When the World is Perfect

A new mother struggles with self-sacrifice.

Kate Brandt

A liberating concept: the limited self with which we have identified falls away so that a new self, with a bigger outlook on life, can be born. At the time, the grisliness of the image seemed wrong to me: decapitated heads dangling in a row did not seem a fitting picture of the path to enlightenment. In the years that have passed since that lesson, though, I have come to feel that Mahakala’s image is a good one for describing the experience of encountering anger. Since Eli’s birth, my run-ins with the wrathful deities have been uglier. The more I want to be the mother I emulate—sweet, gentle Tara—the more I become Palden Lhamo, blowing up when Eli wriggles and shrieks during diaper changes, stalking out of the room when for the fourth time he throws his food on the floor.

One of my worst moments as a mother came on a night my husband had gone out and Eli and I were alone. It had been a long day during which Eli did not nap and hence I had had no break from caretaking. All day I had chanted the same mantra to myself: I will write tonight. I will write tonight. Writing time is what my life revolved around before Eli was born and what I yearn for now that he is here. I was still hoping for it when at five o’clock Eli began to cry continuously, writhing in my arms while I tried, exhausted myself, to comfort him. I distracted him as well as I could, but I could see that he needed a nap. If he napped, I knew, he would awaken and be up till late at night, killing my chances to write.

When I saw my writing time slipping away, I felt my mood change, from patience to a kind of scream. I decided that Eli would go to bed early, when I said, not when he was tired. “You are going to sleep,” I hissed at him. While he screamed I wrestled him into his pajamas, stuffed his legs and arms into the sleeves and legs. I nursed him, and when his eyes closed ten minutes later, I laid him in his crib and left the room. He was already crying when I shut the door behind me. I sat for a minute listening to him, then went into another room where his cries were fainter. There I stood, arguing with myself. This was me. There were limits. He had to understand.

To prove my point, I made a phone call and chatted for fifteen minutes or so, only half involved in the conversation. When I finally entered Eli’s room half an hour later, I saw the damage done. He was screeching, his whole body red from the effort. His lips shuddered. When I picked him up and held him against me, I realized that his whole body was shaking.

Why become enlightened? This is a question I sometimes ask myself. The answer I give is twofold: to make the world a better place and to avoid the pain of clinging to an existence that is unhappy. My belief is that somewhere down the line these two reasons converge: that my own ability to reach peace with myself will benefit the whole world. That, at least, is the hope. If I put out the fire in myself, I will be better able to reach others.

The night I became so angry at Eli, I noticed a change in myself. The desire to write, which I had held in my mind all day, became irrelevant once I walked into Eli’s room and saw what my absence had done to him. All I wanted, after picking Eli up, was for him to be all right again. There was relief in this. I was no longer anxious about my own self, my own desires.

All beings have been your mother in another life. The change that has come with motherhood is that this meditation instruction, which used to seem so distant and puzzling to me, is now one I carry close to my heart. Motherhood and bodhisattvahood are similar enterprises, it seems. Out of compassion, bodhisattvas vow to do the impossible—to save all beings. As a mother—hauling thirty-five pounds of stroller, baby, and groceries up the steps to my house in hundred-degree heat, or replacing yet another row of books that Eli has pulled from the shelves—I often feel that I have volunteered for a job that is just as endless and just as hard to do.

Another link between motherhood and bodhisattvahood: In the months since Eli’s birth, enlightenment has come to seem more urgent to me. It is one thing for me to look in Mahakala’s mirror and see my own face contorted in anger. It is another thing entirely if that is the face my son sees when he looks at me. My most important job as a mother, it turns out, is to struggle with my own pain and anger, to live up to the vow I have made to myself: to love Eli well.

Motherhood has humbled me, made me see how difficult it is to live the words and concepts I so often repeat to myself. So I start my bodhisattva vow to save all beings with just one being: He has a big head with very little hair, walks inexpertly, and is fond of eating leaves. When he falls asleep his lips move, and when he is awake, the whole house lies in wait for his destructive hands. And when he laughs, the world is perfect.

Kate Brandt lives in New York City with her husband, Bram, and her son, Eli.

Image 1: The wrathful deity Mahakala. Courtesy of the Rubin Cultural Trust, www.himalayanart.org
Image 2: Mahakala's belt. Courtesy of the Rubin Cultural Trust, www.himalayanart.org

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