All beings have been your mother in a former life. This is the concept my teacher presented to his class of Western students. Holding this idea in our minds, he told us, would help us to generate a sense of connectedness and all-encompassing compassion. I remember the first time I tried to meditate on this, sitting quite still on a sofa cushion and conjuring up my mother’s face. All beings have loved you and cared for you as she has, I told myself, and for a moment I felt it: an outpouring of love. But inevitably, my mind wandered. I remembered a comment my mother had made that hurt my feelings. One thought led to another until I found myself engaged in an angry dialogue with her, my aspirations to enlightenment having vanished abruptly.

My attempt to generate bodhicitta—awakened mind—in this way left me confused. I wondered whether I was doing it wrong, or whether the meditation was more of an ideal than something I was really supposed to do. Unable to puzzle it out, I chose to block it out. But recently I remembered it, when I became a mother myself.

Eli is ten months old as I write this, a large-eyed, lively baby with a head of wispy hair and a tottering step. He is fond of eating the pages of magazines, which he chews into a paste and stores on the roof of his mouth in little tablets that I have to extract by force. He likes to spread baby food meditatively over the tray of his high chair; to pull rows of carefully stacked cassette tapes from their shelves and fling them across our living room; to lurch across city playgrounds in pursuit of sodden leaves, which, before I can stop him, he also crams into his mouth.

No one before has brought me so close to the limits of my ability to give. And yet the magnitude of my love for him astounds me. It is something I cannot see around the edges of, something that I could no more walk away from than my own arm. With Eli has come a new set of pleasures: the sight of his lips when, having fallen asleep while nursing, his mouth slides from the breast and he continues to suck in his sleep; the smell of his head; the cackle of giddy humor when I lick food from his hand or stick out my tongue. My husband put it best. “When he laughs,” he said, “the world is perfect.”

Working against this perfection, though, is an ugliness. Sacrificing my own needs and desires all day for a being who cannot reciprocate, there are times when I snap. There was the day, for example, when I called my husband at work in the middle of the afternoon and told him, in a choking voice, that I couldn’t take it anymore, that he had to come home. That day he raced home to rescue me, but we both knew that his rescue was temporary. Since Eli’s birth, it has been as if I am standing on the shore of my former life—a part-time job I liked and quit to stay home with the baby; a social life; writing—and watching it recede. In its place is a life of routine—playground, nap, playground again—that leaves me bored, unpaid, and for the most part alone.

No one before has brought me so close to the limits of my own ability to give.

It is Vajrayana tradition to take what is difficult in life and use it as material for enlightenment. My teacher, Vajrayana to the core, was fond of using the wrathful deities as teaching tools. He liked to project slides of the wrathful deity Mahakala onto the wall of our classroom, cataloging the grisly details that made up the image: the fangs, the claws, the human skull full of blood that Mahakala held to his lips. Mahakala and his female counterpart, Palden Lhamo, were mirrors, he told us, reflections of our negative emotions, aspects of ourselves that we would rather avoid. “Everyone wants to be the sweet, serene Buddha,” he told us, pausing at a slide of Tara, the mother goddess. “Well,” he clicked the button of his slide wheel and an image of Mahakala appeared, “you’re going to have to get past this guy first.”

I remember the day he pointed out the row of tiny heads that hung from the sash tied around Mahakala’s hips. As he zoomed in, I could see the details of these individual faces. The artist had painted them as if they were still alive, frozen in expressions of fright and shock. We could think of these faces, my teacher told us, as images of the selves we had been.

Mahakala's belt. Courtesy of the Rubin Cultural Trust,
Mahakala’s belt. Courtesy of the Rubin Cultural Trust,

A liberating concept: the limited self with which we have identified falls away so that a new self, with a bigger outlook on life, can be born. At the time, the grisliness of the image seemed wrong to me: decapitated heads dangling in a row did not seem a fitting picture of the path to enlightenment. In the years that have passed since that lesson, though, I have come to feel that Mahakala’s image is a good one for describing the experience of encountering anger. Since Eli’s birth, my run-ins with the wrathful deities have been uglier. The more I want to be the mother I emulate—sweet, gentle Tara—the more I become Palden Lhamo, blowing up when Eli wriggles and shrieks during diaper changes, stalking out of the room when for the fourth time he throws his food on the floor.

One of my worst moments as a mother came on a night my husband had gone out and Eli and I were alone. It had been a long day during which Eli did not nap and hence I had had no break from caretaking. All day I had chanted the same mantra to myself: I will write tonight. I will write tonight. Writing time is what my life revolved around before Eli was born and what I yearn for now that he is here. I was still hoping for it when at five o’clock Eli began to cry continuously, writhing in my arms while I tried, exhausted myself, to comfort him. I distracted him as well as I could, but I could see that he needed a nap. If he napped, I knew, he would awaken and be up till late at night, killing my chances to write.

When I saw my writing time slipping away, I felt my mood change, from patience to a kind of scream. I decided that Eli would go to bed early, when I said, not when he was tired. “You are going to sleep,” I hissed at him. While he screamed I wrestled him into his pajamas, stuffed his legs and arms into the sleeves and legs. I nursed him, and when his eyes closed ten minutes later, I laid him in his crib and left the room. He was already crying when I shut the door behind me. I sat for a minute listening to him, then went into another room where his cries were fainter. There I stood, arguing with myself. This was me. There were limits. He had to understand.

To prove my point, I made a phone call and chatted for fifteen minutes or so, only half involved in the conversation. When I finally entered Eli’s room half an hour later, I saw the damage done. He was screeching, his whole body red from the effort. His lips shuddered. When I picked him up and held him against me, I realized that his whole body was shaking.

Motherhood and bodhisattvahood are similar enterprises, it seems to me.

Why become enlightened? This is a question I sometimes ask myself. The answer I give is twofold: to make the world a better place and to avoid the pain of clinging to an existence that is unhappy. My belief is that somewhere down the line these two reasons converge: that my own ability to reach peace with myself will benefit the whole world. That, at least, is the hope. If I put out the fire in myself, I will be better able to reach others.

The night I became so angry at Eli, I noticed a change in myself. The desire to write, which I had held in my mind all day, became irrelevant once I walked into Eli’s room and saw what my absence had done to him. All I wanted, after picking Eli up, was for him to be all right again. There was relief in this. I was no longer anxious about my own self, my own desires.

All beings have been your mother in another life. The change that has come with motherhood is that this meditation instruction, which used to seem so distant and puzzling to me, is now one I carry close to my heart. Motherhood and bodhisattvahood are similar enterprises, it seems. Out of compassion, bodhisattvas vow to do the impossible—to save all beings. As a mother—hauling thirty-five pounds of stroller, baby, and groceries up the steps to my house in hundred-degree heat, or replacing yet another row of books that Eli has pulled from the shelves—I often feel that I have volunteered for a job that is just as endless and just as hard to do.

Another link between motherhood and bodhisattvahood: In the months since Eli’s birth, enlightenment has come to seem more urgent to me. It is one thing for me to look in Mahakala’s mirror and see my own face contorted in anger. It is another thing entirely if that is the face my son sees when he looks at me. My most important job as a mother, it turns out, is to struggle with my own pain and anger, to live up to the vow I have made to myself: to love Eli well.

Motherhood has humbled me, made me see how difficult it is to live the words and concepts I so often repeat to myself. So I start my bodhisattva vow to save all beings with just one being: He has a big head with very little hair, walks inexpertly, and is fond of eating leaves. When he falls asleep his lips move, and when he is awake, the whole house lies in wait for his destructive hands. And when he laughs, the world is perfect.

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