by Allison Bekric
“Bring the kids, we love kids,” says my friend, My.
She’s trying to convince me to take my 3 and 4 year old daughters, Amira and Alisa, to Sugar Plum Sangha in Ukiah for a tai chi/mediation retreat. It includes silent eating, silent walking, and silent time. Downstairs I hear a crash and one of my kids starts screaming.
“Okay. If you say so,” I say and hang up.
The next morning I’m stuffing Hello Kitty pillows into the trunk of my car as my kids race around the lawn and practice the tumbling they learned in gymnastics class. I congratulate myself on remembering to pack all our toothbrushes and study the directions to the retreat. It’s two and a half hours from my house in San Jose and the last thirty miles are on a one-lane dirt rode through the mountains. In case we get lost or wrecked somewhere, I text my friend Ly so someone will know where we are.
“Did you pack snacks for the kids,” she texts back, “and toys?”
“Who needs special snacks and toys when you have vegetarian cuisine and the wonders of nature?”
After eating fast food my kids fall asleep in their car seats as Toddler Radio plays on Pandora. We arrive at the retreat by late afternoon and set up our stuff in the cabin.
“Wow!” My kids say and are deliriously happy to see bunk beds. They spend the next thirty minutes climbing up and down the ladders, peering over the railing on the top bunk and launching their Hello Kitty pillows to the ground below. Eventually, other people attending the retreat start trickling in and claiming their bunks. I tell the kids to please settle down. I worry that someone will complain about the meditation retreat being invaded by toddlers. Instead, a woman says, “you’re such a good mother for bringing your children.”
I feel my anxiety subside.
“Thanks,” I say. “ I was worried people would be upset. I figure, if the kids gets really loud I’ll just take them home.”
“No it’s fine. We love kids,” she says. A moment later, a Hello Kitty pillow hits her in the back of the head.
For dinner, we’re having lentil curry, rice, and pineapple. It’s really good. My kids eat the rice and pineapple and refuse to touch the curry. Dinner is supposed to be silent but in spite of my repeated shushings my kids keep talking. Finally, I tell them to whisper, which they do. I look around and can’t believe that no one is giving us dirty looks.
After dinner we meet in the yurt to do meditation and Tai Chi. The fireplace casts a warm glow and fills the yurt with that cozy wood-burning smell. Amira and Alisa start wrestling on the floor. I separate them to their own meditation cushions and sit between them as a barrier. Alisa sits quietly in my lap when meditation begins. Amira builds a tower out of the meditation cushions.
Soon it’s bedtime. This is the time of day I dread the most. At home, the T.V blares in the background as we argue over what kind of cookies to have with milk and then I stuff four squirming arms and four squirming legs into matching Dora the Explorer pajamas. I admit, because I dread it so much, I delay bedtime until around 9:30 p.m. when the kids are practically climbing the walls and foaming at the mouth with crankiness.
We get to the cabin and Amira and Alisa immediately dart over the bunk beds again. They scramble up the ladder to hurl things over the edge. It’s around 8:00 p.m.
“I’m surprised your kids aren’t tired,” one woman says. “It’s probably way past their bedtime.”
“Yeah. I wonder why,” I say and feel guilty. “I guess it’s because they slept in the car.”
I pick up Amira who is dangling from the guardrail using her legs to swing back and forth like a pendulum. It’s nice to see their gymnastics lessons haven’t gone to waste. I put Amira into pajamas and brush her teeth and then get Alisa ready. There’s no T.V so there’s no argument about turning it off. There’s no toys to put away. We listen to an owl hooting outside. Then we bundle into our sleeping bags—me sharing a sleeping bag with Amira on the bottom bunk and Amira on the top bunk by herself—and it’s lights out. The kids fall asleep without a peep.
We wake up to the bell ringing at 6 a.m for meditation. The kids spring into action. At home, I wake up at 5.30 a.m and the kids wake up at 7.30 but I suppose since they went to bed early last night they’re well-rested and ready to go. I get us all dressed and we head to the yurt for meditation.
The kids start wrestling with each other and I separate them. When I close my eyes to mediate, Amira wonders over to play with the rocks and pictures that are displayed on the yurt’s alter. I gently stir her back to the circle and sit her in my lap. Alisa is already sitting on her cushion cross-legged. We sit together quietly.
After meditation, we all go outside for tai chi and find that there’s an old swing set. My says that Sugar Plum Sanga used to be a school back in the 1970s and some of the old school stuff is still around. She kindly takes Amria and Alisa to swing on the swings. During tai chi, I learn something called “Taming the Dragon.”
For the rest of the trip we sing songs, eat while whispering, walk in the mountains and tell stories before bed. I was fearing huge melt-downs, screaming and time-outs but found that the kids became calmer as the retreat progressed. It’s not like I said, “Here’s how to meditate” or “Here’s how to be mindful” it was simply being in nature, not rushing and being around adults practicing mindfulness which taught them how to do the practice.
Come to think of it, I think children are naturally mindful. I remember Amira and Alisa saying, “Wow!” over and over again. “Wow” to the mountains, “Wow” to the bunk beds, “Wow” to the little rocks on the alter in the yurt. As for me, when was the last time I said “wow” to anything?
Before this trip, I was unsure if mediation would mesh well with my small children and thought that it was something that I’d rather do on my own. I learned that just as one gains nourishment from other people’s presence in sangha, sitting with your child in your lap or with them near you in mindfulness is also very nourishing. It’s teaching the mother in you to be calm, that it’s okay, that you’re doing good job. The fact that you are simply there with your children is enough.
My kids and I really enjoyed our time at Sugar Plum Sangha and have visited twice so far. I always leave grateful to everyone’s patience and understanding. When my kids say “wow” I’m now able to hear them. Sugar Plum Sangha provided me with an avenue to merge my practice with my real life and I am very grateful for that.