The Practice of Motherhood

by Charlotte Rotterdam

As I entered motherhood, I had to ask myself whether there would any longer be space for spiritual practice, or whether the spacious silence of contemplation would be altogether drowned out by baby cries and too many loads of dirty laundry. Ironically, I found the opposite to be true, for in the calls of mothering I met the lessons of the teachings in a more direct way than I had hitherto. As a mother, I have had to call on my practice in the most unlikely of situations and places – in the midst of changing a diaper or in the busy rush of a grocery aisle.

The Tantric Buddhist tradition, of course, offers us many wonderful stories of householders who found realization through the most mundane of chores. Manibhadra, for example, a housewife and Tantrica, is said to have dropped her pitcher of water one day and attained enlightenment. Her awareness, like the water pouring forth from its shattered container, expanded to a complete realization of the nature of being[1]. From the Tantric perspective, our practice is to cultivate a view of the world as fundamentally sacred and an attitude beyond the fixations on good and bad. The spiritual path need not take us out of, but rather can be found within the demands of daily life. For us as mothers and parents, this is good news indeed.

Embracing the Bad Mother

I remember driving with Mateo when he was a newborn baby, nursing him in the back seat of the car. Suddenly, a thought flashed through my mind – what if I rolled down the window and threw him out onto the highway? A dreadful, ghastly thought that perhaps due to its darkness, grabbed hold of my mind, replaying itself over and over again. Wasn’t the instinctual mothering response supposed to be nurturing, caring, protective? My first reaction, of course, was to try to suppress the thought, deny it, push it as far away as possible. But the harder I pushed, the more it took hold of me.

Ironically, it was only when I began to accept these thoughts that they would release, subside back into the ocean of my mind.  How even more difficult it was to admit these thoughts to others. They would think I was a dreadful mother, clearly unprepared and incapable of raising a child. Yet, in speaking about these thoughts with friends, allowing them to be as much a piece of the fabric of my mothering as feeding and nursing and singing lullabies, I actually was able to expand my view of what mothering really was.

True compassion, the Buddhist teachings remind us, begins with releasing our notions of duality, the separation between us and them, the good and the bad. I too am the ‘bad’ mother; I too have the seeds of violence and neglect in me. That line between the virtuous and the vile mother is not so very solid, not so impregnable. I begin to have compassion, both for myself and for others, because I do not deny what is ‘dark’ and ‘evil’ within myself. I make those shadows part of myself and the ‘bad’ mothers part of my community of mothers. ‘They’ are not separate from me, just as my ‘bad’ thoughts are not separate from me.

There are many Buddhist teachings that point to this process of facing our darkness, inviting it in, rather than suppressing it. In this process we not only befriend our enemy, but can find, ultimately, liberation from all forms of duality. The practice of Chöd, developed by the 11th century Tibetan Yogini Machig Labdrön, invites all beings, from enlightened buddhas to the most frightful of demons, to a feast in which one’s own body is symbolically offered as food, providing complete satisfaction to all guests. From Machig’s life and teachings we learn that in offering ourselves to that which would attack us, we make of them protectors and allies.  In a modern practice developed by Lama Tsultrim Allione called ‘Feeding your Demons’, the practitioner calls forth whatever mental, emotional or physical obstacles, or demons she or he may have, and visualizes feeding these whatever it is they most need. These practices teach us that we do not heal our dreadful thoughts by ignoring or pushing them away; rather we invite them in, nurture, and feed them. Mothering, then, becomes not just the practice of nurturing our child, but actually nurturing our entire selves, nurturing the innocent as well as the vile within us. And as we accept and nurture all that is going on, who we are slowly unravels. We begin to drop the cloak of a prescribed self that we have been hiding behind, and we emerge, like our babies, more vulnerable, more naked, more open, and ultimately, more vast.

Releasing the Self

About half way into my first pregnancy I had the simple yet humbling realization that ‘my body’ was no longer ‘mine’ in the normal sense of the word; my body was now home to another being. ‘My’ food was being consumed by someone else and ‘my’ uterus was literally someone else’s stomping ground. This body which up until then had been solely ‘mine’ and constituted my sense of being a unique self was now shared with someone else. I came to see how much I identify ‘myself’ with ‘this body’ – it is a solid reference point for locating who I am in this world, apart and different from others in other bodies. Of course biology shows us that even what we consider our body within this lifetime is constantly changing; our cells are regenerated on average every 7 years (skin cells every 5 days!). So who I was 10 years ago, is not who I am, physically, today. The very notion of physical identity is called into question. If I am not uniquely this body, then what am I?

When we can relax our grip on our own physical form as some kind of personalized property holding selfhood, then we can also begin to soften our very notion of a solid self. From the Buddhist point of view, it is our attachment to a self that ultimately creates our own suffering and that of others. When we discover our own permeability and impermanence, then we have the chance to catch a glimpse of the ‘emptiness’ of our self.  In this process, the open, flexible and compassionate radiance of our being can emerge.

Becoming a mother, holding another being within one’s body, forces one into this awareness in an incredibly direct, visceral manner. Physical self is a shared experience. The body becomes a phenomenal, magical vessel that allows life – one’s own and that of another – to find form in this particular reality. But it is not one’s own, and who indeed one is, becomes just a bit more elusive.

Letting Go

This lesson of letting go of ‘myself’ has continued far past my pregnancy.  One of the greatest things mothering is teaching me is to let go of ‘my’ way of doing things.  My tendency is to plan my day with a mental check-list of what I will get done and when and how I will do it all. My biggest stress is balancing what I must get done (or think I must get done in a certain way) with the needs and calls of my child. I want to write that email but Mateo needs to be changed. I am in the middle of a meeting but the nap is cut short by a loud sound. I am about to make a phone call but Mateo pleas with me to read him a book. I feel the mental tightness that arises as my plans are being obstructed, feel myself struggle against my situation. I want to keep going with what I was doing, continue moving down my check list. And then, if I remember, I can let it go. I just let the email go, the meeting go, the phone call go. This constant process of letting go – of plans, schedules, expectations – I have come to realize, is part of the practice of motherhood.

These are small occurrences of daily life but they add up to become a practice of loosening the tight grip of ‘me-ness’. ‘My’ plans, more often than not, have to do with bolstering that notion of myself that I am trying to create – as productive, efficient, timely. In letting go of the particular plan I have in mind, moment after moment, I have to let go on some deeper level of all those aspects of self that I am trying to manifest so urgently.

In releasing the to-do list and trusting that what needs to get done will get done in due time, some gentler, more compassionate awareness arises. That awareness is all right with whatever is going on, present to do what is called for without disengaging from the larger call of work, home, or relationship, either. I do not have to throw out all my obligations, but they are held within a broader perspective. As the Buddha reminded us, we must hold things in a way that is ‘not too tight, and not too loose.’ If only this spacious, wakeful awareness could infuse every moment. Mateo is my teacher in this, reminding me over and over again about the space that lies in the immediacy of each moment once we release our planned version of reality.

Minding the Gap: Finding Rest

Rest and solitude are, as we know, luxury items for a mother. There is always something to do, someone to take care of – food to make, diapers to change, clothes to wash. I have often laughed thinking how I could now better identify with the multi-armed deities of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions – it is amazing how ingenious one can become even just with two. At times, I have to admit, I just want to run away, take a break for myself, give myself an hour, an afternoon, a day. And of course, when I am able, these are highly prized. But the real practice of motherhood, I realize, is to find the rest within the duties of mothering. Even while changing a kicking child’s diaper, while chasing my toddler down the grocery store aisle, while making a phone call with a continuous tug on my sleeve – right there, in the middle of it all, there is a gap, a space in which the mind can actually relax and find rest. This is not about a massage or a solitary hot bath; it is, of course, more subtle, and ultimately far more rewarding.

The great teachers tell us that enlightenment, realization – which is our true nature – is ultimately not about doing anything: fundamentally, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do. This is a teaching for every moment as well. For me, it has to do with the simple release into becoming fully present with where I am, with what I am doing. It is all OK. There is no more perfect moment or situation than right now. The continuous attempt at escape from the present actually creates our biggest stress and drains our energy.  If right now is good enough – however that happens to look – then somewhere the mind can actually find a gap in its ongoing search for a better moment, and just relax into a kind of spaciousness. Spaciousness, I try to remind myself, is not out there; it is in the interstices of every moment, over and over again. We can’t grab it, we can only settle into it. And ultimately, spaciousness and rest have nothing to do with massages or hot baths, however glorious and well-deserved those may be. Ultimately, spaciousness is simply about resting in the expanse of what presents itself moment after moment.  If I can remind myself of this over and over again, then mothering can indeed become a practice of waking up.

**

Finally, of course, I have to admit that the practice of mothering is a continual work in progress. Like all spiritual practices, mothering is a path. It is never perfected, never accomplished, never completed. A ‘lesson’ learned yesterday becomes a new challenge today. We enter the journey of motherhood not because we will ever reach a goal, but simply because walking it is of infinite value. Hopefully along the way, our practice will also be of benefit to our children. It is a path that calls us to reach into our deepest storehouses of compassion and wakefulness, and offers us along the way the most sublime, inspiring, and ordinary gifts.

Charlotte Z. Rotterdam received her Masters degree from Harvard Divinity School and is Adjunct Faculty at Naropa University where she has taught in the graduate Religious Studies and Core College departments. She is a Trustee of Tara Mandala Retreat Center in southwestern Colorado, where she served as Executive Director for the last four years. For nearly 10 years, she helped create and build Naropa’s School of Extended Studies as Program and Managing Director. She has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for the last 10 years, studying under Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, most recently under Lama Tsultrim Allione, and many others, and has been teaching meditation in the States and in South Africa for the last few years. She is the mother of a three year old son, Mateo, and is currently expecting her second child.



[1] Retold in Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. Page 22.


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