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Mommysattva: Meditation and Motherhood with Jenna Hollenstein

Mommysattva author Jenna Hollenstein

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Mother, author and meditation teacher Jenna Hollenstein joins us to challenge the stereotype of Buddhist practice as solitary and silent, offering instead an engaged, active form of mindfulness and compassion that mothers can practice in everyday life as a Mommysattva: a warrior of compassion, wisdom, and lovingkindness.

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[00:00:00] Scott Snibbe: One of the most demanding jobs in the world is being a mother. And a question many of the mothers that I know ask, who are also interested in meditation and Buddhism, is how to integrate the distractions and demands of motherhood with the calm and focus that meditation requires. 

Author and mother Jenna Hollenstein addresses this question head-on in her new book Mommysattva: Contemplations for Mothers Who Meditate (or Wish They Could). The book’s title is a clever mash-up of the Buddhist term Bodhisattva, a being who dedicates her life to benefiting others. Jenna sat down with our producer Tara Anderson to challenge the stereotype of Buddhist practice as solitary and silent, offer instead an engaged, active form of mindfulness and compassion that mothers can practice in everyday life as a Mommysattva: a warrior of compassion, wisdom, and lovingkindness.

Mommysattva: Contemplations for Mothers Who Meditate (Or Wish They Could) book by Jenna Hollenstein

Jenna Hollenstein’s Background

[00:01:27] Tara Anderson: Jenna Hollenstein, welcome to A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Thanks for being here. 

[00:01:32] Jenna Hollenstein: Thank you. I love that title.

[00:01:34] Tara Anderson: Thank you, me too. It’s important to ask questions. 

[00:01:39] Jenna Hollenstein: Take nothing for granted.

[00:01:40] Tara Anderson: So we are going to talk about your new book today called Mommysattva. I love the name. Can we start with just a little bit on your background as a meditator and a teacher? 

[00:01:53] Jenna Hollenstein: Sure. I started meditating about a year into recovery. I quit drinking at age 33. People would say I had a high bottom. The way I thought about it was, If I keep going like this, I might not be able to stop on my own. I had the sneaking suspicion that I was missing out on my real life through the ways in which I was using alcohol.

And when I started meditating, Susan Piver gave me my first instruction and then became my teacher, that hunch was confirmed. I just had my 14th anniversary of quitting. So, you do the math. That tells you how old I am.

I’ve been meditating for about 13 years and I became a teacher, again through the support of Susan, right around the time I became a mom. Because we started teaching a course called The Meditation Instructor Training Course, which is just like how to teach people who work with individuals and groups, how to teach shamatha-vipassana

The Mommy Sangha

And then I also started leading the Mommy Sangha, which is this little group of moms. It’s a little group who meet live, but there’s a larger group who just watch the recording because, you know, nobody’s all available at the same time. 

[00:03:13] Tara Anderson: That’s the challenge of leading a mom group.

[00:03:15] Jenna Hollenstein: Totally. Because for some people it’s the morning and they’re doing it with coffee. While for some, it’s like the worst time possible, and it’s probably pick up from daycare or whatever or coincides with nap for a while. But then not after that.

It’s a group of us that get together every Wednesday for a half an hour and we sit together and sometimes we have a reading. Sometimes we just connect about whatever’s going on, if anybody needs any sort of support or wants to share anything. These women, many of them have had their own practice. Some just began with the Mommy Sangha and then have continued. And it’s definitely the inspiration for Mommysattva. Because there just is not a lot of writing about the Buddhist path from the mother’s perspective.

Mothers together in sangha

[00:04:02] Tara Anderson: A lot of Tibetan monks didn’t really know much about that side of things, right?

[00:04:06] Jenna Hollenstein: Yeah. And that’s problematic for so many reasons, not just that there’s like a whole other perspective that’s missing. But even the emphasis on—and I talk about this in the book—the depth and duration of practice as the measure of a student, like someone’s commitment to the path of awakening, which I take issue with. 

Writing this book was a plea to moms to recognize that everything that they do is path and practice and it’s not about a butt on a cushion, although that is supportive in its own way for even recognizing the sacredness of the in-between moments.

But we really need to be skeptical about the ways in which Buddhist meditation and practice have been packaged for us.

[00:04:57] Tara Anderson: Yes. And even the book itself is little bites for however much time you have for reading. There were times when I could sit down for a half an hour with it. And times when I could sit down for three minutes and the sections are really short.

[00:05:14] Jenna Hollenstein: I imagined it as a bathroom book.

[00:05:18] Tara Anderson: That’s where we go to hide, isn’t it? 

[00:05:21] Jenna Hollenstein: Yeah. Sometimes we actually get to do that by ourselves; a lot of the time, no. But yeah, it was meant to be this momentary engagement, which is what meditation is, right? This interruption of the momentum of what we get swept up in and just to be there with it and to examine some little microscopic aspect of motherhood.

The Householder’s Path

[00:05:44] Tara Anderson: This is not just for parents or mothers, but the idea that you need to go and leave your entire life for weeks, months at a time in order to spend any time walking a spiritual path. That leaves out so many of us. 

[00:06:02] Jenna Hollenstein: It’s so true. And that really hit home. You know, I was living in New York City when I was pregnant and I was taking this great class where we were examining the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, from a very scholarly standpoint. And because it was in this Shambhala tradition, there was the translation to everyday life aspect.

But I just felt like my engagement with the teachings in a certain way, started to fade out. And I know that my brain was changing. My body was just out of my control. And there was something else that was coming into focus that was much less specific and precise. It was much more spacious and beyond me.

So I couldn’t do the weekends, the evening classes, the retreats toward the end of my pregnancy, and then into early motherhood. I mean, I really have done very little of that. Fortunately, because of the miracle that is the internet, we’ve been able to connect with one another and have a community and there are resources like the Open-heart Project where you can meditate together virtually.

But yeah, that aspect of thinking motherhood is like a detour on the path, comes through for a lot of us. And it’s—But wait a second, I’m doing some of the most important work on the planet. Especially in a lineage that emphasizes the everyday life aspect, how can that be?

[00:07:38] Tara Anderson: Let’s talk a little bit about that householder lineage, that Shambhala emphasizes. Can you explain that for somebody who may not know what we’re talking about? 

[00:07:49] Jenna Hollenstein: My understanding and I am not a scholar of this, right? I am a very much a householder, like an everyday practitioner who has not gone off into the mountains for three months or three years at a time to just be with my mind. 

My understanding and application of the teachings is all about what I understand to be the Vajrayana interpretation, which is the idea that enlightenment or the truth, or the nature of reality can be experienced, not in going elsewhere or somehow transcending your human body and experience, but in the very mundane quotidian things that you do. 

Tea making is a big topic when it comes to this. I don’t like tea. I feel the same way Ted Lasso feels about tea. 

[00:08:44] Tara Anderson: Brown water. 

[00:08:45] Jenna Hollenstein: Yeah, exactly.

The idea that doing something like making a cup of tea can actually be a glimpse of enlightenment, can be a glimpse of the nature of things as they are, is radical.

Because, when we in the West experience Buddhist teachings and practices, we think that it’s this kind of otherworldly heady space. And then this is very deeply rooted in the body and in the connection between mind and body, having them, for those rare moments, in the same place at the same time; and valuing the things that we gloss over and situations in which often our body is present cause it can only be that way, but our minds are elsewhere because this is sort of a boring thing. And how many of those invisible labors are mothers engaged in, in addition to all the not invisible labors? 

Basically, I’m in awe of what we do. Why isn’t everybody else in awe of what we do? There’s a lot of the invisible stuff, the little mundane tasks, the repetition. The idea of bringing care and dignity and respect and attention to those things. And they’re so important and the way that you engage with them are so important. I think that’s a really important point in the householder path. As a mother, I feel that when you engage with things in that way, you’re teaching your children something really important. Like, when you’re making your bed or you’re brushing your teeth, there’s nowhere else you have to be.

You can do that with a level of care and connection that means something. It actually matters, and I think it creates something in how you engage with your life, how you engage with the world. It generates something that is released into the world if we take that level of care. 

[00:10:39] Tara Anderson: And meditation is just about where you put your attention. We can choose to put it on our breath when we’re sitting on a cushion. We can choose to put it on our body when we’re doing yoga or something like that. Or there’s brushing teeth meditation, making bed meditation. 

[00:10:53] Jenna Hollenstein: And so many times moms can’t put butt on cushion. And so this idea that what if you were to look at it as if everything that you do throughout the day is your practice? Like, what if letting go of the second nap, right? When that child is like, nope, I’ve moved into another stage of my life.

What if letting go of your expectation that that’s going to happen, were your practice? 

[00:11:21] Tara Anderson: That’s powerful. 

[00:11:22] Jenna Hollenstein: It is. I feel myself, I feel those moments so strongly of like resistance to reality. 

[00:11:30] Tara Anderson: Cause you need that second nap as the parent, right?

A mother napping

[00:11:33] Jenna Hollenstein: You need it. That might be when you sit on a cushion, that might be when you lie down yourself, that might be when you get all the things done that you can when you’re on suicide watch for a tiny human, because they’re just self-destructive. That releasing, that softening and letting go of that resistance, that’s a master practice. And we don’t acknowledge that.

The Cultural, Pandemic Pressures of Motherhood

[00:11:58] Tara Anderson: Why do you think that is? Is that the capitalism talking? 

[00:12:01] Jenna Hollenstein: I think that’s the patriarchy speaking. I do think that we have this allegiance to the mind and this allegiance to productivity and this allegiance to control and certainty that doesn’t leave a lot of space for what happens when we’re not driving the bus. And the pandemic really brought that up a lot, because the rug just kept getting pulled out from under us.

And it was interesting the way mothers were coached to get something out of the pandemic. Are you going to write the book? Are you going to remodel your body? Are you going to become a girl boss? Are you going to have a perfect schedule that you keep your kids on while they’re homeschooling?

It was all this very masculine energy of like, How are you going to take control of this situation for yourself rather than release some of that and see what arises, see what there is to learn in situation in which everything that you relied on is now evaporated?

[00:13:10] Tara Anderson: Yeah. So you told me you started writing this book during the pandemic?

[00:13:16] Jenna Hollenstein: I did. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit that because I don’t want to support that pressure that was put on moms in particular. This is how I get. I feel desperate for people to understand something really important. And when I wrote a book called Eat To Love before this one, I was desperate for people to understand that we all suffer the consequences when women are obsessed with how their bodies are not good enough. Like this costs us dearly.

And with Mommysattva, I felt like I was just desperate for people to understand everything that you’re doing, the way in which you’re letting go of expectations and attachments, the way in which you’re losing it and then doing the repair work with your kid to reestablish that secure connection. This is the most important thing you can be doing. It’s not about finding a project. It’s about showing up and feeling the pain and feeling the frustration and feeling the little unexpected joys, and deepening our compassion for one another, because we were all going through it separately.

Matrescence: The Process of Becoming a Mother

[00:14:35] Tara Anderson: I want to talk a little bit about the word, “matrescence,” which I had not heard before reading your book. It’s the process of becoming a mother. That was really eye-opening to me to think about that as a process. I have two kids, 12 and seven—and no. Oh my gosh. My older one’s 13. Whoops. 

See where my brain is sometimes. And that first year with my first child turned my life upside down in ways that I didn’t expect. I’d never thought about framing it as, Oh, this is a transformation for me. Like I am becoming someone different, not just, I made a new person.

Because the focus in so much of our culture is on the baby. We want to make sure the baby’s healthy. We want to make sure the baby’s developing. We pay attention to the milestones and we focus all on the baby and I didn’t put it together until I heard that word. That Oh, I became a different person and it was a process. It wasn’t just overnight. Can you talk a little bit more about that concept and why it’s important? 

[00:15:56] Jenna Hollenstein: It’s not my word. Matrescence was first described by Dana Raphael, I believe. And then Aurelie Athan and Alexandra Sachs have really examined it in more of a current context. I think the transformation aspect that you’re describing, when you think about how every aspect of the mother goes through a very dramatic change, psychologically, physiologically, biologically, hormonally, socially, professionally, spiritually, it’s on every possible front and the direction that things have gone is that this happens less in community and more in isolation. And so here we all are going through this adolescence-like transformation, where everything is in chaos, and we’re thinking it’s just us. It’s just me. Like, why is this so hard? Why? This is supposed to be a joyful thing. I’m supposed to feel this way. 

[00:17:01] Tara Anderson: And it’s natural, right? If you’re carrying a child and you’ve given birth, you have this thought that this is what I was supposed to do, and I must know how to do it. I had a very hard time breastfeeding my first child and it occurred to me that in another time and place I would have women around me who could help me. And we just don’t have that for the most part. 

[00:17:25] Jenna Hollenstein: Breastfeeding is such a great example. I tried to be really careful in the book, what the definitions were of motherhood, of those early attachment experiences like breastfeeding, because not everybody’s able to do that for different reasons. And there are a lot of beliefs and judgments and self judgements about it going down as it should.

And I think that the point, if there’s a point, is to allow yourself to have the experience that you do. To work with the judgements, to recognize and work with the judgments, to release them, to understand that the self-aggression is not motivating. It’s not compassionate. It’s not helpful to anybody.

If anything, it would create stress in the mother’s body that’s picked up by the nervous system of the child, that is not doing anybody anything beneficial. 

Two Aims of Practice

[00:18:19] Tara Anderson: Yeah. So how how can practice be a part of that? How can that help? 

[00:18:23] Jenna Hollenstein: Recently I’ve started to think of practice as teaching us two distinct things. One is just being with ourselves in real time through the full range of our states, physical and emotional. So not excluding anything, not trying to have that laser focus. 

I’m being present to the extent that it keeps us from actually being present in our environment, in our body, but to just allow feeling and being with and allowing, and then the other piece is, it seems to be, noticing when you get lost, noticing when body and mind are not the same place and gently, non-judgmentally coming back.

And with matrescence, I think it requires a tolerance of a lot of discomfort. 

[00:19:18] Tara Anderson: Yeah. 

[00:19:20] Jenna Hollenstein: And a lot of not knowing and a lot of patience. And then when we get hooked and when we get wrapped up in the way things should be, which would be not dealing with reality, coming back and having whatever feelings you naturally have related to your discontent.

There’s a lot of discontent in motherhood, but those two distinct kind of training grounds seem really relevant in motherhood and in matrescence, which I think is a very protracted process that I think that just goes on for the rest of your life, basically, you’re always in some stage of motherhood. 

[00:20:05] Tara Anderson: Absolutely. With a middle schooler now I’m dealing with things I never imagined with baby.

[00:20:10] Jenna Hollenstein: I’m going to call you in 10 years.

Applying the Paramitas to Parenting

[00:20:13] Tara Anderson: I really loved the way that you applied the six paramitas to parenting. I feel like I have had the opportunity to study the six paramitas in so many different contexts. It keeps coming up for me. And I really love the way that you applied that to parenting. Can you talk a little bit about those virtues, I guess is the way we might talk about them. Although, virtue that word can get a little heavy. 

[00:20:38] Jenna Hollenstein: Right, I also feel a specific draw to the six paramitas. I just find them to be such a perfect little package of how to hold the mind and heart of the person who’s concerned with others. But also that is deserving of all of those things themselves, cause that archetype of the mother is one of selflessness. 

You know, just taking the first paramita of generosity. There’s so many different ways of slicing and dicing that paramita, because is it truly generous to give it all away, to empty yourself out into others? Isn’t that somehow cruel and neglectful of yourself? I work on this with my mom a lot because my mom is a giver, that’s her identity.

I try to help her understand that there’s generosity in receiving. And my partner, bless his heart, he drives me crazy. We’re mad at each other today. We don’t know why, but we’re mad at each other. But he is so good at receiving. If you give him a shirt, he’ll strip and put on the new shirt. You know what I’m saying? He’s like an enthusiastic receiver and I’ve realized that is so generous. 

[00:22:00] Jenna Hollenstein: You know, and so not necessarily thinking of generosity as this unidirectional thing, but this very circular process that’s alive is interesting to me from the perspective of the mother. 

[00:22:14] Tara Anderson: And it can look a lot of different ways. 

[00:22:15] Jenna Hollenstein: It really can, and then just the way in which the paramitas work together, it’s almost like the serpent swallowing its tail kind of a thing.

Discipline…I’m obsessed with because as a nutritionist, discipline obviously has had one traditional interpretation. But it could not be more different from the Buddhist perspective, like this capacity to keep coming back, this capacity to discern what is actually happening in the moment, and to have this sort of crisp ability to respond skillfully. That’s mommysattva activity. Like we’re constantly pivoting, adjusting, tuning, receiving, interpreting, responding. 

I mean, patience. Do we have to really go into patience?

[00:23:07] Tara Anderson: Well, I think a lot of us feel like we don’t have enough of it, that it’s being stretched as far as we can possibly go. 

[00:23:15] Jenna Hollenstein: Yeah, it is. Again, we don’t have to be infinite in our patience. Like we can have a point at which we’re like, nope, you crossed the line. I think having the patience and also taking care of ourselves to the extent where we can establish and defend boundaries, teaches our kids the right thing, too. 

[00:23:38] Tara Anderson: Yeah. 

[00:23:39] Jenna Hollenstein: And helps them understand what it is to have patience. Exertion…all the paramitas were made for mothers.

How often are we just trying to infuse what we do with that little extra energy and motivation and bringing the view to everything that we do?

[00:23:58] Tara Anderson: And for me, the key with exertion is how it’s sometimes translated as joyful exertion, right? So it’s not just like I’m going to grit my teeth, but can I bring a sense of joy to this? Not always! 

[00:24:15] Jenna Hollenstein: Nope. That’s fine. 

[00:24:16] Tara Anderson: But that’s always a good reminder for me. 

The Journey is the Destination

[00:24:19] Jenna Hollenstein: Yeah. And I think that’s related to what we were talking about at the beginning, the kind of worth it quality in what we do. Because so much of what we do could be a slog. I’m not suggesting you whistle while you work and take care of all the mundane, menial tasks. There definitely needs to be a conversation about division of labor. But when you are doing what you’re doing, just to understand that it’s worth doing and that it’s worth doing well is really, it’s just interesting. It’s like a very different way of engaging with things that could otherwise be like, I need to get this out of the way so I can live my real life.

[00:25:04] Tara Anderson: Yes.

And I think that hasn’t been the promise for mothers for so long. This new vacuum will make your life so much easier, or frozen foods will make your life so much easier. And then I start wondering if all we’re trying to do is escape from it, there is not going to be an escape.

[00:25:23] Jenna Hollenstein: Right. And isn’t that also distracting from the systems that are just like chronically against mothers? Is it really about finding the hacks that will make cleaning and dinner easier? Or is it about questioning the systems that have mothers working you know, multiple full-time jobs.

[00:25:41] Tara Anderson: Another thing from your book that I underlined is this idea of enlightenment is a male fantasy. I really appreciated you saying that, that enlightenment looks a certain way if you are in a setting where someone else has taken care of all of your material needs. And frankly, the ability to go spend a week or a month at a meditation center sounds totally dreamy to me, and also feels pretty out of reach. 

[00:26:12] Jenna Hollenstein: And what kind of an act of Congress does it require for you to get out the door for a week long? And you still come home to a disaster area. 

Parent struggling to be mindful while child has a tantrum and makes a mess

That title, Enlightenment is a Male Fantasy, came from a Lion’s Roar article by Gesshin Greenwood. And she was talking about how she was sorting rice hulls and contemplating a koan, and so she got so into her mind that she disconnected from what she was actually doing in the moment and did it poorly. 

And like she says, the next morning everyone was like crunching on the hulls because they weren’t properly separated. It begs the question, what if the focus were on doing one thing at a time. Which is like the simplest definition of mindfulness I’ve ever heard. I can’t remember who used it. Doing one thing at a time and doing it with care and respect and dignity. 

This idea of enlightenment being a male fantasy. To me, I’ve never really contemplated reaching enlightenment. That doesn’t mean I won’t pursue it for the rest of my life. It’s similar to I think social justice work. Like, there’s no way I’m going to get it right. I’m going to screw up over and over again. I’m never gonna get it because I haven’t lived the life of the people that I am trying to support to have a more equitable existence, but I’m still gonna try.

The understanding that you’re going to fail and you’re not going to get there, but that’s neither here nor there. You still put the effort in to try as if you’re going to get there. That changes things. That makes it less about ambition and striving and more about right action. More about that discernment of what is called for. Not what is called for so I get this payoff I’m hoping for, what is called for because it is actually skillful?

[00:28:08] Tara Anderson: Yeah, and this is so antithetical to our Western capitalist ethos. And also, I think it’s perfectly suited to motherhood because when is the job over? 

[00:28:20] Jenna Hollenstein: Never. No. And we’ll never know if we made the right decision in a certain circumstance, we don’t get to view the multiple streams of reality to compare. We just get to make choices, collect data, figure out, Okay, I think I did an okay job with that. Or maybe I could have done it a little differently, next time I might make a different choice. 

The point isn’t about getting it right. It’s about putting one foot in front of the other, and keeping in your heart these qualities of generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, wisdom, meditation. So it’s more about how you do things than where you end up as a result of doing them.

[00:29:11] Tara Anderson: Yeah, well, that is absolutely the parenting path as well. 

[00:29:16] Jenna Hollenstein: That’s what it seems like.

[00:29:18] Tara Anderson: What are you working on these days? What’s next for you? 

Mindfulness and Intuitive Eating

[00:29:21] Jenna Hollenstein: I’m working on another nutrition-oriented book and it’s how mindfulness and meditation can deepen and sustain an intuitive eating practice. Intuitive eating is a scientifically validated model of how to relate to food and your body. That actually is a lot more humane than a program or something like this and is actually aligned with better physical and mental health.

And like motherhood, like anything on this path, it’s just the way you engage for the rest of your life. You don’t have to find another program, another diet, another whatever. If you take this view and marry it with this model, this is how you relate to yourself for the duration of your life in all of its evolutions, all of its iterations.

The view is the same, it’s feeling and being with and allowing things to be as they are. And so many mothers are affected by the diet culture, but ultimately I’m hoping that this book will give rise to a way of making these practices more equitably available to people.

I haven’t figured it out yet, but how to connect with one another on the path. Because just being in community, just having the interaction with other nervous systems can keep you connected to even the most challenging work that you need to do. 

Find out more about Jenna and the Mommy Sangha

[00:30:56] Tara Anderson: Yeah. So where can listeners find you online? And the Mommy Sangha?

[00:31:01] Jenna Hollenstein: So they can find my information at jennahollenstein.com, and the Mommy Sangha is through Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project. So you can go to SusanPiver.com or OpenHeartproject.com and it is free for sangha members within the open-heart project. And you can also just join it separately. I think it’s like $10 a month or something like. Just pays for the zoom platform basically. 

[00:31:27] Tara Anderson: Right. And we’ll put links to all of this in the show notes so that people can find you. And again, the book is Mommysattva by Jenna Hollenstein. Thank you so much for talking with me today. 

[00:31:39] Jenna Hollenstein: Thank you. I love talking about this stuff.

Find Jenna’s latest book here: Mommysattva: Contemplations for Mothers Who Meditate (Or Wish They Could). Learn more about Jenna and her other books on her website and find out about her Mommy Sangha community with the Open Heart Project.

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Read more about Mindful Parenting on our blog.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe and Tara Anderson
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