In a recent piece in the thoughtful Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, writer and poet Christiana N. Peterson writes about the trade-off in her life between a path of mysticism and motherhood in “Maybe Tomorrow I Will Be A Mystic Mom.”
As a mother of three Peterson finds it difficult to cultivate the kinds of experiences that lead to the faith expression of a Simone Weil, Thomas Keating, Merton, and Nouwen. Peterson writes “Did I take a pass on mysticism when I became a mother and not a nun? Distractions abound and solitude takes so much energy.”
Most adults can relate to this dilemma of the road not taken, wondering about the life we might have had and struggling to an extent with our current limitations, especially during highly demanding times of parenthood. Parenting one child can be trying, especially at a young age, let alone three! But when it comes to becoming a mystic parent, how should we go about it?
What we have here with mysticism vs. parenthood is a category mistake. Parenthood is a life situation, one of many that will change over time. The mystical state is a way of being present-in-the-moment. It is a way of manifesting presence. A state of awareness characterized by non-judgmental self-observation. And we usually arrive there by coming to the end of ourselves, our striving, our attempts to become this or that, including mystics. Only when we give up, let go, and enter the present moment.
When Peterson or anyone else awakens into the state we label “mysticism,” it won’t look like Merton or Nouwen. It will move her from her false self to her true self. She will be the fullest expression of Christiana N. Peterson she can be. Or, more accurately, Being will manifest itself through her as fully as possible. And it can never happen “tomorrow,” only right now, since, as the mystics tell us, strictly speaking, there is no tomorrow.
Mysticism is a mental category, a label we assign to people throughout the ages who demonstrate a certain quality of being. Most mystics, unless it’s socially useful, don’t describe themselves as such. We do.
The irony here, as the mystics would say, is that “tomorrow” is a mental category we have to drop to experience the mystical state of awareness. We can employ it when useful, but we no longer get stuck in it, fixating on it, hoping to find perfection only a day away. Because that day never comes, as long as we stay trapped in that mental fixation. We will never become a mystical parent tomorrow. Only by dropping the illusion that there is anything else but right now.
And guess what? Family can help us get there. How? By not giving us what our ego craves. Maybe even the mental fixation of acquiring what we conceptualize as “mysticism.” And we get frustrated. Until we find we are not the ego and its cravings, or the thoughts and emotions bound up with them.
But first, what is “pursuing mysticism?” Is it reading mystics? Is it finding a spiritual director? Is it entering a monastery? Peterson seems to suggest it has to do with entering the nunnery and committing to solitude. It isn’t, of course, though these may serve as gateways to the state of awareness, the state of being that we label mysticism.
Is it something we can pursue? Not directly. It’s a state of inner and outer awareness we arrive at through letting go, not through striving, not through effort. But through realizing our efforts will never get us there, whether there is being a millionaire or a mystic. It’s still a thought-form we mistakenly assume will bring happiness, and never now, always tomorrow.
So what is this state of being? Bringing constant awareness, constant observation, constant presence to our inner mental-emotional state. We begin to see our unconscious reactions to those around us, and the negative ones begin to dissolve.
There are few other crucibles quite as effective for bringing up our stuff than our immediate family. And it’s all grist for the mill, all fair game to increase our awareness. In bringing that awareness to our inner state, we start to see the patterns, and our calcified self-image and image of others start to corrode. We come to understand the moment is all we have. In practicing the present moment, we experience more and more acceptance and peace on a profound level, since we see our wounds and our unskillful patterns and start to disidentify with them.
Granted, there are practices, teachings, and communities that can accelerate this process, and having children at certain ages can make it financially and physically very difficult to attend a week long silent retreat or that contemplative practice seminar, or visit that ashram, or even re-read The Wounded Healer.
But these are just more thought forms communicated by someone else that can at best point the way. We still have to come to the state of acceptance of what is. Often this comes after intense suffering. And the frustration and resistance we experience in family situations can paradoxically help move this process along.
Peterson gets quite close to the truth toward the end of the essay: “Could [mother mystics] teach me something about finding a mystical union with God because of the duties of my life? Could motherhood and womanhood, in general, be a place where the old self dies? Could the mother mystics teach me that contemplative prayer with young children is its own spiritual practice, the practice of embracing futility?”
We don’t get to God through escaping our situation. We get there by accepting it, by manifesting His presence within it, again and again and again. We practice the presence until we, quite clearly, are the Presence.
Some additional questions for mystic parents: Is our inner balance dependent on our children’s accomplishments? Do we get angry when our children disobey? Are our children our own displaced ego projects? Are we stuck thinking about what might have been or what could be, if only?
As Anthony De Mello puts it in Awareness, “Ever get anxious? Upset? Jealous? Then you’re still asleep!” The mystical path is about waking up, about burning our ego attachments in the fire of experience until what’s left is pure presence. Can we increasingly bring this presence to our current life situation, with or without children? If so, we can only ever do it right now.
Presence is presence. Awareness is awareness. Let go of the ego’s attachments and Being emerges of itself. Whatever the changing life situation we find ourselves in. Be present. And then again with your children. Let others call it mystical parenthood.