Mothers and More (written 2018)
It's Mother's Day in Canada as I sit down to write this. Next month we will celebrate Father's Day. These official days to mark our regard for parents are often marked on national calendars in different lands, though the dates may vary. As usual I find that on this day, missing my own mother, being blessed with so many who “mother” me, and having the blessing also of being a mother, the role of family and attached love in human life is much on my mind.
The Buddha made much of a mother's love. In the Metta Sutta, a mother's love is the model he presents for the kind of unconditional love we should cultivate for all beings. “Even as a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child, so should one with a boundless heart, cherish all living beings....” In this way, the natural and instinctive love that a mother feels, the love that does not depend on particular conditions being met, is offered as a measure of the kind of love we work to cultivate for all. Seems a huge task, perhaps. But learning from the inside as a mother, and the child of a mother who loved in this way, allows me to understand the quality of love that I aim to cultivate.
When I reflect on the love that has been shown me in this life by those who are not in the role of “my mother”, I see how this unconditionality is fostered. Teachers, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends, who have given love and protection and support because it was needed, not asking whether it was deserved. The Buddhist concept of rebirth offers the reflection that all beings were once “my mother”. The material of this body has been in the cosmos since its beginning, the energy of this consciousness cycles too through birth after birth. In millenia of living, what relationships may have been possible between me and each other being I encounter? Sharing this deep history, what kindness and compassion is warranted? It gives me pause.
The Buddha also spoke of the gratitude we owe our parents. It is true that many may have had difficult relationships with their parents, or even have been victims of abuse and neglect. But our parents or others fulfilling that role cared for us when we were unable to do so ourselves. And our parents gave us the gift of this precious human birth, where we have the capacity for insight and understanding that comes from reflection and mindful awareness.
I love the practice that Thich Nhat Hanh suggests: When we notice the behaviors of our parents in ourselves, good or bad, we bow to them and acknowledge their presence in our lives, even if they are no longer with us. On Mother's Day, and other special days, this comes to mind for me as a kind of memory ritual.
As well, reflecting on my own role as mother, I note that this deep love I have for my children is shared by other mothers, other parents, for their children. And each person is the child, the special child, of someone. This has been a practice that helps me find compassion for those who bring harm to others with their actions and words. They too were children, they too are influenced for good and for bad by others, they too are loved. They are not foreign and other than I am, despite actions and words I may not condone. My compassion should not ask whether they are deserving.
Mother's Day often means flowers and breakfasts cooked inexpertly by small loving hands. Father's Day may mean BBQ's and fishing trips. But these are facets that are so common they seem cliché and so we may not consider deeply. What days like this can mean within the path of practice is an opportunity for a certain kind of reflection. Gratitude for the unconditional love we give and receive from others. Reflection on how we might cultivate a more universal love and compassion for others. Any day that celebrates love springs from an intention of non-harming and goodwill. Given loving attention, there is material there to grow that further.