A popular quote from the Tao Te Ching describes life as 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. As parents, each new day seems to bring at least another 10,000 home.
The Buddha also mentioned something else most of us know to be true: life is stressful. Change and uncertainty are about the only constants we can depend on, and these can contribute to our suffering or our growth. Everything changes when we start a family, even down to our brain and hormones—in both women and men. There is little more stressful, uncertain, and full of change than the ongoing process of parenting. And while change is hard for us parents to accept, growing up is not all fun and excitement for kids, either.
So how do we deal with all this change? How do we abide the pains and joys of life—neither getting swept up in them nor turning our backs and ignoring them—and help our children learn to do the same?
Traditionally, this quality of abiding is called equanimity, an attitude that is not to be mistaken for passivity or indifference.
When it comes to our family, equanimity is inextricably linked with compassion. We can have equanimity without compassion, like when we feel burned out and cynically dismiss our kids’ concerns as mere manipulation. We can also have compassion without equanimity, responding to their immediate wants over their long-term needs because of our own intolerance of their discomfort. As I heard someone recently put it, compassion with equanimity means, “I want you to be happy, but I don’t need you to be happy in order to be OK.”
Rather, equanimity is a radical acceptance of not-knowing and a means of not taking everything so personally. In meditation, we are often taught to recognize strong and difficult emotions as they arise without acting upon them, just like noticing the weather. We can do this with our loved ones as well, noting in our children, “Ah, anger is here. Sadness is here”—though, depending on the mood, perhaps not noting these thoughts aloud. In this way, we open ourselves to a deeper engagement with all of life, embodying balance and stability in the face of uncertainty and change. Most important, equanimity better enables us to develop a stable, secure base for attachment with our children, ensuring their optimal physical, psychological, and spiritual development.
The Eight Worldly Winds
Equanimity is said to keep us on the right track in the face of eight worldly winds—fame and disrepute (or praise and blame), gain and loss, success and failure, and joy and sorrow. We could all probably add a few more “winds” that we’ve experienced, but this list covers a great deal of what we face in life.
Buddhism teaches that the nature of suffering is dual and permeable, which is to say that we experience suffering together, and it’s contagious. We are only as happy as our unhappiest child, as parents are fond of saying.
And often, the stronger our bonds with our children, the more vividly we are blown about by their eight winds, experiencing their joys and sorrows in the complex dance of interpersonal neurobiology. One week our kids are invited to the “cool” party; the next, they are back with the “nerd herd.” They win praise for their finding balance in a broken world and staying steady through the stressful role in the winter musical but then are blamed for losing the playoff game because they missed the fly ball. One spring they celebrate the success of acceptance to the college of their dreams, and the next fall they lose their scholarship when their grades slip. One bright summer day brings unbelievable joy at the beach followed by inconsolable sorrow when their ice cream cone crashes onto the hot pavement. These delights, slings, and arrows come and go throughout their lives and our own.
They also mirror each other. When our child is the difficult one at the playground, we watch as the other parents shrink away from us and playdate invitations fade. When our teen gets into trouble, we face the judgment of other parents who don’t want their kids hanging out with our bad influence. We too are certain to face these winds in the parenthood journey, if we haven’t already. The day my son was due, my sister called to tell me she had been diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. One day our family has it all; the next day we lose a job, a house, or even a family member. One year we are the cool parent in our child’s group of friends; the next we are infamously uptight and old-fashioned. Our own therapist praises our parenting, but our child’s therapist gives us a long list of “suggestions.” One year we celebrate our child’s coming of age, the next we have to bury our own parents. The challenge in all of this is learning neither to overidentify with these changes nor to see them as permanent.
The good (and bad) news is that all the winds are temporary. Equanimity acts like the ballast of a ship. Although the ship is blown one way or the other by the winds of life, it neither sinks nor goes too far off-course.
Here is how these eight winds can play out in our lives:
Fame and Disrepute (Praise and Blame)
How well your family approaches and learns from these winds will determine your family’s resilience. One of the best ways to deal with praise and blame is to be well-rounded, which is not the same as being hyperscheduled. You’re more than a parent, just as your child is more than your son or daughter. Everyone in your family has multiple roles and activities that mean a lot to you, and it’s important to recognize that and to hold your identities lightly and enjoy them. To balance a ship, ballast must be spread evenly and widely.
If your child is overattached to their identity as the smartest kid or the best soccer player, they will struggle when the world inevitably suggests otherwise. This is often when they’ll melt down, act out, or just give up on something that had been important to them. Even worse, they can become anxious and depressed, turn to drugs or cutting, or any number of other behaviors that land them in my office (or landed me in the offices of several therapists when I was a kid). We can help them shift their identities in ways that will serve them in the long run.
For example, we can balance the identity of smart kid with the more sustainable identity of hard worker. Even better, we encourage kids in their various interests so they have a range of identities to fall back on. They might not get an A on the spelling test, but they’re still a beloved grandchild, helpful friend, and decent skateboarder. Likewise, if they ace the test, they can feel great at something without overinflating their ego, because they’re better able to put their successes in context.
Gain and Loss
Just like praise and blame, gain and loss are inevitable parts of life from childhood onward. Although winning and losing streaks always end, we can accept the flow of victories and defeats.
In addition—although it’s tricky—we can learn to find silver linings when things don’t go our way. We can prepare ourselves and our children for the more difficult times to come by first working through the smaller challenges of skinned knees and broken hearts. We can practice equanimity much better when we understand how events are interdependent. We also develop equanimity when we look into the future with the same acceptance we have at examining the winding path that got us to where we are today.
Equanimity arises when we renounce control—or, more accurately, when we renounce the illusion of control. Ideally, we learn along the way to strike a workable balance between letting our children live their own lives and make their own mistakes and keeping them happy and safe. Being a parent requires doing both.
Success and Failure
It’s natural to seek success in life and to want the same for our children. However, the dangers of success are arrogance and pride, which are often deficiencies in gratitude and the wisdom of interdependence.
Fortunately, we can accompany any success we meet with mindful gratitude for others. A wise mentor once advised me, “Remember when you feel proud of an accomplishment to also feel grateful to those who helped you.” We can model gratitude in the face of success with our children and point it out when we see the same happening in the world, helping them understand how their successes are built upon their relationships with others. By encountering success in this manner, we foster equanimity in all of us.
Setbacks are painful, but they too hold powerful lessons in equanimity. It’s far too easy to become fixated on what failures seem to represent in the moment—not meeting an explicit goal or desire. It’s much harder to see the bigger picture and take the long view. The truth is, the path to success is often circuitous, with plenty of failures along the way. Reflect on how this is true for you and share your journey with your children, or tell your kids stories about well-known people who had unexpected paths to success. Discuss your own setbacks, career changes, and odd meanderings with your kids—within reason, of course. Most important, reframe your so-called failures as opportunities. Doing so will help your children connect the dots between overcoming setbacks, staying true to one’s values, hard work, and inevitable rewards.
We all need to fail from time to time. Learning, adaptation, and resilience require some degree of defeat. It’s not only OK to let your children fail; it’s also wise to do so. Learning to bounce back from “failure” is one of the most useful gifts you can offer the adults they will eventually become. Only by making their way through smaller setbacks do our children learn how to deal with bigger ones.
Joy and Sorrow, Pleasure and Pain
Humans are resilient. Consider the fact that our species has survived millennia of violence, disease, starvation, and emotional pain of all types. As the Buddha famously pointed out, suffering is inevitable. None of us will escape sorrow and pain, not even people who devote their lives to the spiritual path.
An interviewer once asked the Dalai Lama about his regrets in life. The holy man replied that after a student of his had once committed suicide, he had felt regret and responsibility for the man’s death. When asked by the interviewer how to get rid of such a feeling, the Dalai Lama paused and said: “I didn’t. It’s still there. I just don’t allow it to drag me down and pull me back. I realized that being dragged down or held back by it would be to no one’s benefit . . . not mine or anybody else’s. So I go forward and do the best I can.” We’re not trying to get rid of pain—ours or our children’s. We can be saddened by pain, by our regrets and mistakes, and yet keep moving forward. This, too, is the wisdom of equanimity.
Adapted from Raising Resilience: The Wisdom and Science of Happy Families and Thriving Children by Christopher Willard, PsyD. Copyright © 2017 by Christopher Willard. Published by Sounds True in October 2017.