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Breathing into What Is

By Sunny Lie

photo by John Mark Owens

It was 2 a.m., and I was reeling from anger. 

Earlier that evening, my husband, our baby, and I had to swiftly exit a socially distanced family gathering. An hour into our arrival, my husband became too inebriated to walk. My in-laws watched as I hastily packed the baby stroller into our car. I lifted our three-month-old daughter from my sister-in-law’s arms. I secured her into her car seat, said a fleeting goodbye to everyone, and drove off. Our car reeked of vomit the whole drive back—and it wasn’t the baby’s. 

I had to somehow get back to sleep. My daughter needed me to be energized and alert the next day. I started following my breath. In, out. Deep, slow. Calm, ease. Smile, release. It was then I heard Thay’s gentle voice reminding me that I should smile to everything, including my suffering. Nothing is more important than my peace and my joy. I needed to free myself from the anger and resentment I felt towards my husband. Whatever needed to be solved could and would be solved when daylight came. The last thing I remembered feeling before I fell back to sleep was gratitude for our practice. 

This year of the pandemic is also the year I became a mother to a beautiful baby girl. At forty-two years old, the identity shift 

I experienced from being a childless professional to a full-time mom was seismic. Using the Plum Village phone app, I continued practicing during the first tough months of sleep deprivation. I meditated every morning. I dozed off to deep relaxation most afternoons. I felt buoyed by our tradition and our practice. That being said, it wasn’t until that fateful night that I felt like Thay addressed my suffering directly. 

Inspired by the communication, I sat on the cushion to look deeper into what had happened that night and my emotions surrounding it. If love and understanding are the same thing, I needed to understand both our sufferings in order to heal. On the cushion, I gained a better understanding of the stress my husband was under at the time: having to deal with the general public on a daily basis as manager of a local café during a pandemic. Knowing my struggle in adjusting to becoming a parent, he hid his stress and anxiety from me, until he couldn’t anymore. It culminated in the incident on that fateful night when he sought refuge in alcohol at the family gathering. 

I also directed the light of mindfulness and compassion towards myself. My suffering that night involved a bruising of my pride. I felt embarrassed by my husband’s actions because it shattered the illusion that we were a perfect family. We weren’t brilliant, older parents who were naturals in caring for our infant daughter, after all. Letting go of that notion helped me forgive myself and manage my expectations as we moved forward. 

A few months have passed since the incident. We are in a much better place now. Our daughter is older. We have also grown more confident as parents. The main lesson we learned is that we have to get better at communicating our needs with one another. There are three individuals in our family, and although the baby is our priority at the moment, we still need to make time to replenish ourselves. For me, that includes a daily sitting practice and joining a local Sangha for their weekly Zoom practice. My husband gets his “me time” by occasionally meeting up and hanging out with his best friend. In dealing with reality as it is, we learned to set aside our misconceptions about parenting and rely on one another for physical, emotional, and mental support. 

Every now and then, I catch myself fantasizing about visiting Deer Park Monastery with my daughter. In my mind’s eye, she is six years old. We go for Vesak celebration. We wait in line to bathe the baby Buddha. We savor a delicious vegan lunch. We play by the koi pond, bowing and smiling as monastics pass us by. 

Breathing in, breathing out. I return to the present moment. I inhale her delicious baby scent. I feel the softness of her skin against mine. I kiss her chubby cheeks. I relish the miracle of life in my arms. 

Sunny Lie, Refreshing Source of the Heart, is a Professor of Communication. She lives in Southern California, US, with her husband and daughter.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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