If there were one gift, or tool, that I could bestow upon every parent it would be the consciousness of a bowl.
The individuated self is like a bowl—solid and able to contain whatever one puts in it. With a bowl, good feelings fill us up and bad feelings are held without negating or destroying the vessel that holds them.
A newborn is a soul without a bowl, an uncarved block from the World Tree. As parents we help shape the prima-materia of our children’s psyches into vessels that can hold feelings, and which can eventually “hold it together” under the intensity of opposite emotions, such as love and hate.
As discussed in an earlier post, children are like colanders and we run a lot of love through them before it sticks. Also, due to the nature of brain development, our children’s intellectual and emotional capacities are akin to walking across a field of Swiss Cheese, with pockets of poor judgment, regressed fear and anger, and lapsed or regressed cognitive functioning (i.e. the algebra they knew on Tuesday is an unfathomable morass on Thursday).
Swiss Cheese, colanders… the net effect on us parents is that our kids can be draining, needing us to hold their wobbly psyches within our own, and to catch, contain, metabolize and feed back the overflowing emotions that are simply too much for them.
If we hope to be shapers of bowls in our children, it is best if we too are cohesive bowls in the first place. But, alas, this is not where most of us start out; and even if we are psychologically solid, parenting soon fills our bowls with so much love, dread, responsibility and mental baggage that we simply have to grow into bigger bowls in order to contain all that our children—our wise little overflowing fountains—spill into us.
In this sense parenting offers a fantastic opportunity for spiritual development in a symbiotic relationship to our children’s emotional and psychological development. Held within the bowl of the parent’s psyche, a child develops psychologically (i.e. discovers who they authentically are, learns to trust, to share and to take risks), while the parent develops spiritually through the very process of parenting. By loving our children more purely than we love ourselves, by recognizing their beauty and their sacredness, another bowl, the bowl of Self (akin to the soul and capitalized to differentiate from the ego-self) is formed. If childhood is about discovering our selves, parenting is about making our souls.
Our children’s selves form like clay upon a potter’s wheel. One hand guiding from outside is our loving attention; the other hand, guiding from within, is our containing of their overflow, particularly in holding our child’s opposites (i.e. our her contradictory views that we parents are both wonderful and we are frustrating).
The young child “splits” the parent into good and bad, much as God in the Old Testament divides darkness from light; and we are tasked with participating in the great mystery by stretching and straining to hold the original opposites together in one tempered and tested parental soul-Self. We parent and help make our children’s selves, and out of parenting we also make our souls—that deep Self bowl meant to, in turn, consciously hold something of the divine. In this way parenting teaches us the meaning of life, which is to simply (although it is far from simple to get there) live it.
Shaman legends hold that the first instrument was the drum, carved from a branch of the World Tree; it was the heart of the tribe. All art (and parenting is art) is about talking to God across the transoms of our soul. Parenting is rife with huge questions, and thus with true art: How can we contain the intensity of our love and our potential loss? How can we hold the transcendent in our mortal hearts? How can we understand that all is perfect when it hurts so badly sometimes?
This may sound too esoteric, but trust that the deep Self hears differently than the ego-Self. See what your deep Self thinks about this bowl idea by watching for synchronicities, odd little hints and clues about the path your own deep Self wants to follow (for when you follow that path, pain is transformed, no longer necessary, and the love you get makes it all worth it).
Sound out what your deep Self thinks about this by paying attention to your dreams. If you get one that truly puzzles you, share it here if you like, meditate patiently on its meaning until it emerges (I’ve had dreams that took decades to make sense, and others I’m still waiting to understand).
An exercise to consider: Take the nicest bowl you can find, or that pleases you in some way. Don’t buy another thing, just make due with what you have. Contemplate that bowl, put it somewhere to remind and teach—a bowl is our wisest “self-help” tool and teacher, quietly listening without judgment, modeling how we might be.
Let that bowl be a symbol of our sangha, our community of all parents who want the best for all children—a collective bowl of compassionate mental energy. Imagine putting what you can’t hold into that bowl, in the service of your self and your child. Imagine taking out the abiding patience and solidity to be your best Self as a parent, to your child and to our world.
Dedicate today to being the bowl in the service of your child, and of all our children.