Loving Sophia by Robert Beatty, November 2003

Even as a mother protects with her life her child her only child
So with a loving heart should one cherish all living beings
— Buddha: Lovingkindness Suttra

Nancy and I recently babysat Sophia, the four-month old daughter of dear friends. I performed their wedding five years ago and this was a chance for them to go out to celebrate their anniversary.

We were left with a warm bottle of formula and a baby that appeared to be tired and ready to sleep. Nancy sat with her in the classic mother-infant feeding position and Sophia welcomed the bottle. She drank a few mouthfuls and then gazed deeply into Nancy’s eyes. They melted and became the quintessential model of love. It was like a greeting circle on retreat, where we meet the Beloved in each other, but simplified to one meeting one. Sophia could relax totally, being loved without doing anything to “deserve” it.

The anticipated dropping off into sleep didn’t happen, however. Sophia lost interest in eating and was startled by a ring from Nancy’s cell phone that I was setting up. She began to cry. The crying intensified, despite Nancy walking and cradling her against her chest. The change was dramatic. I wondered if she needed to burp and offered to carry her for a while. I prepared my shoulder and shirt with a diaper. The burp came and went with no abatement of the wailing. The crying grew stronger and I ruled out wet diapers. She swung tiny fists, arched her back, twisted and kicked. Her little head became damp with sweat. I took her out of her sleeping gear and continued to walk her. There was nothing to do but be with her and help her to endure and contain this storm that was passing through. I thought there might be a gas eruption and a dirty diaper and then relief, but that never happened.

I took her into the dark bedroom and walked back and forth. Walking meditation at its finest. I remembered walking in the night twenty-one years ago with my son, Luke, crying in my arms. No meditation retreat had ever required so much of me. Never had I been called upon to attend to the needs of another so profoundly. Never had I sacrificed sleep and endured overwhelming fatigue on an ongoing basis. Never before had I maintained equanimity in the face of such intense negative emotions coming from another being. I realized that I was on a retreat with a teacher who had no concern for my attachments to comfort, rest and ease.

I began to chant quietly to Sophia. Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram Om. Back and forth I walked, with a calm rhythm and soothing tone, until finally there was a break in the crying. As she relaxed I felt her sudden deep gasps and shudders as her infant body released the stress of the storm. I sat down in the overstuffed chair and lay with her on my chest, experiencing wonderful lovingkindness and ease. She breathed and shuddered and breathed and became more and more still. After quite a while I thought she was sound asleep enough to place her in her crib without risking her waking. As I zipped up her sleeping outfit she startled and once again began wailing. Back to walking and chanting. This time the emotional storm was short lived. Once back in the overstuffed chair, I decided to remain in the sea of infant lovingkindness till she was really deeply asleep. I rode the in-breath and out-breath and basked in the sweetness of her quiet breathing and warmth against my chest. When she was really quiet I ever so gently put her to bed and tip-toed out of the room.

 Our own minds are not so different from Sophia’s. Sometimes the inner weather is calm, open and delightful. There is ease, tranquility and concentration. It is effortless to be loving, gentle and accepting of these sweet pleasant states. In other seasons of the heart we experience emotional storms of sadness, anger, hopelessness, greed, restlessness, doubt and fear. These conditions challenge our capacity to be patient and merciful. Our task is to accept our own shrieks of joy and screams of pain as gently as cradling a baby in our arms.

Sophia’s parents returned to a quiet house with Nancy and me dozing on the couch.