On a bright fall morning circa 1999, as we kicked fallen leaves along a New York City sidewalk en route to her daycare, my 3-year-old daughter, Willa, gave me a rundown of the areas of expertise she and her friends commanded at school: “Abby knows all about baby sisters,” she announced. “I know all about dogs. And Darcy knows that mommies always come home.” Poignant, if questionable, knowledge, I thought: Abby’s little sister had yet to be born, and Willa’s expertise around dogs was gleaned from Clifford books and an occasional episode of Sesame Street. But what struck me most about her catalog of early childhood truisms was my daughter’s confidence in the universal reliability of mothers. It was an assurance often given to Darcy because her father had not come home one day—he had fallen terminally ill and died in a hospital, and it was very important to Darcy, and everyone else, to know that mommies still come home. Of course, it is common sense and compassion, not to mention developmentally appropriate, to assure young children that they will be safe, that someone will care for them no matter what, and that everything is going to be okay. In most cases, kids internalize this (as Willa, and perhaps Darcy, had), and in the best of cases, we can make good on some of those avowals, some of the time.
Sooner or later, though, the promises we so want to make cannot be kept. The version of okay we sell to our kids and to ourselves—the okay that parents are meant to provide in this world—is untenable. As Buddhists, we chant the Upajjhatthana Sutta—Subjects for Contemplation—as a reality check to all the sorts of assurances and dissembling in the world and culture around us: “I am subject to aging, to illness, to death . . .” So, indeed, are our children. They are also of the nature to talk back, use drugs, get bullied, suffer from depression, commit suicide, and countless other things hard or impossible to remedy. Like the subjects for contemplation, this stuff is largely beyond our control; it is part of our inheritance as sentient beings and, in special ways, as parents. The writer Nicole Krauss sums up the chimera of parental agency in the voice of a character from her novel Great House. “I [came] to understand that to be a mother is to be an illusion,” she writes. “No matter how vigilant, in the end a mother can’t protect her child—not from pain, or horror, or the nightmare of violence, from sealed trains moving rapidly in the wrong direction, the depravity of strangers, trapdoors, abysses, fires, cars in the rain, from chance.” Or, as I’ve come to know, from the muddy bottom of a lake, where a dear friend’s daughter died not long ago, or a subway car filled with drunken 20-some-things at one a.m., a time when my own daughter has found herself in just such a place.
For a parent, the reality of “everything is not going to be okay” hits in a smack-down of dismay. But dismay, at least a particular version of it, can be an extremely valuable emotion from a Buddhist point of view.Samvega, Pali shorthand for an especially fierce form of dismay, is the sensation that knocked the existential wind out of young Prince Siddhartha when he left the palace and, famously, came face-to-face with illness, aging, and death. Its linguistic roots point to the Pali vega, meaning “shock,” “impulse,” or “wave,” and the adjectival form of samvega is used in the canon to describe the trembling of little animals upon hearing a lion’s roar. According to the monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, it is a tough word to translate succinctly “because it covers such a complex range—at least three clusters of feelings at once.” These are “the oppressive sense of shock . . . and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived,” he writes in an essay called Affirming the Truths of the Heart; “a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.” Samvega struck terror in Siddhartha’s heart, propelling him to leave his family and kingly life in relentless pursuit of a way out. Fortunately, for all of us, he found one.
Most people can recall or conjure plenty of harrowing—and motivating—experiences of samvega: the death of a loved one or a terrible betrayal, for example, or the emergent awareness that no lasting satisfaction has come from years of toiling along an arid career track or in a lousy relationship. Like other emotions, samvega arises and passes away, and it can change over time. There are levels of samvega, just as there are levels of the breath or levels of insight—realizations that become more discriminating and more refined with the maturation of practice. In the beginning, the truth of aging and death, or the dread of living a pointless life, may be the genesis of samvega, as they were for the Buddha. Later, the centrifuge of the mind and its pitiless churning out of craving and suffering may trigger this dismay. The Buddha advised his disciples to cultivate samvega daily. As a parent, I find that easy—I marinate in it.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here: I adore my children and prefer their company to that of anyone else. I have structured my work and personal life in order to be able spend a lot of time with them, and hope that I fall into the category of what the 20th-century pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called the “good-enough mother.” But childrearing—and the sheer animal realities of becoming and being a mother (whether or not you give birth to your children)—are, in my experience, as effective a vehicle for summoning samvega as any chariot ride past a corpse. It is a chronic bumping up against the scrim separating life from death, the perceived okay from the perceived not okay. Advanced capitalist societies have done a heroic job of selling parenthood as a fundamentally life-affirming state. Samvega is not the credo of Pampers ads or American Girl dolls, Instagram or the Princeton Review. I recently saw a flyer in a café advertising a “Parenting from Within” therapy that promised to help the client develop “conscious parenting as a pathway to lasting joy and fulfillment.” Even Buddhist writing on the subject usually provides a happy ending, with the “little teacher” doing something so cute as to be redemptive, and the vexing challenges of oppositional behavior serving up the ultimate teaching on equanimity.
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