June 2008 – Common Ground Magazine |
It’s an ancient Hindu saying that “the mother and father are the child’s first guru.” Children learn the most basic human skills from their parents: along with eating, walking and talking, children readily absorb spiritual lessons from Mom and Dad, including how to commune with nature, how to seek calm in the midst of chaos, and how to reach out to a higher power. Likewise, spiritual leaders guide adults on this path, and help tune our spiritual instruments so that we can play in harmony with the universe. In a sense, spiritual leaders are parents to our souls. So are the children born to spiritual leaders given a boost in their spiritual development? Did their early exposure to the enlightened practices of their parents influence them positively? I spoke with several kids of spiritual leaders from different traditions to hear their thoughts about their childhood experiences, and see what, if anything, they might recommend to parents looking to cultivate their child’s inner life.
Mallika Chopra, daughter of Deepak Chopra, mother of two, doesn’t like to think of her background as particularly spiritual. “Everyone assumes that I grew up in a very spiritual environment. But while my parents were on their journey, I really had a regular childhood.” She did, however, start meditating from the age of 9, and was given mantras to focus on while playing. “It was nothing structured, or dogmatic, though,” she says, “Meditation gave me a real sense of security and self identity… we would meditate as a family sometimes, and as I grew older it became something that I could do for myself, but they never made us meditate!” She prefers not to label her practice, but rather focuses on integrating service to others, sharing knowledge and stories and fostering her children’s growth as global citizens. “I don’t try to shield my kids from reality. They’ve been exposed to extreme poverty in Indian slums and I talk to them about how all children are similar—they laugh, they play, they cry. And even though we all have different circumstances, we should all be cherished.” She’s written books inspired by the process of parenting and now runs a website with her father covering health and wellness at intentblog.com.
As the son of don Miguel Ruiz, Jose Luis Ruiz was so inspired by his childhood spiritual experiences that he became his father’s apprentice and now teaches and writes with him about their Toltec shamanic tradition. “Growing up with my father has been a very magical experience,” he says. He credits don Miguel with awakening his sense of connection to nature, and allowing him to assume responsibility for his own choices at a young age. Kids of any cultural background are generally focused on the material world–they’re curious about objects, they’re mastering their physical bodies and as they grow, they try to acquire things that they see others have. Jose was no different. “My brother and I wanted to go to Disneyland. I wanted a Nintendo. So one year, our father took us to what he called ‘the real Disneyland’—the Madre Grande mountains, where he said everything that we saw was the inspiration to make the magical effects of Disney. We hiked up huge mountains while he told us stories about magic using the Disney characters as symbols to hook our awareness.” Having an understanding of both his connection to the natural world and to his native cultural tradition allowed Jose Luis to center himself in modern life. He thinks that taking a child away, even briefly, from the world of games, programs, messages and screens allows him to find himself. “Every parent and child that are together in nature will have a full communion with God, no matter what their belief is,” he says.The deeply connected bond he has with his father these days was re-built after the cyclone of his adolescence tore through their family. “I had my resistance to my father,” he says.
Adolescents can be exasperating even to those parents who cultivate detachment, practice meditation and don’t take their kids’ actions personally. Max Simon is glad he could call on his father when he finally woke up from his teen-age oblivion. He’s the son of David Simon M.D., best selling author and co-founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, and Julia Simon, a Transcendental Meditation teacher. “From about 14-20, I partied hard, made lots of stupid mistakes, and got into plenty of trouble,” he says. “When I was in college, I woke up one morning after a long night and said to myself: ‘I’m wasting away my potential and it’s time to make a shift.’ So I called up my dad and asked what to do. His simple response was: ‘meditate.’” It was a suggestion that his father had given him since he was 4 years old, and it was the right way to draw Max back to himself. Just two years later, Max was teaching yoga and meditation as the Chopra Center’s youngest instructor and these days he’s leading a national movement to turn 1 million people onto meditation as the “Chief Enlightenment Officer” of http://www.GetSelfCentered.com. He thinks that his parents’ acceptance of his different phases of life was key to his understanding of himself. “From the very beginning, neither of my parents ever enforced their spirituality on me and never told me I had to do or be anything,” he says. Wouldn’t that actually be a bit frustrating? Sometimes kids just want some simple answers from their authority figures. “There was a point when I got really sick of asking for help and always getting the response: ‘I’m sure the answer will come to you,’” he says.
Anya Kamenetz experienced a similar parenting approach that she says lead her to become more pious during her teenage years. Her father, the poet and English professor Rodger Kamenetz, had a personal meeting with the Dalai Lama as part of a delegation of rabbis that he chronicled in the best-selling book, The Jew in the Lotus (1996). Her father’s spiritual journey, which wove together threads from Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism, brought multiple influences into the family. “We had Tibetans staying with us, Tibetan mandalas and tankas in the house, I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead… but we were Jews,” she says. On a family vacation to Mexico during Passover when Jews are traditionally forbidden from eating any leavened bread and grains, Anya, at age 11, followed Jewish law to the letter. “Unlike my parents, on Passover I wouldn’t eat rice, beans or corn, so here we were in Mexico and I couldn’t eat anything,” she says. Her parents tolerated her observances, and followed her urging to light Sabbath candles regularly, but were very clear that she wasn’t going to be able to force them to change their spiritual practice. Today, as a prominent financial writer and advocate against student debt, Anya has reached an equilibrium with her childhood spiritual influences. “I’ll meditate and go to some chanting ceremonies,” she says, “but I also have a fulfilling Jewish observance.”
When she was little and acting up, Wah Guru Khar Kalsa was put in a meditation room for time out, or rather, time “in.” If she had a temper tantrum, her parents were instructed by their Sikh spiritual leader to douse her in a cold shower to shock her into awareness. Her first ten years were fueled by a macrobiotic diet of brown rice, fruit and veggies, foods which still make up most of her diet now, at age 24. Her parents, Gurmukh and Gurushabd Khalsa are renowned teachers of kundalini yoga at the Golden Bridge center in Los Angeles, which they founded together. Wah has been practicing yoga since before she could walk. “It’s really different when your parents have a spiritual teacher,” she says. “I was raised by them, but we had this person who was guiding them along their way to raise me. So it wasn’t your typical family unit.” Like many spiritually-minded parents, Wah’s folks weren’t about forcing her bliss. They wanted her to learn her own lessons, and become independent, so they didn’t impose a long list of rules on her. Nor were they over-involved—Wah attended boarding school in India for most of her childhood. “My mom was no soccer Mom,” she says. These days Wah works at Golden Bridge, teaching yoga to kids. So what advice does she have to parents who would like to see their kids grow to become flexible, intuitive meaning-makers? “It all starts with the pregnancy. You see moms who are stressed out and worried, they don’t take care of themselves and they never slow down. Their kids are going to come into the world with that frazzled energy. But if you are relaxed and meditate during your pregnancy, then the kids come out like little Buddha babies!”
And once you have a baby Buddha—how do you keep him happy in the shade of the banyan tree? Susan Heitler, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of multiple books on therapy and parenting, advocates getting young kids involved in rituals, even if you make them up. Mystical special moments lead children to want more mystical special moments. “In families that build spiritual routines into their routines, the children are often the most ardent about insisting that they not be skipped,” she says. Spiritual activities, however, do need to be pegged to the kids’ developmental levels. Long services will lose their attention because they can’t sit still for an hour at a stretch. By contrast, a brief shared prayer or mantra at bedtime, or before or after meals, is more likely to feel like a treasured routine. In general, kids do what their parents do, so if parents participate in spiritual activities, so will their kids.