An interview with Andrea Miller: Author, Lion’s Roar deputy editor, and mindful mother of two
Tell me about yourself, your family and your journey to mindful parenting.
I met my husband Adán while I was teaching English as an additional language at a university in Mexico. We got married in 2008 and then had our first child, Alexandra, in 2015. Seventeen months later we had our son Antonio. Now that Alexandra is four and Antonio is two, things are starting to get easier, but when we had two kids under two, it was really hairy.
I’m so appreciative of the fact that I had a mindfulness practice before having children. It helps me cope with the difficult aspects of parenthood—the stress, the drudgery, the worry. But I think it’s interesting that it isn’t simply that mindfulness helps me mother; the reverse is also true. Mothering helps me be more mindful.
I have to confess that much of my formal practice went out the window when I had kids. That’s not ideal, of course, but as a working parent it’s difficult to carve out time and, for me, there has actually been a positive side to this. That is, my practice has become much more about making mindfulness a part of the fabric of my life rather than a separate activity. I like to think that this integration will enrich my formal practice in the long term.
How has mindfulness/meditation/Buddhist teachings helped you as a parent? And how have the teachings helped your family?
Adán considers himself a Catholic, though he’s not religious, and he doesn’t practice mindfulness or meditation. Early in our relationship, he once accompanied me to a sit with a Soto Zen group and he fled mid-sit. Another time he attended a day of mindfulness in the Plum Village tradition with me. He enjoyed that, especially the silent walking in the woods, and the experience brought us closer together. But he doesn’t feel drawn to practice, and that’s fine by me. There are many things that we have in common, but we’re also very different. That makes our relationship stronger.
I think that Buddhist teachings and practice help Adán and our children indirectly because Buddhism has helped me become more patient, loving, and forgiving. In every relationship there are squabbles and bumps. When I’m annoyed with Adán or frustrated with my kids, the teachings on impermanence always come to mind. Thich Nhat Hanh suggested that when we’re angry, we consider where we’ll be in three hundred years and where the other person will be. That contemplation puts small problems into perspective. I instantly remember how precious my family is to me.
Until a few months ago I didn’t try to teach mindfulness or meditation to my kids. I didn’t want to push anything on them and I suspected that teaching them might not be that effective in any case. Kids do what we do, not what we say, so my aim was to simply do the practice and let them see the fruits of it.
Embodying the practice rather than explicitly teaching it is still my primary M.O. but I am now doing more teaching, and that’s because I’m following my daughter Alexandra’s lead. At her daycare, she’s now learning yoga, tai chi, and mindfulness and she seems to really enjoy it. She always wants to demonstrate her tai chi practice for me and she loves the affirmation “I am calm.” I was particularly touched when she told me one day that “If you’re sad, you can breathe.”
Now before bed I frequently practice yoga with the kids. We do a couple of poses together and then things usually get silly. I do plank, for instance, and they both climb on my back, laughing uproariously. When practicing with children, it’s important to let go of any expectations you might have of how they should approach the practice and just go with the flow.
What brings you back to the present moment at home and at work?
For me, parenting has highs and lows and I’m constantly flipping between them. But it’s those extremes that tend to bring me back to the present. When I’m stressed out because I need to get everyone out the door and the house is a mess and the kids are fighting— that’s a bell of mindfulness for me. On the other hand, it’s also a bell of mindfulness when I have a quiet snuggle with one of my kids. A moment like that is so good that I want to savor it, to really pay attention to it.
As the deputy editor at Lion’s Roar, I’m lucky to work with many people who are practitioners, and the company culture is totally informed by the dharma. A couple of ways that this manifests is that we sit for a few minutes before our weekly staff meeting and we bow to each other before we have any meeting. Personally, I find these practices helpful for coming back to the present. The only problem is that it doesn’t feel natural to me when I attend a meeting with people who aren’t practitioners, such as at the kids’ daycare. Everyone just dives into talking without taking a bow so there’s no formal container for centering ourselves. At meetings like that I don’t tell anybody what I’m doing but I take a few conscious breaths so that I, at least, can feel centered.
Tell us about your two children’s books.
The Day the Buddha Woke Up is about the life and teachings of the Buddha, and it’s illustrated by the longtime Vajrayana Buddhist artist Rima Fujita. With good Buddhist art, the faces are so expressive with equanimity, compassion, and wisdom that we get a sense of what we’re going for in our practice. Though Rima’s art is aimed at children and has a childlike wonder and sweetness to it, it also has that expressive quality I’m talking about. So I like to think that the book plants positive seeds in children. When Thich Nhat Hanh was a little boy, he saw an image of the Buddha in a magazine, which inspired him to want to experience the Buddha’s peace. I hope that a child is reading The Day the Buddha Woke Up right now and getting a gut sense of what it means to be peaceful, to be happy.
My other children’s book is called My First Book of Canadian Birds, and it’s much like it sounds. It introduces children to snowy owls and blue jays, etc. The illustrations, which are by Angela Doak, are collages made out of scraps of so-called garbage—old calendars, wrapping paper, and chip bags. When I wrote the book, I had a style of illustration in mind for it that was nothing like Angela’s work. But as soon as I saw her animals, which are at once whimsical and biologically accurate, I wanted her to do the illustrations. I’m so glad she said yes.
Why did you decide to write a board book about the Buddha?
Just days after my daughter Alexandra was born, I started reading to her. At first, I read aloud what I myself was reading, which happened to be Thich Nhat Hanh’s Hermitage Among the Clouds: An Historical Novel of Fourteenth Century Vietnam. That was okay for maybe the first week, but very quickly she let me know very clearly that books for grownups were boring and that she needed books for her age group. So that meant picture books, but not just any picture books. She needed ones geared toward the littlest of littles, and generally speaking those are board books. Those wonderful durable books that can be loved fiercely by rough and messy tiny people. To keep kids’ interest, board books shouldn’t have too many words per page and, ideally, they have really colorful pictures with lots of contrast.
So it was Alexandra who got me into reading board books—a type of literature that I’d never previously given any thought to. As I got familiar with them, I really came to appreciate them. They’re pithy but they can be funny or profound or moving just like any other type of literature. Then I realized that there were no Buddhist board books—there were literally no Buddhist books for really small kids. So that’s when I decided to write one and tell the story of the Buddha.
The book description says it’s about, “the Buddha’s questions, his quest, and his ultimate understanding.” That’s heavy, even for adults. How can children understand these concepts? What questions and teachings do you cover in the book?
The challenge with writing about the Buddha’s life and teachings in fewer than two hundred words is that I really had to get to the heart of the matter quickly.
It’s often said that the essence of Buddhism is suffering and the end of suffering. So suffering and its cessation is what the book centers on. Of course, those aren’t the words I use for small children. What I talk about is “happiness,” and I say that what makes us really happy isn’t material things but rather “enjoying this moment without wishing it was a different moment.”
So that’s the thrust of the text, but what I love about a picture book is that you have words and images working together, so Rima’s illustrations make the story so much richer and more detailed. For example, on one spread it says, “Siddhartha wanted to understand the human heart. Why aren’t people happy? Is true happiness possible?” And Rima illustrated that page with Siddhartha encountering illness, old age, and death, as well as a spiritual seeker for the very first time.
The pictorial storytelling of The Day the Buddha Woke Up reminds me of how in preliterate cultures paintings were used in churches and temples to teach spiritual stories and lessons.
Tell us about My First Book of Canadian Birds and your love of birds.
I love birds for all the same reasons little kids so often gravitate toward them. Birds come in all colors of the rainbow and all shapes and sizes, and—like fairies and airplanes—birds fly. Then there is the fact that the lives of birds mirror the lives of humans, and we can see ourselves reflected in them. Just like us, birds take care of their young, they need sustenance and safety, and eventually, they pass away. Finally, I’m really intrigued by birds’ ancestry. Think of it, chickadees are related to dinosaurs! Some would even say they are modern dinosaurs—modern dinosaurs. I get such a kick out of that, and I think there is a teaching there, too. Dinosaurs were empty of a permanent, unchanging self, and—because of that emptiness—it’s been possible for the beauty of birds to come into being.
A love of birds gets kids outdoors and that’s a good place for kids (and adults) to be. Studies show that spending time in nature improves both mental and physical health. An interest in birds can be a first step in taking an interest in biology and the other sciences. And finally—most importantly—a love of birds can spill over into a love of the natural world and wanting to protect wild spaces.
Why do you think books are important for children?
Books cultivate our understanding and compassion because they put us directly inside the hearts and heads of other people in a way that movies or TV shows do not. I have to confess, though, that my primary reason for helping my kids develop an appreciation for books is simply that reading is one of the greatest pleasures of my life and I want to share that with them. For me, reading is adventure, solace, knowledge, and inspiration.
What would you like to share with other moms who are practicing mindful parenting?
Moms—women—are under so much pressure to do it all and to it all perfectly. A mother is supposed to always be available for their children and spouse, prepare tasty, nutritious food for the family, keep a tidy home, have a fulfilling career, engage in creative pursuits, stay fit, and on and on. So in this society mindfulness can become one more thing that a mother is supposed to do. I urge mothers to not allow mindfulness to be co-opted by this type of thinking. Use mindfulness to refresh yourself and unplug from the idea that you should be some sort of superwoman.
About Andrea Miller
Andrea Miller is the author of two picture books: The Day the Buddha Woke Up (Wisdom Publications) and My First Book of Canadian Birds (Nimbus Publishing). She’s also is an editor and staff writer for Lion’s Roar magazine and the editor of three anthologies for Shambhala Publications: All the Rage: Buddhist Wisdom on Anger and Acceptance; Buddha’s Daughter: Teachings from Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West; and Right Here with You: Bringing Mindful Awareness into Our Relationships. She has a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and her writing has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the Best Buddhist Writing series, The Best Women’s Travel Writing series, Mindful magazine, The Globe and Mail, and Family Fun Canada. Miller lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and two children.