A Lesson in Zen from My Sleep Deprived Toddler

A Lesson in Zen from My Sleep Deprived Toddler

When I rolled over to check the time on my phone, it was just past 5 a.m. Macklin had been crying on and off for at least the past half an hour, fighting a return to sleep despite the patient efforts of his mother. I tagged in about twenty minutes later to resume the rocking and rubbing, but the magic touch had gone momentarily missing from my hands as well. He was up for the day, and so were we.

As I sat with my seventeen-month-old son in the same La-Z-Boy recliner my parents used to rock me in, a thought flickered through my head—well, at least this will be the last time I have to do this. I was more than half asleep at the time, so it took me a while to reason through how wrong of an idea that was. The more I thought about why that thought even entered my mind, an epiphany began to take shape.

My son is a Zen master. A natural.

It’s likely all of us were when we were taking our first unbalanced steps into conscious awareness. How I arrived at this realization took an impressive routine of mental gymnastics, especially considering the hour. I’ll do my best to walk you through it.

My first reaction to hearing myself think that this might be the last time I’d have to get up way too early to console my son was a mix of embarrassment and amusement. I explained to myself that there will be hundreds more mornings that start just like this, which got me thinking about the concept of “the last time.”

The last time I’ll have to mix up a bottle. The last time I’ll have to install a car seat. The last time I’ll have to buy a new remote for the fancy ceiling fan because someone decided it would be fun to see if the old one would float in the toilet. The last time…

Not to get dramatic, but I realized I had fallen into a lazy, uncreative, shallow routine of thinking of life in terms of the last time I’d have to… suffer, expend, work, build, give. In other words, thinking in terms of least effort. I’ve always been a big fan of comfort, but this was an embarrassing revelation.

“The last time” mode of thinking is inherently selfish. It’s an end-game type scenario, and such scenarios are by their nature self-serving. When I briefly thought this was going to be the last time Macklin woke up screaming, what I really thought was maybe this would be the last time I’d have to get up earlier than I really wanted. A real Richard Cranium thought if there ever was one.  

So how does me being a big, selfish baby make my actual baby a Zen master? I’m getting there. After confronting my selfishness, I kept on thinking. I had the time. The moon was still out, and Macklin, though not sleeping, was content to sit and rock.

A second epiphany slowly revealed itself. My “the last time” approach was not only incredibly shortsighted, its entire premise was flat out wrong. As the Dalai Lama once said, “nothing is permanent.” Life, experiences, moods, material goods, the good, the bad, even thoughts and truths all change, adapt, disappear and reincarnate. Nothing lasts forever, which means there can never be a last time for anything.

At five in the morning, this was welcome reassurance that Mack’s sleep struggles will pass. But it opened up a considerable can of worms, too. As long and challenging as some days (and nights) get as a stay-at-home parent, they are fleeting. Countless milestones have already passed. The hard times won’t last, but I immediately realized the flip side is also true. The good times won’t either.

“This is the real secret of life,” says British philosopher Alan Watts, “to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” This is what my son has mastered. He lives only in the here and now. Everything is play, and every moment is unclouded by the tint of memory or the worry of foresight. He is always present, always engaged and, in his own gibberish way, always thankful. And I am thankful for that early morning lesson. I know it won’t be the last one.

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