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Being Present with Revulsion: A Bath-time Story . . .

Adelaide sleeping at two months

Years ago on Bali’s remote northern shore, surrounded by frogs filling the air with a deafening cacophony of song, I was introduced to the six dakini teachings of the renowned Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön (1055–1149), who is also believed to be the reincarnation of the great Mother of Wisdom, Yeshe Tsogyal. (Yeshe Tsogyal was one of the consorts of Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century). The six teachings, or pieces of advice, have been a source of inspiration to me over the years, but it wasn’t until yesterday morning that I was able to really apply them to motherhood. The first of the six, which were given to Machig Labdrön by the Indian siddha Padampa Sangye (d. 1117), is “Approach what you find repulsive.” For years, I thought I was brave in deliberately going toward repulsive things and experiences. I had eaten a plate of bumblebees, freshly fried, when offered up in an aboriginal village in rural Taiwan. I had sat in sidewalk cafes in Indonesia where raw sewage flowed just below my feet, smiling and pretending to enjoy my mango lassi. I had sought experiences to prove to myself that I was going toward things my mind defined as repulsive. But I’ve now realized there is a very big difference between choosing to go toward what I find repulsive and coming face-to-face with inner revulsion and being unable to escape. If the smell of the sewage had become too much, I could always have got up and walked away. But facing deep revulsion without an escape route is an entirely different situation altogether.

There are days when sitting down at my desk for a few minutes to write seems impossible. On such days, having a shower and brushing my teeth become a major accomplishment. Yesterday was just such a day! Adelaide’s teeth have been starting to come in and she was unable to settle enough for her morning nap, which is when I usually have a few minutes to myself for a shower. My backup shower plan is to put her in the bathtub while I shower. Usually, if she is unsettled, a little water-play restores her usual perky cheerfulness. But yesterday as I was showering, Adi stopped playing and gave me one of her serious looks. Seconds later, a few bubbles rose up through the water. In my naivety I thought to myself, “Oh, a little gas, maybe this is why she’s been so unsettled,” and I continued with my shower. Then, there it was, the obvious! She had done an enormous poo in the tub and was grabbing hold of the greenish mess with both hands, eager to offer it up in the spirit of the second teaching of the six pieces of advice: “Anything you are attached to—give that!”

Many friends have laughed about their “poo stories,” saying that by the time your child is in kindergarten, you will surely have some great ones! But as I hurried out of the shower, shampoo suds running into my eyes, dripping wet, cold, and naked, I was far from laughing or thinking how funny the whole situation was. In fact, I wanted to cry. Taking heed of the third piece of advice, “Reveal your hidden faults,” I have to confess to loving my showers, and particularly hot ones, the longer and more drawn out the better. I don’t really feel I can go out and face the world unless I’ve had a morning shower. Even as a nun in Burma, I showered every morning, albeit from a bucket of water in a plastic washing tub, but it felt like a shower and it made my days more bearable.

Now, there she was, my beautiful baby girl, sitting in a tepid bath of her own poo, and I wanted to cry and run and have a few minutes to myself to finish my shower—MY shower! As I bent down and started to drain the mess, I thought: What if all this poo blocks up the pipes? What if it gets in her eyes? What if she ate some when I wasn’t looking? What if it makes her sick? What if, what if, what if . . . And then my mind flashed on the inevitable: I had to touch her and the poo and get the mess cleaned up. She looked up at me with eyes of wonder and complete innocence as I struggled to embrace the fourth and fifth pieces of advice, “Help those you think you cannot help” and “Go to places that scare you,” and realized there was no way out, no escape plan. But I did have a choice: either I could let my mind spin out with all kinds of thoughts about the grossness of it all, or I could choose to stay present, to let go of the idea of having my own peaceful shower and instead, be a mother and lovingly wash the smelly mess from Adelaide and the bathroom.

The last, and most direct, piece of advice is, “If you do not cling to your mind, you will find a fresh state of being.” Well, after cleaning up Adelaide’s poopy bath I didn’t feel very fresh, and I spent the day trying to forget the image of Adi’s beautiful little hands eagerly grasping and offering up her poo with a smile of neither delight nor repulsion—just a simple smile—on her bright face. I had been clinging to one of my biggest vices, a hot shower, and here again was an opportunity to return from attachment and self-clinging to discover a fresh opportunity to be present. And what more could I ask for as someone aspiring to follow in the footsteps of the great yoginis of the past? They lived in the charnel grounds of their times, and who’s to say that a bathtub full of poo isn’t a charnel ground of sorts in this day and age? I might no longer be off searching for situations that will evoke a sense of revulsion, but I am confident that my day-to-day domestic situation will itself offer many opportunities to apply the six pieces of advice.

Adelaide in the tub
Adelaide’s diapers on the clothes line

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