Wild and Precious: Breastfeeding As Formal Meditation Practice
Resting against the wall, breastfeeding my tiny son in the quietest stretch of night, I watch from the fourth floor as the silver line of the J-train glides along its raised track and over the East River. A blizzard that encased New York in silence hit a few days ago, leaving city buses stranded in the snow on Manhattan’s busy avenues. Square shovelpaths above the height of my waist have been cut into the deep snow so the sidewalks look like magical labyrinths. The scrape of a shovel on pavement resounds from far away. Inside the room, candles flicker on a low table. The baby, Simon, who is supported by the curve of my arm, has his eyes closed and is sucking patiently, perhaps asleep.
About halfway through pregnancy my mother asked if I planned to breastfeed. “Yeah, I guess,” I shrugged, “If I can, I will, if not, I’m not going to worry about it.” Coping with volatility at home, the question of whether or not to breastfeed seemed like the least of my problems. I hadn’t thought much about how I would give birth either, for the same reason.
Despite little preparation until two weeks before, labor went quickly and smoothly. My as-yet-unnamed son rested easily in the palm of his father’s hand, blinking his dark eyes slowly, like a miniature tortoise. The midwife passed him to me, telling me to try to feed him. I contorted my shoulders and twisted my spine into an awkward shape, holding the baby stiffly. She put her hands on her thick hips and shook her head. “No, not like that. You have to relax. Like this.” She adjusted me, but I still felt uncomfortable and ill at ease.
We left the birthing center just eight hours after Simon was born. At home, we took turns holding him tenderly. I did my best to feed him, but struggled to get him to latch properly, and worried that he wasn’t getting enough to eat. In the first few days, he lost weight. As I understand, newborns have “extra fluid” that they lose right away, and it takes a week or two to regain their birth weight. Still, I felt concerned. In a way, it’s like mothers are set up to worry right from the beginning.
My friend Dina, an RN, came to visit. She taught me “the football hold,” placing the baby with his belly on my forearm, and re-structuring the armature of pillows around me to better support Simon’s six-pound body. Soon after, he started to gain weight.
At night, I tucked pillows around myself so I wouldn’t risk rolling over, and placed Simon on my chest. We slept like that, chest to chest, for six months or more, his tiny body rising and falling with my breath, his arm draped down the side of me, his fist too small to even reach the mattress below.
For our first months together, days and nights became indistinguishable as time lost its workday edges, flowing along in response to Simon’s needs. Many times, the sky lit with sunset before I felt I’d officially settled into the day, and before long, another sunrise would light the room, and another purple sunset.
Less than two months before Simon was born, I lost my job as a freelance textile designer. Fortunately though, I qualified for unemployment and managed to stay with Simon nearly full time for the first two years of his life.
At first, Simon seemed to eat all the time, sometimes for hours at once. In the beginning, I might talk on the phone, craft a task list, or even watch an occasional movie while Simon breastfed. As the weeks progressed, and the gestures of breastfeeding felt more and more natural, I started to really love it. I loved watching and holding Simon, his tiny hands, his curious eyes, his dark, expressive eyebrows, his patient breath.
I learned an important lesson from Simon’s father, Eulas. From the start, I was determined to seem competent and together as a mother, believing that I needed to make it look easy. On a course to fuss from day one, I attended over-carefully to the mundane details of Simon’s experience. Once when he was just a few days old, I watched Eulas hold him, supporting his body and gazing into his eyes, completely still. He was fully present for our tiny son, who was still adjusting to breathing air and to loud sounds and wind and clothing. “Wow. I want that,” I thought. The hell with spending my energy worrying about red tape, and in the process missing opportunities to connect with the miracle of this brand new human being. I decided then to re-set the maternal pattern of worrying and fussing that had quickly emerged, that had seemed almost inevitable, and to emphasize being fully present instead.
I recalled a teaching I’d encountered at Insight Meditation Society, where I’d done a silent retreat a few years previous. It was just a short passage set in a modest biography about Dipa Ma, a saint within the Vipassana tradition. Dipa Ma was a householder who did not seek meditation training until her mid-forties, then managed to attain full enlightenment in a remarkably short time. After her realization, she guided many along the path to enlightenment. One of her first students was a woman named Malati Barua, a widow who was raising six children on her own. According to the biographer,
“Dipa Ma, believing that enlightenment was possible in any environment, devised practices that her new student could carry out at home. In one such practice, she taught Malati to steadfastly notice the sucking sensation of the infant at her breast, with complete presence of mind, for the duration of each nursing period” (Schmidt, 38-39).
Going back to this text, I decided to read it as practice instructions, and apply it to my own experience. From then on, whenever Simon was breastfeeding, I considered it practice time. I did not watch TV, text, read, shop online, or talk on the phone. Instead, I brought my attention to the rhythmic sensation of Simon sucking at my breast. When my mind wandered, I brought it back again to this sensation, taking it as the primary object of meditation.
Using breastfeeding as a formal meditation practice might be seen as the opposite of “brexting.” A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior showed that there were distractions in half of infant feedings, and that about 60% of those distractions were due to smart phones and other technology–possibly linked to problems with eating habits later in life.
The patch of woods ringing my parents’ yard is layered densities of green, dark leaves and their pale undersides. Simon, four months old and having just breastfed at length, is sleeping on my lap; and I continue to practice, now bringing my attention to the feeling of holding him, my own breath, and the dynamic forces around me: wind, moving clouds, rustling trees, bird activity, crawling insects. A hummingbird hovers just a few feet away, interested in some colorful partylights on the deck that it seems to think might be flowers.
Mindfulness meditation is often focused on the breath, but a practitioner can choose any object to focus on. In the beginning, the instruction is to notice if your attention wanders and gently bring it back to the thing you decided to focus on–in this case the physical sensation of breastfeeding. The more we come back to our focus, the more we build up our capacity to be mindful. Being more mindful allows us to be less anxious, more focused, more loving, and fundamentally happier, even as life continues to present its ups and downs.
Before giving birth, I feared that it might be hard to continue my well-established meditation practice once the baby came. Instead, because of using breastfeeding as a formal meditation practice, I felt like I was on retreat for the first months of Simon’s life. Blissful sensations arose frequently despite the painful challenges that I continued to face in my relationship with Eulas, which ended after eight tumultuous years around my first Mother’s Day.
In late Fall, when Simon is ten months old, we visit my cousin and her wife in Vermont. They’ve renovated an old farmhouse; and it sits on a wooded, sloping acre, complete with an apple orchard. They head for work, leaving us to explore on our own. After walking patiently around the property with attention to all of our senses, we settle onto a big, woven-rope hammock so Simon can breastfeed and slide off into a nap. I hang my foot over the side of the hammock, rustling some dry leaves and rocking us by pushing against the ground. Simon snuggles close to my body, falling into a trance of contentment. I practice, holding him and continuing to rock back and forth in the hammock, intentionally noticing the physical sensations of breastfeeding. The trees are majestic, soaring high overhead. Clouds rush behind them. A horizontal leaf drifts all the way down from the high branches, zigzagging patiently to the ground.
That I was not working for the first two years of Simon’s life made it easier to use breastfeeding as a formal meditation practice, but Dipa Ma specially designed this practice for mothers who are pressed for time, and I believe it is a viable option for maintaining (or even deepening) a meditation practice during the first stretch of motherhood.
We think we are so busy, but the truth is that sometimes we make ourselves busier than we need to be because it makes us feel important. The more we tell ourselves we are busy, the more we amp ourselves up and lose touch with what is actually important. Conversely, the more present we are, the better we are able to be strategic about mundane necessities, to express love, and to delight in the tiny, patient experience of welcoming a new human to the world.
In the words of the poet Mary Oliver,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
This essay is dedicated to Lauren LeBlanc, in gratitude for her encouragement, literary skill and insight, and also for her dedication to excellence in mothering. It is also dedicated to my own mother, Betsy LeBorious, one of my two first and best teachers.
(First published Muthamagazine.com, July 19, 2018)