A pity beyond all telling
Is hid in the heart of love:
The folk who are buying and selling,
The clouds on their journey above,
The cold wet winds ever blowing,
And the shadowy hazel grove
Where the mouse-gray waters are flowing,
Threaten the head that I love.
—“The Pity of Love”
W. B. Yeats
One night when he was perhaps eight months old, my son woke me, not by crying but by gurgling and laughing. He was in an extraordinary mood. Fully awake, his face broke into a wide smile as I came into his room, his eyes glistening in the glow of the moon above the Brooklyn rooftops. His movements, still uterine, as though he were weightless, were clearly giving him great physical pleasure. And the attention he was directing toward me, the central object of his massive happiness, was as powerful an experience of primal love as I had ever known. Basking in it, stroking my son’s hair, I found a nearly unbearable sensation of regret come over me.
What was it? I asked myself, standing in the moonlit room. Why was such pain attendant on such massive love? The koanic opening line of Yeats’s short poem had long haunted me as an enigma: “A pity beyond all telling/is hid in the heart of love—” koanic because I sensed its truth intuitively, enigmatic because the list of anodynes that followed—regular, everyday occurrences, from markets to clouds—did nothing to explain what that pity was. This night, the poem’s enigma seemed to me more urgent than ever. What is the pity that hides in the heart of love, and why was it overpowering even the magical immediacy of my child’s joy?
Already, I saw, my daughter had transformed from a wondrous baby into a curious, cheerful, intensely imaginative little girl. Already she had friends, interests, secrets. These moments with an infant in a crib—moments stolen from sleep—were likely the last such moments in my life.
I was more right than I knew. My son never again awoke laughing—at least not loud enough to wake me—and soon that eight-month-old face was two years old, then three, and the fat cheeks had smoothed to show my wife’s cheekbones, and the thin baby’s hair had grown into the thick bangs I once had as a boy. And from that night and for a long time after, my experience of my children came to be infused with this pity of love. So much so, in fact, that I thought it was something very like depression. But as I became more versed in this emotion—and particularly as I watched it in my practice of meditation—I became more and more convinced that this pity was not pathological but existential; that there was within it a dharmic insight.
That was not a surprise. Nothing in my practice of meditation has been more powerfully illuminated than my experience of my children. And yet, I had found little that helped me understand what had happened to me, that night with my son. On retreats, in dharma talks, children were mentioned sometimes, but usually as part of the array of generously tolerated, somewhat tangential elements of the lay practitioner’s life. But as I sat with the experience, I began to feel that the question posed by that night when my son was eight months old was not tangential to my practice but key—that it had, in fact, a very precise dharmic analogue. What was plaguing me was an insight into the irredeemable, nonnegotiable temporariness not of attachment—as I first thought—but of experience itself.
I had always associated the central Buddhist insight of impermanence, somewhat abstractly, with loss. In the context of children, that was an easy connection: from the moment of my daughter’s birth I understood that I would fear for her for the rest of my life. But the truth of impermanence that my son illustrated for me that night is that it is not by accident, or by biology, but by definition that love and loss are inextricable. To love children deeply is not only to risk a catastrophic loss; to love children is also to lose them over and over again, on a daily and momentary basis, not as they die, or move away, but as they, simply, grow. Moment to moment they become other than they were, and of their former identities nothing remains—nothing beyond photos and videos, gross approximations that capture the sadness of change every bit as much as they remind us of the happiness of our childrens’ former selves.
And yet, how to live with the shocking fact that loss is not accidental, but part of the very identity of love? How to love our children when each moment of doing so is by definition a moment of loss? How to live with the knowledge that a pity beyond all telling is hid in the heart of love?
The challenge of that question opens the radical heart of Buddhism: the key insight of the radical impermanence of all experience, the true nature of phenomena. I think that most who have confronted this truth—with or without children—will agree that after this insight, little remains quite the same. Yet it was not a meditation on a charnel ground that allowed that insight to come, experientially and directly, to me. It was a laughing baby in the middle of the night.
Children, then, open the dharma for us, offering a massive challenge of loving without attachment, of bringing mindful attention to them, of fathoming the full meaning of impermanence. And from this comes the first of the two prevalent attitudes found in the Buddhist community toward dharmic parenting: the appealing reversal of hierarchies which says that in the investigation of the dharma, our children are our teachers. After all, even Yeats’s crowning poetic insight came to him through children; it was in a classroom that he achieved his transcendent experience of selflessness and the inseparability of process and identity:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
— from “Among School Children”
It’s a powerful concept that our children teach us about ourselves and our practice, but it is also a deceptively subtle one. Taken the wrong way, it turns the issues of raising children into a story about us rather than them. True, they are powerful agents of insight and powerful exemplars of Buddhist truths by their very existence. The problem is, that thought neatly avoids the defining uniqueness of children. For everything is the occasion for the dharma to unfold. It is a virtual truism that no circumstance is not apt, to the attentive mind, for spiritual growth, from abject poverty and tragedy to joy and surfeit. To consider children, therefore, just a privileged point on this continuum is fundamentally distasteful, for the simple reason that there is nothing on earth like them; it betrays their uniqueness and trivializes their preciousness. Perhaps it has to do with the infinite improbability, in a classical Buddhist cosmology, of birth into this realm, and how infinitely precious human children therefore are. Nothing, after all, is as precious in our whole spectrum of lived experience as children.
And then, there is the fact that the basis of our relationship with our children is our responsibility for them. That responsibility dictates that anything to do with children must be about them before it is about us. That responsibility, in dharmic terms, can be very complex, and confuses the possibility of their teaching us. And this, in turn, leads to the second prevalent attitude toward children in American Buddhism: that we practice in order to be better humans, and better parents, and so our children are the beneficiaries of our spiritual growth. This, too, is both true and inadequate. This, too, fails to reflect the fantastic complexity of practicing and parenting.
Often, for example, it seems to me that the truths I explore when I sit are diametrically opposed to those truths I build for my children. I sit in meditation and feel the components of self disentangle, one after the other; yet we constantly offer definition and identity to our children. When I sit, I try to summon the courage to face the psychic risk, spiritual challenge, and brute physical pain of the dharma; yet with our children we build a mythic world of safety. I sit and occasionally have precious insight into the law of karma with its complex interdependence of motivation and responsibility. With our children, however, we present a morality as banal as the bland blue sky. And while, thanks to my children, I am appreciating the fragility of the present, I am required to build around them a world in which the very opposite is true, a world of solidity, of surety, of safety. A world in which identity is solid and death is an abstraction. A world, in other words, in which they can be, for just the first dozen years of their lives, free from fear.
Freedom from fear. To be in a Buddhist practice means to sit every day in faith that such freedom is possible. And yet the fact is that we know it is a life’s work, perhaps many lives’ work, to make even a beginning. Still, in schools across America, children are learning of Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi, David Ben-Gurion and Nelson Mandela, coming home with the idea that freedom is attainable and real, just around the corner, perhaps after junior high school, perhaps in college, perhaps when they go out and do victorious battle with the injustice of the world. So how do we raise children with the awareness that those few who actually do battle with injustice lose far more often than they win; that the vast majority of humanity lives and will probably always live in abject physical misery and political oppression; that anything like spiritual freedom may be hundreds of lifetimes away?
Anyone who has ever walked their child to school in the morning knows the answer to this one, it’s easy. What we do is, we lie. We conceal the basic truths of life from our children—the insatiability of desire, the radical truth of impermanence, the noble truths of the ubiquity of suffering. And while we lie we consistently teach them to rely on the very identity that later, if they are to be truly happy, they will struggle, for years and years—as we do—to dismantle: the self. I doubt that I am the only Buddhist parent who finds himself spending all day sedulously urging his children to construct a strong self, based precisely on the defining role of desire. You are a great reader, you are a fine defensive soccer player, you do not like spinach, you love tofu—if cooked just right. “Be kind to animals,” says a bumper sticker on a neighbor’s car—the mother of three sons—“Hug a hockey player.” Those sons, they did not choose to become aggressive little males, nor, really, did my children choose to become attentive little scholars. It was my friend and myself who made our children conform to identities incarnating our received values—in my case at least, identities determined by thousands of years of cultural programming. But no sooner are the kids to bed than I am in my chair, spending another of the thousands of hours that I spend in trying to see beyond my own sense of self—as a writer, as an intellectual, as a Jew, as a male—a self based on likes and dislikes, skills and inadequacies, biases and predilections, prejudices and inheritances—trying to allow to dissolve that constellation of delusions.
So we lie. What else can we do? As practicing parents follow their wish for freedom further into the transformations, philosophical and personal, of the dharma, they travel further and further not only from what they are teaching their children but also from what their children’s schools, their televisions, their books, the very reality around them—the folk who are buying and selling, the clouds on their journey above—are teaching them. Not only the commercial makers, the toy makers, the fast food makers, not only all those, but we ourselves are part of the vast conspiracy of reality that threatens the head that we love.
And yet the lie is inevitable. We protect our children from the truth, the truth of violence, the truth of money, the truth of death; but also the philosophical truth of life’s stubborn refusal to divulge its meaning, the ethical truth of the world’s implacable disinclination to be anything like what we think of as fair, and the existential truth of the pity of love. What we do is, we lie to them, and we leave the truth for later on. Perhaps we will live to see them struggle with the truth as adults and help them, perhaps it will not be until after our deaths that they come to that, and then we can only hope that our trace, our example, may help; that like Oedipus dying at Colonus, it is only “when we cease to be, [that] our worth begins.”
But it seems to me there is no lie as bad as when we whitewash the possibility of freedom, of happiness. On one hand, we tell them that happiness is not only possible, it’s fulfilling. On the other hand, we know that in fact the question of happiness is a complex one. That it’s tied inextricably to the practice of freedom, which is frightening and difficult. Life, we tell our children, will come to them bearing all its possibilities if they simply do what they’re told. But in fact we know that life itself is bearable only insofar as we can devote ourselves to a constant, time-consuming, and often enormously painful practice of awareness, presence, and do so with a lion’s heart for love and endless, ever-repeating loss.
And so, what is dharmic parenting? Is mindfulness an R-rated activity, to be saved for when the kids are to bed or the babysitter is there? Over time, that thought has come to seem less and less adequate to me. Over time, in fact, to abandon my children to an education that is not informed by the dharma has come to strike me as unethical. Is it not possible that between the extremes of treating our children as the occasion for our own dharmic progression, and offering them only ourselves as models of mindfulness, that there is a middle path? This, I have come to think, is a challenge posed to the traditional Buddhist teaching by the particular circumstances of practice in the West.
The opportunities are hard to ignore: every time I turn to an exposition of the dharma or a guide to meditation, I find a map of my children’s minds in the very table of contents. Attachment and aversion: no one who has ever had their child spend months waiting for a birthday party, only to cry until the last guest is gone, can question the insatiability of desire and the impossibility of fulfilling it with a real event. No one who has been driven to tears by their child’s absolute hysteria at the thought of stepping into his first-grade classroom can doubt the complexity of aversion and the urgent necessity to distinguish pain from suffering. As for the remaining three hindrances, I don’t need, I don’t think, to look for illustrations of the specific relevance of sleepiness, restlessness, or doubt to the care and feeding of children. Nor do I need to illustrate the pragmatic and programmatic application of the five precepts—reverence for life, refraining from stealing, speaking from the heart, using sexual energy well, or avoiding intoxication—for a child of any age. Why, then, must the practice of mindfulness be kept from the practice of childhood?
This spring, driving home from a baseball game in which my son had lost his temper and cried, we talked about good sportsmanship. The event itself was far in the past, by now, and with hours of fun between his rage and the present, my son commented happily, “I was a bad sport today.” The statement was deceptively complex.
First, it acknowledged the possibility of change, of transformation, in a way that is incompatible with his younger sense of identity—”I was” instead of “I am.” Second, it affirmed that he could acknowledge fault without guilt, moving happily along a path of experience, learning and transforming. Where had he gotten it from? I like to think that perhaps I had created the circumstance in which insight could arise for my son. Certainly, in any case, I have consciously tried.
What is love? I would not dare to say, beyond what Salinger told us: that hell is the inability to practice it. The radically transformative insight of meditation, to me, has been that whatever love may be, it is not what makes loss bearable—nothing makes loss bearable—but beautiful. I know there are yogis for whom that beauty is pure joy. I doubt that, for me, it will ever be. There will always be a pity beyond all telling hidden in love’s heart.
The best one can do as a parent, the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott taught us, is to be “good enough” —I don’t pretend even to that high status. I find, though, that as my practice has taught me to experience my children with less clinging and more acceptance of their constant change, many of the negative experiences of parenting—anger and rage, terror and worry—have withdrawn, at least a bit, and a greater patience with my daughter and son’s actuality has come. They can be good, and they can be bad: what they can’t do is stay themselves, for “themselves” is an identity that exists in constant flux, a continuum with which I am graced and tasked to share a portion my life.
The truth is, no one will ever see my son’s face as I saw it that night in his eighth month. No one will ever see my son as I saw him that night, a laughing baby, less than a year old. No matter how deeply he may one day be loved, no matter how intimately he will one day be known, no one will ever see the face that I saw that night, because that face will never exist again. It is a vision that exists only in my memory, and when it dies with my memory it will cease to be, forever. Truth to tell, those years of having babies—years when our endless workdays were succeeded by endless nights, years of house renovation and mortgages and student loans and the bewilderment of the baby park—are all rather vague to me now. For years, my wife and I photographed and videotaped our children; then the video camera broke and for years, my failure to buy a new one could wake me in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. My children are being lost to me, I thought, staring into the night, and I have no record of them, indeed, I can barely remember them. I have never come to terms with that truth, and I doubt I ever will. But I believe I can say that sitting with it is transforming my life and my way of being a father.
What is dharmic parenting? I think of Freud’s essay “On Narcissism, an Introduction,” and Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction.” “Children and Dharma: An Introduction,” in the tutelage of those curious and suggestive explorations of unknown territory, might suggest that we can shed light on our children’s experience for them with the simple truths of the Buddhist insight. That we can show them the possibility of freedom from fear not by pretending the world is safe, but by showing, beyond the obvious, the illusoriness of both safety and danger. That an awareness of our children’s temporariness, of the pity beyond all telling that is hid in the heart of love, informs and enriches our every moment with them, and their every moment with us.
I never did buy a new video camera. Sometimes I think I never will. Instead, I think, I will endeavor to see the dwindling time I have left with them as Henry Miller saw the world in Black Spring: that for all of us together, them and me, when we can live each moment “through to the end there is no death and no beginning, nor is there a false springtime: each moment lived opens up a greater, wider horizon from which there is no escape save living.” ▼
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.