In this final installment of the series, I would like to address the Buddhist teaching on the last stage of early human conditioning, from the teenage years into the early twenties. What makes writing this article particularly poignant is that my own beloved son has just turned 20.
According to our Buddhist tradition, this stage represents the final aggregate of foundational conditioning. It is in this period that our ego self-identity becomes solidified. This stage usually peaks around 25, which is, coincidentally, the same time that the brain is fully developed. This identity is carried onward, usually unimpeded, until we come into contact with the various psychological eruptions that bring us into conflict with our inherent attachment and aversion complexes. These complexes are created when we encounter one or more of the Four Signs, as they are known in Buddhism. These signs were first demonstrated in the parable of the Buddha’s life, wherein he encounters four separate situations upon leaving his home to find his True Self and an answer to the existential meaning of suffering.
According to the legend, this journey is spurred by the anxiety that overcomes him when his wife, Yasodhara, gives birth to his son, Rahula. He then sees an elderly man, who forces him to deal with the fact that he is aging and no longer a young man. He next encounters a sick person followed by a funeral, both of which cause him to confront mortality. Finally he meets a wandering mendicant who seems to have left the world behind in the fashion of self-mortification. In the end, the Buddha discovers that he cannot run away from his life, but that he must embrace it and all the changes that it brings, using each stage as a way to become more fully alive. Each of us will eventually encounter the same experiences and each experience will bring a crisis. If we are awake, each crisis is an opportunity for us to grow spiritually. (For an in-depth understanding of the eruptions, please see my book, “Free Your Mind: the Four Directions of an Awakened Life.”)
The question for us as parents is how to either hinder or help our grown-up child deal with their crises. Unfortunately, many parents begin to experience a gap during these years that sometimes never fully closes. The following are three mindful steps we can take to ensure that rather than turn away from us during this stage, our children will turn toward us.
1. It is so important to find something to enjoy in common. All too often, our kids’ interests and our own begin to drift apart. I believe that it is the parent’s responsibility to refuse to let this happen. By finding some shared activity that transcends age, we can have a common ground that will allow a relationship with our child to deepen and mature. In my own situation, I early on developed the areas of literature, film, fine cigars and hot tubbing with my son. My wife and I still read a book together with my son and enjoy concerts and films. He and I play together in a hard rock band and at least once a week we enjoy a boutique smoke and hot soak under the stars. These shared experiences are the most precious in my life and I look forward to sharing them with him all of our lives.
2. From an early age we began instructing our son in the practices of mindfulness. We encouraged this by assisting him to solve problems himself and to allow him to help us with ours. By having a shared methodology for dealing with issues, we have a common language to utilize.
3. As I mentioned in an earlier article, our Buddhist tradition encourages involving our children in our practices but never coerces or forces these practices on them. By not making it mandatory, we have found that children in our communities are more naturally drawn into the practices as they mature.
The reality is that each of our children will encounter their own crises. There is nothing we can do to prevent this. However, we can be an ally in their lives. We can be the person that they come to throughout their adult years. And they can become the adult we turn to in ours. Please always remember that, in my opinion, life is a series of mistakes that always gives us the opportunity to awaken and begin anew.
Last summer my son, Evan, completed his bachelor degree in Theology (he began his college instruction at age 16). Last week, he was ordained in our tradition. He began his formal training at age 12, completed ministerial education, testing and created his own liturgical music. I think that one of the coolest things about all this was that I never once coerced him into training. The fact that he followed this path on his own is, for me, the greatest confirmation of our approach to spiritual development.