I’ve recently been exploring more deeply different kinds of meditation, including a classic of the Buddhist tradition called metta, or loving kindness, meditation. The basic principle is that over time, you extend thoughts of well being (happiness, safety, health) outward, starting with yourself and moving toward a person who loves you and whom you love unconditionally, a good friend, a stranger or “neutral” person whom you see on a daily basis but don’t know well, someone who is “difficult” in your life, and finally to all beings. It’s an intense exercise in compassion on multiple levels, and is especially interesting in the context of the moment of East-West fusion we’re exploring now as a culture. I for one have struggled during metta meditation sessions with starting from a foundation of self-compassion, which to me (and many Westerners) is more challenging than feeling compassionate toward people I love certainly, but even those people who press my buttons on a daily basis.
In my last session at the Interdependence Project in New York City, where they have donation-based open metta meditation every Friday evening, I thought intensely about why it was so hard to wish well to myself as compared to the next person on my list, the person with whom I experience two-way unconditional love. That person was my mother. The deepest irony about the complete 180-difference between those two stages is that my mother’s unconditional love and sacrifice toward me and my sister would make it seem like I feel deserving of such love. Biology and obligation were always the excuses I gave for why this person could love me so much without my doing anything at all: it’s just hard-wired into our genetic bond, she’s legally responsible for caring for me, etc. But recently, and especially on Mother’s Day, I’m grateful for what her displays of love have subconsciously taught me about my own self-worth. As with many things she’s taught me, whether it be explicitly or not, over the years, it’s just taken time to sink it.
Last year on Mother’s Day, I was immersed in my yoga teacher training and just couldn’t rationalize the rescheduling I’d have to do if I were to miss class so close to the end. My mother naturally understood–if you have to pay money to make up your class you’re definitely not doing that, she said–but this year I wasn’t going to miss seeing my mom. My work and other commitments could all be negotiated, and when I told my mom I’d be jetting back to New Jersey for about a 12-hour period, I wouldn’t listen to her objections.
We spent the morning doing the things that she and I do together so easily, the routine that feels like second nature even though we rarely have mornings together anymore. Looking at catalogues, talking about family, eating our breakfasts (one of the biggest challenges we’ve overcome lately–since my becoming vegan and moving past a host of inherited eating- and body image issues), and of course drinking coffee. She waited to fire up the stove-top percolator until I’d woken up, so that the coffee would be fresh; and she had the pile of mail she thought I’d be interested in perusing neatly stacked near my seat at the kitchen table. Over berries and nuts we talked about different kinds of barley and how to prepare it, admired expensive light fixtures, and updated each other on our sleeping and digestive ailments with an easy, energetic flow. We’re both early birds, so our conversation last night had been foggier.
So many of the details of this quotidian and ordinary routine are infused with the principles for living well that she’s passed on to me through repetition or just by example. And while there’s a fair amount of her wisdom I’ve resisted over the years, it’s never been more apparent to me that while she hasn’t always been right, in the sense of being accurate/correct, about everything, she’s never told me something that wasn’t motivated by keeping me happy, healthy, and safe.
It feels almost like betraying a top-secret family recipe to divulge these pearls, but in the spirit of compassion I’ve laid out the most meaningful of her lessons here. Reading them in one place makes me realize how one person’s infinite supply of love has made me a better person, and increased my own capacity to send love out into the universe.
A pinch of salt and cinnamon make a superb cup of coffee. I’ve gone through endless cycles of drinking and not drinking coffee, finally to reach an equilibrium of moderation–one or two cups a week is just right to satisfying my cravings for the rich and earthy taste that no kind of tea can emulate. My mother has been fastidious in brewing her coffee in a stove top percolator (how her mom did it) forever, and I can imagine her giving it up entirely should she have to switch to another tool (God forbid). Her secret to eliminating bitterness is adding these two curious ingredients right to the ground beans before brewing. Plus, they make every morning feel a little like Christmas.
Baby powder will eliminate any grease stain on any fabric. I remember many nights where, as my mother prepared dinner, she’d pass back and forth between the stove and the hall closet returning each time with a new splotch of white on her top. She was implementing her fool-proof stain treatment for the splashes of oil or grease that had jumped up from the food. The bottle of Johnson & Johnson powder that’s still in that closet is probably as old as I am, but it never fails to do the job. Just sprinkle, rub lightly, then shake off the excess to lift away the grease before washing. Although I’d have no other reason to buy this essential, it’s been a staple in my bathroom since I’ve lived on my own.
Save the receipt. No matter how much you think you love the top you bought online and decide will look perfect once you wear it a few times, it will never really fit right. Keep your receipt and once you’ve gotten through the denial period of wanting to make it work, get your money back and buy something better.
A cup of tea and peppermint candies will make you feel better. Deep inside my mom’s black hole of a purse is a Ziplock baggie of Starlight peppermint candies, which she eats on a daily basis to ease her anxious and acid-coated (see the coffee note above) stomach. I’ve alas inherited a similarly conditioned organ, so I’m never without mints of some kind. Whenever I’ve texted her about a stressful day at work or periods of IBS-ish pains, she just tells me to pop a mint and make myself a cup of tea. The latter is of course a scientifically proven stress-buster, so she’s always right. Who said you need to go to medical school to doctor?
Tradition is important. My family is big on traditions, especially around the holidays. There are so many things we have to do and maintain just because that’s how we’ve always done it. It can be exhausting to simply remember, let alone make time for, all these things. I’ve protested a fair amount against many said traditions, but in the end it’s not so much the specifics of what you do on a regular basis but the fact that they are regular. On levels big or small, the idea of committing to something no matter what is key to a healthy and balanced life. There’s nothing that makes me feel more centered and grounded than doing the things I know bring me joy, or even falling into the security of something you know will work no matter what external conditions threaten to complicate things. In my own life, the traditions of practicing yoga, “pampering” my mind and body with meditation, books, and natural skin care, are paramount, and I have mom to thank for instilling that sense of loyalty in me.
…But when something doesn’t work, ditch it. My mom and I both have gone through phases of fad dieting, beauty trends, and various other unsustainable routines. Together, we’ve realized that just because you commit to something, which is a virtue/vice we both possess in an above-average quantity, doesn’t mean you can’t trade it for something else. Being fluid and adaptable in one’s habits and lifestyle, even in one’s identity and sense of purpose, is what allows us all to survive in a world where it can feel like nothing is safe or dependable–a reality that’s never been more clear than now. It also reinforces how the things you do for work and pleasure, the people you spend time with, even your tastes in style, food, and everything in between, aren’t permanent. Nor are they who you are, in an elemental and spiritual sense. You are You, and whoever that is in the here and now is perfect.
I deserve love. Going back to where we started, this basic principle of feeling worthy of love, of feeling that I matter even if I fail and stumble and wander, is the greatest gift I could ever get from my mom. It’s infused in every material gift she’s given me over the years, every text message, every hug, as well as her instinctive response of dropping everything to help me. As I listened to a wonderful podcast this week from Sarah Blondin’s “Life Awake Project,” her invitation to repeat the phrase “I love you. I am listening” was made easier when I heard it being spoken by Mom. I then spoke them in my head as if I was saying them back to her, and eventually as the mantra settled in our two voices fused. Love wasn’t something we have had to earn for each other. It simply is, and will always be.
For everyone who is a mother, or who mothers in any sense, happy mother’s day. And on behalf of daughters everywhere, thank you for loving me and allowing me to love you back.