One of the most profound guides to spiritual practice that I have encountered is the set of lojong (“mind training”) slogans that have been practiced in Tibetan buddhism for centuries. The following is a set of slogans inspired by lojong.
1. Drive all blames into one.
Do not blame anyone else for anything. This includes your children. It especially includes them. Recognize that if you are feeling irritated or angry, at the heart of this is an aversion to feeling blamed and the desire to avoid that feeling. At the core, you simply do not want to feel small, weak, confused, ashamed, and helpless. You do not want to feel open and vulnerable. You are recoiling against humility. But that is the heart of enlightenment. That is bodhichitta. That is the goal, and you are actively trying to run away from it. So stop. Look for the trapdoor of humility. Open yourself to the blame. To all of the blame. Cultivate a completely open heart.
2. Be present.
The time that we have with our children is limited. And we don’t even know how limited. Death comes suddenly and without warning. Each moment we have to be present with this dear one could be our last. Our phones, our friends, interesting articles, inspiring thoughts, dramatic and captivating emotions – even our work – none of these is more important than this precious one. We do not want to communicate the opposite message to him. Things – expensive things, delicate things, sentimental things, and even other people’s things – are not more important than communicating love, acceptance, and compassion for this dear one.
Mindfulness means being fully present. Stay just here and now with this precious child in this moment just as it is.
3. Practice deep listening wholeheartedly and without reservation.
To listen is to love. Listening is one of the best things we can do for our children, and this becomes more and more important as they grow older. One writer puts it bluntly: “Once your child reaches the age of 13 or 14 he knows your opinion of everything under the sun. Your job from now on is to shut up and listen.” As our children grow up, our opportunity to transmit wisdom to them shifts more and more from instructing them to demonstrating for them in our words and actions deep acceptance and the profound power of resting in love and compassion. Deep listening is a huge part of that work. This sort of listening allows our children the space they need to flourish and learn on their own.
4. Accept this dear one completely; correct only sparingly and kindly, and do not criticize.
This dear child is criticized all day long by teachers, by peers, and by himself. Home should be a haven of acceptance, love, and compassion. People act the way we treat them unless and until they become strong enough to reject or disregard us. If we treat this dear one like he is rotten, either he will be rotten, or he will cut us out of his life, leading to tremendous suffering for all of us. Our home and our relationship with this dear one should provide a haven for him, a place of rest and wholesomeness. It should not just be a comfortable home for us as parents, with everything just the way we like it. If we let ego be in charge, this could become for him simply “my parents’ house,” rather than his home – merely a place where he sleeps but which he would like to get out of as soon as possible. No one wants to live in a place where everything they do is wrong.
5. Don’t expect a harvest on planting day.
We often want instant confirmation from our children that our instruction has been effective. We want to see the “aha” moment in their eyes when they understand and appreciate the pearls of wisdom that we have just given to them. It can be easy to believe that our children will only learn something if we explain it to them in detail and they immediately give us some sign on the spot that they have understood. But as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, although our words can be powerful in time, we shouldn’t expect instant results:
Sometimes we see our children doing things that we know will cause them to suffer in the future, but when we try to tell them, they won’t listen. All we can do is to stimulate the seeds of Right View in them, and then later, in a difficult moment, they may benefit from our guidance.
Even worse is when we allow ourselves to become aggressive, impatient, angry, or resentful in the process of trying to communicate with them. We cannot bully our children into right thinking. We usually can’t persuade them either. Reframe the goal instead as simply watering positive seeds within them. In the process we do not want to also inadvertently water the negative seeds within us or in them, or to poison the positive seeds in anyone in our family.
Often, if we are honest, our true goal is to extract from this child an expression of submission, to roll over meekly like an ashamed puppy. But this sort of shaming and desire for dominance is just an expression of ego-clinging.
Expecting the worst of people invites them to act their worst. It also crates a conflict of interest: ego starts to root for others’ faults and failures in order to justify its theories about them. This also nurtures biased perception that leads us to overlook virtuous actions and overemphasize nonvirtuous actions. Nurturing a culture of suspicion and mistrust draws these dear ones away from virtue, stability, confidence, and wholesome authenticity toward fear, anxiety, insecurity, and despair. We can of course be watchful for suffering and the seeds of suffering, out of a genuine loving and caring desire to help, care for, and encourage them. But we should also permit space for healthy flourishing.
7. Don’t fight unimportant battles.
Before digging in your heals and taking an oppositional stance, ask, “Is this really worth it?” Only oppose this dear one if the point at hand is truly important to someone’s health and safety. Be selective. And pause and reflect with an open, calm mind before deciding how to respond. Breathe. Let the fullness of the present moment and the entire situation wash over you. This is not a test of you. If is just life. Then, if you calmly decide that the matter is important enough to warrant opposition, make sure to oppose only like the still, solid boulder at the base of the waterfall. Be unmoving yet calm. True strength comes from patience and compassion, not reflexive aggression.
8. Don’t trade in stereotypes.
Stereotypes are instances of wrong view, misapplying generalized conceptual notions to blind us or to indulge our ignorance of true reality. They are the opposite of caring curiosity, and they nurture dismissiveness, pride, arrogance, ignorance, and frivolousness. See this beautiful human being as he really is. Does he do everything the way we would like? No, of course not. Does he do everything skillfully, peacefully, gracefully, and with an attitude of kindness and charity? No, of course not. But see him as he really is. This can only be done if you move ego out of the way, look deeply, and see clearly with an open heart.
9. Don’t interrogate.
Don’t grill this dear child with questions. Too many inquiries make him feel on the spot and can be a way to take away his feeling of dignity and safety by bringing things to a painful point. Ask sparingly and in a kind way, and be patient in awaiting a response. Allow him space and time to talk in his own way, even if you find his manner of speaking irritating or inartful. Allow for pauses. Let expressed thoughts be incomplete or tentative. Be accepting of silence, as well as disagreement, confusion, and error. It takes humility to recognize error, which can only happen when one feels safe and one’s mind is calm. Understanding this, we can let go of wanting him to admit error on the spot while caught up by afflictive emotions. We can see this as an opportunity to practice patience. When the conversation lulls, simply say “I’m listening.” That pause, and the permission to gather his thoughts, implies safety and love and permits real communication.
10. Don’t expect instant compliance.
We are generally inclined to view all our demands as reasonable, whether they are or not. We only see things from our perspective, not theirs. They get engrossed in activities that we are not a part of. They get wrapped up in thoughts and feelings and games that we can’t see and are unaware of. We often expect our children to jump up and immediately comply with a request in a way that we would never demand of anyone else. But it often takes a bit of time to wrap up what they’re doing, switch gears, and transition from one task to the next. They sometimes need a little time to move from their world to our world.
And don’t be phased by reflexive opposition. Don’t be bothered when they respond to our requests with a reflexive “No!” Remember the parable of the two servants. One said he would obey but did not; the other said he would not obey but did actually obey in the end. Only ego would prefer the empty flattery of apparent compliance. Allow this young student of virtue the space and opportunity to see his error and change course on his own.
11. Don’t compare.
Remember that what we want most for this dear one is to experience joy, peace, contentment, and equanimity, and that this cannot happen without deep self-acceptance and genuine confidence, as well as creativity, vulnerability, and courage. Comparing this dear one to others, and teaching him to compare himself to others, poisons those positive seeds.
12. Don’t nitpick physical appearances.
This is an application of the lojong slogan, “Don’t talk about injured limbs.” Recall how difficult it has been for you to truly accept your body as it is rather than taking an aggressive, oppositional stance toward your physical appearance. Recall in particular how self-conscious you became as a teenager, and how helpless you felt to change attributes that you perceived of as flaws. Our son may very well need occasional gentle reminders to shower, brush his teeth, and develop other habits of action that will help him to maintain and care for his body and health. But he does not need the two most authoritative and persistent voices in his life to communicate a lack of acceptance of his body.
13. Don’t tell embarrassing stories or complain to anyone about your child.
This slogan is an application of the lojong slogans, “Don’t talk about injured limbs,” and “Don’t bring things to a painful point.” Sometimes we feel obligated or compelled to share embarrassing stories or complaints about our children to others. This often springs from a desire to mitigate a sense of disparity between our own good fortune or potential or implied superior status and the misfortune or potential or implied inferior status of others. We offer these stories as a means of preemptively lowering our stature before them. So it appears to be an expression of humility. We are saying to others, in effect, “Look, we are not perfect parents, we are not a perfect family, our children are not perfect. You don’t have to be intimidated by us; we are not as impressive as we might seem.” But this is false humility. And it is based on ignorance. The assumption underlying this contrived ritual is that our children’s behavior, perceived personalities, character, etc. are a reflection of us. But in doing this we fail to see that we are giving away something that does not belong to us but to our children. And doing this sort of thing can harm our children by creating or perpetuating negative expectations in others, which can powerfully influence their perceptions, attitudes, and the ways they interact with our children.
We will have many opportunities to show true kindness, humility, and compassion toward others. We do not need to participate in these child-shaming and self-shaming rituals.
14. Don’t expect virtuosity.
This slogan is connected with the lojong slogans, “Don’t try to be the fastest,” and “Of the two witnesses, hold to the principal one.”
Looking deeply, we can see that achieving a certain status or recognition, whether as a performer, musician, scholar, athlete, or any other category of acclaim, is in itself empty. It is only of value in itself to ego. Any value or importance that these may have is only to the extent that they serve as a proxy for assessing virtuous actions or character such as diligence, patience, self-control, or wisdom. But there is no one on this earth who has a better vantage point from which to make these assessments directly than us – excluding our child himself. So we don’t need a proxy. Only ego would desire confirmation of our assessment by others.
Additionally, we should be aware of the temptation to look for recognition of our child as a derivative recognition of ourselves, which is merely another game of ego. If this dear one receives acclaim, then of course we can rejoice with him in this good fortune, and even more so in the virtuous actions that elicited that result.
15. Apologize generously.
Apologize freely, easily and often. Refusing to apologize, doing so reluctantly, or indulging resentment for being expected to do so constructs a wall between us. All of these tendencies spring from ego-clinging, from aversion to humility. Recognize that you have been unmindful. You have not failed a test. There is no escape from shame except humility. That reluctance is simply another game of ego.