Insight Into the Zen Teachings of Toddlers

Writer Heidi Hillman suspects her daughter is a Zen master in disguise. Could the key to the practice of parenting be maintaining a curious, student's mind?

Writer Heidi Hillman suspects her daughter is a Zen master in disguise—teaching as much as challenging her. Could the key to the practice of parenting be maintaining a student’s mind?

As much as I long to feel centered and composed, to be a resilient Buddhist and supple, serene yogini, I generally feel like a total spastic. My mind is the spitting image of a Jackson Pollock painting, and truth be told, I can’t stand Pollock’s work. Crack it open and you’ll see that my mind is, like a daycare toy bin, crowded, jumbled, and in need of a serious cleaning; there are so many things in that bin that I’d like to give away, recycle, and shelve for another time.

The Practice of Parenting a Toddler

Then again, perhaps feeling like a spastic comes with the territory. I am a stay-at-home mom of an active, curious (read: smart) toddler who is intent on opening everything I close and taking out everything I put away. Maybe she’s a Zen teacher in disguise—maybe I should surrender and call her “Roshi Greta”—but I’m tired of her tricks! Lately, I’ve found myself silently reciting “A Certain Weariness,” a well-known poem by Pablo Neruda. I am weary of making and unmaking the bed, filling and emptying the dishwasher, washing and folding tiny articles of clothing and discolored kitchen towels, breaking down and sorting the recycling, taking out the diapers, taking out the trash. I myself am weary of being broken down, taken out, unbuttoned, unraveled. I am so very weary of rising and falling, trying desperately to clear the brain fog and then later, to tame my mind and invite rest. I am tumbling through time, gathering bruises and wrinkles, strange spots that make me feel like an altogether different beast than I was. I used to have fuller breasts, more hair, more sexual desire and prowess. I used to glow a little.


Dear Pablo, I can relate; I, too, am “tired of not going to France, tired of at least one or two days in the week which have always the same names like dishes on the table, and of getting up—what for?—and going to bed without glory.” I’m tired of this game. I want to go home. I want to go home and be alone, to sit cross-legged on an uncluttered floor and sing-along with Leonard Cohen, not Daniel Tiger (as beguiling as he is). I want to look upon alphabetized bookshelves that boast high-brow titles, then stare out transparent windows at a day that belongs to me, not her. I want everything to stay in its place for awhile, to rest in its being. I want to rest in my being.

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Stay-at-Home Mom as Student

But that is a square fantasy (and an unrealistic one to boot). Roshi Greta has so many more teachings to offer, and she prefers a living, breathing zendo. Like the masters, she likes to instruct outside, to take me on long, muddy walks and invite me to contemplate the wisdom of rocks and water and wind: “Be solid! Be fluid! Be free!” She even likes to hit me over the head with sticks. “Wake up!” she chants. “Wake up!” she giggles. She wears me out, but I love my teacher more than any other.

Rocking her to sleep at the end of the day, humming a Cohen-Tiger medley and gazing at the bright, sweet moon of her face, I feel like a resilient, supple, and serene mama. It is a fleeting sensation, to be sure, but it is real. Fueled by my teacher’s light, I tiptoe out of her room and pick up board books and blocks and stuffed animals, thinking all the while that our house would be a terribly lonely and sterile place without them.

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Heidi Hillman, PhD, is a stay-at-home mom and writer who lives with her family in the hills of Berkeley, CA. Prior to becoming a mother, she taught Cultural Studies at the San Francisco Waldorf High School and co-led the Comparative Religions and Culture program of Global College.