Bringing Buddha's Beginner's Mind to Parenting

11/22/2016 06:13 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2017

One evening some years ago I was driving home from a breastfeeding support group with my 3-month-old daughter. A long line of vehicles was stopped at a railroad crossing in front of me. The guardrails were down, the red lights flashing. We waited and waited, but no train came. Soon, a few cars tentatively drove around the guardrails; eventually, a steady stream was following their lead. I figured what I'm certain they all were thinking, that the signals must be broken.

When I reached the front of the line, I didn't hesitate to begin my own meandering around the rails. But the moment I was dead center on the track, a flash of white light emerged from the darkness: A train was hurtling straight at my baby and me! I slammed on the gas pedal and cleared the track in what seemed like seconds before the steel torpedoed by.

I don't remember pulling off the road or unbuckling her car seat, but the next thing I knew I was in a parking lot, clutching my sleeping infant. I touched her feathery skin, smelled her fruity breath, watched her closed eyes delicately flutter. I embraced her with the unadulterated appreciation I'd had the day she was born, a sensation that until that moment had already diminished--even though she was only 3 months old.

In the years since then, I admit that I haven't always remembered to treat my children as reverently as if this were our first and most precious moment together. But it's a goal I strive for to this day.

I aim for what the Buddhists call "beginner's mind": One filled with heightened observation, rather than the jaded dullness that comes when repeating the same task. A beginner's mind is the approach you had when you changed your baby's diaper those first few times, when you cleaned each fold with reverence. Contrast that with the days and months that followed, when your hands moved with the precision of a mechanical factory arm, her bottom merely a part that needed fixing before you went on your way.

It's easy for most parents to bring that beginner's mind to our "firsts" with our child--her first solid food, steps, trip to Disney World, discovery of a lizard flitting around the lawn. The challenge is to keep your sense of wonder once those firsts morph into sixths and tenths and fourteen-hundreds. This issue is even more pronounced when we have our second or third (or beyond) child, when it's so easy to feel that we have been there and done that before.

The next time your child comes into the room, stop what you're doing and look at him. Really look. Notice the slight lisp when he speaks, those sparkling eyes that are just like your father's, even his tendency to take an inordinate amount of time to get to the point of his story. Cherish these traits, especially the ones that previously irritated you. They are what make your child all that he is.

Treating each day as if it were your family's first also means paying attention to the world around all of you. You needn't be 7 years old to lie on the grass and thrill to the clouds taking shape, or to notice a spider spinning an intricate web on your kitchen window. There's an amazing world around us, but most of the time we adults are oblivious. My family used to take occasional "listening walks," where we went someplace--a park, our backyard, even a noisy shopping mall--and walked together in silence. You can also do a "touching walk," where you luxuriate in textures (including your child's hair, her velvet coat, satin party shoes), or a "watching walk," taking turns to point out what we are generally too distracted to see.

Exercises like these can help in the quest to bring a mindset of wonder and awe to many moments. But it is a task so difficult even Buddhists who have been practicing for decades struggle, so don't judge yourself harshly if you regularly fall short. If each day is your family's first, you constantly have a new opportunity to succeed.

Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the new book Enlightened Parenting: A Mom Reflects on Living Spiritually With Kids, from which this was excerpted.