Why Are We Here?
by Leslie Davis
My teen son is bored. Very bored. We arrived yesterday at Deer Park Monastery for a week-long family mindfulness retreat and he’s bored and complaining a lot.
He keeps asking, “Why are we here?”
I answer literally because he’s asking it literally—he’s not seeking a spiritual response. “We always come here at this time of year. It’s a tradition,” I say.
Unfazed and frustrated, he asks a few minutes later, “Why are we here?”
“Dad is off work this week so it’s a good time to come,” I offer, knowing full-well that these reasons won’t satisfy him.
He’s been coming here most of his life. He loved it until he didn’t. Now that he’s a teen he is less interested in being here, but he usually sinks into the rhythm after a couple of days.
I arrived in a state of extreme burn-out and exhaustion. I just want to rest. My resources are low. I want to hide, to cocoon in the room and sleep. I want to take care of myself, to go inward and be there for myself, not for my son. His state of mind is really challenging me.
I take a slow walk around the grounds with him and force myself to listen to his complaints. I listen to him talk about video games—not in an excited sharing way, but in a complaining, detoxing, aggravated way. His discomfort is palatable. He’s not excited about being offline for a week. It’s a huge drain on my limited amount of energy to be present for him. I want to run and hide and tend to my own fragile feelings.
“Can you tell me again why we’re here?” he asks again in frustration.
“We’re here so we can learn how to tend to our strong emotions,” I reply.
“Is boredom a feeling? Because I’m really, really bored,” he complains.
Yes, I say, boredom is a feeling. I remind myself that he is out of his comfort-zone, that he needs time to adjust. I take another deep breath. It doesn’t come naturally. I have to remind myself to breathe in and out slowly. Even though we’re at a mindfulness retreat center surrounded by acres and acres of beautiful open land, I’m still stuck in my own strong feelings of discomfort and not seeing options to get through this.
We keep walking. Now we’re on a dirt path up the hill heading toward the stupa and lookout point. He likes it up here. There’s a large open area that feels expansive and limitless. We work our way up the hill as he continues his rant and I attempt to listen. It’s taking so much energy; my mind keeps wandering. I soon notice that my mind keeps going back to my own complaints. I’m doing the same thing he is, only silently, in my mind. My self-talk is all complaints. I feel trapped. I’m miserable. I don’t want to be here. I want to go home. I don’t want to be a loving, kind mama right now.
Neither of us want to be here. We’re both struggling with being in the present moment because our present moment is filled with the sludge of our dark feelings. I realize that we both need care. He needs support and I need support. He needs to vent his frustrations and so do I. I don’t have to escape him to tend to my own feelings. It’s not an either/or situation. We’re in this together.
I say, “I’m not bored, but I’m having strong feelings too.”
He doesn’t acknowledge me but it feels good to offer that up. I tell him that I’ve just been through a very difficult experience at work and that I’m feeling a lot of strong feelings myself, and am not feeling very happy.
“Even though I seem OK, inside I feel miserable,” I say, “I’m working really hard to stay calm and to focus on what you’re saying.”
He says, “You are?”
Exposing my own strong and uncomfortable feelings opened a door and softened his edge.
I continue tentatively. I tell him that we’re here to learn how to stay with our feelings and not run away from them or pretend they don’t exist. I tell him that I want to support him and I also need support. I say we can support each other just by being together, even if we’re both in bad moods and are feeling miserable. He laughs and I feel his edge soften again. We walk around and throw some small rocks. We climb up on a huge boulder and look out at the view. We don’t say much.
The mind is like a loop and occasionally it gets stuck. It feels like an eternity. Because I’m paying very close attention, and slowing the pace, I’m able to see that I’m stuck in a loop. Because I’m walking slowly with my son and trying to focus on my breathing, a tiny shift in perspective occurs. When I pay close attention like this, tracking my mind and my body, I can draw on the wisdom of my meditation practice. Sometimes I just stop moving my body—just standing or sitting still helps me because if I stop my body, my mind will follow its lead and slow down. If I can’t stop my motion, I can just stop speaking, and that gives my brain a moment to reset.
Being there for a child when you don’t want to be there for them is one of the biggest challenges of parenting. And it’s one we’re all familiar with because it happens multiple times, every single day. Being there, being right there, being present, in the now—it takes a huge amount of energy and focus.
Getting back to the question? Why are we here? Why ARE we here? What a great question. Wherever you are, you can ask yourself, Why am I here? See what comes up for you. See if you can commit more fully to the present moment of where you are. There was nothing extraordinary about the exchange I had with my son. It was a very ordinary experience. We both had to hobble along and feel our discomfort. But the act of being aware of our feelings, being able to name them, to say hello to boredom and discomfort, helped both of us move through to the other side. The extraordinary occurs when we shine a light on our experiences and see the magic of transformation.
The next day the topic of the dharma talk was “Why are you here?” (!!!!) When I heard it my jaw dropped and I laughed out loud in the meditation hall. After the conversation with my son the day before, I had to laugh at the synchronicity of this. Our monastic teacher, Thay Phap Hai, asked everyone attending the retreat the question “Why are you here?” How did he know? Was he following us? Eavesdropping on us? And where was my son? He wasn’t in the room. The message was for me.
Thay Phap Hai talked about how often we go through life without realizing where we are. Our bodies and our minds are so disconnected that we just go through the motions of life without consciously deciding to be present. He encouraged us all to be in the present moment while on the retreat. He said, “Choose to be here.” Yes, Choose to be here. Make the choice and choose to be wherever you are. It’s your choice, so you can choose to be present. Just like that. It’s so simple, but not always so easy. Having a regular mindfulness practice gives you the resources to make these shifts. Whether your practice is a meditation practice or a yoga practice, having a regular practice in your daily life will be the foundation for you to be able to anchor to your breath, to respond calmly, to be there for another person, to be there for yourself, sometimes simultaneously, and to choose to be present.
My son didn’t ask me again why we were there, but I had my answer ready this time: Why are we here? Because we choose to be here.
About Leslie Davis
Leslie writes to enhance her mindfulness practice. Through writing, she connects deeply to her self and her non-self, her joys and desires, her fears and worries. She is on an imperfectly perfect quest to mindfully raise her two teens with her husband Kenley, a dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage. A lover of nature, hiking, organic living and being with her family, Leslie also really likes to stay in, read a good book, write, make stuff, and soak in the tub. Leslie lives in Ojai, California and works as a marketing consultant, social media manager and writer. She has an MFA in Poetry from New College of California, San Francisco where she also studied letterpress printing. Leslie blogs here and at www.heartlunge.com.