Monday, August 30, 2010

The Buddha, the Babies, Saturn, and Suffering

“Life is suffering,” said the Buddha, upon attaining enlightenment. He chose that sentence as the First Noble Truth. Numero Uno. As a mother, I can tell you, infancy provides plenty of evidence for his theory. In many ways, there’s nothing cute about the lives of these small humans--colic, teething, gas, birth complications, difficulty breast feeding, difficulty pooping, and any number of injustices any mother can tell you about. To ask, “Why is it like this?” is probably to bark up the wrong tree. If you do and you’re like me, you’ll end up thinking it’s your fault somehow.

There is so much romanticizing of motherhood that I found it difficult to bear the flagrant contrast between the projected ideal and my reality. I mean, we had our moments of being the beatific mom with the sleeping baby, but more often, we were the harried, anxious mom with the baby who would not stop crying and could not be put down for one minute. In her early infancy, my daughter cried without stopping for hours at a time. We'll never know why. She got an ear infection even though I was doing everything “right”. She struggled with seemingly incurable gas; we tried physical exercises, homeopathy, gripe water, chamomile tea, all of it; nothing we could do took away her pain. And, as if it were not hard enough to have a screaming infant on my hands, my mind tormented me: "DO SOMETHING, YOU INADEQUATE FOOL! MAKE IT STOP! THAT'S YOUR JOB! AAAH!"

I had a breakthrough one morning when I read an essay on the meaning of Saturn in Greek mythology. The author said that Saturn’s purpose is to teach us that life has a harsh side. Everyone has to deal with it; there are no exceptions. Through Saturn, we experience constriction, pain, powerlessness, and loss. These are human experiences, built in to the fact of being alive on planet earth. Suffering is as natural and unavoidable as breathing. It just is, man. Don't fight it. It's like trying to fight the sky. In spite of six years of meditating and studying Buddhism, I had somehow not really understood the First Noble Truth, not in terms of mothering anyway, and it was as if I were hearing it for the first time. I felt like a massive burden had been lifted from my chest. Life is harsh, I said to myself, and felt a strange enthusiasm rise up within me. "Life is harsh," I said again, out loud.

By the time my husband woke up, I was jumping around like a street corner prophet broadcasting The Truth: "Life is harsh! Life is harsh!" I handed him a cup of coffee and explained excitedly, “It’s not my fault that Elva got an ear infection and that she cries and nothing I do helps. It’s not my fault that she has gas. It’s not my fault that our birth plan didn't work out the way we planned it. Life is just like that sometimes. Being born is hard. Being a baby is hard. It’s not because I’m doing something wrong.” Apparently, he already knew this. For me, it was, and still is, news I can use. Every time I let go of feeling responsible for suffering I can't control, I have more energy to throw at the suffering I can control, or the things I can do to relieve the suffering that just is. And so, I'm very grateful for the bad news, and the good news, that my daughter will suffer and it will not be my fault and a lot of the time there's nothing I can do about it. It's just her birthright, along with joy, of course, and beauty, and love. All of which she's getting, and giving, in spades.