Parents as our teachers (and students)
I am still processing the recent visit from my parents. It was a bit of a bumpy ride. A couple of things jump out at me that I think are fitting for talking about here.
First, a little background. My dad turned 78 while here. He has had a couple of mild strokes and recently had his left leg amputated below the knee and now wears a prosthesis. He is retired. He is an extrovert with a capital E. He can't not talk, hardly ever, silence must be filled with him talking, asking questions, telling stories, etc. The problem is he doesn't have the memory he used to have, so he will ask me the same questions every day, maybe even more than one time a day. That's ok, I get that he just wants to talk to his son that he doesn't get to see but maybe once a year or so because I live so far away. But it is annoying, and it is especially annoying to my mom, who also gets the same questions day after day. (I don't think he has Alzheimers, as he remembers all the important things, it's just the little details that he wants to talk about all the time. He also passed a mental status exam before his recent amputation.) Mom has to live with him all the time, so her patience is shot, so she snaps at him, a lot, which annoys him. He has a quick trigger with this, gets a little quicker to be crankier every year. The irony is he gets annoyed by people close to him being annoyed with him because he doesn't realize he's so annoying.
How does this relate to my Buddhist practice? There is no "just this" when communicating with my parents, or at the least it is very difficult for communications to be "just this." By communicating I mean more than talking. Sharing living space is communicating. Not speaking to someone is communicating. Anyway, even if i do manage a "just this" moment, the other parent doesn't, because every interaction seems to carry the whole of family history behind it, mine and that parent's as well as with everyone else in the family. The simplest exchange, or lack of exchange, can cause snarls and hurt feelings. When they are here I try to turn my patience dial way way up. It's just a few days, I tell myself, I can be patient with them for just these few days. Zazen helps, so does lots of metta practice, and I kept reminding myself that they were also Buddhas. That last one really helped.
Another way it relates to my practice is that I realize my dad is still teaching me. But as a kid it was teaching me how to be like him (and I am, and there is good/bad in that, he is discovering), and now he is teaching me how to NOT be like him. He is so very clearly suffering from what we call delusions but he sees as a black/white/no in between reality. He has almost no middle way in him. He is happy or mad, things are good or bad, etc., and it seems the bad wins out most of the time, at least from what I can see and mom tells me. I spent part of an evening trying to get him to understand that if he could just "let go" a bit life would be easier, that he would be happier, or at least not have to get angry so often. I tried to be his teacher on this simple Buddhist concept, and he sort of got it, but the idea of "letting go" is not very familiar to him. All I can do to help him is be with him, be patient with him, and try to teach him some of the things I have had to unlearn from him.
My parents are hard practice, but the valuable lessons they still provide are worth it, and I was wondering if other folks have similar experiences with their parents as they get old. I know Jundo has talked about his mom here many times, and he is welcome to again, but anyone else?
Re: Parents as our teachers (and students)
My mom has been my foremost example of Kannon Bodhisattva, and growing up bearing witness to her inner strength and determination has undoubtedly been what has given me the strength to get through the trying times in my life.
My mother is not perfect and can be distant and oversensitive and all sorts of other things... but what has stuck with me is how naturally her "give/take" dial is set to "give." Especially in comparison to my father. My father came from a family with money... my mom from a working class family that struggled, with an unreliable alcoholic for a father.
And after my parents divorced, my mother's lifestyle became much more spartan while my dad continued to live an upper middle class lifestyle of expensive vacations and toys and whatnot else. But despite my father's greater material resources, my mom was the one who was always giving... money, gifts, time, ideas, a listening ear. When my sister or I were in a bad spot, my mom was the one who would send us money. My dad told us he was "broke" often enough it became like a broken record, even as he went off on nice vacations and got new luxury cars...
And in this way, I learned what it is to be selfless and giving. When my stepdad came on the scene, he only reinforced what I'd seen in my mother, with his endless patience and willingness to give of himself without question or reservation. I know it is my mother who set the blueprint in me for the "bodhisattva ideal" I would embrace (and imperfectly actualize) later.
But for the above criticism of my father... he is not an evil person. Just a bit selfish. But his enthusiasm for so many different things has rubbed off on me profoundly: nature documentaries, the mysteries of outer space, the marvels of science, classical music, good food and wine... my mother showed me how to be a spiritual and giving person but my father showed me how to enjoy life. I continue to try to learn how to reconcile these two.
I wonder what might have become of me growing up in the Bible Belt if it weren't for my father's nearly religious enthusiasm for science. No church service could ever be as awe inspiring as the Milky Way on a cloudless night. I learned how to ask questions, and enjoy asking them, from him. I clearly recall him telling me how he spent most of his twenties searching for an answer to the question "Why?" only to realize later that the question was fundamentally flawed. Looking at how he lived his life, and his almost moronic disregard for the impact of his actions on his family, I concluded that his "answer" must fall short somehow. But I much better understand now... just as I better understand that my father's flaws don't make him evil and that despite his cluelessness and childlike need to pamper himself with toys, he's always had a good and loving heart. And has given a lot of himself also to my sister and I over the years.
I've shared with my parents about Buddhism to some extent, with interesting results. I was telling my father about the practice of zazen and learning how to let go of one's thoughts and not identify with them... my father said, "But who would I be without my thoughts?" A great spiritual question, but to him it wasn't a question, but a conclusion, and one that barred him from pursuing Zen further. I've shared a lot with my mother also, who has benefited to a limited extent from my sharing of books by Pema Chodron and Byron Katie with her, as well as my own perspectives. It's taken my mom a long time to recover from the social, financial, psychological and spiritual fallout from her divorce from my father over ten years ago, but she's slowly started to appreciate that her generous heart and the resulting loyalty and affection of her children are a much greater treasure than my dad's money. Though she's also taught me, with my idealistic preaching about the evils of money, that the stress and struggles of having less do take their toll.
It's been interesting to watch my sister (who is younger) start off on her own spiritual path in the last few years... becoming dissatisfied with life, asking questions that have taken her to dark places... there are so many parallels it's uncanny, especially given that on the surface my sister has almost been my perfect opposite, extroverted where I am introverted, a partier and wild child compared to my more ascetic and studious lifestyle... but over time, she has become more introverted, and more "spiritual"... she's sharper than me in a lot of ways, though she has a complex stemming from childhood that I'm the smart one and she's not smart enough. I learn from her all the time... she sees so many things before I did, and even now sees things I haven't seen yet... she is a great teacher. And she more than my parents has taken an interest in Buddhism... has been asking me a lot of questions recently about meditation. She's told me that I've helped her learn how not to be so troubled and taken over by her thinking, which is a remarkable thing to hear.
Re: Parents as our teachers (and students)
Reading over what I wrote again, I think I need to add that I actually get along quite well with my folks. It is not as dark as that post may make it appear, just that this recent visit was bumpier than usual. And I think that is the trend. They are easy guests with a light footprint. They don't need me to entertain them, which is good because there is little where I live to entertain them, so they bring books and we watch movies and eat way too much food. Also, my dad is a great guy who you would certainly enjoy meeting for an evening or even a day. All that annoying stuff is for those of us close to him, friends and family that know him really well. You know the old saying, you only hurt the ones you love. Well, that sort of applies.
Ok, conscience clear........
Re: Parents as our teachers (and students)
I need to call my mom..........