Fathering as a Spiritual Practice
By Craig Scott Brooke-Weiss
While on a recent meditation retreat, I was asked by the teacher, "What are you doing to support your spiritual life?" I pondered the question and then told her about my inconsistent meditation practice, my experience of being a man and a brother and sharing that in my men's and father's groups, the deep love I experience with my partner, my connection to my mentor. Then, while reflecting even more deeply on my current practices and inspirations, I mentioned my son and the love we have for one another.
Fathering is the most profound spiritual work I've ever done. My love for my son has given me a higher purpose. Being an involved father provides me with daily, intimate and accessible spiritual lessons and teachings. Spiritual work is about being love. I often forget about my breath, I can forget to be mindful, but I can't forget that whatever I'm doing and how I'm doing it affects him. This is sacred territory. Wherever we are, that's what we do and that's what's needing to be done. It happens whenever we open up a book to read together or fight over making the bed or "no sweeties till you eat the green stuff." It's everywhere we are, in every moment.
Through being a dad I get to reparent myself! Wherever he goes in his world, whatever he does (when we're together), I am there. I might take him there. But he takes me in. We go to places-physical places, emotional places that I never accessed with my dad. I protect him. I play with him. I guide him. And in return, he inspires and challenges me. Together we learn, play and grow our love while: fishing, city rock climbing, bicycling, watching movies, reading books and comics, watching movies, rough-housing, making the bed and learning our limits. Through his experience of wonder I get to feel wonder all over again. Through providing healthy limits for him and calling him when he breaks those limits, I get to rediscover those boundaries for myself. Through teaching him the importance of honesty, integrity, patience and perseverance, I get to model and be reminded at a fundamental level of the strength I have to live those qualities daily.
Part of my personality is that I want to appear tough, that I can withstand, or dish out, vast quantities of physical or emotional pain. But when I had a child I knew that I had to start chipping away at that unnecessary armor. I wanted my child to know that I was accessible, human. Daddy cries. Daddy feels pain. Daddy makes mistakes. Whatever I feel makes it safe for him to feel. I wanted him to know that he could feel all his feelings and that I wouldn't go away. I give this gift to my son. That tough shell of mine has transformed. Our world is relatively peaceful, not only at bedtime, but also when somebody cuts me off while I'm driving (or other times I am instantly triggered to anger). I hold my words and sometimes, I even remember to keep my heart open. I do this for my son and I do this for myself. This is the remembering that is my personal breath work.
Fathering, for men, is a spiritual path. For many men, their first step into their hearts, into the heart of love, is through their love of a woman. Men take solace from women. Because of the deep seated nature of the competitive male spirit, many men don't trust one another. But they often trust and can let go of their protective shells in the presence of women. This is also possible with one's child. Some men turn their backs on their children. Some let the women in their lives be the ones that become enthralled with their children. We can raise our kids by default, or consciously. There will never be more pain, more transformative pain than with your child or children, nor more opportunities to grow big in heart and spirit. By raising our children, we (parents) revisit childhood again, the magic, the pain, the joy. The overwhelming awesomeness of it all. We are gifted with the opportunity to experience one of the most powerful of the ancient healing tones. Hanging out with his kids, an involved father will hear, not Om, but the sound of his own silly laugh, a close reminder of the giggles of his own childhood
I had experienced many profound experiences before becoming a daddy. I've been around the spiritual block. I've done the doing and lived the being and still am. I've been involved in intentional communities and spiritual ashrams. I've read some of the important books, done many seminars and labored for years in therapy. I've encountered and confronted my hard, unloving, uncompassionate self and continue to do so on a regular basis. I've cleaned out my closet of negativity and am continuing to clean up my act. I've healed a lot of wounds with my father and made peace with my dead brother. My heart has been split open-healed by love-crushed by grief. I've danced, drugged and loved my way into countless forms of bliss. I've experienced the wisdom of the breath, been moved by deep silence, witnessed the inherent beauty of simplicity, and I have been moved by honest and kind words.
In addition to the Spiritual block, there's another block I've been around: America; I've driven through it's highways, main streets, and back streets. --- more of them than I care to remember ... or forget. I used to drive and fly city to city selling T-shirts at loud rock concerts. I've paid heavy dues to see and experience the other side, what's considered the dark side, where making money was more important than anything else. In my journey down the back streets, I lost my only blood brother and my innocence. I've gone down roads that many spiritual seekers might be tempted to say are roads leading nowhere. In my case they would be wrong.
One afternoon, on one of those roads, I met a woman and soon after we had a child.
He is my flesh, my blood and my true reflection. He is my son. His name is Levi.
All great teachers remind us that Love is the answer. Love is the answer for me. The question it answers: "What is truly important?"
After all these years I've finally found the cutting edge work that takes me closer to my higher self, out of my mind and into my heart. Focusing my time and energy into raising my son is my spiritual path and it is not only a revelation-it is revolutionary.
What is wild to me is that I had to experience so many far out, unconventional, countercultural paths, to discover what Ellen, my Jewish mom, knew all along. "Craig, when are you going to settle down and have a family?" Her nagging had wisdom in it. More than I suspected.
Many people think that their next great spiritual lesson is going to come from a new teacher or "spiritual pursuit." If you are a parent who is paying attention and prioritizing your children over other self realizing, self fulfilling pursuits (without martyrdom), then you probably are experiencing many awe-filled, quiet and simple moments of pleasure. The gift of parenting is often in those rare moments in-between all the busy stuff. If you are a father spending your time on your child, giving your full presence, whether you're interested at that moment or not, whether you have that time or not, you are a revolutionary!
Most men were not trained to prioritize their active involvement in their family. How could they? Life skills training for boys is dismal where it involves caring for themselves or others. Boys are trained in the don'ts: "Don't be a crybaby", "Don't let others know you're hurt," "Don't let others see that you care," "Don't be a wimp," "Don't be effeminate," "Don't be sensitive to other's pain." Boy's training: minds overrule hearts. Productivity is more important than sensitivity. Boys are rewarded for paying attention to facts and numbers, not themselves, not others. For men to unlearn and retrain themselves, going against what they've been taught about who men are and what men do, is not easy. What men often need is the equivalent of sensitivity training. Many men need to revisit what they were told is unimportant and learn to trust their intuition. Many men need to revisit when they were told men were not supposed to feel. Those men would do good to themselves and those they love by learning about gentleness, kindness, being sweet. Those men would do well extending compassion and gentleness towards themselves and others. Men were also told, or at least they got the message not to spend too much time paying attention to themselves, i.e. maintaining good selfcare. But it is hard to combat this training at a cellular level. In reclaiming the essence of our nature, the nature that is in men as well as women, boys as well as girls, we learn the necessity of caring for one's self and others. This is not as simple as it seems. If a man was not taught to honor these qualities, he will need patience and incredible commitment to learn these lessons. Once we take the time and make the effort to honor the heart's logic, creating and prioritizing family over almost anything else makes perfect sense. Men who are waking up to this, doing the work and making this commitment, are lavishing a gift onto themselves, their partners, but most importantly their children and the community.
Living and breathing and thinking about our children is what many of us do as our spiritual work. This is the first order of love. I had to write this article to remember this truth. Though men have been trained to respond differently, many fathers, like myself, are heeding the wisdom of their heart: theirs and their child or children's. Fathering is a loving spiritual practice.