The Parent Path: How Children Enrich Our Spiritual Life
Nov 30, 2011 11:54AM
By Steve Taylor
Dirty nappies, wakeup calls in the middle of the night, a house full of screams and squeals, food splattered on walls, a chaos of toys everywhere, no more late nights out, no time to read books, take classes or attend retreats—what could be spiritual about bringing up children? Isn’t spiritual development just one of the many things we sacrifice when we have kids?
Many spiritual traditions based on meditation, prayer and solitude maintain that nothing should divert us from our spiritual practices—least of all a family, which takes up so much time and energy.
In India, one tradition holds that spiritual development belongs to a later stage of life, roughly after age 50. It is only once we have lived through a householder stage, bringing up and providing for our children and living a worldly life, that we can turn our attention to the inner world. After our children have reached adulthood, we have the privilege of meditating regularly, and living more quietly and simply.
Many parents, however, find that—far from hindering it—bringing up children actively advances their spiritual development. Seen in the right way, parenthood can be a spiritual path, bringing a heightened sense of love, wonder and appreciation.
After all, children are such strongly spiritual beings. They naturally have many of the qualities that adults work to cultivate through spiritual development. For example, children are naturally mindful. They constantly live fully in the present, and the world is always a fantastically real and interesting place to them.
As child psychologist Professor Alison Gopnik, of the University of California, Berkeley, puts it, “Babies and young children are actually more conscious and more vividly aware of their external world and internal life than adults are.” They have what she calls an, “…infinite capacity for wonder,” that adults only experience at their highest moments. “Travel, meditation and romantic poetry can give us a first-person taste of infant experience,” as can experiencing beauty, she says.
This illustrates one of the most positive effects of having children: They help us to become children again ourselves. In Taoism, the ideal is to be as spontaneous and curious as a child, exhibiting their openness to experience. On the physical plane, Taoist practices like Tai chi and qigong aim to help the body become as supple and flexible as a child’s.
All the world’s spiritual traditions tell us how important it is to transcend our own selfishness; to stop seeing ourselves as the center of the universe and trying so hard to satisfy our own desires. They advise us to help and serve others, so that we can move beyond our separate ego and connect to a transcendent power. The eightfold path of Buddhism aims to cultivate this selfless state and ideally, the path of parenthood can, as well. It’s impossible to be a good parent without being prepared to put your children first.
Much of parenthood is about self-sacrifice. Gopnik remarks: “Imagine a novel in which a woman took in a stranger who was unable to walk or talk or even eat by himself. She fell completely in love with him at first sight, fed and clothed and washed him, gradually helped him to become competent and independent, and spent more than half her income on him… You couldn’t bear the sappiness of it. But that is just about every mother’s story. Caring for children is a fast and efficient way to experience at least a little saintliness.”
The poet William Wordsworth described how children see the world as “…appareled in celestial light [having] the glory and freshness of a dream.” Yet, as adults, this vision, “…fades into the light of common day.” Having children of our own helps us to reawaken some of the celestial light within.
Perhaps this is what Jesus meant too, when he told his disciples, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This makes sense if we think of the kingdom of heaven not as a future, far-off place, but as a state of consciousness, here and now. Heaven is the state of wonder and natural well-being where children dwell and in their company, we naturally re-enter the kingdom.
Steve Taylor, a UK university lecturer and researcher, is the author of Waking from Sleep, described by Eckhart Tolle as, “One of the best books on spiritual awakening I have come across.” His new book is Out of the Darkness – from Turmoil to Transformation. Visit StevenMTaylor.com.