A year or so ago I found myself in a gridlocked standoff with my kids that will sound familiar to almost any parent of young children. It was bath time. My kids were not interested in any part of it. And they were growing more obstinately defiant with every effort I made to persuade them.
Every tactic I tried seemed to shut down another possible avenue to the goal. Sweet talking, ultimatums, cajoling, pleading… I ran through them all. The more the kids resisted, the deeper I dug in. Maybe I was physically tired, maybe I was carrying stress about something else, maybe I felt out of control in some part of my life and this was the battle my ego decided it had to win… but whatever the story leading up to it, I had become fixated on getting That Child into That Bathroom with That Bucket and That Soap and dried with That Towel and into Those Pajamas in the next 20 minutes. End of story. It became a tunnel vision, make-or-break scenario, with only one outcome that would keep the entire universe afloat.
It seems there are a couple common assumptions we carry about how the world works. One is that the world is finite, and physical and mental resources are limited. There is only so much time, space, energy, money, attention, patience, etc. to go around. The related assumption here is that as caregivers, we are conducting an exchange. As I do my duties as a parent, a portion of time, energy, strength, relaxation, nourishment, etc. is taken from me and transferred to my child, family, and dependents. This then means that to stay healthy, we need to ‘refuel’ ourselves before we can continue to give more.
These assumptions are definitely true up to a point.
The body and mind do have physical limitations. We have to eat, breathe, stretch and relax at intervals in order to keep moving. We have to close our eyes and shut down our senses for awhile, and let our thoughts and worries fade now and then, before we can put our mind back to work and respond deliberately to the world around us.
Ayurveda shows us intelligent and nourishing responses to these physical limitations that can be layered into a lifestyle of balanced extension and contraction, balanced activity and stillness, balanced creation and dissolution.
Dangerous Myth of the Zero-Sum Game
Yet we can get caught up in thinking only of the limitations of the physical world, body and mind, and how they are all locked in a rigid game of transactional exchange. We can become obsessed with a constant balancing act of making sure we are giving and taking in equal measure. Behind a facade of setting healthy boundaries, we are really tee-totaling. This outlook is a seed thought that guarantees we will begin to feel depleted, resentful, undervalued and taken for granted. We start running mental scripts - telling ourselves that we are always giving and never receiving, we are not getting support from others, we are a hapless victim of our circumstances, and so on. We will be looking outside for people or things to fill us up, rejuvenate us, or take care of us for a change since we are giving so much.
When we see our whole reality as governed by this law of limitedness, we are using only half the story to explain our whole essence.
Connecting to Our Essential Fullness
Hidden by the transactional level of our lives - where every minute our child keeps us awake at night is another minute of sleep we have lost, and every hour we spend cooking a meal for our family is another hour we are not enjoying reading our favorite book - is an unlimited wellspring of pure consciousness and bliss that is untainted by the various activities of life. This is the eternal Soul, or Atman in Sanskrit. It is the current of electricity that gives rise to all the good, bad, beautiful and ugly creations in the Universe. When we sit in meditation, when we pray to a higher power, when we fall into deep sleep, we touch this timeless and whole Self.
Ayurveda’s radically holistic definition of health looks at aligning with the natural balance point of four aspects of our being: the body, the mind, the senses and the Soul / Atman. Connection to the Atman is to remember that though the body, mind and senses are limited in what they can do and how long they can serve us, the Soul is never depleted, never run down, never dull. When we identify only with the physical bounds of what our physical being can do, we easily forget that we are permeated by an unlimited spiritual essence. We will only see the give-take, zero-sum transactions in our lives and suffer as we scramble to make sure we get filled up enough and don’t give too much of ourselves away. When we honor the limits of our physical body, mind and senses with nourishing wellness practices, while staying aware of our Atman, we know that the body may feel tired and need rest, but I am not tired. My mind may feel stress and need to relax, but I am not stressed because my essential nature is beyond the limits of the day-to-day experience.
This physically grounded, spiritually transcendent mindset guides the way I parent every day.
In the midst of that stressful bath time I described earlier, some part of me woke up from the dream that I was stuck in the box of finite time, patience, and physical energy. A part of me remembered, “Hey, there is a resource within that I can always tap into. Unlimited creativity and flexibility are there that my tired body and mind can not wear down. It feels like I only have so many options for dealing with these wild children right now, but really I have infinite possibilities for responding to this situation because I am inspired by universal consciousness.” I snapped out of the ego-driven tangle I had gotten caught in and remembered my deepest expansiveness. Remembering for a moment that I am Atman, they are also Atman, and we are in a divine drama together where bathing happens to be a requirement. I am not a separate entity from my children that is pressing them to do or be something, they are not wearing my spirit down, I am no less full for giving to them, they are already full even as they receive from me. We are complete fullness in contact with complete fullness.
When I remember that timelessness is my essence rather than my ability to squeeze productivity out of every minute and being a slave to a timetable, I can more easily play the long game as a parent.
Suddenly, these kids who wanted to dance on the bed and throw stuffed animals rather than jump at my commands inspired me to join them in their play. I became a fisherwoman chasing little fish back into the river before they got caught in my basket. They laughed and raced to their bath. We found a way to do what was needed with joyful creativity.
This is an extended contemplation from an article written based on Acharya Shunya’s teachings on Maya as the inseparable creative potential of Brahman for The Hamsa Magazine. If you are interested in more of the conceptual foundation grounding this blog post, check out that article.