When the World is Perfect

A new mother struggles with self-sacrifice.

Kate Brandt

All beings have been your mother in a former life. This is the concept my teacher presented to his class of Western students. Holding this idea in our minds, he told us, would help us to generate a sense of connectedness and all-encompassing compassion. I remember the first time I tried to meditate on this, sitting quite still on a sofa cushion and conjuring up my mother’s face. All beings have loved you and cared for you as she has, I told myself, and for a moment I felt it: an outpouring of love. But inevitably, my mind wandered. I remembered a comment my mother had made that hurt my feelings. One thought led to another until I found myself engaged in an angry dialogue with her, my aspirations to enlightenment having vanished abruptly.

My attempt to generate bodhicitta—awakened mind—in this way left me confused. I wondered whether I was doing it wrong, or whether the meditation was more of an ideal than something I was really supposed to do. Unable to puzzle it out, I chose to block it out. But recently I remembered it, when I became a mother myself.

Eli is ten months old as i write this, a large-eyed, lively baby with a head of wispy hair and a tottering step. He is fond of eating the pages of magazines, which he chews into a paste and stores on the roof of his mouth in little tablets that I have to extract by force. He likes to spread baby food meditatively over the tray of his high chair; to pull rows of carefully stacked cassette tapes from their shelves and fling them across our living room; to lurch across city playgrounds in pursuit of sodden leaves, which, before I can stop him, he also crams into his mouth.

No one before has brought me so close to the limits of my ability to give. And yet the magnitude of my love for him astounds me. It is something I cannot see around the edges of, something that I could no more walk away from than my own arm. With Eli has come a new set of pleasures: the sight of his lips when, having fallen asleep while nursing, his mouth slides from the breast and he continues to suck in his sleep; the smell of his head; the cackle of giddy humor when I lick food from his hand or stick out my tongue. My husband put it best. “When he laughs,” he said, “the world is perfect.”

Working against this perfection, though, is an ugliness. Sacrificing my own needs and desires all day for a being who cannot reciprocate, there are times when I snap. There was the day, for example, when I called my husband at work in the middle of the afternoon and told him, in a choking voice, that I couldn’t take it anymore, that he had to come home. That day he raced home to rescue me, but we both knew that his rescue was temporary. Since Eli’s birth, it has been as if I am standing on the shore of my former life—a part-time job I liked and quit to stay home with the baby; a social life; writing—and watching it recede. In its place is a life of routine—playground, nap, playground again—that leaves me bored, unpaid, and for the most part alone.

It is vajrayana tradition to take what is difficult in life and use it as material for enlightenment. My teacher, Vajrayana to the core, was fond of using the wrathful deities as teaching tools. He liked to project slides of the wrathful deity Mahakala onto the wall of our classroom, cataloging the grisly details that made up the image: the fangs, the claws, the human skull full of blood that Mahakala held to his lips. Mahakala and his female counterpart, Palden Lhamo, were mirrors, he told us, reflections of our negative emotions, aspects of ourselves that we would rather avoid. “Everyone wants to be the sweet, serene Buddha,” he told us, pausing at a slide of Tara, the mother goddess. “Well,” he clicked the button of his slide wheel and an image of Mahakala appeared, “you’re going to have to get past this guy first.”

I remember the day he pointed out the row of tiny heads that hung from the sash tied around Mahakala’s hips. As he zoomed in, I could see the details of these individual faces. The artist had painted them as if they were still alive, frozen in expressions of fright and shock. We could think of these faces, my teacher told us, as images of the selves we had been.

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