My book, Broken Open, is a collection of stories about lessons learned in my own life and in the lives of those I have met during my years of work at Omega Institute, the learning and retreat center I co-founded 35 years ago. The book's thesis is that difficult times offer us a choice—to be broken down, or to be broken open. Any challenge—from the most painful loss, to the most ordinary annoyance—can become an opportunity to rise from the ashes, wiser and stronger. I call that opportunity a "phoenix process."
If you want to pursue a phoenix process of the highest order, I would recommend raising children. Parenthood is a clumsy yet majestic dance in the flames. When you parent, you fall in love with someone who is always changing into someone else, and whom you know will leave you. Yet most parents will say that they have never given themselves to anyone as fully as they have to their children.
Parenthood is a never-ending journey down a wide river of worry and love. You get in that boat with your kids and you never get out. They get out—they build their own boats and row into their own destinies—but you stay in the original boat, always their parent, forever caring and forever kvelling (a useful Yiddish word that describes how parents express pride in their children.)
Sometimes the act of parenting is an awe inspiring adventure. Your heart expands to accommodate a vastness of feelings so tender and unselfish that you step boldly into the nobility of your true character. And sometimes parenthood is a mundane and frustrating hamster-wheel of a job—an exhausting labor of continual surrender. It's a training; but just when you get the hang of sleeping upright in a rocking chair and changing dirty diapers, the kid sleeps through the night and poops in the potty, and the job description changes. It's like George Carlin's complaint, "Just when I found out the meaning of life, they changed it."
So you go back into on-the-job training, and by the time you've mastered communication with a tantrum-throwing toddler and become addicted to the warm, wet smell of your little one after a bath, he squirms away and goes to kindergarten, and suddenly, you have a new best friend—a funny, wise, and adorable companion. But now you have to learn to deal with play dates and social study reports and parent/teacher conferences. And then sports and school plays, and friends and hurt feelings, and that shifting boundary between granting them freedom and giving them direction. Soon, they're teenagers and there's no real training for that, so you take it one day at a time, difficult decision by difficult decision, and finally, if things go the way they ought to, the kids leave home, they leave you, and they push off into the future.
Parenting in all of its stages is a path with mythic twists and turns, a spiritual practice of the highest order. If your spiritual goal is to embrace life, moment by moment, in both its rapture and its pain, then parenting can get you there every day. Holy texts throughout the ages tell us that the truth is to be found between the seeming opposites in life—between your own will and a greater will; between limits and liberty; between the call to care for others and the need to care for yourself. In the parent/child relationship these concepts become supremely real. And you get excellent feedback every day from the most demanding master—your own kid—whose spiritual specialty is in teaching you how to keep on loving even when you are tired, scared, confused, or pissed off. Isn't that what every seeker is after?
At each stage of your child's growth, you are given ample opportunities to use parenthood as a mirror. You get to see exactly where you fall short in the most graphic ways. Is your failing self-absorption? Do you resist putting the needs of others first? Or do you err in the other direction—are you a martyr, a guilt-tripper, a co-dependant smotherer? Do you fear change? Are you impatient? Jealous? Comparative? Whatever it is that wants to be transformed in your psyche, will reveal itself to you as you parent. If you accept the challenge, parenting becomes a perpetual process of change and transformation, and one of the best chances we are given to be broken open by love.
Adapted from Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, by Elizabeth Lesser, Villard
Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder and senior adviser of Omega Institute, the largest adult education center in the United States focusing on health, wellness, spirituality and creativity. Find out more about Omega's workshops and retreats with some of the leading spiritual teachers of our times. www.eOmega.org