Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Karma Child

    When I think of Buddha, I like to think of this state of existence represented as a child. Children, when left to their own devices, are the quintessential embodiment of freedom, peace, and happiness. When a child is untouched by others insecurities and fears, the natural condition is that of compassion, love, and harmony. As an early childhood educator, I often would integrate a large portion of free play, as well as very loose lesson plans, to encourage critical thinking and to support self-exploration. Watching the children, I would often remark quietly to myself about how "in tune" they are with the natural and humane. Children have an untouched and unexploited sense of compassion, and help others simply out of instinct and genuine concern. I believe children naturally recognize during the formative years, that when they are part of a family, friendship, or classroom, they are part of a community, and although they are aware of differences, value the similarities above all else. Many would argue, that they have seen two year olds who scream "MINE" when they are supposed to be sharing with siblings, or who throw tantrums when they do not get their way, and this is all true, but I ask, just how natural these reactions actually are, and if, they are early learned behaviors. Belief systems such as Buddhism, and Theorists such as James Hollis, author of "The Middle Passage, support the idea that children and the desires they formulate, are heavily influenced by parent messages. If desire is an intrinsic instinct, I argue that the ability to detach from desire and see beyond our own ego is equally as predominant, and that it is imperative that parents and educators understand the course of their actions with children.

Many of the students I have shared with, come into the classroom with an ego already in place, not because they were born with a chip on their shoulder, but because they have already been exposed to experiences which warranted ego based reactions, and have begun to create behavioral patterns. For Example, a four year old boy in my preschool class was very shy and emotionally sensitive. He would react severely in fits of tears and sometimes rage when he was the center of attention, feeling as though he was the butt of some inside joke. Whether the other children were laughing with him or complimenting him, regardless, he was extremely affected by this fear of being the center of attention. Many teachers, including his parents, would roll their eyes and say "Oh, he is so sensitive" or "Oh, he is just shy". They would even tell him that he was just being "a baby". It is so easy to resign ourselves to "He was just born that way, it is naturally who he is" and even easier for the parents and teachers to tell him so. I do not believe in this approach. I would watch him play with the other children in quiet moments and he was strong, intelligent, and confident. He was kind and enjoyed sharing, cooperating with his friends to create block buildings or imaginative play. He was also incredibly intelligent and surpassed many of the other students in terms of his ability to retain information. But while I was taking the time to observe this child, I also took the time to observe his environment, and took note of his behavior around his parents and other adults. He was clingy and submissive with his mother. He acted like the baby. With his father he was cool and tough. Both parents were conditioning this child to react in ways they felt were appropriate. Not only was this child confused, but was also learning that it was inappropriate to be himself...whoever that was. It caused him to second guess his judgment and instincts, and made him feel embarrassed and afraid when he thought others were calling attention to his behavior, most likely because he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. In one instance I realized that although his parents loved him very much, their attachments sent subconscious messages to him to be both a man and a baby. And unfortunately for this student, even his teachers fed into the confusion, by validating what his parents projected. When he engaged in afflicted behavior in their presence, they would feed into his actions with their own afflicted emotions. It was a vicious cycle. Inevitably, they were at their wits end with his "misbehavior". But I saw a much different child when he was with his classmates. It took almost 3 years to make the classroom safe and supportive enough by his terms, for him to able to not react in afflicted ways. The last few months I had with him were amazing. Unfortunately, he still reacted to his parent messages instantaneously when they walked through the door.

Now it may seem that I am bashing parenting skills, but to the contrary, I am only surmising a point: That our parents’ choices and consequences are passed on to us. Some belief systems, like Buddhism, suggest that we carry over Karma from past experiences and lifetimes. Choices and actions we have made in previous circumstances, dominated by cause and effect, stay with the physical energy of the universe, and never fully go away; until we change the pattern of reaction. The Dalai Lama discusses this in his book "How to see yourself as you really are", as a natural phenomenon of the universe; he proposes that the mistake we make as humans is in ..."These two extremes- the exaggerated notion that phenomena exist under their own power, and the denial of cause and effect- [they] are like chasms into which our minds can fall, creating damaging perspectives...". (Hopkins, p.69) For instance, we can see cosmic occurrences and reactions through high-powered telescopes that have happened thousands and millions of years before. This matter and energy does not simply disappear as time marches on. Everything is relative. Most can agree whether one is religious, spiritual, or atheist, that we are not omniscient. If the matter of the universe and cosmos is not completely eradicated, the same biochemical’s and matter in which we all have been made from, what makes us think that our molecular being, and the consequences of our actions, should be dissolvable.

Our actions, from other lifetimes or immediate action, still have an effect on self and others (especially our children), and from this comes a Buddhist term "Ingwa na ko". (Hearn, p.174) Ingwa na ko, a term discovered in Lafcadio Hearn’s book “In Ghostly Japan”, translates from Japanese to English as "A Karma Child" and refers to a child of misfortune. "Ingwa" is a Japanese low class term for a child who has been born with physical or mental challenges, or in a great circumstance of poverty. (p.174) Buddhism utilizes this term meaning the passing of a parent’s bad karma onto the child. I agree, that it sounds rather harsh to think that a child who is severely physically or mentally challenged is the result of parent’s poor choices, and so I do not wish to be misunderstood, but what I do believe, is that all children are born in a Buddha state. A Buddha state is considered to be

"An ordinary person awakened to the true nature of life, and experiencing absolute happiness and freedom within the realities of daily life. Indestructible joy, unlimited wisdom, courage, compassion, creativity and life force.” (http://www.sgi-uk.org/index.php/buddhism/tenworlds)

This implies that all children have the opportunity to change bad karma; that they enter this vibration with purity in their hearts, and it is we, as adults, that taint them. Our choices, as parents or educators, family members, friends, or guides, bear weight on children, no matter what perspective we see it in. In terms of Karma and parent messages, I do not believe that there is a right or wrong scenario to follow. Experience is invaluable, and the most effective lessons learned come from the direct experience, but this is not to say that in order to learn we must suffer. Children can learn through positive experiences and personal freedom. Pain and anger are not a prerequisite for growth. In the Buddhist belief system, it is said that the root of all suffering comes from our attachment to desires, and the afflicted emotions that result. Desire encompasses emotions that seem obvious, such as lust or greed, but what many do not realize is that it also involves a false sense of love. Many people mistakenly perceive strong attachments to the people they love, such as jealousy, control, and loyalty as strength; as a testament of how much they love another. In truth, these emotions stem from our desires, and our insecurities, and in turn, send harmful messages to our children. The Buddhist proverb for this is "Ko wa Sangai no kubihase.": A child is a neck -shackle for the Three States of Existence.

The three states of existence imply past, present, and future but more directly, desire, form, and formlessness. Lafcadio Hearn, in his extensive studies on Japanese Buddhist proverb explains,

"...That is to say, the love of parents for their child may impede their spiritual progress — not only in this world, but through all their future states of being, — just as a kubiktai, or Japanese cangue, impedes the movements of the person upon whom it is placed. Parental affection, being the strongest of earthly attachments, is particularly apt to cause those whom it enslaves to commit wrongful acts in the hope of benefiting their offspring." (Hearn, p.183)

Parenting, as well as teaching, has evolved throughout history from an exercise in guidance or assistance, into a co-dependency to suffice insecurities, and ultimately pass on karma. James Hollis reflects this ideal in his book "The Middle Passage": "The conclusions about one's self and the world are clearly based on the very limited experience of a specific set of parents responding to particular issues." (Hollis, p.12) Hollis alludes to the belief that parent messages, much like the Buddhist belief of karma, clearly dictate a child's mental, spiritual and emotional growth, conditioning a child's behavioral patterns, desires, and existence. What was once a practice of assisting in the continuation of our species, and learning how to cohabitate with each other, has been subject to centuries of emotional suffering. Children are expected to learn very early on about pain and negativity, so much so, that they lose sight of what is valuable and natural. As Hollis states, "Even in early childhood, a growing split develops between our inherent nature and our socialized self." (p.14) I will go beyond this and also say that the initial nature of the child is not even inherent, but simply is a natural existence of being. Is this a question between nature and nurture? No, this is an issue of the exploitation of nature. Hollis also recognizes the grasp a child’s mind has on an elevated state beyond immediate circumstances. He acknowledges the "Provisional Personality" we create from adult behaviors as "...a series of strategies, chosen by the fragile child to manage existential angst."(p.10) This statement certainly suggests that children have the capacity to entertain existentialism, and do so actively, which also supports the idea that a pure state does exist in children initially. Despite calling this period a Buddha state or simply pre-exposure to adult affliction, children have a fresh opportunity when they are born to formulate positive choices and lead authentic lives. Due to these parent (or adult) messages, children build their entire life on false desires, expectations, and afflicted emotions. They do not lead genuine lives, one built on a harmonized and truthful perception. I believe that the theory of messaging and karma goes beyond parenting; the responsibility lies within us all: family members, friends, strangers, and especially educators. In both Hollis' theory and Buddhist belief, people are all interconnected. Both recognize the existence of cause and effect, and the consequences of our choices, both positive and negative.

Many children begin to have separated lives at a young age. I do not mean to say that they are torn in dysfunctional or unorthodox family environments. What I am suggesting is that the players in a child’s life; family, school, community, are not in accordanance with each other. Children may go to school and experience one level of living, while returning to an entirely contradictory one at home. And this works both ways; educators are just as capable of passing bad karma and messaging on to students as are parents. When I was a child, I was often left to my own mind while living with my mother. I spent most of my time alone, playing, pretending and the like. My parent messages at home were that I was to be self-sufficient. Coping and problem solving were most often my own responsibility. While at school though, my kindergarten teacher found me to be anti-social, hyperactive, and disobedient. It was her suggestion to my parents that I should be taken to a doctor for examining. I remember some of my experience in her classroom; I remember simply wanting to sit and draw, observe my surroundings. I thought it quite odd that I was in this place with a bunch of kids I never saw outside of school. I wondered where did they all go...did they have a mom and dad that lived together? Did they live in a house? An apartment? Who were these people really?

I passed kindergarten that year, but I knew that I was not well liked by my teacher, who had no problem telling me that I SHOULD be doing this or that, essentially, assisting me in feeling not "normal". At home, even though it was a precarious place for me, I felt normal, I felt like me. She certainly passed on a message to me; I was not like the other kids; I was abnormal. That stayed with my self-image all throughout my school life. In contrast, as my home life became very tumultuous in junior high school, my 7th grade English teacher was extremely kind, took the time to let me express myself through creative writing, even if the assignment wasn’t adhered to letter by letter, and I found that class gave me great comfort and support at a very fearful time in my life. I believe she also passed on a message, perhaps one that was rooted in her good karma, perhaps one that was able to love me as her student without any attachment, but regardless, it was affective. What would have been even more effective, would be a life that mirrored, not separated.

The separation that children suffer is not circumstantial. Children can come from many different backgrounds, races, religions, and environments and still will require a unity of elders. It is our responsibility as educators, parents, and community members to recognize our own desires and afflicted emotions so that we do not pass our negative karma and messages on to our children. In many ways, we need to understand the real meaning of love. "Complete love..." according to the Dalai Lama, "...is based not on attachment but on altruism, which is the most effective response to suffering." (Hopkins, p.11) Since the world consists of so many children who have been torn from grace, it is essential that we let go of our own insecurities and attachments, recognize children as beings, not as our property or a crutch, and love them in a pure and empathetic way. Children will be subject to one of two fates in this lifetime; maintaining a pure state from birth or reconnecting thereafter. Hollis points out that "the child who lived up to the parent’s expectations may have lost his or her soul along the way." (Hollis, p.16) As people, let us share one collective consciousness that perpetuates a supportive, healthy environment for children to learn and grow that does not force our adult beliefs, ideas, biases, and emotions on our children. Let our classrooms extend outside the walls of our homes and institutions. Let our lessons be our own.

Food and clothes sustain
Body and life;
I advise you to learn
Being as is.
When it's time,
I move my hermitage and go,
And there's nothing
To be left behind.

-Layman P'ang