Having a baby has been an unquestionable blessing for my wife, Maile, and me. Our son, Navarre, now three months old, has been a healthy, happy, and loving presence in our lives. And yet, despite the immeasurable pleasures of being his parents, we find ourselves faced with a challenge familiar to all new parents: adjusting to the absence of free time. We both remember when our lives were very different. For a good part of our twenties, before we met, Maile and I were both wanderers. I spent years traveling through the U.S. and Asia, visiting Buddhist monasteries and even joining a global environmental walk.
Maile was an itinerant activist, in and out of jail for civil disobedience arrests, then off on hitchhiking and freight-train trips, exploring the world on a shoestring. We were both rather extreme seekers of that elusive ideal called “freedom,” symbolized for each of us at the time by gloriously open schedules, relative distance from the workaday world, and the cultivation of a spiritual life through art, activism, the outdoors, and dharma practice.
Now, in our mid-thirties, much has changed. We live in a fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan. I have a full-time job directing a growing nonprofit organization while my wife works part-time as a graphic designer and illustrator. We each have a basketful of other projects we pursue, two high-energy dogs who must be walked several times a day, and now, of course, Navarre, who has become the focus of our lives.
My daily meditation practice has been missing from this often chaotic new life, and my wife and I have little time for the books we were going to read—and write. Instead, there seems time only for feeding and rocking and singing and reading and holding and swaying and burping and bathing and diaper changing. An open evening with friends has become a thing of the past.
What does one do with the nagging sense of loss we have noticed? Where does traditional “dharma practice” fit in to this lifestyle? Though we agreed early on that we couldn’t bear the thought of day care or a nanny, is the alternative simply to give up our personal goals and free time?
Thich Nhat Hanh once said that the greatest gift we can give one another is our attention. Navarre will settle for nothing less. It’s not just physical comfort that he requires, though that is part of it; he also needs the quality of our full attention. He knows when he has it—and also when we are faking it, when we pretend to give him attention as we look over his shoulder at the TV or the computer screen. He does not buy it for a second. He is a fierce Zen master.
In his pursuit of our undivided attention, the lesson Navarre offers us is this: An open schedule is not, as we once thought, freedom. Free time is of a different order than freedom. Freedom, at least in the dharmic sense, depends on the quality of attention that we bring to our interactions. Only to the extent that we can be fully present in our relationships with ourselves, with our children, and with each other, are we free. When I am spending time with Navarre and Maile, am I really with them, or am I continually thinking about all the dharma books I no longer have time to read?
We are learning as we go. Though we may have much less “free time,” we hope to have much more “freedom time” in which our relationships strengthen and our lives become more integrated, so that family, work, and spiritual practice become inseparable. I have always looked at the dharma not as something secretive and mysterious but as whatever is right in front of us. In this sense, Navarre is a great teacher. He is just what he is, expressing his needs and doing what three-month-old babies do—cry, smile, pee, and require our undivided attention. Though a child brings numerous challenges, in our clearest moments we can see that potentially these challenges are all an opportunity for “freedom time”—and all dharma.
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