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The Zen Buddhist ideal is to have a direct experience with reality at all times, unmediated by dualistic thinking. So for example, if you are taking a nice cold shower, you simply and directly experience the sensation of the water on your skin, rather than indulging in creating a conceptual barrier between yourself and the moment, with unnecessary thoughts like, “Why the f–k am I taking a cold shower in a monastery in Japan when I could be living with my parents in Westchester?”
Having a baby is a lot like that. It cuts through all our conceptual game-playing. In modern life, there’s so much addiction to unnecessary layers: our reality is virtual. Our conversations are meta. Art is gesture. Nothing is simply what it is.
But when you are up to your wrists in a messy diaper change, trying to wipe poo off the lad’s apricot when without warning he pees on you and himself, in a glorious arc that splashes into his own eyes, there is no discursive thought to escape into. Memo to Alanis Morisette: It’s not ironic. There are no air quotes. You are simply there, drenched in someone else’s pee. This is true satori.
Today the truth of the dharma was announced by the sound of the baby squealing for food. Nothing extra. Nothing less. No 3D motion graphics. No auto-tune. Just life itself unfolding with vivid precision.
And amid that patternless chaos, if you don’t think about it, perfection.
The other Zen aspect of getting to know your newborn is the wordlessness of the relationship. I mean, you talk, but it’s not really 2-way conversation so most of the time you just make nonsensical baby sounds.
For the first time in my life, I am learning to love someone I can’t seduce with words (unless you count that German exchange student in high school). It’s a strange truth that sometimes you can learn a lot from a teacher who cannot speak.
Normally, when we tell someone “I love you,” what we really mean is, “I want to control you.” Or something even more preposterous and delusional: “I love you as long as you remain the person I think you are.” Usually we really mean: “I love you as long as you love me back in a certain way, and make me feel good about myself.” Or “I’d like to see what you look like naked.”
It’s a strange truth that sometimes you can learn a lot from a teacher who cannot speak.
In contrast, the ideal of pure love means imply wishing another person to be happy — no strings attached. But in our minds, there is always some mix of the self-inflicted wound of attachment, that sticky, grasping mind.
With the birth of a child, something else happens. Of course, there is still a lot of attachment. But you don’t really expect much back from a newborn (unless you are insane). True, it can still be an ego trip, since the child is your creation and you may feel a little God-like since you have now created human life, and he is totally dependent on you.
But in another way, he is also a total stranger who shits in his pants and cries a lot.
And yet, regardless of your role in coming up with this little creature, you don’t feel much like an all-powerful being. No, you feel more like a helpless and overwhelmed mess of human flesh tenuously stuck to a skeleton, a fragile arrangement that might otherwise fall to pieces, were you not suffused with the extraordinary energy of boundless affection.
This is how the baby teaches you what love really means. For the first time in life, you aren’t asking for the other person to give anything back. Just being whoever this strange, sweet-smelling little bundle is, just laying there sprawled across your chest, is way more than enough. And should he inadvertently put his warm little hand on your collar bone, as if he was hugging you, you can barely help yourself from crying with joy.
Every morning, when I see Lev for the first time, I fall in love again, a little deeper. My heart cracks open, gently, quickly, again. It’s like skydiving. The momentum of love just keeps increasing.
Some couples become jealous of the newborn baby, but Lev has brought Michelle closer to each other because he is teaching us both to love in a far more pure way than either of us had known before. We’re like 2 classmates studying and learning the most rewarding subject on earth from a tiny little professor in diapers. We study together. We compare notes. We stay up all night cramming for the test that never ends.
The curriculum is intense and most of the books are useless. We are learning to be empathic and intuitive and to speak the language of baby cries, to understand what “waaah!” means as opposed to “meep!” and the various other shouts and squawks and grunts he makes, how to stop him from peeing while his diaper is being changed, and most importantly, how to love more deeply and patiently than Jesus on ecstasy. Both of our chests are being cracked open in slow motion. It’s dizzying and terrifying and awesomely delicious and a great experience to share with someone you trust.
In general, when I look into Lev’s eyes, either he is calm and stoned from breastfeeding, or wide-eyed and startled, his mouth wide open with an expression that says, “Why is nobody else here alarmed about this situation?” Either way, I can’t help but laugh. I just want him to know he is safe and loved, that I would move heaven and earth to make sure he is okay.
This continual, infinitely-increasing falling in love vertigo happens not only in the morning, but also when he wakes up from a nap, or I do. Or when I come home from running an errand. We may have been apart for less than an hour but all over again there’s that rush of slow motion elation, the quiet sense of joy beyond expectation coursing through my being. It’s both calm and totally exciting.
Someone should have invented a drug that feels this good by now. We’d all be addicts.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a multi-platinum selling songwriter and the author of 2 books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Interview Magazine, where he served as music editor for many years.