As a monk my preliminary training was to reflect on four things: precious human life, impermanence, cause and effect and suffering. We were given a month to sit with each of them, which gives you some impression of the kind of emphasis they were given! But these things are eternal truths. If we can understand them, not as concepts but in our direct experience, we will have transformed our perspective of life entirely. And never are they more relevant than during pregnancy.
In fact, if we look at pregnancy through the lens of those four principles – so that we appreciate the preciousness of human life; rest in the uncertainty of change; accept the consequences of our actions; and embrace the struggles we will face – these teachings will cover every eventuality. No exceptions.
The first foundation: precious human life
It is a miraculous, extraordinary, mind-bending experience to watch as a child enters the world. And then, in the weeks that follow, as the baby lies on the bed on his or her back – say for a nappy change or a doze with Mum or Dad – we realise that if we left them there, face up, staring at the ceiling, they wouldn’t be able to even roll on to their stomach without us, they wouldn’t be able to feed or drink for themselves. Maybe the preciousness of human life is never more evident than now. This foundation invites us to use such awareness to encompass all human life.
This foundation invites us to use such awareness to encompass all human life.
By seriously reflecting on the preciousness of everything – in not taking anything for granted – we bring an acute attention to life. We see its fabric, its detail, its uncertainty and our vulnerability within the whole picture. This is the essence of mindfulness.
The second foundation: impermanence
Everything changes. This is an indisputable fact. Yet so often we live our lives as though this simple, eternal truth weren’t true. In doing so we cause ourselves a huge amount of stress. When we accept impermanence, we see that nothing and no one ever stays the same. Pregnancy is probably one of the greatest expressions of impermanence because the mother’s body is constantly changing. Not one day of the entire nine months will be or feel the same. Like life itself the change is ongoing. Maybe your baby has just been born, is crying through the night, and you’re experiencing the the misery of a sleep-deprived purgatory. In understanding impermanence, you understand that this situation will not go on forever. Knowing this allows you to loosen your grip on both the bad and the good. This isn’t just a nice idea, it’s an incontrovertible truth.
The third foundation: cause and effect
Many of us appreciate the law of cause and effect conceptually but not experientially. The truth about cause and effect is that every action we take, and every thought we think, creates its own ripple effect. Furthermore, what we do and what we think can perpetuate any experience, good or bad. If, as a new mother, you are stressed out, each negative thought will fuel the stress and create a downward spiral. If you’re the partner and feel upset or irritated, each scream and shout will only exacerbate the tension. When we get caught up in the moment, we tend not to have the awareness to see the effect of an emotion on repeat. Certainly, when pregnant, it pays to slow down, pause and be mindful of how you react; it is mindful to ask yourself if you would say/act in such a way if the baby was not inside you, but in your arms.
The fourth foundation: suffering
It’s not a nice word and it’s probably not something we want to identify or associate with, but no matter what our circumstances are, we will all, at some point, experience suffering. This doesn’t mean we are doing anything wrong, that life is unfair or even that we need to change our circumstances – it’s simply the human condition. Stress, insecurity, anxiety and depression affect everyone regardless of who they are. This can sound depressing, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Anyone who tells you that the first few months of being a parent are easy is, in my opinion, sugar-coating the reality. Yes, the rewards are infinite and the sense of unconditional love is everlasting, but it is a difficult time, nonetheless. Assuming we are unable to change things in the moment, our resistance towards them only exacerbates the situation. We get worried about feeling anxious, frustrated about feeling angry, depressed about feeling sad and stressed about feeling stress!
The moment we open our minds and accept that we will face trials and tribulations, the tension actually slackens, like someone suddenly dropping the rope in a tug of war.