdoors, abysses, fires, cars in the rain, from chance.” Or, as I’ve come to know, from the muddy bottom of a lake, where a dear friend’s daughter died not long ago, or a subway car filled with drunken 20-some-things at one a.m., a time when my own daughter has found herself in just such a place.
For a parent, the reality of “everything is not going to be okay” hits in a smack-down of dismay. But dismay, at least a particular version of it, can be an extremely valuable emotion from a Buddhist point of view. Samvega, Pali shorthand for an especially fierce form of dismay, is the sensation that knocked the existential wind out of young Prince Siddhartha when he left the palace and, famously, came face-to-face with illness, aging, and death. Its linguistic roots point to the Pali vega, meaning “shock,” “impulse,” or “wave,” and the adjectival form of samvega is used in the canon to describe the trembling of little animals upon hearing a lion’s roar. According to the monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, it is a tough word to translate succinctly “because it covers such a complex range—at least three clusters of feelings at once.” These are “the oppressive sense of shock . . . and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived,” he writes in an essay called Affirming the Truths of the Heart; “a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.” Samvega struck terror in Siddhartha’s heart, propelling him to leave his family and kingly life in relentless pursuit of a way out. Fortunately, for all of us, he found one.
Most people can recall or conjure plenty of harrowing—and motivating—experiences of samvega: the death of a loved one or a terrible betrayal, for example, or the emergent awareness that no lasting satisfaction has come from years of toiling along an arid career track or in a lousy relationship. Like other emotions, samvega arises and passes away, and it can change over time. There are levels of samvega, just as there are levels of the breath or levels of insight—realizations that become more discriminating and more refined with the maturation of practice. In the beginning, the truth of aging and death, or the dread of living a pointless life, may be the genesis of samvega, as they were for the Buddha. Later, the centrifuge of the mind and its pitiless churning out of craving and suffering may trigger this dismay. The Buddha advised his disciples to cultivate samvega daily. As a parent, I find that easy—I marinate in it.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here: I adore my children and prefer their company to that of anyone else. I have structured my work and personal life in order to be able spend a lot of time with them, and hope that I fall into the category of what the 20th-century pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called the “good-enough mother.” But childrearing—and the sheer animal realities of becoming and being a mother (whether or not you give birth to your children)—are, in my experience, as effective a vehicle for summoning samvega as any chariot ride past a corpse. It is a chronic bumping up against the scrim separating life from death, the perceived okay from the perceived not okay. Advanced capitalist societies have done a heroic job of selling parenthood as a fundamentally life-affirming state. Samvega is not the credo of Pampers ads or American Girl dolls, Instagram or the Princeton Review. I recently saw a flyer in a café advertising a “Parenting from Within” therapy that promised to help the client develop “conscious parenting as a pathway to lasting joy and fulfillment.” Even Buddhist writing on the subject usually provides a happy ending, with the “little teacher” doing something so cute as to be redemptive, and the vexing challenges of oppositional behavior serving up the ultimate teaching on equanimity.
Motherhood—and its corollary, childhood—in their current optimistic models are relatively new historical constructions and haven’t always had such a good rap as pathways to liberation. Until as recently as the 1930s, maternal mortality rates in the Western world were as high as at the time of the American Revolution. And throughout most of human history, infant mortality has been so widespread that well into the 19th century, American parents didn’t name their children until they hit toddlerhood, when the chances for the kid’s survival began to increase. The probability of child death was too extreme to risk developing parental bonds. For anyone who has had a miscarriage or given birth (I’ve done both, twice), fatality feels—is—viscerally close. It’s a painful, perilous business and an ear-splitting wake-up call to the unreliability of this body, this life, these relationships.
Experiencing a child’s life through a parent’s eyes deflates the myth of immortality in other ways, too. Most of us nurse the illusion of having an expansive life because the murky backward stretch of our own childhoods creates a perception of having lived for a very long time. But watching a child grow up explodes that sense of personal timelessness. When my children were in nursery school, I would come across things in the back of my refrigerator that were older than they were. The very phase of life I remembered as stretching out for an eternity was, in fact, over before I could use up a jar of capers packed in sea salt.
As my children have grown and their lives have become more complicated and independent of me, the samvega I experience in relation to them has gone through many variations. For the moment, it is less about imminent death and more about a diffusion of prosaic suffering—theirs and mine. For teenagers, as for the rest of us, the most insidious dangers are the ones concocted and nurtured by their own minds, and in spite of the joy my kids derive from their lives, I see them mired in stress and dissatisfaction, too. Homework and social pressures, shuttling between the apartments of their divorced parents, the ache of still not having a dog, the casino-like allure of video games and Facebook—I mourn what I think is an erosion of their quality of life as responsibilities mount and their options appear to diminish. A pediatric neurologist I once interviewed mused on the cognitive and emotional outcomes for adolescents whose brains are neurologically maturing while they spend hours each day playing on the computer or staring into an iPhone (come to my house and find out). And what happens when they confront competition in a crowded world—as they apply to colleges, or look for work, or seek happiness on a moribund, resource-stripped planet populated by upward of 8 billion people (as the tally is projected to be when my kids are in their twenties and thirties)? The Buddha alluded to this very scenario in a description of samvega in the lovely Attadanda (The Rod Embraced) Sutta:
I will tell of how
Seeing people floundering
like fish in small puddles,
competing with one another —
as I saw this,
fear came into me.
The world was entirely
All the directions
were knocked out of line.
Wanting a haven for myself,
I saw nothing that wasn’t laid claim to.
Seeing nothing in the end
I felt discontent.
—Sutta Nipata 4.15, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu
However it is presented or parsed, in the media of consumer culture or in the annals of religions or family legend, my experience has taught me that having children is not inherently spiritual or potentially liberating, though it can help one grow up a bit. Rather, it is an activity that creates entanglement, the likelihood of intense suffering, and obligations that can be hard to integrate with meditation practice. One of my all-time favorite quotations related to this subject comes from a German psychoanalyst, a student of Freud’s, whom the writer and critic Adam Gopnik saw for many years and whom he memorialized in a 1998 New Yorker essay. At one point in his analysis, Gopnik agonizes over whether or not to have a child with his wife. The doctor’s response instantly slays all of Gopnik’s neurotic fantasies about the potential epiphanies of being a parent:
Yes, you must go ahead and have a child. You will enjoy it. The child will try your patience repeatedly, yet you will find that there are many pleasures in child-rearing . . . You will find, for instance, that the child will make many amusing mistakes in language . . . These mistakes can really be extremely amusing. The child’s errors in language also provide the kinds of anecdotes that can be of value to the parents in a social setting.
Gopnik is aghast at how the doctor drily distills the sum gratification of parenting, even suggesting that the best he can hope for is to “dine out” on his future children’s linguistic errors. But there’s a wonderful sagacity and purity of this view, in the midst of a society neck-deep in projected narcissism, where children are signifiers of parental wealth and status and general well-being.
From a Buddhist perspective, pinning one’s hopes for happiness on one’s children is a losing proposition, a recipe for samvega without reprieve. But there is an antidote to samvega, known as pasada. Pasada is the recognition that a deathless happiness is possible, and that by sticking to the noble eightfold path, we can exit, once and for all, the hell of samsara. Pasada is “what keeps samvega from becoming despair,” writes Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The Buddha’s poem about samvega and all the little fish floundering in the puddles ends with these lines:
And then I saw
an arrow here,
so very hard to see,
embedded in the heart.
Overcome by this arrow
you run in all directions.
But simply on pulling it out
you don’t run,
you don’t sink.
Pasada, for parents, involves coming to view our children in line with the four noble truths—they are beings who suffer, whose suffering we often can’t relieve, but who themselves have the capacity for waking up. “It’s come at last . . . the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache,” wrote Betty Smith in her soulful novel of New York generations, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In truth, we never have stood between our kids and heartache—theirs or our own. The good news is that the Buddha showed us a path that leads beyond heartache, beyond samvega, beyond suffering. Our best wish for our children is that they find it, too.
Mary Talbot is a New York City public school administrator and a contributing editor to Tricycle.
Image 1: Jonathan Barkat/Gallerystock
Image 2: Jayne Wexler