“Everything in nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
During my upbringing in New Zealand, my parents raised my sister and I as Buddhists. My family traveled regularly to a monastery in the Hutt Valley, situated on the edge of the city at the base of an expansive forest. A structure of stone and wooden beams composed on top of each other, the temple was surrounded by raked gravel gardens and a canopy of ferns. On grey Sunday mornings when the small Sri Lankan community held alms givings for the monastics at the temple, my sister and I and the other Sri Lankan children played games in the courtyard while the monastics ate. Later in the day, we went to Sunday school where we meditated, memorised Pali stanzas and learned about the life of the Gautama Buddha.
However, when reflecting on the Buddhist nature of my childhood, memorised stanzas and meditation sessions do not immediately spring to mind. These things didn’t mean much to a kid who couldn’t think beyond nap-time. Instead, I think about a universal quality of youth: a heightened capacity to let things go. In primary school I cried whenever I lost a game of tag, and then happily agreed to play again a little while later. Friendships were torn apart in the schoolyard only to become mended the next school day. Quarrels between my sister and I were forgotten in the space of an afternoon riding our bikes down the hill our home sat on. Life began again every day.
The concept of existential crisis is unfathomable to a child, because their lives are too closely tethered to what’s happening around them. This is, in many ways, the aim of modern Buddhist mindful practices: to attain a state of presence, to become finely attuned to the present moment. While Buddhism seemed of little relevance to me as a child, it now occurs to me now that childhood is in some ways an inherently Buddhist experience: a time devoid of questions of identity and failure, of the past or the future.
I am currently going through university, and life no longer feels as simple for me. This is the case for almost everybody else I know. Just as our ability to learn new languages seems to fade over time, the mindfulness of childhood becomes harder to access as time goes on. Adulthood brings new responsibilities to bear, and the mental baggage accumulates. Each of us has private burdens to carry. But it is a terrible misconception that because we are no longer children, we can no longer embody a carefree spirit. Acts which are often impossibly difficult for adults — forgiveness (especially towards oneself), speaking from the heart, spontaneously being oneself— come as second nature to children. These are practices which guide us away from the clutter of a mind in conflict with itself, and towards the reality of the present moment. By moving through the world in this way, we can begin to see through the smoke of the institutions and societal pressures of a new world, and help those around us to do so too.