What can we learn from children?
I became a parent almost three years ago and it’s hard to describe all the ways it has changed my life. There are good days and bad days. There are moments of sublime joy and moments of total exasperation.
Like many things in life, parenting is hard to sum up and how you approach it goes a long way in shaping the experience itself. Having the right orientation is often the difference between satisfaction and frustration.
A few months ago, a book called Parent as Mystic, Mystic as Parent was dropped into my lap out of nowhere. I had never heard of it before but it came highly recommended. It ended up being exactly the thing I needed to read at exactly the right time. It’s not preachy or high-minded, and it’s definitely not a how-to manual for parents. In some ways, it’s less about parenting and more about how to live a grounded life.
The book is by David Spangler, an early pioneer in the New Age movement who sort of wrote the book as a side project back in 1998. It’s not an easy book to categorize, but at its core it’s an attempt to dissolve some of the artificial boundaries between spirituality and everyday life.
I reached out to Spangler for the latest episode of Vox Conversations to talk about the book and what he wanted to say in it. This is a conversation about parenting, but it’s not just for parents. It’s about being more present in your life, whether you have kids or not, and it’s also about the wisdom of children, about what we can learn from them — and what we often forget as we grow older.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
You call parenting a distinctive spiritual practice. What do you mean by that?
One of the things that parenting demands is the surrender of the self. It’s not saying, I surrender my sovereignty and you’re now going to dominate me. It’s surrender on behalf of the wellbeing of the other. For me, that’s what spirituality is about. If I think of the whole world as the other, if I think of it as filled with life, then the spiritual path is for me to discover how I can help all the life around me thrive.
This becomes very concrete and specific when you’re parenting because the child has obvious needs and you have to step past the boundary of your own self and embrace the reality of this other. And you discover that you have the resources to be of service — that’s a very spiritual experience.
The thing about children is that they’re always delighting in the world in front of them. They have what you call “the beginner’s mind.” Why do you find such wisdom in this instinct?
Our perception of the world gets filtered as we get older. The most common filter is the tendency to say, “I know that, that’s familiar to me, I’ve seen that 100 times.” But the moment that filter comes up and we think the world has nothing new to offer, we miss all kinds of things that are interesting or instructive.
Children don’t have those filters. The idea of “beginner’s mind” is essentially that you don’t have that kind of filtering going on, where you diminish your awareness of the world.
But there are different kinds of wisdom, right? I mean, we have wisdom that our children do not, wisdom that comes from experience. We have ways of seeing the world that can be really productive, and they have ways of seeing the world that are productive precisely because they’re not based on past experience, because they’re seeing the world without preconditions or preconceptions. And blending those two ways of seeing the world can be very fruitful.
You write early in the book that a mystic does not say, “Here is where spirituality begins and the mundane ends.” I rather like this idea that the challenge isn’t to find the sacred out there, it’s to be still enough to see the sacred in every little moment of life. Every moment you don’t see it, that’s a choice. Being a parent has definitely clarified this for me, even though I’m constantly making the wrong choices.
Oh, that’s fantastic, Sean. I totally agree. In some ways, we become prisoners of words like “spirituality” and “mystic.” A lot of my work over the years has been to try to help people recognize that the reality of the experience transcends those words. We set up these situations where everything has its place — that’s my mystical side or that’s my spiritual side or now I’m meditating or whatever. But just playing with our children doesn’t look like meditating so it must he something different.
Our kids are operating on a different level of awareness than we are as adults and we forget that. I think we genuinely forget how aware and cognitively powerful a child’s mind is as it’s grappling with the world, but it’s not processing that information in the way that an adult does.
Learning to communicate with a 2-year-old can be an adventure into an alternate way of seeing the world. So if I’m meditating to try to tune to some other level of consciousness, that’s wonderful. But if I’m trying to communicate with my two-year-old and we’re trying to build a rapport together in the moment, in a way I’m doing the same thing. It’s still reaching out to a consciousness different from my own.
I think a lot about how I’m always modeling behavior for my son. No matter how big or small, every decision to be guided by anger or to not see the joy in something, my kid sees that and internalizes it. I feel like parents, when we do that, are just helping our kids unlearn the instincts that make them so uniquely wise in the first place —
Parenting is a profound responsibility, and it demands a lot of us. There’s no question about that. At the same time, we can burden ourselves with expectations of our performance that make it much harder than it needs to be. I think if we say, “Okay, I’m going to do the very best I can. I’m going to be as aware as I can be, and I’m going to make mistakes and my child is going to make mistakes,” we’re going to learn how to navigate these mistakes together and hopefully they won’t be harmful or toxic mistakes.
If we look back at the end of the day, and we say, “I could have modeled that better. I didn’t have to get angry at that moment,” or “I could have been more responsive,” then that’s a good insight. We’re modeling for ourselves as well. The problem comes when we say, “Oh, that’s just who I am.” Or “I won’t do that next time,” but we forget and we fall back into these habits. I always want to say to myself: That lesson was important, but I’m not going to feel guilty about it. I failed as a parent in that moment, but I recognize I have the power to change the model.
So much of this book is about how our desire for routine bumps up against the chaos of children. There’s this example of you sitting down to eat dinner with the kids and they just start howling like animals and, naturally, your first impulse was to get pissed off and scold them, but then, for some reason, you just started howling too — and it was great fun.
There’s a lesson there about the spontaneity of children that landed pretty hard for me. There’s this tyranny of habit you were talking about earlier, this tendency to keep doing the same things the same way over and over again, and kids have “the wisdom of the trickster,” as you put it in the book. Their relationship to time is so much different than ours, and while we all realize that adults have different responsibilities and have to manage much more, there’s still something valuable in that child-like obsession with the moment.
Let’s talk a moment about the relationship between the mystic and the parent here, because I think that’s what this touches on. In a way, we live in two different times. We live in short time and long time. Part of each of us lives very much in relationship to what’s happening in the moment, but as adults we also have a long view, because we have both memory and we have the ability to imagine into the future. And for a person who’s pursuing a mystical side of their life, they recognize that there’s this larger self that is much bigger than any one moment.
Part of our spiritual practice is to tune into that and to recognize that there’s part of you that’s living in this longer horizon. But children live in short time, especially very young children. They don’t have the memory on which to draw experience. They don’t have the imagination of the future. They don’t think in terms of consequences.
So I talk about this moment with my daughter, Katie, where I was trying to get her dressed because we had to go meet her mom and two brothers and we were running late. I just couldn’t get her to put her clothes on. She threw a shoe at me or something. For her it was just a game. But I totally lost it and started kicking things and broke my toe. The pain immediately snapped me out of it, and it snapped her out of it, too.
In that moment, when I got angry, I was angry because of what was happening right then. But my long-time self, what I would call my spiritual self, knew how insignificant it was. It was not a big deal. So, okay, we’re late meeting Julie and the other kids. To this larger self, this is not a big deal. To my little self, to the short-term self, it is a big deal because I’m caught in that moment. So part of the balance for me between mysticism and parenting is to make sure that my parent self, which so often gets involved in these short-term events, is always attuned to this longer-term self.
To your point about adult responsibilities, of course you’re right. We all have responsibilities to navigate. But it’s not an either-or thing. It’s not a choice between being just like your children or being just like the default adult. It’s about being large enough to encompass both at the same time. I’m not surrendering my adult responsibilities, but I’m also giving myself the gift of being open to those moments, as you put it.