What We Nurture
Sylvia Boorstein is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Her books include That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist and Happiness is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.
May 9, 2013
DR. SYLVIA BOORSTEIN: I tell people that I could have the most profound equanimity and I am two words away from losing it completely. And then they say, “What are those two words?” I say, “Well, you have to understand that first the phone has to ring.” Ring, ring, and you pick up the phone and a voice says, “Hello, Ma?” And it doesn’t sound right — the complete — you get that.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Yeah, to the point of our evening.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s Sylvia Boorstein — a celebrated Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. I interviewed her in 2011 at a live event co-sponsored by WDET Detroit Public Radio and Metro Parent magazine.
From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Sylvia Boorstein flew in from Northern California, where she lives, teaches, and writes.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, when Mikel and I first started talking about this and we knew that Detroit Metro Parent was involved, we were interested in this theme of raising children, which, of course, just means raising human beings. In a world that, I think, feels — I suppose the world always feels complicated in any age, but I think there’s a pace of change and uncertainty right now. It is unsettling and it’s unsettling to be a parent or a grandparent at the best of times. So we started thinking about who I might want to have with me, who I might want to speak with. And, you know, in the beginning we were thinking about experts on parenting or grandparenting, and then what I realized is I really just wanted somebody who was wise and who also had lived this experience of raising children. And my mind eventually came back around to Sylvia Boorstein, who I’d read years ago.
I didn’t tell you this. I stumbled across your book about 10 years ago, I think, when I was first having the idea for this show — her book That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist. Sylvia is one of the people who literally brought Buddhism to the West, to the United States, in the 1970s — and was Jewish, like a lot of the people who brought Buddhism to the West in the 1970s, a lot of people who still are sort of household names with Buddhism in the United States. But she’s also written over the years about how she has come back to really richly integrate that with her Jewish identity, finding again in Judaism the imagery and poetry and ancestry and continuity that nourish her, and that she’s also passed on to her children.
So when I thought of Sylvia as this wise person, I started Googling to see if you ever wrote about children and parenting and grandparenting. What I found is that, in her bio description, everywhere I could find it, she lists herself this way. She has lots of credentials, but it started out, “Sylvia Boorstein is a wife, mother, grandmother, author, teacher, psychotherapist.” And I thought, “That’s it. This is our person.”
DR. BOORSTEIN: Actually, I’m happy that you discovered that. I think it’s true. I normally describe myself that way. And I find that when people say, “What are you proudest of in your whole life?” it’s clear to me that I am most proud of the fact that my children now, really adults, all of them now, three of the four of them are in their 50s, so that’s really a substantial credential. And they’re all very, very nice people. And that is my best. That’s what I’m proudest of. And my grandchildren are coming along, and they are very good people. I’m so proud of that. That’s the best thing. I don’t think I’ve done it — I certainly haven’t done it alone. I’ve done it with their father and I’ve done it with their teachers and with our community, but they are, I think, my most important work in my life.
MS. TIPPETT: How many grandchildren do you have?
DR. BOORSTEIN: I have seven.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. So, you know, one thing that I enjoyed reading in — I think it was in your book That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, you wrote that your father’s mother — that would have been your Jewish grandmother — was your first Buddhist teacher, that she used to tell you, “Where is it written that you’re supposed to be happy all the time?”
DR. BOORSTEIN: You have to know that I grew up in a post-Depression household. Both my parents had jobs and I’m an only child. I lived with my two parents and my grandmother, who was widowed, my father’s mother. And my parents went off to work, so my grandmother did a great deal of the mothering, and she was very, very solicitous, so that I remember her as bathing and washing and dressing me and making braids and preparing the kinds of foods that I liked.
The only thing that she was pretty not moved to respond to was the coming and going of childhood bouts of “I’m not happy.” I’d say, “But I’m not happy.” And she’d say — my grandmother was not a learned woman in that sense, but it’s an ethnic thing to use that Talmudic turn of phrase — and she’d say, “Where is it written that you’re supposed to be happy all the time?” And I actually think it was the beginning of my spiritual practice that life is difficult. Then 40 years later, I learned that the Buddhists said the same thing, that life is inevitably challenging and how are we going to do it in a way that’s wise and doesn’t complicate it more than it is just by itself?
MS. TIPPETT: So I want to talk tonight about — about that wisdom that you’ve learned and how it might apply to our lives as parents. Not just the spiritual lives of our children, but how we nourish ourselves, right, as we are present to them and as we impart what we want to impart to them. I have to say, Sylvia, that, you know, you’re sitting here and you are so — so calm and you radiate wisdom and your books radiate wisdom. So it’s somewhat comforting for me for you to also describe yourself as a lifelong worrier and just talk about how being fretful comes naturally, because you talked about that from your own childhood that your mother was ill.
DR. BOORSTEIN: Mm-hmm. I had reasons to be anxious as a child. My mother did have what they called in those days a weak heart. She’d had rheumatic fever as a child and she had, as a consequence, she lived with a chronic coronary insufficiency, and I worried about that. She actually died when I was in my very early 20s. So I’ve passed more than 50 years now without a mother. I wish I’d had one longer, but when I was a child, I worried about it a lot. But you know what I’ve found, Krista? There are people who are given to fretting without a fretful environment. I think it’s actually — it’s a genetic glitch of neurology and that it happens to some people and not for other people.
Actually, the Buddha said we have one of five genetic fallback glitches when we’re challenged. He said some people fret, some people get angry, some people lose heart and all their energy goes and they don’t know what to do with themselves, some people think, “Uh-oh, it’s me. I didn’t do things right. It’s always my fault. I messed things up.” And some people need to be sensually soothed. They think, “Where’s a donut shop? Where’s a pizza?” People have different tendencies. It was very, very helpful for me as an adult to learn that because it’s completely comes without a judgment. I don’t have to say I am a chronic fretter. I could say, you know, when I’m challenged, fretting arises in my mind and it’s not a moral flaw. And it’s very good for people who have a short fuse to be able to think, “You know, I have this unusual neurological glitch.”
MS. TIPPETT: That naturally arises in me to know that.
DR. BOORSTEIN: This is what happens when I’m challenged. But to take it as — I tell it to people that my glitch is that “when in doubt, worry.” It came with the equipment. I’m also short and I have brown eyes. If I could see that in the same neutral, it just came with the equipment, then I don’t have to feel bad about it, but I can work with it wisely. That’s really the important part, when we see as adults what it is that our fallback glitch is. You can say, “Uh-oh.” And I think, in a certain way, that’s a sign of wisdom when a person begins to be able to delineate this is what happens to me under tension.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that piece of self-knowledge.
DR. BOORSTEIN: As a piece of self-knowledge that — that makes a break in between a certain next step and that next step and say, “Oh.” So that when I’m at an airport, for instance, and they say, “Attention, ladies and gentlemen,” in the next half a second my mind will always think somebody crashed. That is it. Not everyone thinks that, you know, but many people do.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
DR. BOORSTEIN: I tested it out; I asked people. But it in that in that mini — “Attention, ladies and gentlemen,” and then I think, Oh-oh. And then they say, “Please stay close to you luggage …” And they always say the same thing, too, so it’s not like I — I — but — so, I actually I don’t get to startled when I have that thought. It’s just the thought. Or if I come to a place where I’ve agreed to meet my husband on a corner of a certain street at 5:00 and I come there at 5:00 and he’s not there and it’s five past five and he’s not there, I could start to think maybe this, maybe that, maybe this, maybe that.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
DR. BOORSTEIN: But I think to myself, wait a minute. That is just my peculiar neurological glitch kicking in. Probably not, you know, I could just wait here quietly. I could look in the windows. I could look at the people. I could say relaxing phrases to my own mind. I could wish well to the passersby. There are just lots of other things I can do.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this On Being, conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “What We Nurture,” a public conversation with Jewish-Buddhist mother, grandmother, teacher, and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein.
MS. TIPPETT: I happened to have the experience of having my first child, my daughter, while I was at seminary, while I was studying theology, which was a really interesting thing to do, to be reflecting theologically and then going through this experience of bringing life into the world. One of — one of the really strong reactions I had after she was born was realizing that I’d grown up using this language of God as Father and that it’s not very — we don’t reflect on what we mean because this Father God who I always thought of was so sovereign, so powerful, right? And the experience of becoming a parent is — is one of excruciating vulnerability and loss of control.
DR. BOORSTEIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And to be able to know that.
MS. TIPPETT: And this whole thing of worrying and catastrophizing and being fearful gives you all kinds of rich new reasons to do all of those things.
DR. BOORSTEIN: Actually, no, no. It’s really a fact one of the people, who — a woman, who came regularly — I teach at Spirit Rock Meditation Center out in California, and the class is kind of a regular group of people that comes every Wednesday. And a woman came who was pregnant with her first child, and the whole group was looking forward to her having her baby.
She took some time off after the baby was born and then she came back, brought the baby with her, and she talked about — she said, “You know, when I became pregnant, everybody said congratulations, great, great, great, great, great. When I had the baby, everybody said congratulations, great, great, great, great, great. Nobody tells me that I had, at that point, mortgaged my heart for the entire rest of my life, because my happiness now depends on this baby being well and healthy and nothing bad happening to it. Nobody tells you that. They don’t say when they hear — they don’t say, ‘Uh-oh, you know, brace yourself.’ They say — they say, ‘Congratulations.'”
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. BOORSTEIN: Because you know, Krista, it’s both. It is congratulations. It’s the most amazing thing we can do, as you said, you know, theologically speaking, to create a new life that comes out with fingernails and eyelashes and all of its fingers and toes. It’s an amazing thing. And it’s extremely awakening in the sense of knowing how vulnerable we are.
You know, sometimes when you say goodbye to somebody, you say, “I’ll see you soon.” And you really actually never know, and it would be grim to think about that all the time. But if I think about that enough of the time, I think the result of my thinking about that a lot is that I try very hard not to harbor any grudges and not to leave anybody in a not good way and to say I love you as much as I can when I leave people and when I talk to my children or my grandchildren. I think that’s actually this equality you think about …
MS. TIPPETT: You mean the effect of being aware of how fragile — how fragile and strange and unpredictable life is.
DR. BOORSTEIN: In fact, in fact. The — the crux of what the Buddha taught is really — is realizing that everything passes, including these lives, and it’s not a gloomy or macabre kind of philosophy. It’s really an understanding, but that’s what’s true. And knowing that’s what’s true, I think, we are mandated not to waste any time with enmity or negativity or grudges. It’s so easy to make a grudge list and then nurture it.
MS. TIPPETT: Um, you know, the world has changed pretty rapidly in this sense as well. People tend to — you’ll often have mixed families of one parent is religious, the other is not, or they come from different traditions and their extended families may have 10 different traditions. But then when people become parents, they often still start asking this question: Do I want to pass something on or what do I want to pass on? A rabbi, Sandy Sasso, said to me once that many of us, not all of us, have a mother tongue, a tradition we grew up in, and we may have rejected that. But she said, “Don’t let your tradition be defined by people who may have ruined it for you.” That probably is a first place to look.
DR. BOORSTEIN: Actually, the truth about me is I didn’t come back to Judaism. I’ve never left. Many people come back, that’s true. I actually never left. I had always a very cordial and warm relationship to Judaism. My family was comfortably a fairly traditional Jewish family as I grew up. I never questioned that I was fundamentally a Jew in the sense of my native language, as Sandy Sasso would say.
I actually was introduced to a couple of meditative paths that didn’t particularly speak to me. And then I met my teachers and I went on retreat and I was very touched by what they said and particularly the understanding about the difference between a life inevitably challenged by pain and complications, but free of suffering. That there would be a way to train the mind to not make more suffering out of the inevitable challenges of life. And it just sounded exactly true to me. It made tremendous sense. It was like, phew, someone understands that there’s something anxiety-provoking about life. And I thought that my private anxiety was mine. Nobody else had it. And I thought about becoming enlightened and that, if I practice meditation enough, that the challenges of life and the pain and the disappointments of it would just — I would sail over them with great equanimity.
MS. TIPPETT: That didn’t happen?
DR. BOORSTEIN: That didn’t happen, that didn’t happen. I tell people — I tell people that I could have the most profound equanimity and I am two words away from losing it completely. Then they say, “What are those two words?” I’d say, “Well, you have to understand that first the phone has to ring. Ring, ring and you pick up the phone and a voice says, “Hello, Ma?” And it doesn’t sound right — the complete — you get that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, to the point of our evening.
DR. BOORSTEIN: Because that’s a whole different story. But the truth is that we are connected with empathic bonds of tremendous energy. I wouldn’t want it otherwise. I don’t want to sail above my emotional life. I don’t want to complicate my emotions with worse complications by struggling with what I can’t change or by reacting without thinking things through. In the beginning, I think I had a more lofty idea of what would happen if I practiced a lot, become a lot more pedestrian. I’d like to live kindly with a good heart because I’ll be the happiest that way.
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about this core insight that suffering — and, again, we’re acknowledging that parenting is the greatest loss of control we ever suffer — that suffering results from struggling with what is beyond my control, that idea that our minds get in conflict with our experience and that’s where suffering comes from, not so much from the realities themselves, but how we struggle with them. How do you think that applies to this?
DR. BOORSTEIN: Well, I just remembered actually just before we came out here this evening. I was sitting backstage and I remembered I was on a flight last Friday, and there was a family of five traveling with me. And everything is progressing well; it wasn’t a terribly long flight. Near the end of the flight, the two- or three-year-old, she just fell asleep and now she’s awakened and it’s late in the afternoon. Probably her naptime is way off. She not only woke up, but she woke up and she’s beside herself and crying and flailing in the way of three-year-olds. I watched these two parents and they were fabulous. Her mother was completely just consoling, quietly talking to her, not losing her equanimity at all. I was marveling at it. I thought it was wonderful.
You know, sometimes you see much more upset parents. This parent was not upset. Then by and by after a little while, the dad over here said, “Pass her to me.” So they changed children. She passed this one back to him. And then he — behind me — spoke to her in such a kindly way, and slowly, slowly she pulled herself together. I just so admired their parenting skills. I admired it because, first of all, the child calmed herself down. They didn’t whiz themselves up and create more suffering for themselves. They also didn’t create more suffering for the whole plane because, you know, sometimes when a child is getting upset and the parent becomes all upset, then you feel pulled into it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. BOORSTEIN: But somehow these parents’ equanimity was like a calming effect around the whole plane. And I thought well they were really — at the time, I thought they were really good parents. But I thought the element of their goodness was that they’re acting very wise, and that the wisdom involved is this child is two and a half and that’s what two-and-a-half-year-olds do when they’re awakened from a nap in the middle of a loud and rumbling landing.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, that’s also an illustration of a distinction you made when you talk about wise effort. I found this really helpful. I feel like that’s a story about it. You said in terms of our reactions, that there’s a big difference in any moment between asking, “Am I pleased?” Which of course, on an airplane and you have a screaming child, you’re not pleased. You’re embarrassed. You think you will be less disruptive if you can make them quiet. But the difference between asking, “Am I pleased?” or “In this moment, am I able to care?”
DR. BOORSTEIN: Yeah, for the child and for myself in a kindly way.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, here’s something else you’ve said that — that’s provocative and just so true. “It’s not fair” — the three words “it’s not fair” have caused more trouble than any words throughout history. But, you know, what’s interesting about that is it’s not fair is also the beginning of our children’s ethical instinct.
DR. BOORSTEIN: In fact.
MS. TIPPETT: And to varying degrees, we live with that instinct throughout our lives.
DR. BOORSTEIN: I think that’s a really important point, Krista. I think probably people will be able to relate to that, you know, when you grow up in a family and, in the normal course of parenting, even before the child ventures out in the world and goes to school, there are incidents where they need to share with someone or whatever it is, they have to wait in line, and we say we do this because it’s fair and we do this because it’s fair. We carry on about it’s fair because it’s fair. Then they go to school and they come home and they say the teacher has favorites. They favor so-and-so and so-and-so over me. You say I’m terribly sorry, I can’t do anything about that, and they say, “But it’s not fair.”
Here you are, the people who have said it’s about fairness. Sometimes you have to say it’s not fair and we can’t do anything about it. But in the larger sense, when we as adults occupy ourselves with what’s not fair in the world and we take our children with us and they hear and see and take part in the expressions of our own generosity, our own kindness, our own social activism, when I think about parenting, I think you said it before about parenting as a spiritual practice. I think as social activism as a spiritual practice. I think of voting as a spiritual practice.
MS. TIPPETT: So how do we help them walk that line between — you know, I remember Sister Helen Prejean, who is a great opponent of the death penalty, said. “Anger is a moral response.” But then it’s what you do with that anger? This is what you’re saying also, that it’s not fair is a fundament of morality and of activism. So how do we walk that line between demonstrating that and also helping ourselves and our children live wisely with those feelings and those observations of life’s unfairness?
DR. BOORSTEIN: You know, I think a lot about that. I remember my father, who is now long gone, hearing me teach about transforming anger into work in the world, doing something. He’d say, “I need my anger, Sylvia. It motivates me to do all the activism that I do.” I’d say, “Well, you do need it, Dad. You need it just to alert you to what needs attention, but you don’t need to carry it along with you to keep refueling you.” As a matter of fact, if you keep nurturing the flame of anger, it confuses the mind and maybe we don’t respond as wisely as we ought to. But I need the anger as if I had 104 fever; it would be a sign that I need to do something about it.
MS. TIPPETT: But then you let the anger …
DR. BOORSTEIN: But then you let it — well, I hope that what I do is I recognize the anger as a response actually. It’s a response, I think, to what I feel underneath it, which is a fear. Things really aren’t fair; this is not right that this and this is happening in the world. And I think it responds to that fear, which is basic. The human response is to lash out at it when something frightens us. You know what’s the easiest example of that? If you come by a door and, as a joke, someone’s hiding behind the door and they leap out and they say, “Boo!” and you get mad at them for doing it.
Or you see sometimes — this is a terrible thing to see. You see sometimes a child rushes out into traffic, and a parent runs out and grabs it and then hits it. But what they’ve done is, they’ve gotten frightened and then they get angry. So I think that the anger is on top of the fear and to be able to say I am frightened, because in the world these unjust things are happening, what can I do and how can I have a mind that’s energized to do something about it, but not reacting in anger, but responding in firm kindness? But things need to be different. Things need to be different.
MS. TIPPETT: You can watch and experience my entire live, 90-minute conversation with Sylvia Boorstein on our website. About 350 people joined us at the Community House in Birmingham, Michigan, and they posed some of their thoughts and questions to her and to me as a mother as well. And at one point, Sylvia led all of us in an eight-minute guided lovingkindness or “metta” meditation. Here’s a flavor of that:
DR. BOORSTEIN: So you don’t have to sit in a special way. But if you want to, close your eyes and just take two deep breaths in and out, in and out. Take along breath in and out and in again and out, and feel yourself sitting here, feel yourself sitting here, feel yourself surrounded by all these people. Feel yourself, I hope, happy and content and think in your mind a blessing for yourself. The metta practice, lovingkindness practice, always begins with a blessing for yourself. So think for yourself, “May I feel safe.” Put those words in your mind. “May I feel content.” “May I feel strong.” “May I live with ease.”
MS. TIPPETT: Find this entire meditation as it unfolded on our website. Experience it for yourself and share it with others. And, of course, you can watch or listen again to the entire evening. Just go to onbeing.org. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Follow our show @beingtweets. I share my thoughts @kristatippett. Coming up, what GPS might teach us about inner equanimity..
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this On Being. Today: “What We Nurture” — my conversation with the warm and wise Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein.
MS. TIPPETT: I think you’ve said something like that you were a measuring stick for how clearly you’re thinking is how if you’re able to be kind.
DR. BOORSTEIN: Oh, I think that, you know, I have been talking a lot about kindness in the last few years. It’s such in a sense a humble word when we think about spiritual practices or if I think about 30 or more years ago when I began to be interested in a meditative path. We talked about things like enlightenment and revelation and kindness is much more humble. But I actually think kindness is what I’d really like to establish in myself. The Dalai Lama, when people ask him what’s your religion, says my religion is kindness. I think that’s a word that subsumes tolerance and forgiveness and graciousness and patience.
MS. TIPPETT: What I like about kindness is that it’s doable. Unlike those virtues like compassion or even tolerance that you have to cultivate, you can be a lifetime cultivating those things. You can actually be kind to someone even if you don’t feel especially compassionate or it can be an act.
DR. BOORSTEIN: It’s an act and I think it’s on the way to actually genuinely being compassionate. The way I keep thinking about it, Krista, is when I’m kind, in any circumstance — whatever, someone cuts in front of me in line. You go in with a basket in the supermarket and someone zips in right in front of you and you only have two items in your basket anyway, so they could have not, so your mind thinks a thought.
But when my mind thinks a thought like that or they shouldn’t have done that, in that moment, I’m complicating my own mind with my own negativity, which I’d rather not do. But if could catch myself do that and instead think to myself, who knows, maybe he’s late for some place, maybe he really needs to be — maybe this is urgent, may he be well, may he get there in good shape, may he live happily, then I don’t really mess up my own mind and I’m two minutes later in the supermarket checkout.
So I’ve done myself a kindness. And the wisdom, I think, that comes from not upsetting the mind is you never know. I really don’t know where that person is going and you never know whether it’s good to go out now or two minutes later. Maybe, you know, who knows what traffic he’ll get into or I. Just to not fight with the moment. There they are. Why complicate it? I think we’re in the habit of doing that a lot.
MS. TIPPETT: And I suppose we model that for our children then and they become like that too. Do you have thoughts about passing this kind of idea, this kind of teaching, on to children? Even as I say that, I realize that probably the best way is to be like that. I remember my daughter, who’s 17 now, she said to me the other day, “So is this one of those do what I say, not what I do things?” Right, um, but do you — do you — so I assume you model this, but do you talk to your children or your grandchildren about kindness, about this kind of …
DR. BOORSTEIN: I think it probably comes up in the conversation from time to time. I don’t bring it up as, you know, as a sermon, but I think by what we respond to and what we nurture, that’s really what grows in our children. One of my friends has a story that he likes to tell, which I’ve heard now as a Native American story. I’ve heard it as every kind of a story, but as wise grandfather saying to his grandson — or it could be a wise grandmother saying to her granddaughter — I have two wolves in my heart: One is loving and one is vicious and they’re at war with each other. The grandchild is saying, which is going to win? And the grandparent saying, the one I feed.
MS. TIPPETT: I’ve heard that too.
DR. BOORSTEIN: I think our children learn to speak in a tone that we speak in or to hold people kindly if we do. I had in my mind I wanted to tell this. I’ve never said it in a public audience, but I just thought about it recently. I decided that — I’ll find out soon if this is a good analogy — but I was thinking about the GPS in my car. It never gets annoyed at me. If I make a mistake, it says, “Recalculating.” And then it tells me to make the soonest left turn and go back. I thought to myself, you know, I should write a book and call it “Recalculating” because I think that that’s what we’re doing all the time.
That something happens, it challenges us and the challenge is, OK, so do you want to get mad now? You could get mad, you could go home, you could make some phone calls, you could tell a few people you can’t believe what this person said or that person said. Indignation is tremendously seductive, you know, and to share with other people on the telephone and all that. So to not do it and to say, wait a minute, apropos of what you said before, wise effort to say to yourself, wait a minute, this is not the right road. Literally, this is not the right road. There’s a fork in the road here. I could become indignant, I could flame up this flame of negativity or I could say, “Recalculating.” I’ll just go back here.
MS. TIPPETT: So this is an example of technology instilling us with spiritual discipline — we find so much to criticize.
DR. BOORSTEIN: And no matter how many times I don’t make that turn, it will continue to say, “Recalculating.” The tone of voice will stay the same.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s good. I think it’s a good analogy.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today: “What We Nurture” — my conversation with the warm and wise Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein.
MS. TIPPETT: Sylvia, I want to ask you, to this question of raising children, human beings who are kind, who have a heart for the world, in a world that’s troubled — when you and I met on a panel in Southern California two years ago, you told a story about leading mindfulness teaching sessions. And you told a story about, I think, it was a man who at the end of it said, “I’m frightened to go back out into the world. I feel so vulnerable and in here I’m safe, but I don’t know how I can be out in the world and be vulnerable.”
And that story came back to me as I was thinking about interviewing you on this subject because I think, as a parent, there’s a version of that that goes through my mind. How much do I expose my children to? How do I teach them to be kind and open to the world’s pain and vulnerable? And yet I want them to be safe, and I actually want them to be tough out in that scary world at the same time. Talk to me about that.
DR. BOORSTEIN: Well, I remember — it’s a two-part answer, I remember that, um, I — I don’t remember the exactly that moment, but I’m sure it happened because it comes up often. And people will come and spend a week at a retreat center or a weekend or however many days and then they do say, here everyone is safe and it’s quiet and to go out I feel too vulnerable. And it gives me a chance to say, you know, really, I don’t think we can become too vulnerable. I’m waiting for the time that the whole world is suddenly too vulnerable and looks around and says, “Wait a minute we’re making a very big mistake. We all have to stop. We have to share. We have to make sure there is enough to eat all over the world. We — we can teach each other our ways and tell each other our hopes and dreams, but we can’t kill each other that doesn’t work. And we can’t kill the earth. And we can’t despoil it as we are doing.” So in a sense that’s a half of an answer, Krista, but because that’s what I’d say to an adult who’s leaving a retreat.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. BOORSTEIN: To a parent, I say, you know, as a child who’s growing up, inevitably they live in the world and they’ll hear about things. If they live in a house that’s relatively peaceful and we have a certain amount of control as parents about how much the TV is on and what’s on the TV and how much they are confronted by the pain of the world, and you know what I think?
Since for myself, really, I can’t — sometimes the pain of the world seems incomprehensible and unbearable to me, but I think if there’s anything that balances it, it’s the wonder at the world, the amazingness of people, how resilient they are, how people will take care of people that they don’t know. If somebody falls or someone’s in trouble in a public place, people take care of them. People take care of people that they don’t know. That human beings have that ability. I don’t think they have to learn it. They don’t have to have lessons. I think we’re an companionable species, for the most part.
Every once in a while, we meet hermit-type people, but for the most part, we’re companionable and congenial and we care about other people and we take care of them. So to be able to look at human beings and say human beings are amazing, life is amazing. The sun came up in the exact right place this morning and celebrates seasons. I think that’s a wonderful part of being part of a group of people who celebrate seasons and birthdays and holy days. So that here we are again at another time in another season and there’s that great cosmos out there to look at and imagine people going up into space and looking at the stars. Our ancestors looked at the same stars.
I think that there’s a way of — if I keep in myself a sense of amazement, I tell my grandchildren, “Look at this moon. It’s a three-day moon. It’s the best moon. It’s better than a two-day moon. A two-day moon is kind of skimpy. You really can’t see it yet. And a four-day moon? Oh, it’s already like on its way to a moon, but a three-day moon is just beautiful. It’s my favorite moon.” And if I show that to them, then they begin to think, “Oh, it’s my favorite moon, a three-day moon.” That just happens to be me. I like moons. Everybody will do it in their own way. I think that all these balances — when the Buddha taught about needing to see the suffering in the world so that we could respond with compassion, he also talked about the preciousness of life and the need to take care of it, and I think they’re both.
MS. TIPPETT: Cultivating those two at the same time. I mean, that’s also something I think our children give us new eyes, especially when they’re very little, to see the world. Actually Trent, my colleague, was talking about taking a walk with his son the other day. I remember those moments when your children are little and it’s like everything has been invented for them, right, and they name it and everything is fascinating.
DR. BOORSTEIN: Yeah, yeah. Right. You can look at one flower for a long time because it’s amazing when they start to do that.
MS. TIPPETT: This is also making me think about how we need to be attentive to what our children can teach us, as well as what we want to impart to them because some of this they know and they actually know more immediately than we do, because we lose it. I remember watching something terrible on the news the other day. And my daughter said, “So many beautiful lives in the world and this is what they focus on.”
DR. BOORSTEIN: Well, you know, I think the beautiful and wonderful lives in the world — I certainly am not a sociologist of journalism — aren’t as compelling images as the others.
MS. TIPPETT: They don’t make good headlines.
DR. BOORSTEIN: They don’t make good headlines. You know, it would be wonderful — I don’t know if it would be commercially viable if there were a channel that had all wonderful things in the news.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t know. It’s hard to make good news sexy. It is. I think about this a lot as a journalist.
DR. BOORSTEIN: But somebody could do that. Some entrepreneur could figure it out.
MS. TIPPETT: Maybe. But, you know, but I think it’s like kindness. It’s the stuff of moments, but it can be absolutely transformative in moments and these beautiful lives are transformative in moments. But we have to train ourselves to look for them.
DR. BOORSTEIN: You know, there were two things that you just said. One of them is that when we are really paying attention which is what mindfulness is, we really connect with other people. You know, lots — lots of times I think, for reasons of rush or whatever, even with our own children, we’re not completely there. I have a friend whose grandchild said to him — a grandchild with whom he spends a lot of time, he was visiting and staying at the house and doing whatever — said to him, “Grandpa, do you love me?” He said, “Of course, I love you. You do know that, don’t you?” He said, “Yes, but I don’t feel it when you aren’t paying attention to me.” So there is something about really paying attention.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. BOORSTEIN: What seems most clear to me is that children pick up what their parents live. My friend Jim Finley, who’s a Christian contemplative psychotherapist, said, “I learned to pray sitting next to my mother in church.” And what I understood from him is that he didn’t learn the words of the prayer; he learned the feelings out of her body as she sat there. I think that children learn that from us.
Spirituality doesn’t look like sitting down and meditating. Spirituality looks like folding the towels in a sweet way and talking kindly to the people in the family even though you’ve had a long day. Or even saying to them, “Listen, I’ve had such a long day, but it would be really wonderful if I could just fold these — I’d really love folding these towels quietly if you all are ready to go bed without me,” or whatever it is.
But I — I actually think that spiritual parenting — people often say to me, “I have so many things that take up my day. I don’t have time to take up a spiritual practice.” And the thing about being a parent who might think of themselves as a wise parent or a spiritual parent doesn’t take extra time. It’s enfolded into the act of parenting. You fold the towels in a sweet way. It doesn’t take extra time.
MS. TIPPETT: So Sylvia, one thing following on that. Lovingkindness meditation is also towards one’s self. You share a story in your writing about precisely that, but you share what you often say to yourself when you’re in a moment of anxiety. OK. So I think this is just great advice. I’m going to hang onto this. “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax, take a breath, let’s pay attention to what is happening, then we’ll figure out what to do.” I think that’s a fabulous sentence for one’s self and for one’s children.
DR. BOORSTEIN: I’m so pleased that you found that. It’s tremendously pleasing to me because I meet people in some significant numbers who tell me that they say to themselves in moments of distress. I say — they say, “I say to myself, ‘Sweetheart, you’re in pain. Relax, take a breath.'” I love that. A whole bunch of people out there saying to themselves, “Sweetheart.”
MS. TIPPETT: As I promised, I want to end with a poem. We’re going to let Pablo Neruda have the last word, because you mentioned this in your writing as a poem that you always have with you. And I printed it out and I — I think it’s beautiful and I wonder if you’d give that — leave that as a gift for all the rest of us.
DR. BOORSTEIN: This is called “Keeping Quiet.”
DR. BOORSTEIN: Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment,
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps the huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of frightening ourselves with death.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
MS. TIPPETT: Thank you, Sylvia Boorstein, and thanks to all of you.
MS. TIPPETT: Sylvia Boorstein is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Her books include That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhistand Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.
At onbeing.org, you can listen again to Sylvia Boorstein’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s poem “Keeping Quiet.” And you can also watch and experience my entire conversation with her. As always, there are downloadable MP3s of this week’s show and my unedited interview available through our email updates, our podcast, and on Twitter and Facebook. Find all that at onbeing.org.
On Being on-air and online is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Stefni Bell.
Special thanks this week to Mikel Ellcessor of WDET Detroit Public Radio and to Alyssa Martina and Lisa Grace from Metro Parent magazine.
Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.