Most everyone has experienced the beauty and power of a well-crafted metaphor. From poetry to song-writing, prose to oration, a metaphor can describe in a word or two something that can be quite profound and complex. And few things are as profound or complex as parenthood. I've heard that in the East there is a saying that "the fish is the last one to know they are in the water," and so too are we sometimes the last ones to know what waters we are in. In the case of parenthood, especially first-time parenthood, it can be difficult to find the "meta" perspective on our experience in the midst of the intensity of it all.
In the spirit of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his wife Myla's book Everyday Blessings where they propose the metaphor of parenthood as an "18 year long spiritual retreat", I would like to add to the lineage they have established with a further metaphor to help describe parenthood. The metaphor I would like to offer is the Sand Mandala.
The simplest way to describe sand mandalas is that they're artistic depictions of spiritual life. Mandalas are colorful drawings and paintings coming from the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, usually created in the form of a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point. They depict a sacred space and help practitioners aspire toward spiritual wholeness. In certain traditions, practitioners create mandalas not only out of paints, but out of sand. These special mandalas are created by hand, usually by monks, and they use the most exquisitely colored sands to create breathtaking works of art. The monks work with the sands in a focused, walking meditation style of mindfulness and effort.
A sand mandala is usually made over the course of many hours if not days, and oftentimes the monks literally take tweezers to each grain of sand and place it exactly where they want it to be. Over the course of the meditation a perfect arrangement of sand is made to create a unique, and unbelievably beautiful design. They are truly works of art.
And then what do the monks do when the mandala is complete? They blow it to the wind! Yes, they destroy their work of art just as soon as they have completed it, in a demonstration of non-attachment. With one of the central Buddhist teachings that "attachment is the root of all suffering" the act of destroying the sand mandala is a practice of un-attaching from their work of art and symbolically accepting impermanence. One of the central teachings in this tradition is that our suffering occurs when we are attached to a "story about the way things should be" that is different from the way that things are.
I find the sand mandala to be a compelling metaphor for parenthood because prior to having children most of us have put our lives together like those grains of sand. Whether it's conscious or not, most likely we have worked really hard to put things together in our unique and particular way. The dimensions of our "mandala" prior to having kids could be our social lives, our professional lives, the foods we like to eat, the amount of exercise we like to get, the places we like to go on vacation, the kinds of intellectual pursuits we choose to follow, how often we like to have sex, etc. And whether we are conscious of it or not, we are fairly attached to it all. In a sense, by the time we reach adulthood we've created a "mandala" of our life.
And what does that baby do when it arrives? That baby blows your mandala to the wind! And the teaching here is that the more attached you stay to the way things used to be—that is, how beautiful and perfect your mandala was—the more you're going to suffer when all that's left is a pile of dust. Of course there's a lot of love that floods in as well, and that baby isn't trying to destroy your "mandala." But at the same time, your baby doesn't care how "colorful" your sand used to be. She doesn't care about your interests or the activities you do, or who your friends are and how often you like to see them. On a good day all you can do is laugh in disbelief as you mourn those wonderful "grains of sand" that are now on the other side of the universe.
From a spiritual perspective, the best thing you can do is simply start by witnessing your experience as those beautiful "grains of sand" go flying out the window, letting them go without attachment. The more you stay attached to them the more you will suffer. The contractions came for me in the form of "I should be able to exercise 5 times per week", and "We should be able to make love whenever we want", and "I should be able to spend the time cooking like I used to." Fill in the blank with any "I should..." and you'll find a new dimension of your suffering because when that baby arrives all of those "should's" are usually a far cry away from the way things are.
Having your "mandala" blown to the wind can also usher in an experience of tremendous joy, love and a depth of intimacy. The experience of receiving a child into this world can open you up in ways nothing else can. In fact, I believe an argument can be made claiming that parenthood is quite possibly the single-most common secular spiritual experience on this planet. Assuming that most people are not actively making effort toward kensho or satori or nirvana or Christ Consciousness, parenthood thrusts us into such an intense period of service to another that the central teachings of many of those spiritual lineages is placed directly in our laps without ever practicing in those traditions: give up your "small self" and serve someone else with love and compassion in your heart. In addition, having a baby forces us (or gives us the opportunity, depending on how you see it) to be in the moment. We're plunged into each moment in a sustained way for hours, days, weeks, even months in those early years in a way that is oftentimes drastically different from the way we lived our lives prior to having children.
And as we begin to integrate the new experience of being a parent we slowly begin to pick up those grains of sand that we loved so much and start to put them together in a new way with the addition of new grains of sand. This takes time and patience, but with enough work we end up with a new "mandala." And of course for those of us who decide to have more than one child, what do you think that second baby does when it arrives? This time it's not just the parents who are dealing with the destruction of their mandala, it's the child who has already been here constructing their own mandala too!
In service of deepening the image of the second child arriving I would like to tell a story from my own experience. This a story about how my own "mandala" got blown to the wind. My wife and I planned our second pregnancy and were successful quickly, getting pregnant with our second child 18 months after our first child was born. Three months into the pregnancy we went very happily to the doctor for some routine testing and we found out we could expect to have another son. All of the initial tests came back normal, particularly the test for genetic abnormalities, which said that this baby had a 1 in 5000 chance of having Down Syndrome. However, less than two months later at our next round of routine tests we came back with a result that was vastly different. This second round of tests showed that there were some elevated hormones in my wife's uterus and that our baby now had a 1 in 30 chance of having Down Syndrome. Our chances jumped two orders of magnitude and suddenly something that was quite remote just hours before was a whole lot closer.
Because our older son, Andres, was already a year and a half I was prepared for my sand mandala to be destroyed, but I was expecting it to happen when our new baby was born. I was not prepared for it to be destroyed while he was still in utero. Our test results kicked-in all kinds of specialists and consultations in the western medicine paradigm and right away we were offered a battery of tests to find out "what was going on." The most invasive test that was proposed was something called an amniocentesis. An amniocentesis is done by sticking a needle in to the mom's belly, puncturing the sack that the baby is in and extracting some amniotic fluid, which has the genetic material of the baby. This fluid can be tested to give an accurate reading of whether a baby has one of a number of genetic abnormalities. At the same time, we were told that this procedure carries with it a 1 in 400 chance of causing a spontaneous miscarriage. That is, simply trying to find out whether this child is genetically "normal" could kill him. My wife and I took several days to decide if we wanted to do this procedure, and during this period of time we both experienced some profound disintegration of our current "mandalas."
I began to realize that part of my "mandala" was that my baby would be genetically "normal." I had all kinds of stories made up in my head that I hadn't even been conscious about, visualizing the things we were going to do together as he was growing up. Now the possibility of those "grains of sand" getting blown to the wind was very possible, and very real, and I found myself very attached to them. My "story of the way things should be" started to become quite painful as I realized how far that story could be from the way that things are. Baseball practice started to look very different. Reading Harry Potter to him started to look very different. Interacting with his older brother started to look very different. Family vacations. School. Independence and living on his own one day. The "18 year long spiritual retreat" started to look more like a 50 year long retreat—one that on my deathbed still might have me worried about who was going to take care him. Having a contemplative practice was helpful in this moment as I started to witness just how attached I was to my "mandala", and this child was giving me one of the most powerful lessons in attachment/non-attachment I had ever experienced.
In witnessing my experience, I started to realize just how much I projected onto this un-born child. All of my stories of the way things "should be" that were causing me such pain were all pointing to things that mattered to me. What if this kid didn't like baseball? It was me who was projecting my love of baseball onto him. What if he didn't like Harry Potter? That was my stuff. I started to go down the list of all the things I liked to do that were causing me pain when I thought about him being genetically "different" and as I started witnessing my "mandala" being destroyed. It became an exercise in seeing myself. As I began to see myself more clearly, painful as this was, it started to give me the ability to move my "self" out of the way for this child. I started to realize, "isn't that what we want to do as parents?" That is, move ourselves out of the way and let these children be whoever they want to, or are meant to be?
Monique and I spent many tearful and sleepless nights that week as our mandalas disintegrated. In addition to simply being present for each other, it seemed that our first task was to decide together whether we could raise a child with Down Syndrome. Once we could answer that question, the choice over whether to get an amniocentesis would be easy. When we were offered the amnio we were counseled that one of the main reasons it is offered is to help parents determine whether they wish to keep or terminate their pregnancy. Wow. I firmly believe in reproductive choice, but I had never anticipated this question actually coming straight into my lap. At the core of this powerful question for me was, what kind of commitment was I willing to make to this baby?
Monique and I took several days alone to contemplate our personal answer to this question. After some time apart we came back together and talked about what kind of decision we wanted to make as a couple. I'm not going to tell you that all of our discussions were elegant and smooth. But I can tell you that we honored the profundity of this moment together. We talked about the stability of our relationship, our economic situation, our family structure and support network, the importance of diversity and tolerance, and several more issues. I can tell you that in my experience, the choice to keep or terminate a pregnancy has got many colors, shades of grey, and dimensions that include and transcend black and white.
In the end after talking and crying it through, the realization that helped me arrive at my decision was this: I realized that no matter what I did or who this child was, I was going to screw him up. There was no way around it. It was inevitable! We all screw up our children, somehow. Of course I say this with a light heart, but the Buddhists call this the first noble truth. And I can tell you that surrendering to this notion eased something for me. Of course we all love our children! Of course we try really hard not to screw them up. But even the best adjusted among us, the most psychologically mature, are working on alleviating themselves from some form of suffering that's screwing them up. Simply by giving this child life I was assuring him of the experience of suffering. As I felt into this truth, I weighed the possibility of this little boy having Down Syndrome and I decided that I would accept him as he is. I said to myself, "I know that I am going to screw you up somehow, but my choice is that I'm not going to screw you up by killing you. I'll mess you up some other way." I felt a deep honoring for this child. It felt like I was able to move my "self" out of the way for a moment and allow this child to be himself without so much of my story attached to it. And while Monique used a different process for herself, she came to the same result. We decided to keep him no matter what.
From there, the decision to have an amniocentesis became moot. What were we going to do with that information? Sure, we still had anxiety about whether he was genetically "normal" but resting in our choice allowed us to take responsibility for our anxiety on our own terms. We didn't need to put this baby at risk just so we could know a few months ahead of time whether or not he had Down Syndrome. In fact, Down Syndrome was determined or not from the moment of his first cell division, so our finding out could do nothing to change him except put him at risk. In making our choices it felt like we were taking care of our own anxiety by acknowledging it, and not projecting it onto him. How refreshing this felt. But I can tell you that those remaining 4+ months while little Marcelo was still in utero were four of the most difficult and spiritually profound months of my life. Never before have I had such a continuous moment-to-moment witnessing of my "mandala" disintegrate.
This 4 month period brought home in no uncertain terms just how messy parenthood can be. I'm not here to tell you that those four months were not difficult, painful, and frustrating. They were. But they were also deepening and widening my capacity for presence, compassion, and love—and this made me a better parent to both my children. It also re-configured my conception of "normal." All of my labeling, all of my thoughts, projections, concerns, etc. were based in my own conception of "normal," but here I was being told that my child might not be "normal." But normal is a constructed thing. To him, he would be normal. It was me and all these people out here on the other side of his mother's belly that were calling him not-normal. I notice now that there are many more things in the world that are already as they should be, and it's our imposed labeling of them that causes tremendous harm and unnecessary suffering.
To bring this story to a close I will say that baby Marcelo arrived and officially destroyed my mandala on July 3rd, 2011. Although he was a full five weeks premature, and only 4 lbs at birth, he did not have Down Syndrome or anything else other than the experience of being born into this world.
I was so overjoyed to see him that I forgot to even ask about his genetic "normalcy" until many hours into holding him that first night. I had come to peace with who he was in those moments, and it just didn't matter to me. That first night in the neo-natal intensive care unit I held him all night long as machines monitored his breathing. In the days and weeks that followed Monique and I began picking up our "grains of sand" and adding them to new ones, putting them into a new order just like we would have done if he wasn't "normal." It's my feeling that there are few experiences in life that are as paradoxically profound and yet commonplace as parenthood, and no retreat has ever been as spiritually profound as the one that we are offered with our children.
Editors: Trevor Malkinson
Mandala Photos by Lonny Shavelson, courtesy Photowords
Family Photos by Robin Hultgren, courtesy Espirit Photographie