What can we learn from children?
I became a parent almost three years ago and it’s hard to describe how it changed my life. There are good days and bad days. There are moments of sublime joy and moments of utter annoyance.
Like many things in life, parenting is difficult to summarize and how you approach it largely determines the experience itself. The right orientation is often the difference between satisfaction and frustration.
A few months ago a book was published called Parent as mystic, mystic as parent was thrown onto my lap out of nowhere. I had never heard of it, but it was highly recommended. It ended up being just what I needed to read at just the right time. It’s not preachy or pompous, and it certainly isn’t a parenting guide. In some ways, it’s less about parenting and more about how to live a grounded life.
The book is by David Spangler, an early pioneer of the New Age movement, who wrote the book in 1998 as a side project. It’s not an easy book to categorize, but at its core it’s an attempt to break down some of the artificial boundaries between spirituality and everyday life.
I contacted Spangler for the latest episode of cafemadrid conversations to talk about the book and what he wanted to say in it. This is a talk about parenting, but it’s not just for parents. It’s about being more present in your life, whether you have children or not, and it’s also about the wisdom of children, about what we can learn from them – and what we often forget as we get older.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s a lot more in the full podcast, so listen and follow cafemadrid conversations On Apple Podcasts† Google Podcasts† Spotify† stitcheror wherever you listen to podcasts.
You call parenthood a distinctive spiritual practice. What do you mean?
One of the things parenthood requires is the surrender of self. It doesn’t say, I surrender my sovereignty and you’re going to dominate me now† It is surrender for the good of the other. That’s what spirituality is about for me. If I see the whole world as the other, if I see it as filled with life, then the spiritual path for me is to discover how I can help all life around me flourish.
This becomes very concrete and specific when you are parenting, because the child has clear needs and you have to step beyond your own self and embrace the reality of the other person. And you discover that you have the means to serve you – that is a very spiritual experience.
The thing with kids is that they always enjoy the world ahead. They have what you call ‘the beginner’s mind’. Why do you find so much wisdom in this instinct?
Our perception of the world is filtered as we age. The most common filter is the tendency to say, “I know, that sounds familiar, I’ve seen that 100 times.” But the moment that filter kicks in and we think the world has nothing new to offer, we miss all kinds of things that are interesting or educational.
Kids don’t have those filters. The idea of ”beginner’s mind” is essentially that you don’t have that kind of filtering going on where you reduce your awareness of the world.
But there are different kinds of wisdom, right? I mean, we have wisdom that our children don’t have, wisdom that comes from experience. We have ways of seeing the world that can be really productive, and they have ways of seeing the world that are productive precisely because they are not based on past experience, because they see the world without any conditions or prejudices. And mixing those two ways of seeing the world can be very fruitful.
You write early in the book that a mystic doesn’t say, “This is where spirituality begins and the mundane ends.” Rather, I like the idea that the challenge is not to find the sacred out there, but to be still enough to see the sacred in every little moment of life. Anytime you don’t see it, that’s a choice. Parenting has certainly clarified this for me, even if I am constantly making the wrong choices.
That’s fantastic, Sean. I totally agree. In some ways we become prisoners of words like “spirituality” and “mysticism.” Much of my work over the years has been to try to help people see that the reality of the experience is beyond words. We create these situations where everything has its place – that’s my mystical side or that’s my spiritual side or now I’m meditating or whatever. But playing alone with our children is not like meditating, so he has to do something else.
Our children operate on a different level of consciousness than we do as adults and we forget that. I think we really forget how aware and cognitively powerful a child’s mind is when it’s struggling with the world, but it doesn’t process that information the way an adult does.
Learning to communicate with a 2 year old can be an adventure to an alternative way of seeing the world. So when I meditate to try to tune in to a different level of consciousness, that’s great. But if I’m trying to communicate with my two-year-old and we’re trying to build a rapport together at the time, I kind of do the same thing. It still reaches to a different consciousness than mine.
I think a lot about how I always model my son’s behavior. No matter how big or small, any decision to let anger drive you or not to see the joy in something, my child sees that and internalizes it. I feel like when we do that, parents are just helping our kids unlearn the instincts that make them so uniquely wise in the first place —
Parenting is a big responsibility and it demands a lot from us. There is no doubt about that. At the same time, we can burden ourselves with expectations of our performance that make it much harder than it needs to be. I think if we say, ‘Okay, I’m going to do my very best. I’m going to be as aware as I can be, and I’m going to make mistakes and my kid will make mistakes,” we’re going to learn how to fix these mistakes together and hopefully they won’t. harmful or toxic errors.
When we look back at the end of the day and say, “I could have modeled that better. I didn’t have to get angry at that moment’ or ‘I could have reacted better’, then that is a good insight. We are also modeling for ourselves. The problem comes when we say, “Oh, that’s just who I am.” Or “I won’t do that next time”, but we forget and fall back into these habits. I always want to say to myself: That lesson was important, but I’m not going to feel guilty about it. I failed as a parent at that point, but I recognize that I have the power to change the model.
So much of this book is about how our desire for routine clashes with the chaos of children. There’s an example of how you go to dinner with the kids and they just start crying like animals and of course your first impulse was to get mad and scold them but then for some reason you started crying too – and it was a lot of fun.
There’s a lesson there about the spontaneity of children that hit me pretty hard. There’s that tyranny of habit you talked about earlier, this tendency to do the same things the same way over and over again, and kids have “the wisdom of the trickster,” as you describe it in the book. Their relationship to time is so very different from ours, and while we all realize that adults have different responsibilities and much more to take care of, there’s still something valuable in that childish obsession with the moment.
Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between the mystic and the parent here, because I think it has to do with that. In a sense we live in two different times. We live in short and long time. A part of each of us lives strongly in relation to what is happening in the moment, but as adults we also have a long view, because we have both a memory and the ability to imagine the future. And for someone who pursues a mystical side of their life, they recognize that there is a greater self that is much greater than any moment.
Part of our spiritual practice is to tune in and recognize that there is a part of you that lives in this longer horizon. But children live in a short time, especially very young children. They don’t have the memory to gain experience. They don’t have the imagination of the future. They don’t think in consequences.
So I’m talking about this moment with my daughter, Katie, where I was trying to get her dressed because we had to meet her mother and two brothers and we were late. I just couldn’t get her to put on her clothes. She threw a shoe at me or something. It was just a game for her. But I totally lost it and started kicking things and broke my toe. The pain immediately took me out of it, as well as from her.
At that moment, when I got angry, I was angry about what happened next. But my old self, what I would call my spiritual self, knew how insignificant it was. It wasn’t bad. So okay, we’re late to meet Julie and the other kids. This is not a big deal for this greater self. For my little self, for the short term self, it’s a big deal because I’m trapped in that moment. So part of the balance for me between mysticism and parenthood is making sure that my parent self, who so often gets involved in these short-term events, is always attuned to this longer-term self.
If you’re talking about adult responsibilities, you’re right, of course. We all have responsibilities to navigate. But it’s not either-or. It’s not a choice between being like your kids or being like the standard adult. It’s about being big enough to encompass both at once. I’m not giving up on my adult responsibilities, but I also give myself the gift of being open to those moments, as you put it.