The wisdom of children – Vox
What can we learn from children?
I became a parent almost three years ago and it’s hard to describe all the ways it has changed my life. There are good days and bad days. There are moments of sublime joy and moments of total exasperation.
Like many things in life, parenthood is hard to sum up, and how you approach it goes a long way in shaping the experience itself. Having the right orientation is often the difference between satisfaction and frustration.
A few months ago, a book called Parent as mystic, mystic as parent was thrown into my lap out of nowhere. I had never heard of it before, but it came highly recommended. It ended up being exactly the thing I needed to read at exactly the right time. It’s not preachy or noble-minded, and it’s certainly not a how-to manual for parents. In some ways, it’s less about being a parent and more about knowing how to live a grounded life.
The book is by David Spangler, one of the early pioneers of the New Age movement who kind of wrote the book as a side project in 1998. It’s not an easy book to categorize, but it’s basically of an attempt to dissolve part of the artificial. boundaries between spirituality and everyday life.
I contacted Spangler for the latest episode of Voice chats talk about the book and what he wanted to say in it. It’s a conversation about parenthood, but it’s not just for parents. It’s about being more present in your life, whether you have children or not, and it’s also about the wisdom of children, what we can learn from them – and what we often forget. in getting older.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s plenty more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Voice chats on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts.
You call parenting a distinct spiritual practice. What do you mean?
One of the things that parenthood requires is self-surrender. That’s not to say, I surrender my sovereignty and you will now dominate me. It is abandonment in the name of the well-being of the other. For me, that is spirituality. If I see the whole world as the other, if I see it as filled with life, then the spiritual path is for me to discover how I can help all life around me to flourish.
It becomes very concrete and specific when you are a parent, because the child has obvious needs and you have to go beyond the limits of your own self and embrace the reality of this other. And you discover that you have the resources to be of service — it’s a very spiritual experience.
The thing with children is that they always revel in the world around them. They have what you call “beginner’s mind”. Why do you find such wisdom in this instinct?
Our perception of the world filters as we age. The most common filter is the tendency to say, “I know this, this sounds familiar, I’ve seen this 100 times”. But as soon as that filter appears and we think the world has nothing new to offer, we miss out on all sorts of interesting or instructive things.
Children do not have these filters. The idea of “beginner’s mind” is basically that you don’t have that sort of filtering going on, where you lower your awareness of the world.
But there are different kinds of wisdom, aren’t there? I mean, we have wisdom that our children don’t have, wisdom that comes from experience. We have ways of seeing the world that can be really productive, and they have ways of seeing the world that are productive precisely because they’re not based on past experience, because they see the world unconditionally. prerequisites or preconceived ideas. And mixing these two ways of seeing the world can be very fruitful.
You write at the beginning of the book that a mystic does not say: “This is where spirituality begins and the banal ends. I rather like this idea that the challenge is not to find the sacred there, it is to still be enough to see the sacred in every little moment of life. Every moment you don’t see it is a choice. Being a parent has definitely clarified that for me, even though I constantly make the wrong choices.
Oh, that’s fantastic, Sean. I totally agree. In some ways, we become prisoners of words like “spirituality” and “mysticism”. Much of my work over the years has been about trying to help people recognize that the reality of experience transcends those words. We set up these situations where everything has its place — it’s my mystical side or it’s my spiritual side or now I’m meditating or whatever. But just playing with our kids isn’t like meditating so it has to be something different.
Our children operate at a different level of consciousness than we are as adults and we forget that. I think we really forget how cognitively aware and powerful a child’s mind is when it’s grappling with the world, but it doesn’t process that information the way an adult does.
Learning to communicate with a 2-year-old can be an adventure into another way of seeing the world. So if I’m meditating to try to tune into another level of consciousness, that’s wonderful. But if I’m trying to communicate with my two-year-old and we’re trying to build a relationship together in the moment, in a way, I’m doing the same thing. It’s always about reaching a consciousness different from mine.
I think a lot about how I always model my son’s behavior. No matter how big or small, every decision to be driven by anger or not see the joy in something, my child sees it and internalizes it. I feel like parents, when we do this, are just helping our kids unlearn the instincts that made them so particularly wise in the first place –
Parenthood is a deep responsibility, and it demands a lot of us. there is no doubt. At the same time, we can burden ourselves with expectations of our performance that make it much more difficult than it should be. I think if we say, “Okay, I’ll do my best. I’m going to be as aware as possible, and I’m going to make mistakes and my child is going to make mistakes,” we’re going to learn to deal with those mistakes together and hopefully they won’t. harmful or toxic errors.
If we look back at the end of the day, and we say, “I could have modeled that better. I didn’t have to get angry at that point,” or “I could have been more responsive,” so that’s a good idea. We also model for ourselves. The problem comes when we say, “Oh, that’s just who I am.” Or “I won’t do that next time”, but we forget and fall back into those habits. I always want to tell myself: this lesson was important, but I’m not going to feel guilty. I failed as a parent at that time, but I recognize that I have the power to change the pattern.
Much of this book is about how our desire for routine collides with the chaos of children. There’s this example where you’re sitting down to dinner with the kids and they start howling like animals and naturally your first impulse was to get mad and scold them, but then, for some reason, you just started screaming too – and it was a lot of fun.
There’s a lesson in children’s spontaneity here that landed pretty hard for me. There’s this tyranny of habit that you were talking about earlier, this tendency to keep doing the same things the same way over and over again, and children have “trickster wisdom”, as you say in the book. . Their relationship to time is so different from ours, and although we all realize that adults have different responsibilities and have to deal with so much more, there is still something precious about this childish obsession with the moment.
Let’s talk for a moment about the relationship between the mystic and the parent here, because I think that’s what it’s all about. In a way, we live in two different times. We live in the short time and the long time. A part of each of us lives in relation to what is happening in the moment, but as adults we also have a long-term view, because we have both memory and we have the ability to imagine the future. And for a person who is pursuing a mystical side of their life, they recognize that there is this greater self that is much greater than any moment.
Part of our spiritual practice is tuning into this and recognizing that there is a part of you that lives within this longer horizon. But children live in a short time, especially very young children. They have no memory on which to draw their experience. They don’t have the imagination of the future. They don’t think in terms of consequences.
So I talk about that time with my daughter, Katie, where I was trying to dress her because we had to go meet her mother and her two brothers and we were late. I couldn’t get him to put on his clothes. She threw a shoe or something at me. For her it was just a game. But I completely lost it and started kicking and broke my toe. The pain immediately took me out of it, and so did she.
At that time, when I got angry, I was angry because of what was happening at that time. But my longtime self, what I would call my spiritual self, knew how insignificant that was. It was not a big deal. So, okay, we’re late to meet Julie and the other kids. For this bigger self, it’s not a big deal. For my little me, for the short term me, it’s a big deal because I’m caught up in this moment. So part of the balance for me between mysticism and parenting is making sure that my parent self, which is so often involved in these short-term events, is always tuned in to this longer-term self. term.
On your point about adult responsibilities, of course, you’re right. We all have a responsibility to sail. But it’s not one thing or the other. It’s not a choice between being like your children or being like the default adult. It’s about being big enough to encompass both at the same time. I don’t give up on my adult responsibilities, but I also give myself the gift of being open at these times, as you say.
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