A few years ago, during what I remember as a difficult time in my life, I began learning meditation with the hope of calming my panicked mind.
What brought me to my knees was not any particular crisis, but the daily monotony of taking care of three small children. I was physically exhausted, frustrated and afraid of my own feelings.
Life does not stop to make room for parenting. It just keeps barreling forward with all of its commitments, ambitions, needs and unexpected events. It forces us to keep stretching our hearts and our energies beyond what we thought was imaginable.
Each student in my meditation class was given the task of choosing one simple activity to perform mindfully as beginner’s practice. Some picked brushing their teeth; others chose putting on their shoes with purpose.
I focused my efforts on reading bedtime stories to my youngest child with engaged awareness. The mind-numbing, nightly repetition of “Goodnight Moon” and “Big Red Barn” for the sixth year in a row (as my children are staggered in age) was an activity I could have done in my sleep. And I often did.
Having to awaken to the experience and read my children’s favorite books as if pronouncing each word for the first time was life-changing. The transformation made me realize how much of my daily tasks were done on autopilot and how much more joy I could squeeze out of life if I only woke up to it.
Meditation in itself is not a panacea for all of the life’s challenges, but it has become an indispensable tool in my ability to turn down the background noise of my own mind, making room for awe and delight in simplicity. Mindfulness is not a new-age concept, and Judaism has much wisdom to offer on the subject of intentional prayer and spiritual awakening.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. … Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg recently wrote “Nurture the Wow,” a book that raises an important and often overlooked question: What does Judaism have to say about living a spiritually awakened life while also tending to the never-ending needs of small children?
For years, my first thought when I woke up in the morning was not about inspiration but about the throbbing pain in my neck from being scrunched over the side of the bed during another night of sleep with an uninvited, sweaty child.
Ruttenberg reminds us that, for thousands of years, men who were not intimately involved in the daily routine of child care wrote books on Jewish tradition and law. The Babylonian Talmud, for example, is a compilation of writing on subjects of enormous variety pertaining to the real and hypothetical questions of daily life. But it has little to offer on children: tantrums, midnight waking, refusal to nap or comfort for an inconsolable child.
“For most of history, the people who were raising children weren’t writing books,” Rabbi Ruttenberg writes.
She poses a challenge: “What would the Talmud look like if we were writing it today?” In other words, how could our experience as parents influence our spiritual and religious life? Conversely, what can we glean from our rich tradition to help us stay spiritually connected while in the thick of the parenting fog?
Rabbi Ruttenberg’s book is engaging, at times self-deprecating and funny, and at other times deeply poignant. It is not a book on how to parent our children, but a contemplation on how to parent our souls while engaged in the hardest, most intense work of our lives, accompanied by a love so fierce and intense that it makes us crazy.
“Nurture the Wow” asks us to shift our mindset about parenting and think of it as a spiritual practice. That means forgiving ourselves for the mistakes made today so that we can try again and again.
Originally published in Atlanta Jewish Times.