Convention tells us that the purpose of parenting is to guide, shape or mold the next generation and, correspondingly, there’s a wealth of books and courses that we can access on ‘parenting skills’. But what if we considered that our children shape us, more than we do them? What if we opened ourselves up to this possibility and the idea that we have been gifted with unique souls who will inspire and stretch us the most? And actually, what if it’s not really about growing up at all, but growing down that’s the greatest challenge that’s facing us today? How can we reclaim our innocence and the wisdoms our children have to teach us?
For all these reasons, I am drawn to explore the notion of parenting as a spiritual path. So many parents (as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles and godparents) speak with reverence about the overwhelming capacity for love that the arrival of a new soul opens them up to and I believe that parenting can be an incubator for the daily, hourly, minute-by-exquisite-minute experience and practice of love. Parenting, and the homes that we create for our family, can be the protected environment in which a love that is personal and touching and real can grow, and as a consequence of that growth, develop in us our highest capabilities as loving human beings.
The path of a parent invites us to explore love, to be love, to stand under love and in so doing to understand Love/ God/ Allah/ our Buddha Nature/ your Creator/ the Universe and what is most important in the world in ways that are fresher, deeper, more grounded and of the earth. Some refer to this as ‘the path of the householder’, which the author David Foster Wallace describes beautifully in his commencement speech called ‘This Is Water’ when he shares that, “the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and being able to truly care about other people. And to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad, petty little unsexy ways every day.”
In Vedic culture, the spiritual path is called Sadhana and its ultimate goal is to transform our awareness from separation to unity for in unity we perceive only Love, express only Love and are only Love. There is recognition that different styles suit different personalities, for example for those who are intellectually inclined there is the path of knowledge, which is known as Gyana yoga. For those who are more outwardly motivated, there is the path of action, or Karma yoga. And for those who are more devotional there is the path of worship, often to a guru, known as Bhakti yoga. All of these are paths that help us get beyond our individual egos and realise enlightenment which I think of as the experience of the essential interconnectedness of all things or what Christians call, “the peace that passes all understanding.”
When we become parents we are committing, whether we recognise it at the time or not, to an on-going practice of devotion, to getting our ego out of the way, and to a daily, consistent practice of compassion and loving kindness. As a harried parent, who struggles to find time for all the ‘good things’ I feel should be practicing like prayer, mediation, (physical) yoga and soothing walks in nature, there is deep relief that my daily, mundane chores and responsibilities can be and are my most meaningful opportunities to experience God and godliness.
I use the words Love, God, Allah, Buddha Nature, Creator and Universe interchangeably and for some this may seem glib, but I do so deliberately because I want to invite you to consider and engage the God of your own understanding and deepen your relationship with this in the process of walking this path with me. Perhaps the word God does not work for you, perhaps you are an atheist or an agnostic. This exploration is for you too if you are interested in personal growth and crafting a way to live in the world in a way that is rich in meaning and connection.
I refer to this approach as soulfull living and I am inspired by the work of the psychologist Thomas Moore, who observes that we intuitively know that soul has to do with genuineness and depth when we say that certain music has ‘soul’ or a person is ‘soulful’. When we look closely, he writes, “We see that soul is tied to life in all its particulars – good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart…. Soul is revealed in attachment, love and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.” Soul, Moore heeds, is also messy and it is not linear. Soul often takes us places that can feel dark and uncomfortable. Things we’d rather not look at. Parenting does this powerfully.
So soulfull parenting embraces the highs and lows, and welcomes the challenges that ‘bringing forth’ (the meaning of the word Latin word parent, which derived from the verb ‘parere’) entails in particular. Soulfull parenting seeks to make fresh meaning from the challenges and torments that are inherent in parenting, along with the highs and the joys, and help us become richer, fuller people in the process. When I speak about parenting I am speaking to anyone who loves or has loved a child, whether you bore them or not, and whether they still live on this earth or not. I will never, never forget how, shortly after her daughter was stillborn at 39 weeks, my dear friend said to me, “I felt like I came so close to being admitted to the club.” No, parenting is not exclusive. If you have loved anyone deeply, if you have created and nurtured and cared for and if you long to do more of this, I am writing these words for you.
This introduction so far has considered the first principle of what I call soulfull parenting, namely that parenting can be a spiritual path that provides us with ample opportunities for practice if we choose to see our experiences in this way. The other principles are:
#2 Acorns – our children come to us complete
#3 Healing – our first responsibility is to ensure that our soul is well and full
#4 Witnessing – our primary job is to be present to our children
#5 Learning – we need to embrace failure in our lives and with our children
#6 Conversation – how we engage our children is key
#7 Co-Parenting – we need to nurture a village
In her book The Spiritual Child, Lisa Miller PhD explains how, unlike other lines of development, such as language or cognition, the innate spiritual attunement of children (for example their remarkable capacity for wonder and easy connection to nature and animals) begins whole and does not require development, so much as careful nurturing. Science, she reports, is beginning to appreciate that spirituality (which is defined in the American Journal of Psychiatry as a personal relationship with the transcendent, or an inner sense of living relationship to a higher power) exists as a human capacity, just like EQ and IQ, and is the single biggest factor in our children’s health and their ability to thrive, a ballast against the rise of dis-eases like anxiety and depression.
This growing body science of about spirituality is also enabling us to see adolescence in a new and more helpful, hopeful light too. This universal development surge, previously viewed as a fraught passage toward physical and emotional maturity is now understood as more fully to also be a journey of essential spiritual search and growth. Furthermore, parents and children share a parallel development arc in which a child’s need and yearning for spiritual exploration coincides with a similar quest phase in midlife and our shared search can be mutually awakening and supportive. Our children, Dr. Miller writes, “can be our impetus for spiritual discovery, our muses or guides and at times the source of illumination.”
Miller and her fellow researchers are advocates for consciously nurturing a young person’s innate spirituality which can, as she observes, “otherwise so easily be eroded in the crush of a narrowly material culture.” Currently our society values growing up and education focuses on our heads almost exclusively and this feels wrong and rushed to me, and maybe it feels wrong to you too. I believe it is time to start talking about growing down, back into the earth and the messiness of real life and parenting and to find meaning therein. Like acorns and seeds, we have to dig down into the dark, fecund soil/ soul and establish roots before we can emerge and stand tall in the sun.
Ultimately, I think that Khalil Gibran, who never had children of his own, expresses the tenets of what I call soulfull parenting best, in his piece called ‘On Children’ in the book The Prophet. He writes;
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
for they have their own thoughts.
Your may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
Your are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves the bow that is stable.
Indeed, soulfull parenting is about learning to become an increasingly stable bow. To identify and show up as Witnessing Presence and Unconditional Love, sometimes fiercely so, in the lives of the people that we love the most – and, from this centre and base of practice, to begin to enlarge our circle beyond our homes, out into a world that sorely needs this healing.
8 November 2019