What Our Children Teach Us

by Piero Ferrucci
Excerpted from What Our Children Teach Us: Lessons in Joy, Love, and Awareness  


Emilio, three years old, has been doing lots of jumps. He must have done a hundred of them. "Daddy, Daddy, look, how do you like this jump look," he says every time. "It's a new jump!" He is very proud of his jumps.

I like the first three or four. But after a while I get bored. There, in the middle of the play park, I let my mind wander; I become inattentive.

Don't get me wrong; I love my child a lot. Even before he was born I had decided that I would spend a lot of my time with him. I was not going to be an absent father.
Although we have a great relationship, after spending hour after hour with him, I have often caught myself looking at my watch, wondering when it was going to be my wife's turn to watch him.That's when I clock off, as we jokingly say, and am free.

My little boy tugs at my sleeve: "Look, do you like this jump? Watch me!" By now there is a touch of irritation in his voice, almost a threat. "It's a new jump!" I look at my watch again. How much time is left? Two more hours, and then I can have some peace and quiet.

It has become impossible to even read the newspaper with Emilio around. He considers it an insult. At the most, I can manage to read half a column, and then: "Daaaaaaaaddy! Watch my new jump!" Now his voice is trembling with exasperation, like a schoolteacher who catches a misbehaving student.

I watch. And at last I understand: It really is a new jump. The hundredth jump is as important as the first and deserves the same attention. Emilio gives this new jump all he has got. It is a jump with a turn, followed by a kind of ballet move. For him, it is a marvelous creation. He has just finished painting The Last Supper, discovering the New World, formulating the Theory of Relativity. How can I possibly drift off? It is an unforgivable lapse.

Watching his hundredth jump, I once again understand the importance of attention. Often, in speaking with someone about a subject close to my heart, I see from his eyes that he is somewhere else. He is probably thinking of something more important to him. Just like me and the other parents at the play park. You can almost see our thoughts coming out of our heads like comic strip balloons: money problems, sports results, weekend plans.

This absence of mind has a disintegrating effect on me. When I lose someone's attention, I speak in an emptiness, my words are merely dry leaves, scattered here and there by the wind, till finally all that is left is the sad, dead winter.

I also know the uplifting feeling I experience when I am the recipient of someone's undivided attention, without judgment and expectations. Such a feeling warms me, tells me I am important, makes me whole again. I have found this out many times in my life, yet it is easy to forget.

My child calls me back to the present moment. He can be a strict teacher who points out all my weak points and shows me the art of being in the here and now—the most important art of all. Without presence, there is no relationship, no reality.

To think about past and future is of course so much easier than living in the present. Transported away from the present, we find everything: fantasy, worries, memories. Worlds far more intriguing than watching a child jump.

In this way, removed to another time, I, like everybody else, often function on automatic pilot. I talk, drive, work, walk, eat, with just enough attention so as not to get into trouble—and sometimes not even enough for that. I return to the present only when I am brought back energetically, by pain, pleasure, or surprise.

If I am truly awake, truly in the present, everything is different. In the actual moment, none of my imagined problems has happened yet, or if any has, it appears quite different to me. The vague and menacing forms I had glimpsed in my imagination, seen in the transparency of the present, lose their power to frighten me. And the "now" no longer eludes me.

"Now" is the present. I recognize that there is nowhere else to go. Past and future exist only in my mind. I am here, now, exactly where I have always been even when I did not know it.

Suddenly the reality around me takes shape. Sounds and colors become more vivid, outlines sharper, feelings truer. Others are no longer shadows but real individuals. Each person, instead of merely belonging to a category, is this particular being. When I am aware, the world is much richer and more interesting. It is not peopled by stereotypes. Every situation is an unrepeatable event. Every jump is a new jump.

As I learn to be more aware, I notice three fundamental changes in myself. First, I see that the reality around me and in me is far richer than I thought. The less aware I am, the less interesting everything is. People, circumstances, objects, ideas are mere outlines. But when I do pay attention, they take on substance and life. The person in front of me is not simply, say, my client belonging to this or that category. He is a living being whose voice, I now notice, vibrates with timid hope. His eyes are wistful. His tie doesn't match his jacket, and his hair is combed differently from last week. He wears a strange watch on his right wrist, so he must be left-handed. Some little veins show on the tip of his nose . . . I could go on forever. This person has changed status in my perception. From being an abstraction he has become a new entity to be discovered, a new person to know. I no longer look forward to the end of the session.

Second, wherever I am, there is nowhere else to go, because I am already there. If I am living in a world of outlines, I try to get out of it as fast as I can. I do so by having a purpose and being anxious about that purpose. If I am with a friend, instead of simply enjoying his presence, I try to give a direction to our meeting: Are we getting anything done? But if I really see my friend, pay attention to his company, I have already accomplished a lot. There is a sense of healthy laziness that I have learned in being with children: Slow down, take it easy, be here, enjoy yourself. You are allowed to have no purpose.

Third, I give more of myself. I notice this one day while carrying on a conversation with Vivien, while at the same time working at the computer. I realize there is a world inside me where I retreat and entertain myself with fantasies, thoughts, and rehearsals. That's healthy. In this case, however, the computer is included in the inner world, but Vivien is not. She is merely a voice out there. That is less healthy. I am ninety percent with the computer and my thoughts, and ten percent with my wife, and the quality of our conversation is poor. I am being stingy with myself. Suddenly I decide to be present for her, as I do with my children, and it is like waking from a dream. It is gratifying to be more available. It may require an effort at first, but then I feel this is exactly where I want to be.

When I try to be present, I sometimes feel a resistance. To live in the naked present bores me; it is deceptively flat at first. Nothing seems to happen. Or else, what does happen is not what I want. I have a constant need to be stimulated and entertained.

Boredom, however, is the first sign that I am on the right track to being in the present. It means that instead of being shut up in an unreal world, I am crossing a protective barrier. The part of me that resists change tries to dissuade me from living in the present. It is a barrier that I will find sooner or later in any spiritual or intellectual adventure on which I embark and which presents me with a choice: I can go back to my unreal world. Or I can continue through the boredom of watching a hundred jumps, and then perhaps I will meet the truly new.

The art of paying attention may be practiced anywhere, at any time. It needs no guidance, techniques, or equipment. It is free and universal. Certain situations, however, facilitate it. A Zen master will sometimes move among his meditating students. With his sharp intuition he knows who is sleepy and distracted and gives the student a rap on the shoulders. Nothing aggressive, just a reminder to be aware. Children do the same thing without knowing it. Their cries, their questions and demands, are a continuous recall to the here and now, to where all is more real. Our very own place.

Very young children are always in the present. They reside there with ease and with wonder. Five-month-old Emilio watches the leaves and branches moving in the wind. His eyes move imperceptibly. He is fascinated. For him, in that moment, the branches and leaves are all there is. At two he discovers his own shadow. It follows him everywhere, and yet, what a mystery! It can disappear in a larger shadow. Or else he notices his own reflection in a puddle: Is it real, or is it a window into another world? This is being in the present. And it is a healthy contagion: I want to be like that, too.

Jonathan, at two years old, pays careful attention to different kinds of sounds, including the faintest. He will stop suddenly and listen: an ambulance siren in the distance, the neighbor closing her window, a passerby coughing, the vacuum cleaner's whir. Then, raising a tiny finger, he looks at me and says, "That noise?" At first I didn't understand what was going on. Now I try to imagine what it is like for him, his universe full of new and indecipherable sounds.

I remember him as a newborn, lying quiet and attentive, his attention free of judgment or expectation. He fixes on nothing in particular. He is simply attentive. A state of naked awareness. I have never seen anyone pay attention like that—so completely. It is enough for me to remember those moments, and I feel better.
When we are present like they are, we can have a finer relationship with our children—indeed, with any other person. In fact, it is the only relation possible. Otherwise there are just the meetings of phantoms.

Being present means being ready and available. I am here for you. My mind does not escape into a more interesting future. It does not choose the world of fantasy, nor is it haunted by echoes of the past. With all my being, I am here for you.

I hear a clamor of protest: "But that is how you spoil a child! Nobody gives that kind of attention in the real world. The child will get used to being at center stage!"

Let me be clear: I am not referring to the kind of attention that is linked to some emotion, for example to the need to suffocate and oppress with unrequested kisses and cuddles. This is not anxious attention, always on guard lest the poor helpless child take a risk: "Watch out, you will hurt yourself!" Nor is it ambitious attention. It does not judge, nor try at all costs to find reason to correct or criticize.

It is pure attention. It does not invade or direct, but it is merely present. That is all. Such an attitude has never harmed anyone. On the contrary, it is the greatest gift we can give our children. They are used to being among so many distracted giants who, from time to time, condescend to give them a few crumbs of themselves. I am sure it means a lot to them when we place ourselves at their level, attending to what they are telling us, attending to them.

There are times when we are afraid to pay close attention. Jonathan is born, in a hospital, and I receive him in my hands: a very beautiful moment. The birth has been spontaneous, natural, and all has gone well, but the nurse has to take him from us for a few moments in order to massage him. Meanwhile, Vivien, exhausted, is helped by the midwife. In those critical instants, what do I do? I calmly go and wash my hands, distracted, outside of time, absent from the whole scene. It is a decisive moment for my loved ones, and I am out of it.

Soon enough I realize my distraction. I race to our baby and look at him, just a few moments old. He is fine, but is also kicking and protesting. I join the nurse in touching him. I speak to him, comfort him, feel a wave of love for him. I look at Vivien close by; our eyes meet. I feel for her a vast, vibrating gratitude.

What has happened? I realize it later. The emotions that surface during a birth are violent. And sometimes emotions that are too powerful frighten us. In those distracted minutes I defend myself against those very intense emotions. To see Vivien exhausted, or my baby struggling to breathe, is too much for me. So I go on and wash my hands. Then, once I recognize my fleeing, I can allow myself to feel the overwhelming anguish and the love I was trying to escape.

To pay attention is the most practical thing I can do. I see what is, and thereby I have more information. I am not taken by surprise and do not devise confused solutions to imaginary problems. Maybe a child is in a bad mood simply because he is cold, or thirsty, or his sock is slipping down into his shoe. Paying attention makes life simpler by eliminating what is superfluous. It gets to the heart of the matter.

Emilio refuses to have his hair washed. "If you let us wash your hair, we will give you a delicious snack." Emilio eats it, then refuses once again to wash his hair. "Look, there is Mummy and Daddy, and Grandmother is coming, too, all of us in the bathroom together." Nothing doing. "Grandma, Mummy, Daddy, another delicious snack, and we will give you a special toy that you can play with while we wash your hair." No way. We might as well forget about the hair wash.

Everybody talks, yells, offers interpretations, threats, prophesies: "If you don't wash your hair, it will be dirty and full of little bugs!" Stories: "You know, when Daddy was a little boy like you, he didn't want to wash his hair, either. . . ." Empathy: "I realize you don't like washing your hair. . . ." Sermons: "In life there are always things we have to do; even things we don't like." Nothing works.

Then we pay attention and try a little awareness. How come Emilio won't let us wash his hair? Because he is afraid water will get in his eyes. That is the real reason. So simple. "Emilio, we will be very careful not to let any water get in your eyes." Emilio allows us to wash his hair. Being aware means seeing reality as it is. It means doing away with all the browbeating and getting to the heart of all that matters.

Yes, my children have an extraordinary power to bring me back to the present. Sometimes it almost seems that they do it on purpose. One day I receive a phone call, a taxation matter that drives me crazy. I must find a receipt that I fear I may have lost, in which case I will have to pay a fine. I am furious with myself that my stuff is in such a mess. I feel persecuted by the tax people. As if I don't have enough to do. I will never get it all done. My inner monologue goes on in this way, a rapid gathering of black clouds.

Jonathan looks at me. He smiles. I see him as if in the distance, since I am still lost in my thoughts. I know he is there, but my worries are stronger. Why do I have to waste time in useless tasks? They will get me. I will be ruined. Jonathan keeps it up. He looks at me and smiles again. The worries begin to dissipate. Why should I spoil my life with these thoughts? I heave a sigh. Jonathan looks at me again. He is waiting, his gaze a universe in which I may enter. It is an open invitation. He smiles yet again. Now I am really with him. The black clouds have disappeared. Welcome back to the present, Dad.

Copyright © 2001 by Piero Ferrucci
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