A new monk in a monastery had just finished his breakfast. Finding the master alone, he approached him and said, “What is the meaning of life? Please teach me.”
The master replied, “Have you had your porridge?”
“Yes,” the monk said.
“Then go wash your bowl.”
Upon hearing this, the new monk suddenly became enlightened.
There is a certain insanity within parenthood that is not for the feint-hearted. I call this insanity mum-otony. It’s the doing of things which only become undone shortly after. It’s the redoing of these undone things day in day out, over and over, again and again.
We clean the spills, we pick up the toys, we wash the bowls. We fold the clothes, we soothe the cries, we scoop the squashed mandarin pieces from the rug. We say the same things, we teach the same lessons, every day, over and over again. We know tomorrow our work will be undone. We know each night that our sweat and labour and back-breaking effort will be blown away when the morning breezes settle in. We know that when we wake, we will need to pick up our weary bodies and repeat this Repetitive Redoing of the Undone Things with no thanks and no fanfare. We will clean the spills and pick up the toys and wash the bowls and fold the clothes and soothe the cries and scoop the squashed mandarin pieces from the rug again and again, and we will go to bed weary, lying exhausted within this battlefield of strange victory.
It was Mr Albert Einstein who described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So I guess the answer, when we are deep in the trenches of parenting littlies, is to not expect a different result. The result of our work will always be the future undoing of our work and the only thing we can change about that is our mind.
I’ve learned a lot about love in the past year and a half, and perhaps the biggest of all is that the thing which creates the most bitterness in my heart is my feeling of entitlement towards things – towards a full night’s sleep, towards a space that is mine, towards the stopping of something I don’t want to do, like the reading of this really boring book for the god damn twenty-seventh time. Somewhere in the back of my mind I harbor a bitterness for the neediness of children and my lack of time and space and sleep and order because somewhere along the line I decided I was entitled to the nature of my life as it previously was.
Ultimately, the result of our mothering efforts is the holy work of service, and although I rarely receive praise or appreciation, I can go to bed each night with a secret and private WARRIOR feeling because I have loved in the greatest way possible – through selfless, silent service and the repetition of UNBELIEVABLY DULL AND BORING THINGS.
Whenever I feel frustrated, alone and unappreciated in the work of being a mum, I think of monks in a monastery—living in community, doing their silent, holy work together—and I picture all my fellow mother monks in their own little monasteries around the world. I imagine us folding together, wiping bottoms together, drying tears together, scrubbing toilets together, sweeping together, washing bowls together, and scolding naughty children together. I think about that monk who became enlightened after his master told him to go wash his bowl – that maybe there’s something in that little story – that maybe the great secrets of life, the great happiness we seek is not about the dreaming and thinking and reaching out and beyond. It’s not the extra-ordinary and blinding moments of light. Instead, just do. Just wash your bowl. Just undo and repeat. Undo and repeat. Undo and repeat. And in doing so, in washing your bowl, you’ll get it. You’ll see that this is actually where the gold is at. Tibetan monks spend days painstakingly creating intricate sand mandalas with millions of grains of sand, knowing full well they will be destroyed almost as soon as they are completed. But they do it anyway because they understand there is value in it. They do it because they are onto something.
Mamas, when your husband comes home and asks, “What did you do today?”, it’s most important you take the time to answer accurately. You did not “clean the bathroom.” This response would be like Mary Oliver saying, “Oh, I just sat around and scribbled down some words.” No. Today you did the holy work of serving human beings. Today you fought your way closer to understanding what love really, truly is. Today, you made the mundane holy, the ordinary extraordinary.
Today, you were a SPIRITUAL WARRIOR.
Tell him that. Tell him that and see what he says.