When my older son was on the brink of leaving toddlerhood, he still preferred that we stay with him until he fell asleep. It could be frustrating at times, when tucking-in seemed to go on and on, and I felt that it was time for me to either relax, or get some other things done. I came up with a technique which seemed to alleviate some of the stress, and somehow, the technique seemed to hasten my son’s sleep. I would simply count my breaths up to 21, three times. Over the course of 63 breaths, my breathing would become slower. Often I would get into a pretty nice state of concentration, and sufficient time would pass to allow my son to sleep. I didn’t have proof, but I was fairly convinced that it was not only the time passing, but my state of concentrated repose that also helped him sleep.
Since then, we had a second boy, six years younger than my first son. One day when I found myself doing a similar tuck-in routine, I remembered my 63 breaths. I didn’t use it all the time, but when I did, it still had its magic most of the time. A few months later I became especially inspired by two Buddhist teachings I had heard while driving home from work, and in particular, how these teachings interact: abiding in the present moment and impermanence. The concept that best helped me grasp the present moment idea was that, often we are leaning forward, out of the present moment, toward some desired future. This is exactly what I was doing when I would get frustrated that my child was not asleep yet. And when I really started grasping this, I realized that even in the breathing, even when my breathing slowed way down, I could still catch my consciousness leaning toward 63. I had plans for the moment after 63.
And so on that night, I stopped counting, and every time I noticed the lean, I smiled at it and relaxed into the moment. And this is where the teaching on impermanence started to apply. I noticed that every several breaths or so, my son would shift a little bit, always staying in contact with me in some way, and I was overwhelmed by the sweetness and fleeting nature of what was happening. The shifting began and passed, and the time between shifting grew longer; and of course, he fell to sleep. And of course, one day, I won’t lie next to him while he falls to sleep.
The mind could easily see this as a new predicament- it’s so easy to get caught up in those things that will fade, which is all of them- so it becomes important to remember those things that are here, and the potential for those that may arise. Holding all three in a gentle balance gives us the best shot at the behavior we would like to express. Choose just one and the result could be clinging to the past, complacency in the present or greed for the future. It’s ok that it’s not so easy. It took me thousands of breaths and hours of teachings to come to this one small insight, the strength of which varies by the moment. Have a smile, be generous to each other, cultivate good will; these things make the work a little more fun for us and the people around us.