Like any new parent, I am flooded with love for this little being that somehow, fantastically and magically and amazingly, has been born. Anya Lydia Hochachka Simpson arrived on March 13th, 2012, small at only 4lbs 9oz but astounding us with her verve for life. She, at 9 weeks had doubled her weight, began locking her eyes with ours, smiling and giving little chuckles of glee, kicking her legs and waving her arms, and being here more and more fully.
I’ve been wanting to share at least some musings on this journey from the perspective of Yoga, and yet have stalled in not knowing how I could write it all down—all the feelings, love, challenges, insights, aches, beauty… So, this post will not even come close to conveying all, and certainly not conveying it all perfectly, but perhaps will share just a little bit of what has been arising for me, and her, in these precious first few weeks.
I’ll begin with what I've found to be the hardest part of being a parent so far…
In fact, even before becoming a parent, this troubled me. I wondered if I could bear to watch a newborn enter this world that is quintessentially marked by suffering. I am sure most of us, and surely every parent, will relate with this...watching another being suffer, especially one that is innocent and pure, has got to be one of the hardest things.
I don’t mean to say that all of life in this world is suffering, but rather that this dimension operates on duality. On separations of this from that. Of you from me, of pleasure from pain, and so forth. As soon as we split reality into this duality, into these pairs, then there is the experience of both sides of that pair.
Of course, that’s a good news/bad news story. The good news is that because we have these pairs, we can experience their polarity: we can feel pleasure since we also have pain, we can see light because darkness exists. This is the nature of experience, and it is an amazing thing.
The bad news side of this story, though, is two-fold. First, that we experience the hard side of those pairs: the pain, the darkness, and the bad. (I find it exceptionally hard to see an innocent, pure little baby go through that!) And then, secondly, we humans have a tendency to get stuck seeking just one side of those pairs: seeking the pleasurable, the light, the good. In so doing, we end up revolving on the hamster wheel of suffering; like trying to move forward by only turning right, and not understanding why we are only turning in an endless circle. Or, so says that texts and teachings of Yoga (and of Eastern spirituality in general).
So even before I was pregnant, I mused on how truly hard it must be for parents who have nothing but love for their child, to watch as their baby is born into this place where inevitably they will suffer. These weeks I’ve been making sense of this through a few of the key insights of the Yoga of Kashmir Shaivism.
The Yoga of Kashmir Shaivism (along with many other Eastern spiritual traditions) see that the soul incarnates from the Infinite expanse of the Self into a finite contracted separate self. That is, in a sense, the agreement we accept upon our birth. That contraction into a finite form enables us to experience life, but also invariably puts us in the game of duality. So, right away, a baby will experience pain and suffering simply by being here. The practice of Yoga first of all recognizes that, and then traces that pathway back to the Infinite. These texts describe:
"…the process of involution, whereby original divine pure Consciousness materializes, vibrating at grosser and grosser frequencies. Once conscious beings find themselves in manifestation they ask: Who am I? What am I doing here? What is this universe? Why do I suffer?
The yogi reverses the process of creation within himself, he evolves. He reclaims the source of joy and destroys the illusion of duality. This feeling of duality, “I am separate individual at war with the world” he regards as the source of all suffering." (Swami Shankarananda, Consciousness is Everything: the Yoga of Kashmir Shaivism, p. 54)
In contemplating this, I realized that suffering is the entry fee for embodiment. As we become embodied through human birth, we go from the Infinite to become finite. And the first thing we encounter is human experience, a limited, finite experience, which is surely characterized by 'the pairs'…of joy and pain, love and hate, beauty and ugliness... We get it all; that's just the way this works. So, as soon as Anya was born, immediately, she felt cold, hunger, gas and burp pain. Of course, she also simply and fully experiences what it means to be human, which also includes the pleasurable side, the touch of a hand, the taste of sweet milk, the calm of sleeping. But the stark view, and the one that tears at a parent’s heart, is the painful side.
Although, somehow it’s the contrast that really trips me up. Knowing she just came from the All, and is suddenly birthed into a bounded form, makes it harder for me to witness the suffering of her contraction.
They say in the Yoga of Kashmir Shaivism that even when the baby is still in utero, the mother’s breath is a mantra, reminding the child, You are That...You, That... You, That. That nameless, formless Infinite Spirit. On every inhale, every exhale... You, That.
It’s dawned on me again and again these past two months that maybe in amidst the many ways I care for her as her mother—the many diaper changes, breastfeeding, the nighttime wake ups—perhaps the most important way I care for her is to remind her who she truly is.
Even though she can’t understand me yet, I already explain to her that her only two ‘tasks’ in this embodiment are to grow and to awaken. And, she’s well on her way to mastering those...growing like crazy and becoming more alert every day! Emerging into her self and her world with a more focused vision, with an ability to ‘regard’ her own hand, with a clearer sense of who and what is around her. That growing up into greater and greater complexity just continues. All the way up. (As it continues for me in becoming her mother.) And hopefully, along the way she can also awaken to her true Self.
So, my own Yoga practice these days is less one of physical asanas and more about this practice of recognizing our contracted state, and then unraveling it back into a sacred expansion. What I've found to be a simple yet profound practice for that is the practice of seeing all is Spirit. Which is another key insight of the Yoga of Shaivism: that all these separate, contracted forms are in fact displays of the one Spirit.
As I bear witness to Anya’s moments of joy and laughter, as well as her moments of pain and contraction, I practice seeing them as Spirit. This has not entirely alleviated for me the difficult aspects of watching her suffer, but it has helped me hold the space differently for her as she experiences life.
Instead of construing her experience as suffering, I am practicing seeing her very pathway from the Infinite into the finite as lila, the play of Spirit. This play of Spirit, wherein she ‘forgets’ who she is so that she can be born, be embodied, and play here in the world of opposites. Watching her contract and experience, feeling pleasure as well as pain and at times suffering, I realize, this truly is a sacred game of hide-and-seek. Her true nature hides from her self so that life can happen. And this play will continue, day in day out, until one day she’ll awaken and realize who she always, already is.
And in the meantime, I pray that I may be the kind of mother who can walk that path with her.
Tat Tvam Asi
Thou art That.