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Working with families as practice
Sister Cittapala

ONE DAY WHEN I WAS STILL AN ART TEACHER IN SCHOOL, a friend and colleague confessed to me that she wanted to resign. She felt that after 20 years of work, she had fulfilled her biological time span for caring for children. I started to wonder whether that could be true for me as well.

Families and friends

I remember how during the Winter Retreat of my second year of anagarika training at Amaravati, I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to go back to school. My idea when I came to the monastery was to train as a novice for three years and then go back to school and be a wiser and happier teacher. Sitting in the Temple and meditating, it became clear to me that school was simply over – I didn’t have to go back! Tears of relief flowed for days. I was surprised how strong my reaction was and that I hadn’t dared to fully acknowledge or even feel my frustration with school before. How strong my identification as an art teacher must have been. After two years of monastic practice, my feeling of safety and confidence in monastic life had grown strong enough to let go of the identification with my professional life as a school teacher. It was so good to see one kind of suffering just ending. I decided to stay in the monastery and asked for ordination as a nun.

During these years, Venerable Kusalo was leading the family activities at Amaravati. I was half interested, sometimes watching how a Buddhist monk was teaching and playing with children, sometimes allowing myself to get drawn in, but always cautious not to get too involved: I didn’t want to engage myself as a teacher again, as I felt that my old attitude of teaching was something to let go of. It was too painful and confusing: how can I want to teach somebody? I was tired of wanting to control and change children, making them do or learn something. Ajahn Sumedho’s teaching was about ‘the way it is’ in this moment, not becoming or attaining anything in the future. I was learning something new, something which was changing my attitude to life completely. Getting involved with family activities and teaching at this point seemed to be counterproductive.

Over the next years, Ajahn Kusalo left Amaravati, and Ajahn Assaji, who was supporting the Family Camp after him, left as well. Samanera Amaranatho was asked to organize the family events. He approached different Sangha members to get support. When he heard that I had been an art teacher, he asked me whether I was interested to contribute. I was still reluctant. But there was some curiosity as well: maybe it’s time to experiment with how I could use my teaching and art skills as a means to allow families to explore the Dhamma?

I came up with some ideas for the Young Persons’ Retreat, suggesting drawings to let the teenagers observe directly how thinking and imagination can be used to produce either fear or confidence – by first drawing the most ferocious and frightening dragon they could think of, and then drawing a sweet looking, cuddly one. This exercise was meant as an example to gain consciousness of how we actually make choices to create the world we are believing in. I was pleased with my idea.

Scary and sweet drawings

At that time Ven. Amaranatho and I were still convinced that all activities during the Young Persons’ Retreat had to be compulsory. So all teenagers had to attend this Dhamma-art activity. And of course, what happened was that some of them were interested, others weren’t.

Those who were interested tuned in and engaged, coming up with impressive drawings and insights and contributing with insightful conversations; those who were not interested either pretended interest when they felt watched by me and dropped the pencil when I turned my back, or even bluntly refused to participate at all and distracted those who were interested. I found myself back in a typical – and for me painful – school situation, the world which I wanted to leave behind, where I followed a system in which young people were forced to do something they were simply not interested in. My assumption that all these teenagers were coming to Amaravati because they wanted to engage and learn the Dhamma and that my efforts were appreciated was shattered. Half of them simply wanted to hang out with each other and were not interested in exploring the Dhamma, so it seemed. I was disappointed.

After this weekend retreat, I told Ven. Amaranatho that I was not going to continue with this kind of teaching. I even cried. My old and deep frustration from teaching those who seemed not to be interested and who would dismiss my efforts welled up. Ven. Amaranatho looked at me and asked, ‘Any expectations, Sister?’ I looked at him in disbelief, mind blank. And then it clicked: yes – thank you – I am here to learn myself, however the teenagers respond. And thank you to the frustration, which shows where my attachment lies, where I am not open to ‘the way it is’. So, with a new interest to learn for myself, I started to engage more in supporting the family activities – with quite mixed feelings, to be honest.

Since then, the family activities have been blessing me with many opportunities to meet my fears, frustrations and anger, buried under layers of a well-controlled teacher-personality, which is still in the process of reluctantly falling apart. What can I do? I can’t help it, I inevitably bring in my conditioning from the past: the trying to make it work, resisting what I don’t want, and the wish to be appreciated for what I am doing …. That’s the stuff I have to work with. Always when this trying or resisting takes hold of me, I can feel myself getting tense and disconnected, and the pain of it. I stop criticizing myself for it. Awareness is enough, and then there can be a shift: moments of letting go, with feelings of relief and joy and freedom. Slowly I learn to appreciate the uncontrolled moments flowing along, with an experience of joy, curiosity, connection and expansiveness. Awareness of ‘what is’ is a remedy and allows healing to happen, knowing and trusting the not-knowing as I go along.

An example? A two-year-old boy has been crawling over to me during Evening Puja, while Ven. Amaranatho is explaining something, and he sits down in front of the bell, grabs the wooden stick and excitedly discovers that he can hit the bell with it and produce great sounds. Not sure whether I should do something about it, I am fascinated and watch his great learning experience – until I get a stare from Amaranatho, which I interpret as ‘stop it’. What to do? My first reflex is to take the stick away. That’s how I am conditioned from my childhood. And yet, as my hand takes the other end of the stick, it doesn’t feel right. Taking the stick away from him would not only feel unkind but would undoubtedly result in a big screaming disturbance. Not knowing what to do, I find myself in a gentle pulling-at-the-other-end-of-the-stick experiment, which he readily accepts and enjoys as a new game, beaming at me, his little body coming forward and pulling backward. I am surprised how awake and connected both of us are in this game, and enjoy it even more because I realize that I am receiving a healing session: an old controlling habit is allowed to drop away. Then I notice a parent’s eyes watching the scene and a fear of being judged creeps in for a second, until I discover a smile appearing on his face. Shared awareness is holding our learning together.

It seems to me that this process of increasingly trusting awareness is moving all of us into a greater space of connectedness, the whole Camp, all who have been involved for years with ‘teaching’, helping, and participating. The parents struggle along with me, learning to let go of expectations of when their children have to be in bed and that they always should be friendly, always participating in Pujas and washing up. I feel hesitant to use big words, and yet it feels to me like a wonder, moving forward as a group into shared vulnerability, responsibility and love.

It dawns on me that coming to the monastery and renouncing family and school life has allowed me to face family life and the experience of learning together more deeply. Instead of trying to get away from it, I open up to it in a new way and can allow the all-embracing awareness to do the work. I am grateful for Luang Por Sumedho’s teaching and for the safe space Amaravati offers to all of us. And I am grateful to the families who come and are willing to share and support our experiment of healing together and growing open.

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