Sitting with Sam
Having been a parent for three and a half months now, Im now enough of an expert to give a talk on the subject. Not that I am an expert on babies, these last few months have been one lesson after another in how little I know about babies. In fact, one of the reasons my wife and I have felt comfortable leaving Sam in the care of various babysitters a couple of nights a week is that it has been immediately obvious how much more experience they all have with babies than either of us. No, what I've gotten to be an expert in is all the ways a little baby can make a parent feel proud, frustrated, loving, exasperated and so forth. And its all these feelings that one time or another I have to sit with when I sit with my son.
I say sit with him because of the particular role I seem to have been assigned within the family. My wife, who is staying home and breastfeeding, naturally has borne the brunt of the work. Ive changed my share of diapers, of course, but there no denying she is the one who has to deal with him most of the time alone. My special role comes in the evenings or late at night, particularly when Sam has been having a rough day, maybe because of gas or over-stimulation or whatever, and hes crying inconsolably. When nothing seems to quiet him down, thats when I take over and hold him in my arms and just sit with him while he cries. What Ive learned is that at some point I have to stop trying to calm him down or make him stop crying and be willing just to hold him while he goes through whatever it is that he is going through. Sometimes Ill gently chant Muuuu. I am told low droning sounds, like a vacuum cleaner or running a tap can quiet a baby, so maybe Sam finds Muuuu soothing. Anyway, it calms me down and helps me sit with him. I suppose someone might say that if nothing seems to help, we might as well just put him in his crib and let him cry. But somehow, I think it makes a difference that Im holding him, even if it doesnt seem to do much immediate good.
I think what were practicing in the zendo is something very similar. We all come in with one kind of distress or another: pain, confusion, the buzzing in our brains of obsessive thinking. And what we do is sit with it. The structure of formal sitting, the posture of our bodies, our motionless silence, the quiet presence of those around us, all hold us while we sit with our pain. And just as there is a difference between letting a baby cry all alone and holding him when he is in distress, so it makes a big difference in our lives whether we thrash around alone with our pain, or whether we develop a formal discipline, whether zazen or psychoanalysis, that allows us to contain it, observe it, and sit still in the midst of it. We learn to stop our frantic efforts to escape it, or fix it, to watch the thoughts of blame or explanation that arise all around it, and simply feel it and be it. Practice becomes a container for our pain. And gradually, who we are becomes as much about being that container as it is about being preoccupied or identified with the pain.
Eventually, Sam quiets down and falls asleep, sometimes within a few short minutes, sometimes only after being up most of the night. Whatever the night brings, we go through it together.