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Gifts of the Spirit, Gifts from the Heart

by Richard Prystowski

"Dear Hoang,

Today I have a special gift for you.... My gift for you is this exercise: Look very deeply at your mother.... Look deeply into her beautiful eyes, and really hug her before you go to sleep tonight. Be aware of her precious presence in your arms. As you hold her, breathe in and out and say, silently, ‘Breathing in, I am aware how wonderful it is to hold my mother in my arms.  Breathing out, I know that she is a treasure for all of us.’ Don’t wait until your dear mother has passed away before you decide to really appreciate her."

Sister Chân Không, from Learning True Love [qtd. from a letter that she wrote and that she cites in her book]

"Mindfulness is the foundation of a happy life."

Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step

I would like to begin by talking about a wonderful story entitled "The Gift in the Garden," one of the tales from The Twenty-Two Gates to the Garden, Rabbi Steven M. Rosman’s excellent book of stories inspired by Jewish kabbalistic teachings.[1] In this story, the Princess frantically searches for a gift that her mother, the Queen, said awaits the Princess in the garden. During her search, the Princess "climbed trees and looked in their branches. She rambled through bushes and crawled through flower beds. She even turned over rocks and peeked beneath them" (16). The narration continues: "With skinned knees, scraped elbows, dirty hands, and a sweaty brow, she returned to where her mother had stood all the while" (ibid.). Though the daughter felt certain that she had not discovered any gift at all, the mother told her that, in fact, the Princess had "‘found the gift [that the Queen had] meant for [the daughter] to find’" (17). To clear up her daughter’s lingering confusion, the Queen offers the following insightful explanation:

"Today you looked at your world very closely. You touched the world, and it seems as though the world touched you." Indeed [adds the narrator], her daughter had grass stains on her skirt and smudges of dirt on her socks. She had twigs in her hair, and petals from assorted flowers of every color had fallen into the pockets of her blouse. Truly, everywhere she had searched, the world had left its mark on her.

"Today you explored the world carefully," the Queen continued. "You approached every blade of grass and each petal as if you were discovering them for the very first time. I can think of no finer gift to give my beloved child than the opportunity to look at the world closely and see it as new...."

As they [sat and] watched the setting sun paint the heavens with streaks of red and orange, violet and pink, the Queen reverently whispered, "The beginning of wisdom is wonder, and the spark of wonder is kindled in the person who sees the world as new." (17-18)

In this touching story from Rabbi Rosman’s book, the Queen teaches her daughter a number of valuable lessons, among which are the importance of one’s being fully and deeply in touch with the present moment; the value of one’s being in close touch with the earth; and the significance of one’s seeing the world with what Zen Buddhists would call "beginner’s mind." Perhaps not surprisingly, these lessons intertwine.  As the Queen herself writes, "I can think of no finer gift to give my beloved child than the opportunity to look at the world closely [read "to be fully in touch with the present moment"] and see it as new" [that is, see it with a beginner’s eyes] (18).

Why is this opportunity afforded the Princess the finest gift that her mother can give her? Because, I think, it allows the young girl to discover and learn experientially—literally, in this instance, with hands-on practice—the crucial insight that, if we can look deeply into the nature of something or someone from the perspective of a beginner’s mind (in this case, from the fresh point of view of a child), we will be able to perceive and understand this thing or person "as new," which is to say that we might reach an understanding that we had never reached before. In this state of mind, we can make some of our most meaningful discoveries and learn what might be some of the most important lessons of our lives. For, in this state of mind, we are like the reader who comes upon a deeply moving poem for the first time. We are like the young child who, playing in our yard for the first time, bends down to examine closely those flowers in the garden that we adults might have taken for granted, and perhaps even unknowingly stepped on. Indeed, in this state of mind, we are open to new ideas, to new ways of seeing, to new ways of being. No wonder that Jesus said to his disciples, "‘...unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’" (Mt. 18:3) and "‘[l]et the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven’" (Mt. 19:14).

Taking our cue from "The Gift in the Garden," we realize that, ultimately, the Princess learns that the most meaningful gifts are those which are internal rather than external; they are gifts of the spirit, of the soul, from the heart, and not material presents. And she teaches us parents that, if we are too attached to our present views—for example, about child rearing, or about educational methods and learning outcomes—then we might miss opportunities to engage in deeply meaningful learning and thereby fail to discover the gifts that are always present to us, always within our reach. Right in front of us and our children is one of our greatest gifts, one of our greatest teachers: life itself. Indeed, what Daniel Greenberg says about the students at the Sudbury Valley School, where no student is ever forced to learn anything from anyone at any time, is true of all of us (unless some of us have bona fide learning disabilities): "The kids are all learning, all the time" (Free At Last 92).

I find this quotation particularly apt in the present context, for many adults have the sensation of being a child again when they are joyfully learning something or experiencing their oneness with the world. In such circumstances, the child in the adult emerges when the adult, fully engaged in a meaningful life experience (looking intently at the beauty of the stars, for instance), gleefully claps his hands, squeals in delight at her wonderful discovery, or otherwise allows the child within to express himself or herself as (s)he experiences or re-experiences the depth and fullness of life. "My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky[,]" writes poet William Wordsworth in his poem "My Heart Leaps Up." He continues:

So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Given the many chances that we have every day to use our child’s mind to help us discover the world as new, let us enjoy discovering our own gifts in the garden, understanding that life itself is our most meaningful curriculum, and that all of us, adults and children alike, can find that heartfelt joy that comes from our learning and experiencing life’s many, vast, and often wonderful teachings.

        As we experience life with our children, we homeschooling parents have a unique opportunity to help our children and ourselves continually explore our gardens, finding anew the rich joys that come from our being fully in touch with our worlds and with each other. In this regard, I would suggest that the most significant teaching that we can engage in with our children is that which involves our own practices, our own learning, ultimately, our own modeling. Our ideas about living well are secondary; of primary importance is our practice. The troublesome line "Do as I say and not as I do" is a testament to the inadequacy of one’s privileging ideas over practice, as any child knows who has heard his or her parent offer up this statement signaling the abrogation of parental moral responsibility.

        Having the opportunity to spend much time with our children thus affords us as homeschooling parents the opportunity to teach our children those valuable lessons which will help them to be or become kind, compassionate, caring, loving individuals. But the success of these lessons depends upon our own practice. By our manner of speech and action, we teach our children the importance or unimportance of one’s behaving in ways that are consistent with one’s moral values. Depending upon our diet and our other modes of consumption, for example, we teach our children either that one should value all life, including the life of the planet, or that one need not be overly concerned about such a matter. If we say that one should treat others with dignity and then we treat our own children with dignity even when they misbehave, we engage in a very powerful form of practice teaching, insofar as we teach our children by our practice that everyone, including those who act inappropriately, deserves to be treated with dignity. On the other hand, if we say that one should treat others with dignity but then we treat our children disrespectfully, we model and validate for our children hypocrisy, inconsistency, and modes of disrespectful behavior.

        Although children’s thinking and behavior results from a number of factors, and not just from parental modeling, we would do well not to underestimate the influence of such modeling on children’s thoughts and actions. Some of the research into perpetrator and rescuer behavior during the Holocaust sheds light on the nature of the influence in question here, teaching us some rather stark lessons that we ought to heed.  For example, we know that, although many high-ranking Nazis were well educated and even well cultured, they lacked the deep sense of caring about the victims that so many of the rescuers possessed. Moreover, many of the perpetrators in Nazi-dominated Europe seem to have acted out the lessons of violence that they had learned at the hands of their parents (among others), and many persons who rescued victims during the Holocaust seem to have enacted the lessons of caring and altruism that their parents had taught and modeled.[2]

        The ability to live a life of compassion and kindness—surely a goal that all of us want our children to reach—derives from a cultivated practice of living such a life (indeed, as is always the case, the path and the goal are one and the same). Since we can spend so much time with our children, we homeschooling parents are uniquely positioned to model such a practice for our children. In this regard, our presence, truly, can be a great gift to our children. For, seeing our actions, they can perhaps sense how they might cultivate their own ability to look deeply into the nature of both other people and the many facets of their world, thereby strengthening their sense of inter-related oneness with others and with the world around them (the Queen alludes to this point when she tells her daughter, "‘You touched the world, and it seems as though the world touched you’" [17]). As Thich Nhat Hanh has taught us, "[t]o look deeply is to understand" (Peace Is Every Step 83). And from such understanding springs our ability to love, to be kind, to be compassionate, to care.  Indeed, the "essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves ‘inside the skin’ of the other" (ibid. 81).[3]

        Ultimately, then, by giving our children the gift of our true presence, we help them to discover their own true natures, as well as the true natures of others. Living in such a mindful way, our families can learn and practice the art of lovingkindness towards ourselves and others. We can learn to practice the gift of loving ourselves and others unconditionally, without an agenda, with purity of heart. In this way, we can respond to life fully in the present moment, seeing the gift of our children’s presence and giving to them the gift of our being.

        So commonly, we say that our children are our future. Although this saying has some truth to it, it also bespeaks a common problem that we often have with respect to our children: not infrequently, we ignore the fact that they are alive now, that they are fully present in the here and now. As the years go by, we lament the passing of time, wondering, almost in astonishment, where our children’s youth has gone.  Our confusion makes sense: since we failed to look deeply into the presence of our children when they were children, we didn’t see them very clearly; small wonder, then, that, years later, we have only vague recollections of them as children. Too late we realize that, rather than asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up, we should have asked them how they were doing and what they were being right now.

        In another sense, though, our children are our future, insofar as the future is comprised of the present. Thus, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, if we are concerned about the future, then we must take good care of the present moment. So, if we are concerned about our children’s future, then we should be fully attentive to taking good care of our children when they are children. We can do this if we concentrate not so much on our ideas, but rather on our practice—in particular, on our practice of being fully present with and for our children and ourselves. Interacting with our children, we must try to remain aware of the important difference between our meeting their and our needs in a mutually supportive, growing relationship, and our knowingly or unknowingly using our children to help us meet our own unfulfilled needs, deal with our own emptiness, cure our own narcissistic wounds, relieve our own inner, existential angst, and so on.[4]

        To be sure, life is neither simple nor easy, and none of us is going to be a perfect parent. That’s not the point—at least, that’s not the point of this talk. Rather, I have simply been trying to show us that we can experience great joy with our children and help them to live fully meaningful lives if we give them the gift of our full presence and recognize their full presence when we are with them. (Of course, we cannot be with our children all of the time; in fact, it would be rather unhealthy for us and them were we to do so. We all need to spend time alone and to spend time with persons other than members of our family.) We need to understand that we are not necessarily any more fully with our children than school parents are with their children merely because we homeschool our children and they send their children to school. As Thich Nhat Hanh has taught us, if our minds are somewhere else when we’re with our children, then we’re not really there with them, even if we and they are physically together. In short, even if we buy our children the best curriculum, join the best homeschooling organization, search for and download for them the best student-friendly internet software, and read the paper while they play computer games only ten feet away from us, we are shortchanging both our children and ourselves if we never or only rarely give them the gift of our true presence, of our true, fully engaged being. Indeed, if we are rarely or never there for our children when they present themselves to us, then what meaningful gifts have we ever really given them?

        To allude to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings once again, I would ask us to consider that the greatest gift that we can give to someone we love is to be there fully with him, to be fully present with her when we’re with her. In fact, we might suggest that we cannot love another person fully when we’re with him unless we’re fully present with him.  Concerning our children, we might say that we cannot give them a greater gift than that which we give simply by being fully present with them when we’re with them. Material gifts, like the gifts that the Princess struggled but failed to find in the garden, are secondary in importance compared to this intangible gift of our spirit. Superficially, our gifts of deep love and full presence might seem secondary, and even illusory; but, as the Princess learned, at the deepest levels, such gifts are in fact quite primary and quite real.

        And they are rather inexpensive. In fact, they’re free—and priceless. They manifest themselves as our acts of kindness towards our children. They are our smile, our exchanges of the heart, our presence of being. They let our children know, and they remind us, of our all being fully alive, not in photographs of past moments or in dreams or visions of the future, but in the only moments in which one can be fully alive—that is, in the present moments of our daily lives. To help yourself give your children such gifts, you might want or need to do some inner child work, since, to a large degree, the ways in which you deal with your inner child will influence the ways in which you deal with your children.  But you need not seek the help of a therapist in order to begin practicing such mutually beneficial gift-giving right away, in the here and now. At the very least, you can engage in simple, everyday acts of soulful gift-giving, such as deeply conscious smiling and hugging. The benefits of such giving, for you and your children, are immediate and powerful, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains in his description of the practice and effects of fully conscious hugging, or what he calls hugging meditation:

        Suppose your daughter comes and presents herself to you. If you are not really there—if you are thinking of the past, worrying about the future, or possessed by anger or fear—the child, although standing in front of you, will not exist for you. She is like a ghost, and you may be like a ghost also. If you want to be with her, you have to return to the present moment. Breathing consciously, uniting body and mind, you make yourself into a real person again. When you become a real person, your daughter becomes real also. She is a wondrous presence, and a real encounter with life is possible at that moment. If you hold her in your arms and breathe, you will awaken to the preciousness of your loved one, and life is.  (Peace Is Every Step 86)

        When we unite so powerfully and yet so simply with our children, we help them to learn how one might live a meaningful life, in which one engages in simple, everyday acts that help to cultivate the seeds of lovingkindness in oneself and in others. "If love is real," writes Thich Nhat Hanh, "it will be evident in our daily life, in the way we relate with people and the world" (ibid. 84).  Being fully present with our children, we help our mutual love for each other to be real. And, as did the Queen with respect to the Princess, when we live with our children in this way, we give them a truly precious gift, for we help them to discover the beauty of their world, the deep and wonderful innocence of their own spirit of living and learning, and, ultimately, the purity of their hearts and souls. Such are the gifts of the spirit and from the heart, which all of us embody and bestow when we give each other the joy of our true presence.

Works Cited

"The Gospel According to Matthew." In The Revised Standard Version of The Bible. The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1946, 1952, 1971.

Greenberg, Daniel. Free At Last: The Sudbury Valley School. Framingham, MA: The Sudbury Valley School Press, 1987, 1991.

Miller, Alice. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence.  Trans. by Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983, 1984, 1986.

The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. Trans. by Ruth Ward. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life.  Ed. by Arnold Kotler. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, 1992.

Oliner, Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliner. The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: The Free Press, 1988, 1992.

Rosman, Steven M. The Twenty-Two Gates to the Garden.  Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1994.

Wordsworth, William. "My Heart Leaps Up." In The Riverside Anthology of Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. by Douglas Hunt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.  P. 528.

[1]What becomes clear in the course of one’s reading these stories is that the Prince and the Princess—two of the book’s main characters—are homeschooled. Though they never leave the palace grounds, they venture into flights of fancy through the stories offered to them by their mother and others; learn some crucial lessons about life and death; and, in general, acquire what many of us might consider an unusual but in many ways a well-rounded education.

[2] For a trenchant psychological analysis of perpetrator behavior, see Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence; the classic study of the altruistic behavior of rescuers, which involves comparative analyses of the thinking and behavior of rescuers, perpetrators, and bystanders, is Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliner’s The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe.

[3] Etymologically, the word "compassion" derives from the Latin com, meaning "with," and pati, meaning "to suffer." To have compassion, then, is to be able "to suffer with," that is, "to suffer with another. "For a wonderful commentary on the nature of compassion, see Thich Nhat Hanh’s "Meditation on Compassion," in Peace Is Every Step, pp. 81-83.

[4] For more information on this problem, see Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self.

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