Ways of Seeing: A reflection on Mother’s Day

On Mother’s Day, I awoke to hear one of my favorite interviewers (Krista Tippett) in conversation with one of my favorite American Jewish-Buddhist thinkers — yes, there are actually quite a few of those — Sylvia Boorstein. After listening for five minutes, I immediately texted my mother, “Happy Mother’s Day! And, btw, you should listen to ‘On Being’ right now, Krista is interviewing one of my favorite Jew-Bu’s.” I don’t often text my mother, but in that unique-strange-challenging and thankfully humorous world of “adult middle-aged women and their mothers,” I didn’t really want to talk to her first thing in the morning, I just wanted to pass on Sylvia’s advice.
Boorstein, the author of “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist,” often describes herself as a “wife, mother, grandmother, author, teacher and psychotherapist,” placing an emphasis on mothering and grandmothering as the accomplishments of which she is most proud. She speaks wisely and tenderly about how parenting involves “mortgaging your heart” the minute you bring a child into your life. She says this not to arouse fear or regret in her listeners, but simply to acknowledge “what is” in terms of the profound beauty and loss of control that comes with parenting. When you are pregnant, she mused, “everyone says, ‘Congratulations! Good, good, good”; no one says, “Brace yourself.”
A chief aim of mindfulness-practice is learning how to nurture equanimity, even when the vicissitudes of life make you feel like equanimity is impossible, even absurd. Equanimity is not about sailing through life refusing to be affected by the deep loves, losses and challenges that life inevitably delivers. It’s about recognizing what is happening and learning how not to increase your suffering by actively hating, worrying about or trying to change what is going on (which I am prone to do on a regular basis!).
In her own life, Boorstein has said, “I tell people that I can have the most profound equanimity and be two words away from falling apart completely.” “What are the two words?” her students ask. “Well,” replies Boorstein, “You have to understand that first the phone rings … and then the voice on the other end says ‘Hello, Ma?’ and you know it doesn’t sound right?” When Boorstein recounted this story before a large audience, the roar of laughter that interrupted her confirmed that she needn’t say more. Everyone got it.
What I loved the most about Sylvia Boorstein’s conversation with Krista Tippett, however, was how she made accessible the traditional Buddhist teachings on how we increase our own suffering. Boorstein spoke of being a chronic worrier, in part because she grew up with a mother who had a heart condition. But to see one’s self as “a worrier,” Boorstein explains, leads one to become trapped in an identity that isn’t real; rather, she advises, we should see our emotional tendencies as “a glitch of neurology.” In saying this, Boorstein is being metaphorical, not scientific. But the metaphor is helpful for understanding our particular default responses to the things that life throws our way. As Boorstein puts it, “When I am challenged, worry arises in my mind. … It came with the equipment. I’m also short and I have brown eyes.” For others, she added, the default response might be seeking sensual distraction “like ‘Where’s the donut shop?’” Again, the audience laughed. The point, Boorstein added, is not trying to banish your “peculiar neurological glitch,” but to learn “to work with it wisely.”
I don’t know about you, but I find this approach quite liberating. It tells things like they are, but in ways that release us from the sticky web of self-judgment. For example: “Sometimes when I ought to call my mother, avoidance arises in me.” I know such a feeling is very rare among adult daughters, but is it really so bad? On Mother’s Day morning, by not self-judging, I could notice my mixed feelings as well as my need for the sensual distraction of coffee. I could send my mom a text and direct her to some Buddhist advice I really thought she could use (which, I confess, was kind of fun). And then I called her in the afternoon and we had a truly lovely conversation.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is associate professor of religion and environmental studies at Middlebury College and a “boutique shepherd” in Monkton.

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