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Parenting Is the Spiritual Practice the World Needs Right Now

This article was originally published as an essay on Medium by Justin. We wanted to share it because it captures a big part of why family thriving is a North Star for all of us here in The Family Thrive.

___

I remember exactly where I was when Audra called me to tell me the pregnancy test was positive. I was crossing Sunset Blvd to catch a bus for UCLA where I was working on graduate studies. I remember feeling electric and almost lifted out of my body at this news. My heart was bursting with a mixture of joy and terror.

The night before Max was born (Audra had a medically required c-section scheduled months in advance), I could barely sleep. I knew I was about to be initiated into something that would change my life forever.

After Max was delivered I was overwhelmed with a sense that literally nothing was more important to me than this little being. It was not a feeling I had to consider or work towards in any way. It was as factual and real as my feet on the ground.

As the day went on and this feeling planted itself in my body, I realized that this little being had connected me with all of life in a way I had never imagined. I now played a part in this ancient relay race of life. The universe, the world, life, my life, opened up to me in ways I can’t articulate. The best I can do is call it psychedelic.

I called my grandmother and told her that we had named this new being Max, after her husband, my grandfather, who had just passed away from stomach cancer. She cried and I cried. I then proceeded to cry that day when anyone came to visit.

I didn’t sleep that night. I wondered how I’d ever sleep again. How could I when this being needed my constant care and guarding?

When Maesie was born three years later, I was caught up in finishing my dissertation and graduating. I took the day off, but I experienced Maesie’s birth as much more routine. I was happy with a healthy baby girl but the demands of everyday life and work blinded me for a time from this extraordinary event.

I had to get new tires for our car later that day. Audra and Maesie were napping and family was nearby so I snuck out to do this chore. After the tires were replaced and I was called up to the cashier, an older man in his 60s. He asked me how my day was going and I said that my wife gave birth to our daughter that morning.

He stopped writing on whatever form he was filling out and looked at me with a quiet, honest smile that lasted a long moment. I can’t remember what he said, but I started to tear up. I only remember sharing this deep, human moment between two fathers. He never said (as far as I can recall) that he was a father, but that smile, his pause, and the permission I felt to experience my emotions around this new being in my life were all the proof I needed.

One year and a half later, I received a text while on a short break from a lecture I was giving. It simply said, “we’re in an ambulance.” Max was experiencing balance problems and his pediatrician sent us in for an MRI. We thought it was an ear or sinus infection. It was a huge mass on his brain stem.

I could barely ask my teaching assistant to cancel the rest of the lecture. I still remember leaving the lecture hall, walking numbly to my car, and driving down the 405 from Los Angeles to the children’s hospital in Orange County. Over the next few days, weeks, and months, friends from every part of our life and family from near and far called, visited, sent food, gifts, and money. Once again, I felt lifted out of my daily life and transported into a different plane of existence where I was part of something much bigger, deeper, and enduring.

I consider each of these moments to be spiritual experiences (what I’ll refer to as SEs). They are not my only SEs from parenthood, but I offer them as illustrations of how a run-of-the-mill, secular, modern, liberal guy like me experiences spiritual transcendence through parenthood.

What do I mean by spiritual? I mean something that is set apart from regular, mundane life, that is connected to a larger perspective beyond the individual self and allows us to see deeper meaning in everyday existence. In other words, a spiritual experience (following thinkers from my academic days like William James, Rudolf Otto, and Huston Smith) does the following:

  • Lifts us out of or above our daily humdrum existence
  • Connects us to a world, a story, or a plane of existence that is much larger than what can be seen in everyday life
  • Allows us to see normal life, objects, and relationships taking on new and deeper meanings

These things happen when you have SEs, no matter your religious or cultural context, regardless of what you believe. Perhaps you don’t like the term “spiritual,” or perhaps you want to save “the spiritual” for your particular religious tradition. But who can deny that someone is having an SE when they experience their daily life as being ruptured, feel suddenly connected to something much larger, and then see regular things in their life imbued with deep meaning? You can give it a different name, but “spiritual” fits as well as any other.

If we allow that these elements make up SEs, then I have had many SEs directly resulting from being a parent. They did not require me to believe in anything, perform any ritual (the sex we had didn’t meet the expert’s criteriafor a ritual), or belong to a religious community. They just happened as a result of becoming a parent.

And every parent I know has had SEs like mine, though they’re rarely named as such. Nevertheless, they are just as real and common as mine. And they’re not just around birth but happen in a variety of unexpected moments: kissing kids goodnight, watching them on a playground, caring for them when sick, gazing at first steps. They don’t have to be worked up, forced, or faked. They are woven into the fabric of parenthood, bursting through at big moments like birth, but available in all moments.

My 10-year-old daughter’s bunny was like a normal pet and would roam around the house and backyard at will. But he was acting very lethargic and after a few days of this, we found him in the morning paralyzed beneath a pillow he had seemingly crawled under. He was alive but unresponsive to touch, food, or water.

I wanted the whole ordeal to be over with as fast as possible so I could get back to work. Let’s take him to the vet to be put down, so we can all move on. But when Maesie began to cry, something in me stopped, slowed down, and saw the sacredness of this moment. A life on its way to passing, a young girl grieving, a father who has the choice to honor this moment or crush it and move on.

She and I talked about what would be best for the bunny and for her, and we decided that she wanted to spend time with him until she was ready for me to take him out back and put him down.

I felt a peace that morning as I dug a grave in our backyard. I did not grow up on a farm and I resisted hunting with my dad and his family, so I had no experience with this. But I did have the internet. Instead of getting to the pile of work I had that morning, I studied up on the quickest, most painless ways to kill bunnies. And then I killed a bunny.

The headstone for Maesie’s bunny

I brought it over to the grave site and we buried it along with a cardboard gravestone my daughter created.

I was struck by the overwhelming feeling of gratitude I had that morning — for being able to simply be present and open to this moment in my daughter’s life. Somehow that morning unfolded at its own pace, and my actions followed some unseen rhythm of life, death, and grief. I just needed to slow down and open up to it.

As every parent knows, parent-ing is not a blissful string of SEs. The SEs I describe are flashes in the middle of not just mundane, workaday moments, but all-too-common instances of angry outbursts, neglect, and other varieties of relational failure.

This is no different than any other type of SE. They rarely come with instructions, and even if they do, the demands of daily life quickly overwhelm, confuse, and blur the memory.

If SEs alone were enough to change us, the world would look quite different.Research shows they occur frequently in all sorts of contexts and in people from quite different backgrounds. The problem (or perhaps blessing) is that they are fleeting. By their nature, SEs are not everyday life, but rather break through everyday life and show something bigger, deeper, transcendent.

If anyone wants to bring something back from these fleeting experiences then they need spiritual practices (what I’ll refer to as SPs). We all know about rituals, prayer, recitation of holy texts, communal gatherings, pilgrimages, and so on. Regardless of religion or cultural background, what SPs do is integrate extraordinary and rare SEs into regular daily life. This integration serves the purpose of:

  • Making future SEs more likely
  • Weaving our regular individual existence into the larger perspective opened up by SEs
  • Giving us tangible, concrete ways to live out the deeper meaning shown to us in SEs

Like any SE, the spiritual moments of parenthood need related SPs so that we can allow these flashes of brilliance to slowly settle into a steady joy, connection, and wisdom. Parenting as an SP, then, would:

  • Make parent SEs more likely to happen again
  • Weave us as individuals deeper into the larger perspective opened up in spiritual moments
  • Help us live in ways that honor the deeper meaning that infuses our family relationships

Parents reading this might be exasperated by now. I have a voice inside my head that’s exasperated, saying: “What is this kumbaya nonsense? Are you telling me the diapers, the meltdowns, the fights over toys and iPads, the inanity of childhood followed by the chaos of adolescence, and so on are all part of some transcendent plane of existence that I’m just not tapped into right now?”

Maybe? Yes? To be more precise, I’m saying that every parent I know has had SEs (though again, not always identified as such) that come from being a parent. Like all SEs, these fade. But if we approach parenting as an SP, then we not only allow these breakthrough experiences to seep into our lives, but we allow them to imbue our lives with the joy, connection, and wisdom they contain.

And this is available right now to every single parent. No belief required. No holy text needed. No special religious membership mandated.

My wife and I founded and run a childhood cancer non-profit, inspired by our son’s diagnosis and lifelong battle with brain cancer. Around 85% of children diagnosed with cancer survive past 5 years. We’ve connected with thousands of childhood cancer families and so the statistics predict correctly that we know far too many families who have lost a child to cancer.

We’ve been to dozens of funerals, just in Southern California, where we used to live. I cried at all of them and thought I was appropriately present and grief-stricken at each one. But it wasn’t until last year, after a secular mindful meditation retreat that I realized I hadn’t scratched the surface.

Nothing shows the gap between language and the raw mystery of life as our use of the word love to describe what parents feel about their children when they are really present and connected. This love threatens to burst through like a raging fire when your child’s life is threatened. And I’ve seen it explode when a child finally dies.

I felt some of the heat of this explosion, but because we still have our son with us, I haven’t been burnt by it. Toward the end of this meditation retreat, I decided to open up a picture album that was given to us by dozens of families who’ve been helped by our non-profit. I hadn’t opened it yet — life was too busy and I wanted to give this book its proper attention.

I was feeling particularly tender and emotionally available after a day long silent meditation, and so I sat down on a couch, alone in an empty room, and opened the book to the first page. On it were several pictures of a family I knew well, whose daughter passed away 6 months earlier. As soon as I saw the first picture and registered who this was, I burst into tears.

At first, the tears were for this family’s loss. We were with them at each terrible twist and turn of treatment, relapse, and death. But it was only then that the full weight of that loss hit me. My crying turned into sobbing and wailing. It was not just tears but snot and spit and moaning and other sounds. I became soaked in grief not just for this family but for all childhood cancer families who’ve lost and will lose their children. And the tears kept coming, not just for cancer families but all families. I was soon sobbing for all of life. Everything I love will die — and everything everyone loves will die. And the greater the love, the deeper the grief.

Eventually, I had spent every tear, bit of snot, and drop of spit I had. An easy, simple peace came over me, like a perfect Sunday morning with nothing to do and nowhere to be. The colors around me were vibrant, the stillness of an empty room was musical; my body felt fluid and open. I couldn’t wait to see my wife and kids. It was in that moment that I realized, in my bones, that grief is the unavoidable fruit of love and that love is also the fruit of grief. And the bigger the love, the deeper the grief. How could it be any other way?

Parents’ grief is incalculable because their love has no limit.

What does parenting-as-a-spiritual-practice look like? First, it must make parent SEs more likely to happen in the future. All of the SEs I described were moments when I was fully present, plugged into the wondrous, mysterious reality of parenthood. A parent SP, then, needs to help us become more present, to be here now.

Presence isn’t something that comes naturally to me or most people I know. We’re scattered and in our heads, on our phones, consumed by our running to-do lists. What helps us become more present? The obvious ones are mindful meditation, undistracted conversations, walks, holding hands, or gazing into one another’s eyes. But not-so-obvious ones — like taking care of our sleep, our physical fitness, our emotional and mental health, and even our nutrition — help us become more present by giving us energy and attention while reducing our anxiety and numbed-out withdrawal.

The second thing a parent SP must do is bring us into the larger perspective opened up by the SE. These experiences are moments of deep connection — with a newborn, with another parent, with a larger community, even with eons of ancestors. And so practices that build connection are parent SPs. For countless generations, this has meant belonging to a religious community. But parent SPs require no customs or traditions. We connect with our children and partner because our SE has opened up a truth to us: we are already connected no matter what. It is only up to us to nurture this connection.

Like presence, deep connection doesn’t come naturally to me or to most people I know. We skim along the surface of social interactions, making small talk. But acknowledging the parent SE means that we know that our connections run much deeper. A parent SP then would move us toward these deeper connections by teaching us and helping us practice ways of listening and speaking that are vulnerable, authentic, open, and curious. Such practices can be found in decades-old movements like encounter groups and non-violent communication. Today, they can be found in psychology books and practices like Authentic Relating. Learning new listening and communication skills might not strike you as an SP, but think about the times you’ve shared a deep vulnerability with your partner, or your child has shared a deep vulnerability with you. If you were able to open up to those moments, you’ll know beyond doubt that you witnessed something spiritual.

Finally, these parent SEs lead to our lives being suffused with meaning. In those SE moments, my actions had a purpose that I didn’t have to generate. My choices had a significance I didn’t have to think about. My presence mattered in a way that I couldn’t control. This meant that my ability and capacity to show up in every way for this new life (and my partner in making this new life) had unquestionable importance. And so practices that allow me to show up are parent SPs. The obvious ones are avoiding things that could reduce my capacities like excessive alcohol or smoking and eating junk that could limit my life- and healthspan. But also (and again) engaging in practices that increase my physical, emotional, and mental capacities like exercise, healthy nutrition, meditation, therapy, good sleep, and supportive friendships.

It might seem like a stretch to call exercising (or eating salmon and broccoli) an SP, but if we allow the transcendent parent experiences to show us how meaningful our very existence is for this life we helped to bring into the world, then hell yes these are SPs. They help us live in ways that honor those transcendent moments by helping us show up for our family in all the ways they need us.

Any practice is a parent spiritual practice if it helps us become more present with, connect more deeply to, and show up more fully for our family.

The beauty of approaching these extraordinary parent experiences as spiritual and building a spiritual practice around them is that they are open to everyone who is a parent. This is a spirituality that is sitting right in front of us, is as real as the ground beneath our feet, and — if I can be even more grandiose — it might be the only thing that can bring our divided world together.


Parenting Is the Spiritual Practice the World Needs Right Now

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Parenting Is the Spiritual Practice the World Needs Right Now

TFT Co-Founder Justin Wilford, PhD shares times where his parenting experiences transcended to a spiritual level. It's a must-read!

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This article was originally published as an essay on Medium by Justin. We wanted to share it because it captures a big part of why family thriving is a North Star for all of us here in The Family Thrive.

___

I remember exactly where I was when Audra called me to tell me the pregnancy test was positive. I was crossing Sunset Blvd to catch a bus for UCLA where I was working on graduate studies. I remember feeling electric and almost lifted out of my body at this news. My heart was bursting with a mixture of joy and terror.

The night before Max was born (Audra had a medically required c-section scheduled months in advance), I could barely sleep. I knew I was about to be initiated into something that would change my life forever.

After Max was delivered I was overwhelmed with a sense that literally nothing was more important to me than this little being. It was not a feeling I had to consider or work towards in any way. It was as factual and real as my feet on the ground.

As the day went on and this feeling planted itself in my body, I realized that this little being had connected me with all of life in a way I had never imagined. I now played a part in this ancient relay race of life. The universe, the world, life, my life, opened up to me in ways I can’t articulate. The best I can do is call it psychedelic.

I called my grandmother and told her that we had named this new being Max, after her husband, my grandfather, who had just passed away from stomach cancer. She cried and I cried. I then proceeded to cry that day when anyone came to visit.

I didn’t sleep that night. I wondered how I’d ever sleep again. How could I when this being needed my constant care and guarding?

When Maesie was born three years later, I was caught up in finishing my dissertation and graduating. I took the day off, but I experienced Maesie’s birth as much more routine. I was happy with a healthy baby girl but the demands of everyday life and work blinded me for a time from this extraordinary event.

I had to get new tires for our car later that day. Audra and Maesie were napping and family was nearby so I snuck out to do this chore. After the tires were replaced and I was called up to the cashier, an older man in his 60s. He asked me how my day was going and I said that my wife gave birth to our daughter that morning.

He stopped writing on whatever form he was filling out and looked at me with a quiet, honest smile that lasted a long moment. I can’t remember what he said, but I started to tear up. I only remember sharing this deep, human moment between two fathers. He never said (as far as I can recall) that he was a father, but that smile, his pause, and the permission I felt to experience my emotions around this new being in my life were all the proof I needed.

One year and a half later, I received a text while on a short break from a lecture I was giving. It simply said, “we’re in an ambulance.” Max was experiencing balance problems and his pediatrician sent us in for an MRI. We thought it was an ear or sinus infection. It was a huge mass on his brain stem.

I could barely ask my teaching assistant to cancel the rest of the lecture. I still remember leaving the lecture hall, walking numbly to my car, and driving down the 405 from Los Angeles to the children’s hospital in Orange County. Over the next few days, weeks, and months, friends from every part of our life and family from near and far called, visited, sent food, gifts, and money. Once again, I felt lifted out of my daily life and transported into a different plane of existence where I was part of something much bigger, deeper, and enduring.

I consider each of these moments to be spiritual experiences (what I’ll refer to as SEs). They are not my only SEs from parenthood, but I offer them as illustrations of how a run-of-the-mill, secular, modern, liberal guy like me experiences spiritual transcendence through parenthood.

What do I mean by spiritual? I mean something that is set apart from regular, mundane life, that is connected to a larger perspective beyond the individual self and allows us to see deeper meaning in everyday existence. In other words, a spiritual experience (following thinkers from my academic days like William James, Rudolf Otto, and Huston Smith) does the following:

  • Lifts us out of or above our daily humdrum existence
  • Connects us to a world, a story, or a plane of existence that is much larger than what can be seen in everyday life
  • Allows us to see normal life, objects, and relationships taking on new and deeper meanings

These things happen when you have SEs, no matter your religious or cultural context, regardless of what you believe. Perhaps you don’t like the term “spiritual,” or perhaps you want to save “the spiritual” for your particular religious tradition. But who can deny that someone is having an SE when they experience their daily life as being ruptured, feel suddenly connected to something much larger, and then see regular things in their life imbued with deep meaning? You can give it a different name, but “spiritual” fits as well as any other.

If we allow that these elements make up SEs, then I have had many SEs directly resulting from being a parent. They did not require me to believe in anything, perform any ritual (the sex we had didn’t meet the expert’s criteriafor a ritual), or belong to a religious community. They just happened as a result of becoming a parent.

And every parent I know has had SEs like mine, though they’re rarely named as such. Nevertheless, they are just as real and common as mine. And they’re not just around birth but happen in a variety of unexpected moments: kissing kids goodnight, watching them on a playground, caring for them when sick, gazing at first steps. They don’t have to be worked up, forced, or faked. They are woven into the fabric of parenthood, bursting through at big moments like birth, but available in all moments.

My 10-year-old daughter’s bunny was like a normal pet and would roam around the house and backyard at will. But he was acting very lethargic and after a few days of this, we found him in the morning paralyzed beneath a pillow he had seemingly crawled under. He was alive but unresponsive to touch, food, or water.

I wanted the whole ordeal to be over with as fast as possible so I could get back to work. Let’s take him to the vet to be put down, so we can all move on. But when Maesie began to cry, something in me stopped, slowed down, and saw the sacredness of this moment. A life on its way to passing, a young girl grieving, a father who has the choice to honor this moment or crush it and move on.

She and I talked about what would be best for the bunny and for her, and we decided that she wanted to spend time with him until she was ready for me to take him out back and put him down.

I felt a peace that morning as I dug a grave in our backyard. I did not grow up on a farm and I resisted hunting with my dad and his family, so I had no experience with this. But I did have the internet. Instead of getting to the pile of work I had that morning, I studied up on the quickest, most painless ways to kill bunnies. And then I killed a bunny.

The headstone for Maesie’s bunny

I brought it over to the grave site and we buried it along with a cardboard gravestone my daughter created.

I was struck by the overwhelming feeling of gratitude I had that morning — for being able to simply be present and open to this moment in my daughter’s life. Somehow that morning unfolded at its own pace, and my actions followed some unseen rhythm of life, death, and grief. I just needed to slow down and open up to it.

As every parent knows, parent-ing is not a blissful string of SEs. The SEs I describe are flashes in the middle of not just mundane, workaday moments, but all-too-common instances of angry outbursts, neglect, and other varieties of relational failure.

This is no different than any other type of SE. They rarely come with instructions, and even if they do, the demands of daily life quickly overwhelm, confuse, and blur the memory.

If SEs alone were enough to change us, the world would look quite different.Research shows they occur frequently in all sorts of contexts and in people from quite different backgrounds. The problem (or perhaps blessing) is that they are fleeting. By their nature, SEs are not everyday life, but rather break through everyday life and show something bigger, deeper, transcendent.

If anyone wants to bring something back from these fleeting experiences then they need spiritual practices (what I’ll refer to as SPs). We all know about rituals, prayer, recitation of holy texts, communal gatherings, pilgrimages, and so on. Regardless of religion or cultural background, what SPs do is integrate extraordinary and rare SEs into regular daily life. This integration serves the purpose of:

  • Making future SEs more likely
  • Weaving our regular individual existence into the larger perspective opened up by SEs
  • Giving us tangible, concrete ways to live out the deeper meaning shown to us in SEs

Like any SE, the spiritual moments of parenthood need related SPs so that we can allow these flashes of brilliance to slowly settle into a steady joy, connection, and wisdom. Parenting as an SP, then, would:

  • Make parent SEs more likely to happen again
  • Weave us as individuals deeper into the larger perspective opened up in spiritual moments
  • Help us live in ways that honor the deeper meaning that infuses our family relationships

Parents reading this might be exasperated by now. I have a voice inside my head that’s exasperated, saying: “What is this kumbaya nonsense? Are you telling me the diapers, the meltdowns, the fights over toys and iPads, the inanity of childhood followed by the chaos of adolescence, and so on are all part of some transcendent plane of existence that I’m just not tapped into right now?”

Maybe? Yes? To be more precise, I’m saying that every parent I know has had SEs (though again, not always identified as such) that come from being a parent. Like all SEs, these fade. But if we approach parenting as an SP, then we not only allow these breakthrough experiences to seep into our lives, but we allow them to imbue our lives with the joy, connection, and wisdom they contain.

And this is available right now to every single parent. No belief required. No holy text needed. No special religious membership mandated.

My wife and I founded and run a childhood cancer non-profit, inspired by our son’s diagnosis and lifelong battle with brain cancer. Around 85% of children diagnosed with cancer survive past 5 years. We’ve connected with thousands of childhood cancer families and so the statistics predict correctly that we know far too many families who have lost a child to cancer.

We’ve been to dozens of funerals, just in Southern California, where we used to live. I cried at all of them and thought I was appropriately present and grief-stricken at each one. But it wasn’t until last year, after a secular mindful meditation retreat that I realized I hadn’t scratched the surface.

Nothing shows the gap between language and the raw mystery of life as our use of the word love to describe what parents feel about their children when they are really present and connected. This love threatens to burst through like a raging fire when your child’s life is threatened. And I’ve seen it explode when a child finally dies.

I felt some of the heat of this explosion, but because we still have our son with us, I haven’t been burnt by it. Toward the end of this meditation retreat, I decided to open up a picture album that was given to us by dozens of families who’ve been helped by our non-profit. I hadn’t opened it yet — life was too busy and I wanted to give this book its proper attention.

I was feeling particularly tender and emotionally available after a day long silent meditation, and so I sat down on a couch, alone in an empty room, and opened the book to the first page. On it were several pictures of a family I knew well, whose daughter passed away 6 months earlier. As soon as I saw the first picture and registered who this was, I burst into tears.

At first, the tears were for this family’s loss. We were with them at each terrible twist and turn of treatment, relapse, and death. But it was only then that the full weight of that loss hit me. My crying turned into sobbing and wailing. It was not just tears but snot and spit and moaning and other sounds. I became soaked in grief not just for this family but for all childhood cancer families who’ve lost and will lose their children. And the tears kept coming, not just for cancer families but all families. I was soon sobbing for all of life. Everything I love will die — and everything everyone loves will die. And the greater the love, the deeper the grief.

Eventually, I had spent every tear, bit of snot, and drop of spit I had. An easy, simple peace came over me, like a perfect Sunday morning with nothing to do and nowhere to be. The colors around me were vibrant, the stillness of an empty room was musical; my body felt fluid and open. I couldn’t wait to see my wife and kids. It was in that moment that I realized, in my bones, that grief is the unavoidable fruit of love and that love is also the fruit of grief. And the bigger the love, the deeper the grief. How could it be any other way?

Parents’ grief is incalculable because their love has no limit.

What does parenting-as-a-spiritual-practice look like? First, it must make parent SEs more likely to happen in the future. All of the SEs I described were moments when I was fully present, plugged into the wondrous, mysterious reality of parenthood. A parent SP, then, needs to help us become more present, to be here now.

Presence isn’t something that comes naturally to me or most people I know. We’re scattered and in our heads, on our phones, consumed by our running to-do lists. What helps us become more present? The obvious ones are mindful meditation, undistracted conversations, walks, holding hands, or gazing into one another’s eyes. But not-so-obvious ones — like taking care of our sleep, our physical fitness, our emotional and mental health, and even our nutrition — help us become more present by giving us energy and attention while reducing our anxiety and numbed-out withdrawal.

The second thing a parent SP must do is bring us into the larger perspective opened up by the SE. These experiences are moments of deep connection — with a newborn, with another parent, with a larger community, even with eons of ancestors. And so practices that build connection are parent SPs. For countless generations, this has meant belonging to a religious community. But parent SPs require no customs or traditions. We connect with our children and partner because our SE has opened up a truth to us: we are already connected no matter what. It is only up to us to nurture this connection.

Like presence, deep connection doesn’t come naturally to me or to most people I know. We skim along the surface of social interactions, making small talk. But acknowledging the parent SE means that we know that our connections run much deeper. A parent SP then would move us toward these deeper connections by teaching us and helping us practice ways of listening and speaking that are vulnerable, authentic, open, and curious. Such practices can be found in decades-old movements like encounter groups and non-violent communication. Today, they can be found in psychology books and practices like Authentic Relating. Learning new listening and communication skills might not strike you as an SP, but think about the times you’ve shared a deep vulnerability with your partner, or your child has shared a deep vulnerability with you. If you were able to open up to those moments, you’ll know beyond doubt that you witnessed something spiritual.

Finally, these parent SEs lead to our lives being suffused with meaning. In those SE moments, my actions had a purpose that I didn’t have to generate. My choices had a significance I didn’t have to think about. My presence mattered in a way that I couldn’t control. This meant that my ability and capacity to show up in every way for this new life (and my partner in making this new life) had unquestionable importance. And so practices that allow me to show up are parent SPs. The obvious ones are avoiding things that could reduce my capacities like excessive alcohol or smoking and eating junk that could limit my life- and healthspan. But also (and again) engaging in practices that increase my physical, emotional, and mental capacities like exercise, healthy nutrition, meditation, therapy, good sleep, and supportive friendships.

It might seem like a stretch to call exercising (or eating salmon and broccoli) an SP, but if we allow the transcendent parent experiences to show us how meaningful our very existence is for this life we helped to bring into the world, then hell yes these are SPs. They help us live in ways that honor those transcendent moments by helping us show up for our family in all the ways they need us.

Any practice is a parent spiritual practice if it helps us become more present with, connect more deeply to, and show up more fully for our family.

The beauty of approaching these extraordinary parent experiences as spiritual and building a spiritual practice around them is that they are open to everyone who is a parent. This is a spirituality that is sitting right in front of us, is as real as the ground beneath our feet, and — if I can be even more grandiose — it might be the only thing that can bring our divided world together.


This article was originally published as an essay on Medium by Justin. We wanted to share it because it captures a big part of why family thriving is a North Star for all of us here in The Family Thrive.

___

I remember exactly where I was when Audra called me to tell me the pregnancy test was positive. I was crossing Sunset Blvd to catch a bus for UCLA where I was working on graduate studies. I remember feeling electric and almost lifted out of my body at this news. My heart was bursting with a mixture of joy and terror.

The night before Max was born (Audra had a medically required c-section scheduled months in advance), I could barely sleep. I knew I was about to be initiated into something that would change my life forever.

After Max was delivered I was overwhelmed with a sense that literally nothing was more important to me than this little being. It was not a feeling I had to consider or work towards in any way. It was as factual and real as my feet on the ground.

As the day went on and this feeling planted itself in my body, I realized that this little being had connected me with all of life in a way I had never imagined. I now played a part in this ancient relay race of life. The universe, the world, life, my life, opened up to me in ways I can’t articulate. The best I can do is call it psychedelic.

I called my grandmother and told her that we had named this new being Max, after her husband, my grandfather, who had just passed away from stomach cancer. She cried and I cried. I then proceeded to cry that day when anyone came to visit.

I didn’t sleep that night. I wondered how I’d ever sleep again. How could I when this being needed my constant care and guarding?

When Maesie was born three years later, I was caught up in finishing my dissertation and graduating. I took the day off, but I experienced Maesie’s birth as much more routine. I was happy with a healthy baby girl but the demands of everyday life and work blinded me for a time from this extraordinary event.

I had to get new tires for our car later that day. Audra and Maesie were napping and family was nearby so I snuck out to do this chore. After the tires were replaced and I was called up to the cashier, an older man in his 60s. He asked me how my day was going and I said that my wife gave birth to our daughter that morning.

He stopped writing on whatever form he was filling out and looked at me with a quiet, honest smile that lasted a long moment. I can’t remember what he said, but I started to tear up. I only remember sharing this deep, human moment between two fathers. He never said (as far as I can recall) that he was a father, but that smile, his pause, and the permission I felt to experience my emotions around this new being in my life were all the proof I needed.

One year and a half later, I received a text while on a short break from a lecture I was giving. It simply said, “we’re in an ambulance.” Max was experiencing balance problems and his pediatrician sent us in for an MRI. We thought it was an ear or sinus infection. It was a huge mass on his brain stem.

I could barely ask my teaching assistant to cancel the rest of the lecture. I still remember leaving the lecture hall, walking numbly to my car, and driving down the 405 from Los Angeles to the children’s hospital in Orange County. Over the next few days, weeks, and months, friends from every part of our life and family from near and far called, visited, sent food, gifts, and money. Once again, I felt lifted out of my daily life and transported into a different plane of existence where I was part of something much bigger, deeper, and enduring.

I consider each of these moments to be spiritual experiences (what I’ll refer to as SEs). They are not my only SEs from parenthood, but I offer them as illustrations of how a run-of-the-mill, secular, modern, liberal guy like me experiences spiritual transcendence through parenthood.

What do I mean by spiritual? I mean something that is set apart from regular, mundane life, that is connected to a larger perspective beyond the individual self and allows us to see deeper meaning in everyday existence. In other words, a spiritual experience (following thinkers from my academic days like William James, Rudolf Otto, and Huston Smith) does the following:

  • Lifts us out of or above our daily humdrum existence
  • Connects us to a world, a story, or a plane of existence that is much larger than what can be seen in everyday life
  • Allows us to see normal life, objects, and relationships taking on new and deeper meanings

These things happen when you have SEs, no matter your religious or cultural context, regardless of what you believe. Perhaps you don’t like the term “spiritual,” or perhaps you want to save “the spiritual” for your particular religious tradition. But who can deny that someone is having an SE when they experience their daily life as being ruptured, feel suddenly connected to something much larger, and then see regular things in their life imbued with deep meaning? You can give it a different name, but “spiritual” fits as well as any other.

If we allow that these elements make up SEs, then I have had many SEs directly resulting from being a parent. They did not require me to believe in anything, perform any ritual (the sex we had didn’t meet the expert’s criteriafor a ritual), or belong to a religious community. They just happened as a result of becoming a parent.

And every parent I know has had SEs like mine, though they’re rarely named as such. Nevertheless, they are just as real and common as mine. And they’re not just around birth but happen in a variety of unexpected moments: kissing kids goodnight, watching them on a playground, caring for them when sick, gazing at first steps. They don’t have to be worked up, forced, or faked. They are woven into the fabric of parenthood, bursting through at big moments like birth, but available in all moments.

My 10-year-old daughter’s bunny was like a normal pet and would roam around the house and backyard at will. But he was acting very lethargic and after a few days of this, we found him in the morning paralyzed beneath a pillow he had seemingly crawled under. He was alive but unresponsive to touch, food, or water.

I wanted the whole ordeal to be over with as fast as possible so I could get back to work. Let’s take him to the vet to be put down, so we can all move on. But when Maesie began to cry, something in me stopped, slowed down, and saw the sacredness of this moment. A life on its way to passing, a young girl grieving, a father who has the choice to honor this moment or crush it and move on.

She and I talked about what would be best for the bunny and for her, and we decided that she wanted to spend time with him until she was ready for me to take him out back and put him down.

I felt a peace that morning as I dug a grave in our backyard. I did not grow up on a farm and I resisted hunting with my dad and his family, so I had no experience with this. But I did have the internet. Instead of getting to the pile of work I had that morning, I studied up on the quickest, most painless ways to kill bunnies. And then I killed a bunny.

The headstone for Maesie’s bunny

I brought it over to the grave site and we buried it along with a cardboard gravestone my daughter created.

I was struck by the overwhelming feeling of gratitude I had that morning — for being able to simply be present and open to this moment in my daughter’s life. Somehow that morning unfolded at its own pace, and my actions followed some unseen rhythm of life, death, and grief. I just needed to slow down and open up to it.

As every parent knows, parent-ing is not a blissful string of SEs. The SEs I describe are flashes in the middle of not just mundane, workaday moments, but all-too-common instances of angry outbursts, neglect, and other varieties of relational failure.

This is no different than any other type of SE. They rarely come with instructions, and even if they do, the demands of daily life quickly overwhelm, confuse, and blur the memory.

If SEs alone were enough to change us, the world would look quite different.Research shows they occur frequently in all sorts of contexts and in people from quite different backgrounds. The problem (or perhaps blessing) is that they are fleeting. By their nature, SEs are not everyday life, but rather break through everyday life and show something bigger, deeper, transcendent.

If anyone wants to bring something back from these fleeting experiences then they need spiritual practices (what I’ll refer to as SPs). We all know about rituals, prayer, recitation of holy texts, communal gatherings, pilgrimages, and so on. Regardless of religion or cultural background, what SPs do is integrate extraordinary and rare SEs into regular daily life. This integration serves the purpose of:

  • Making future SEs more likely
  • Weaving our regular individual existence into the larger perspective opened up by SEs
  • Giving us tangible, concrete ways to live out the deeper meaning shown to us in SEs

Like any SE, the spiritual moments of parenthood need related SPs so that we can allow these flashes of brilliance to slowly settle into a steady joy, connection, and wisdom. Parenting as an SP, then, would:

  • Make parent SEs more likely to happen again
  • Weave us as individuals deeper into the larger perspective opened up in spiritual moments
  • Help us live in ways that honor the deeper meaning that infuses our family relationships

Parents reading this might be exasperated by now. I have a voice inside my head that’s exasperated, saying: “What is this kumbaya nonsense? Are you telling me the diapers, the meltdowns, the fights over toys and iPads, the inanity of childhood followed by the chaos of adolescence, and so on are all part of some transcendent plane of existence that I’m just not tapped into right now?”

Maybe? Yes? To be more precise, I’m saying that every parent I know has had SEs (though again, not always identified as such) that come from being a parent. Like all SEs, these fade. But if we approach parenting as an SP, then we not only allow these breakthrough experiences to seep into our lives, but we allow them to imbue our lives with the joy, connection, and wisdom they contain.

And this is available right now to every single parent. No belief required. No holy text needed. No special religious membership mandated.

My wife and I founded and run a childhood cancer non-profit, inspired by our son’s diagnosis and lifelong battle with brain cancer. Around 85% of children diagnosed with cancer survive past 5 years. We’ve connected with thousands of childhood cancer families and so the statistics predict correctly that we know far too many families who have lost a child to cancer.

We’ve been to dozens of funerals, just in Southern California, where we used to live. I cried at all of them and thought I was appropriately present and grief-stricken at each one. But it wasn’t until last year, after a secular mindful meditation retreat that I realized I hadn’t scratched the surface.

Nothing shows the gap between language and the raw mystery of life as our use of the word love to describe what parents feel about their children when they are really present and connected. This love threatens to burst through like a raging fire when your child’s life is threatened. And I’ve seen it explode when a child finally dies.

I felt some of the heat of this explosion, but because we still have our son with us, I haven’t been burnt by it. Toward the end of this meditation retreat, I decided to open up a picture album that was given to us by dozens of families who’ve been helped by our non-profit. I hadn’t opened it yet — life was too busy and I wanted to give this book its proper attention.

I was feeling particularly tender and emotionally available after a day long silent meditation, and so I sat down on a couch, alone in an empty room, and opened the book to the first page. On it were several pictures of a family I knew well, whose daughter passed away 6 months earlier. As soon as I saw the first picture and registered who this was, I burst into tears.

At first, the tears were for this family’s loss. We were with them at each terrible twist and turn of treatment, relapse, and death. But it was only then that the full weight of that loss hit me. My crying turned into sobbing and wailing. It was not just tears but snot and spit and moaning and other sounds. I became soaked in grief not just for this family but for all childhood cancer families who’ve lost and will lose their children. And the tears kept coming, not just for cancer families but all families. I was soon sobbing for all of life. Everything I love will die — and everything everyone loves will die. And the greater the love, the deeper the grief.

Eventually, I had spent every tear, bit of snot, and drop of spit I had. An easy, simple peace came over me, like a perfect Sunday morning with nothing to do and nowhere to be. The colors around me were vibrant, the stillness of an empty room was musical; my body felt fluid and open. I couldn’t wait to see my wife and kids. It was in that moment that I realized, in my bones, that grief is the unavoidable fruit of love and that love is also the fruit of grief. And the bigger the love, the deeper the grief. How could it be any other way?

Parents’ grief is incalculable because their love has no limit.

What does parenting-as-a-spiritual-practice look like? First, it must make parent SEs more likely to happen in the future. All of the SEs I described were moments when I was fully present, plugged into the wondrous, mysterious reality of parenthood. A parent SP, then, needs to help us become more present, to be here now.

Presence isn’t something that comes naturally to me or most people I know. We’re scattered and in our heads, on our phones, consumed by our running to-do lists. What helps us become more present? The obvious ones are mindful meditation, undistracted conversations, walks, holding hands, or gazing into one another’s eyes. But not-so-obvious ones — like taking care of our sleep, our physical fitness, our emotional and mental health, and even our nutrition — help us become more present by giving us energy and attention while reducing our anxiety and numbed-out withdrawal.

The second thing a parent SP must do is bring us into the larger perspective opened up by the SE. These experiences are moments of deep connection — with a newborn, with another parent, with a larger community, even with eons of ancestors. And so practices that build connection are parent SPs. For countless generations, this has meant belonging to a religious community. But parent SPs require no customs or traditions. We connect with our children and partner because our SE has opened up a truth to us: we are already connected no matter what. It is only up to us to nurture this connection.

Like presence, deep connection doesn’t come naturally to me or to most people I know. We skim along the surface of social interactions, making small talk. But acknowledging the parent SE means that we know that our connections run much deeper. A parent SP then would move us toward these deeper connections by teaching us and helping us practice ways of listening and speaking that are vulnerable, authentic, open, and curious. Such practices can be found in decades-old movements like encounter groups and non-violent communication. Today, they can be found in psychology books and practices like Authentic Relating. Learning new listening and communication skills might not strike you as an SP, but think about the times you’ve shared a deep vulnerability with your partner, or your child has shared a deep vulnerability with you. If you were able to open up to those moments, you’ll know beyond doubt that you witnessed something spiritual.

Finally, these parent SEs lead to our lives being suffused with meaning. In those SE moments, my actions had a purpose that I didn’t have to generate. My choices had a significance I didn’t have to think about. My presence mattered in a way that I couldn’t control. This meant that my ability and capacity to show up in every way for this new life (and my partner in making this new life) had unquestionable importance. And so practices that allow me to show up are parent SPs. The obvious ones are avoiding things that could reduce my capacities like excessive alcohol or smoking and eating junk that could limit my life- and healthspan. But also (and again) engaging in practices that increase my physical, emotional, and mental capacities like exercise, healthy nutrition, meditation, therapy, good sleep, and supportive friendships.

It might seem like a stretch to call exercising (or eating salmon and broccoli) an SP, but if we allow the transcendent parent experiences to show us how meaningful our very existence is for this life we helped to bring into the world, then hell yes these are SPs. They help us live in ways that honor those transcendent moments by helping us show up for our family in all the ways they need us.

Any practice is a parent spiritual practice if it helps us become more present with, connect more deeply to, and show up more fully for our family.

The beauty of approaching these extraordinary parent experiences as spiritual and building a spiritual practice around them is that they are open to everyone who is a parent. This is a spirituality that is sitting right in front of us, is as real as the ground beneath our feet, and — if I can be even more grandiose — it might be the only thing that can bring our divided world together.


This article was originally published as an essay on Medium by Justin. We wanted to share it because it captures a big part of why family thriving is a North Star for all of us here in The Family Thrive.

___

I remember exactly where I was when Audra called me to tell me the pregnancy test was positive. I was crossing Sunset Blvd to catch a bus for UCLA where I was working on graduate studies. I remember feeling electric and almost lifted out of my body at this news. My heart was bursting with a mixture of joy and terror.

The night before Max was born (Audra had a medically required c-section scheduled months in advance), I could barely sleep. I knew I was about to be initiated into something that would change my life forever.

After Max was delivered I was overwhelmed with a sense that literally nothing was more important to me than this little being. It was not a feeling I had to consider or work towards in any way. It was as factual and real as my feet on the ground.

As the day went on and this feeling planted itself in my body, I realized that this little being had connected me with all of life in a way I had never imagined. I now played a part in this ancient relay race of life. The universe, the world, life, my life, opened up to me in ways I can’t articulate. The best I can do is call it psychedelic.

I called my grandmother and told her that we had named this new being Max, after her husband, my grandfather, who had just passed away from stomach cancer. She cried and I cried. I then proceeded to cry that day when anyone came to visit.

I didn’t sleep that night. I wondered how I’d ever sleep again. How could I when this being needed my constant care and guarding?

When Maesie was born three years later, I was caught up in finishing my dissertation and graduating. I took the day off, but I experienced Maesie’s birth as much more routine. I was happy with a healthy baby girl but the demands of everyday life and work blinded me for a time from this extraordinary event.

I had to get new tires for our car later that day. Audra and Maesie were napping and family was nearby so I snuck out to do this chore. After the tires were replaced and I was called up to the cashier, an older man in his 60s. He asked me how my day was going and I said that my wife gave birth to our daughter that morning.

He stopped writing on whatever form he was filling out and looked at me with a quiet, honest smile that lasted a long moment. I can’t remember what he said, but I started to tear up. I only remember sharing this deep, human moment between two fathers. He never said (as far as I can recall) that he was a father, but that smile, his pause, and the permission I felt to experience my emotions around this new being in my life were all the proof I needed.

One year and a half later, I received a text while on a short break from a lecture I was giving. It simply said, “we’re in an ambulance.” Max was experiencing balance problems and his pediatrician sent us in for an MRI. We thought it was an ear or sinus infection. It was a huge mass on his brain stem.

I could barely ask my teaching assistant to cancel the rest of the lecture. I still remember leaving the lecture hall, walking numbly to my car, and driving down the 405 from Los Angeles to the children’s hospital in Orange County. Over the next few days, weeks, and months, friends from every part of our life and family from near and far called, visited, sent food, gifts, and money. Once again, I felt lifted out of my daily life and transported into a different plane of existence where I was part of something much bigger, deeper, and enduring.

I consider each of these moments to be spiritual experiences (what I’ll refer to as SEs). They are not my only SEs from parenthood, but I offer them as illustrations of how a run-of-the-mill, secular, modern, liberal guy like me experiences spiritual transcendence through parenthood.

What do I mean by spiritual? I mean something that is set apart from regular, mundane life, that is connected to a larger perspective beyond the individual self and allows us to see deeper meaning in everyday existence. In other words, a spiritual experience (following thinkers from my academic days like William James, Rudolf Otto, and Huston Smith) does the following:

  • Lifts us out of or above our daily humdrum existence
  • Connects us to a world, a story, or a plane of existence that is much larger than what can be seen in everyday life
  • Allows us to see normal life, objects, and relationships taking on new and deeper meanings

These things happen when you have SEs, no matter your religious or cultural context, regardless of what you believe. Perhaps you don’t like the term “spiritual,” or perhaps you want to save “the spiritual” for your particular religious tradition. But who can deny that someone is having an SE when they experience their daily life as being ruptured, feel suddenly connected to something much larger, and then see regular things in their life imbued with deep meaning? You can give it a different name, but “spiritual” fits as well as any other.

If we allow that these elements make up SEs, then I have had many SEs directly resulting from being a parent. They did not require me to believe in anything, perform any ritual (the sex we had didn’t meet the expert’s criteriafor a ritual), or belong to a religious community. They just happened as a result of becoming a parent.

And every parent I know has had SEs like mine, though they’re rarely named as such. Nevertheless, they are just as real and common as mine. And they’re not just around birth but happen in a variety of unexpected moments: kissing kids goodnight, watching them on a playground, caring for them when sick, gazing at first steps. They don’t have to be worked up, forced, or faked. They are woven into the fabric of parenthood, bursting through at big moments like birth, but available in all moments.

My 10-year-old daughter’s bunny was like a normal pet and would roam around the house and backyard at will. But he was acting very lethargic and after a few days of this, we found him in the morning paralyzed beneath a pillow he had seemingly crawled under. He was alive but unresponsive to touch, food, or water.

I wanted the whole ordeal to be over with as fast as possible so I could get back to work. Let’s take him to the vet to be put down, so we can all move on. But when Maesie began to cry, something in me stopped, slowed down, and saw the sacredness of this moment. A life on its way to passing, a young girl grieving, a father who has the choice to honor this moment or crush it and move on.

She and I talked about what would be best for the bunny and for her, and we decided that she wanted to spend time with him until she was ready for me to take him out back and put him down.

I felt a peace that morning as I dug a grave in our backyard. I did not grow up on a farm and I resisted hunting with my dad and his family, so I had no experience with this. But I did have the internet. Instead of getting to the pile of work I had that morning, I studied up on the quickest, most painless ways to kill bunnies. And then I killed a bunny.

The headstone for Maesie’s bunny

I brought it over to the grave site and we buried it along with a cardboard gravestone my daughter created.

I was struck by the overwhelming feeling of gratitude I had that morning — for being able to simply be present and open to this moment in my daughter’s life. Somehow that morning unfolded at its own pace, and my actions followed some unseen rhythm of life, death, and grief. I just needed to slow down and open up to it.

As every parent knows, parent-ing is not a blissful string of SEs. The SEs I describe are flashes in the middle of not just mundane, workaday moments, but all-too-common instances of angry outbursts, neglect, and other varieties of relational failure.

This is no different than any other type of SE. They rarely come with instructions, and even if they do, the demands of daily life quickly overwhelm, confuse, and blur the memory.

If SEs alone were enough to change us, the world would look quite different.Research shows they occur frequently in all sorts of contexts and in people from quite different backgrounds. The problem (or perhaps blessing) is that they are fleeting. By their nature, SEs are not everyday life, but rather break through everyday life and show something bigger, deeper, transcendent.

If anyone wants to bring something back from these fleeting experiences then they need spiritual practices (what I’ll refer to as SPs). We all know about rituals, prayer, recitation of holy texts, communal gatherings, pilgrimages, and so on. Regardless of religion or cultural background, what SPs do is integrate extraordinary and rare SEs into regular daily life. This integration serves the purpose of:

  • Making future SEs more likely
  • Weaving our regular individual existence into the larger perspective opened up by SEs
  • Giving us tangible, concrete ways to live out the deeper meaning shown to us in SEs

Like any SE, the spiritual moments of parenthood need related SPs so that we can allow these flashes of brilliance to slowly settle into a steady joy, connection, and wisdom. Parenting as an SP, then, would:

  • Make parent SEs more likely to happen again
  • Weave us as individuals deeper into the larger perspective opened up in spiritual moments
  • Help us live in ways that honor the deeper meaning that infuses our family relationships

Parents reading this might be exasperated by now. I have a voice inside my head that’s exasperated, saying: “What is this kumbaya nonsense? Are you telling me the diapers, the meltdowns, the fights over toys and iPads, the inanity of childhood followed by the chaos of adolescence, and so on are all part of some transcendent plane of existence that I’m just not tapped into right now?”

Maybe? Yes? To be more precise, I’m saying that every parent I know has had SEs (though again, not always identified as such) that come from being a parent. Like all SEs, these fade. But if we approach parenting as an SP, then we not only allow these breakthrough experiences to seep into our lives, but we allow them to imbue our lives with the joy, connection, and wisdom they contain.

And this is available right now to every single parent. No belief required. No holy text needed. No special religious membership mandated.

My wife and I founded and run a childhood cancer non-profit, inspired by our son’s diagnosis and lifelong battle with brain cancer. Around 85% of children diagnosed with cancer survive past 5 years. We’ve connected with thousands of childhood cancer families and so the statistics predict correctly that we know far too many families who have lost a child to cancer.

We’ve been to dozens of funerals, just in Southern California, where we used to live. I cried at all of them and thought I was appropriately present and grief-stricken at each one. But it wasn’t until last year, after a secular mindful meditation retreat that I realized I hadn’t scratched the surface.

Nothing shows the gap between language and the raw mystery of life as our use of the word love to describe what parents feel about their children when they are really present and connected. This love threatens to burst through like a raging fire when your child’s life is threatened. And I’ve seen it explode when a child finally dies.

I felt some of the heat of this explosion, but because we still have our son with us, I haven’t been burnt by it. Toward the end of this meditation retreat, I decided to open up a picture album that was given to us by dozens of families who’ve been helped by our non-profit. I hadn’t opened it yet — life was too busy and I wanted to give this book its proper attention.

I was feeling particularly tender and emotionally available after a day long silent meditation, and so I sat down on a couch, alone in an empty room, and opened the book to the first page. On it were several pictures of a family I knew well, whose daughter passed away 6 months earlier. As soon as I saw the first picture and registered who this was, I burst into tears.

At first, the tears were for this family’s loss. We were with them at each terrible twist and turn of treatment, relapse, and death. But it was only then that the full weight of that loss hit me. My crying turned into sobbing and wailing. It was not just tears but snot and spit and moaning and other sounds. I became soaked in grief not just for this family but for all childhood cancer families who’ve lost and will lose their children. And the tears kept coming, not just for cancer families but all families. I was soon sobbing for all of life. Everything I love will die — and everything everyone loves will die. And the greater the love, the deeper the grief.

Eventually, I had spent every tear, bit of snot, and drop of spit I had. An easy, simple peace came over me, like a perfect Sunday morning with nothing to do and nowhere to be. The colors around me were vibrant, the stillness of an empty room was musical; my body felt fluid and open. I couldn’t wait to see my wife and kids. It was in that moment that I realized, in my bones, that grief is the unavoidable fruit of love and that love is also the fruit of grief. And the bigger the love, the deeper the grief. How could it be any other way?

Parents’ grief is incalculable because their love has no limit.

What does parenting-as-a-spiritual-practice look like? First, it must make parent SEs more likely to happen in the future. All of the SEs I described were moments when I was fully present, plugged into the wondrous, mysterious reality of parenthood. A parent SP, then, needs to help us become more present, to be here now.

Presence isn’t something that comes naturally to me or most people I know. We’re scattered and in our heads, on our phones, consumed by our running to-do lists. What helps us become more present? The obvious ones are mindful meditation, undistracted conversations, walks, holding hands, or gazing into one another’s eyes. But not-so-obvious ones — like taking care of our sleep, our physical fitness, our emotional and mental health, and even our nutrition — help us become more present by giving us energy and attention while reducing our anxiety and numbed-out withdrawal.

The second thing a parent SP must do is bring us into the larger perspective opened up by the SE. These experiences are moments of deep connection — with a newborn, with another parent, with a larger community, even with eons of ancestors. And so practices that build connection are parent SPs. For countless generations, this has meant belonging to a religious community. But parent SPs require no customs or traditions. We connect with our children and partner because our SE has opened up a truth to us: we are already connected no matter what. It is only up to us to nurture this connection.

Like presence, deep connection doesn’t come naturally to me or to most people I know. We skim along the surface of social interactions, making small talk. But acknowledging the parent SE means that we know that our connections run much deeper. A parent SP then would move us toward these deeper connections by teaching us and helping us practice ways of listening and speaking that are vulnerable, authentic, open, and curious. Such practices can be found in decades-old movements like encounter groups and non-violent communication. Today, they can be found in psychology books and practices like Authentic Relating. Learning new listening and communication skills might not strike you as an SP, but think about the times you’ve shared a deep vulnerability with your partner, or your child has shared a deep vulnerability with you. If you were able to open up to those moments, you’ll know beyond doubt that you witnessed something spiritual.

Finally, these parent SEs lead to our lives being suffused with meaning. In those SE moments, my actions had a purpose that I didn’t have to generate. My choices had a significance I didn’t have to think about. My presence mattered in a way that I couldn’t control. This meant that my ability and capacity to show up in every way for this new life (and my partner in making this new life) had unquestionable importance. And so practices that allow me to show up are parent SPs. The obvious ones are avoiding things that could reduce my capacities like excessive alcohol or smoking and eating junk that could limit my life- and healthspan. But also (and again) engaging in practices that increase my physical, emotional, and mental capacities like exercise, healthy nutrition, meditation, therapy, good sleep, and supportive friendships.

It might seem like a stretch to call exercising (or eating salmon and broccoli) an SP, but if we allow the transcendent parent experiences to show us how meaningful our very existence is for this life we helped to bring into the world, then hell yes these are SPs. They help us live in ways that honor those transcendent moments by helping us show up for our family in all the ways they need us.

Any practice is a parent spiritual practice if it helps us become more present with, connect more deeply to, and show up more fully for our family.

The beauty of approaching these extraordinary parent experiences as spiritual and building a spiritual practice around them is that they are open to everyone who is a parent. This is a spirituality that is sitting right in front of us, is as real as the ground beneath our feet, and — if I can be even more grandiose — it might be the only thing that can bring our divided world together.


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