A Parent on Retreat
How did you manage to spend so much time in retreat with a son? I have a 13-month-old son with Down syndrome and also teach, so I feel like I won't have any time for years.
Thank you for your question. It is a helpful one because we are all trying to find creative ways to integrate practice into our lives—especially as parents.
In response to the first part of your question, I was able to go into retreat with a child due to the kindness of many friends and family from my spiritual community. In our sangha many people have children. All of us make great efforts to support each other’s retreats. One of these friends, who is like an uncle to my son, lived with him in our home, which is just a mile or so from my cabin. Sometimes I would stay at the house in the evenings and other times my son would stay with me in my cabin. I had a little bed for him. And there were short periods of time when I didn’t see him as much.
The nice thing about the situation was that our time together was always special, undistracted and focused. We spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains above my cabin on weekends. During the weekdays he was busy with school. I watched him carefully to make sure he was okay with the situation. We talked about it a lot. For him it was natural that I was in retreat and he always encouraged me in my practice, saying it made him feel secure because he always knew where I was. Also, my husband—his father—was not in retreat and so he had that support as well.
I often notice that being away from the children is hardest for the moms. I remember one year, my son had a big part in a Shakespeare play at school and I felt sad about not attending. My son is a funny and gifted actor. He told me, “I don’t care who comes, mom. I just love doing it.” But I felt such a strong longing to go. That was one of the two times I actually decided to leave retreat because it seemed important to me. The other time was when he asked me to go with him to an alligator farm. So I guess I just paid attention and made decisions based on what seemed best at the time.
Many parents in our community have done retreats. Often they do a traditional 100-day retreat. If there are two parents, one parent will take care of the kids (with additional help from the community). We have a policy that kids are allowed to come up to the retreat land on the weekends, or anytime really, when they have a need to see their parents. In general, it seems to me that the children cherish their time on the land and see the benefits of practice. This is part of their spiritual education. Again, these children have grown up in a dharma environment and so I think it is natural for them. They also see the community as extended family.
One woman, a single mother, went into retreat for a year while another mother with several children took in her child. He loved it. I think that took a lot of courage on the side of the mother—being away from her child that long. But in the end it was deeply valuable for everyone. Another mother took her newborn infant into retreat with her and just did as much practice as she could.
I think when there is a longing we can creatively find ways to practice. Flexibility is key. You can’t hold on to fixed ideas of how you think things should be. You let your longing for practice guide you.
I remember when my son was young I used every waking moment to practice. I think having children helps us value our free time as if it were gold! I became a much better practitioner after my son was born because I started to ask the question: “How can I best use my time?” The answer was always practice.
I think you are also asking a question about how to work with a child with special needs and also just how to organize your own situation to support formal practice. I think it is a really important question you are asking. And it brought back a wonderful memory for me.
My closest cousin’s son, Eli, has Down syndrome. One year he and my cousin came to visit me for a few days. He was so attracted to my shrine room and he saw me just sitting one day and came to sit beside me. He said, “I think something special is going on here.” We sat for about 20 minutes together. It was precious. Eli was only nine then…
Sometimes the poignancy of a few unusual moments—like the time I spent sitting with Eli—is worth hours or even days or weeks of practice. I understand having a child with Down syndrome has specific challenges. Of course, these kids are usually special. I don’t know what a retreat or a daily practice would look like in your situation. But I know that one would have to be creative. One couldn’t just expect an ordinary uninterrupted retreat. But there is no fixed way practice should be. It is important to always remember that sitting on the cushion or enclosing oneself in the retreat boundary is not the practice itself. The point of practice is to work with our mind…how can that happen? How can you fit in even a few moments of genuine practice each hour?
Tulku Urgyn Rinpoche, one of my teachers, used to say that it is better to practice in small bits throughout the day, than to practice in big chunks. And for bigger chunks, as a mom, you might have to get up earlier. I used to get up at 3:30am just to have that space. I cherished that time so much that that I practically jumped out of bed each morning in the dark. I notice now that my son has grown up and I have much more time I don’t do that anymore!
I think it is crucial for all of us to look at life as our practice. I’m sure there is a way for your practice to flourish as a mom. I’m sure you already know this. Sometimes I’m sure too that it is really hard to see your situation as a blessing…but we all feel that about our lives at times. Actually, staying alone in a perfect, uninterrupted retreat situation has its deeply challenging moments too! I’ve had times in retreat when I felt I couldn’t bear one more instant hanging out with my mind. And then, as always, something shifts and everything opens up.
Anyway, I hope you find many creative ways of practicing. It would be beneficial if you could share what you have done with others. I personally would be interested in hearing what you have to say. I wonder if there are support groups for this…or maybe you could initiate one. I remember last year in a teaching one woman who had a child with Down syndrome expressed her frustrations in trying to find time to practice. In fact, now that I think about it, this topic has come up several times. I think perhaps because parents who have children with Down syndrome are both challenged but also deeply moved by the sensitivity and specialness of their children. My cousin told me, “Raising Eli is my practice.”
I find that when I have a genuine question—an open question—and I keep asking it, I start to see creative ways of responding to life…and my life seems to respond to my question. I start to see the world as full of possibilities. “How can I find more time to practice?” is a strong question. Be careful, you might start to find ways to do it!
If you do feel inspired, please keep in touch. If it is not too personal for you, maybe we can post some of your ideas/experiences on this blog.
Being a mother is a noble job. Having a special child with special needs makes you an especially noble mother.
All the best to you,