Cut off her head with a pencil

March 28th, 2009

A reader wrote the other day with a bit of earnest confusion that gave me a quick tickle. Earnestness tends to promote hilarity. She said she’d finished the book and pretty much liked it until part of the last chapter that she didn’t understand.

Frankly, I can never imagine how my writing perplexes. To me, I’m always blathering about the most literal, obvious, barenaked things. Perhaps I can’t imagine the confusion because I’m so lousy at imagining.

The reader wondered if by skipping over the evil parts of fairy tales when reading to my wee daughter, did I do that for Buddhist reasons?

This is a very good question, and one that few would be sincere enough to ask.

Did I do it to overcome dualism? So that I didn’t present the dichotomy of good versus bad? Did I likewise edit out so-called good parts? To teach nonjudgmental equanimity? Which is to say, even-mindedness?

This is a question that points to the very trouble with Buddhism.

I laughed the moment I saw it, because no philosophy, Buddhist or otherwise, has ever guided my parenting. Philosophies aren’t very effective at guiding anything. It’s like learning how to drive by studying the motor vehicle code.

So I want to take a minute to make it clear. Many people want to be better, to do good, to raise better children, to save the world, to promote peace, etc. etc. and they reach for a philosophy to do it. Buddhism seems like a pretty nice one. But then, all philosophies are pretty nice ones. They just don’t ever seem to change behavior very much. (See items 1-10.)

What I apply in parenting is not an ideology or worldview, it is not Buddhism or any -ism. It is the magnificent, miraculous, intelligent, intuitive product of Buddhist practice. What I apply, on those lucky days I can find it, is attention.

Attention is what works when I crack open a Disney Read-Aloud Princess Storybook and see that the evil stepmother is about to dispatch an axeman to lop off Snow White’s head. Attention alerts me that it is an inappropriate and unwelcome image to insert into my baby’s silky haired noggin, especially at bedtime. So I skip it, and when my girl points to the picture of the hatchet and asks what it is, I say, “a pencil.”

Until you practice, you might have a hard time believing that attention alone can spontaneously direct and correct behavior without the substructure of a philosophy. A set of prescribed rights and wrongs. Or in the Buddhist sense, a set of prescribed non-right rights and non-wrong wrongs.

People are fond of saying about their chosen ethics or morality, “How else will we know right from wrong?” And I ask this: beneath your skin, in your bones, within your heart, have you ever not known right from wrong? Just attend to that knowing.

Attention alone is what assuages anger, abates greed, and promotes kindness. Attention alone is even-minded. Attention is love, and love always knows what to do.

I’m so glad you wrote and brought it to my attention.


  1. this is really beautiful and wise. I’m going to take this one and run.

    Comment by andrea scher — March 29, 2009 @ 3:37 am

  2. Love…always love…xx

    Comment by pERiWinKle — March 29, 2009 @ 9:37 am

  3. I’m learning. thank you.

    Comment by curious girl (lisa) — March 29, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  4. I have so much to learn. Thank you. This is what I needed today. Just what I needed.

    Comment by Carmen — March 29, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

  5. “Attention is love, and love always knows what to do.”


    Comment by Kristin H. — March 29, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  6. Beautiful and well said. It’s not the philosophies, it’s trusting the things we just know inside. It is. We know everything we need to know. (Good gravy, I love this blog.)

    Comment by Mrs. B. Roth — March 29, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

  7. i always find your posts so timely…
    but just now realized it’s because your wisdom is timeless.
    thank you. as always, i am grateful for you.xo

    Comment by Kirsten Michelle — March 29, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

  8. Thank you! I get trapped in philosophy all the time, this is just exactly what I needed to read today.

    Comment by mommymystic — March 29, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

  9. i so agree…it’s all about the practice…to practice attention…to practice seeing.

    Comment by Rebecca — March 29, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

  10. “..a pencil.” [laugh] I like that.
    Hope it doesn’t get you in trouble in the future though when she’s chopping up her homework with her ‘pencil’. [big smile]

    Great post. Brought a smile to my face while getting through this thick skull the idea of ‘attention’.

    Comment by Teacher Jim — March 30, 2009 @ 12:48 am

  11. I just had an epiphany with this post. Holy!

    I practice too much attention. I’m constantly paying attention; reading between the lines; focusing on the this and the that. Like, you know, how they like to bang their forks on my pretty wooden table at every meal. Or, how they shake the food off their hands instead of just grabbing the napkin.

    Meditation does help. Brain dumping lists help. And, yes, I’m with you.

    But, I have to wonder, though, can paying attention ever be too much of a good thing?

    Comment by Shawn — March 30, 2009 @ 1:03 am

  12. It’s so true– when did we ever NOT know right from wrong?–but so challenging sometimes to go against the inner and outer expectations that contradict our wisdom. We should be nice. We should do what others suggest we do, even if we know better. Far be it from us to offend!

    For me, probably the most powerful lesson of becoming a mother is that there is no longer room for fudging right and wrong. In the old days, I would allow my resolve to be eroded away by nothing more than social expectations. But with the responsibility for a tiny developing life, there’s no longer that wiggle room. I will defend my son’s well-being where I would not defend my own.

    And then I stop and think: why would I not stand up for my self as ardently as I stand up for him?

    Comment by Shugetsu — March 30, 2009 @ 3:04 am

  13. Ah, Karen, the last three paragraphs are gold. And more gold in the comments, provided by your readers! What treasure.

    Comment by Judy Merrill-Smith — March 30, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  14. So true…delicious, really. Thanks.

    Comment by michelle — March 31, 2009 @ 4:05 am

  15. The results of my practice, when I practice, are all that I know that really makes a difference. Thanks for the precision with which you articulate this. You rock!

    Comment by Marianne — March 31, 2009 @ 9:19 am

  16. “…..Attention alone is what assuages anger, abates greed, and promotes kindness. Attention alone is even-minded. Attention is love, and love always knows what to do.”

    And this is why I pay attention to you.

    Comment by Cat — March 31, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

  17. I’ve been absent for a bit, but as usual whenever I finally make it back your post always resonates. I appreciate how you’ve once again articulated something that helps so much as a parent. Especially the part about those “lucky days when you find” the attention!

    And my boy will be 3 tomorrow! Keep him in your thoughts!

    Anonymous in Mpls

    Comment by Anonymous — April 1, 2009 @ 3:22 am

  18. Oh, I like this. We are asked why we don’t join a church. After all, buddhism isn’t exactly a whole family sunday school meet friends potluck kind of community dealie (at least around here). So some people think maybe we should just find a church and join it – you know, for the KIDS. How will they know right from wrong? What VALUE SYSTEM will they have? Your answer is exactly it for me. I know that isn’t exactly where you were going with that, but that is where it took me, and I needed that! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Comment by denise — April 2, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

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