My experience applying Zen Buddhism to labor and breastfeeding

June 6 2011 | Guest post by Sonja
Happy Buddha
Photo by Andrew Turner, used with Creative Commons license.

When I went into labor with my son at 1:30 on Monday afternoon, I never imagined that he wouldn't arrive into the world until 12:40 on Wednesday afternoon. Somehow, I survived forty-seven hours of labor and lived to tell the tale. Surprisingly, I was even joyful and mentioning things I'd like to do differently "next time" as soon as we were recovering.

Other than the epidural, my secret to managing nearly two full days of labor is Buddhism. I was raised as a Buddhist and returned to a solid Buddhist "practice" after my own Personal Apocalypse in 2007. It's something that's fairly important to me in daily life and became of utmost importance while managing the pain during labor.

Buddhism has helped me immeasurably when things get intense. I simply remind myself to take a step back and just label what I'm feeling — telling myself literally "this is what X feels like." During labor, you bet your ass my thoughts were pretty much "This is what pain feels like." Being able to sum up what I'm feeling in a single word helps me so much to just feel it without being attached to it. Here's this part of the human experience that I'm experiencing now. Yep. Here it is.

Another aspect of this non-attachment to what's going on is a continuous effort I've made to divorce myself from the concept of time. The scenario other than labor where this has come in the most handy has been Trans-Atlantic flights. I honestly tell myself that I'm going to be in this present moment in perpetuity and it'll simply be over when it's over. I don't look at clocks much and there are situations where I truly go to great lengths to avoid it. Before I began nursing Paulo and wanting to have an idea of how much he was sleeping between feedings, I hadn't looked at a clock in the middle of the night in years. It's mentally easier to do things like "be in labor for 47 hours" (or "be on an airplane for seven hours" which is frankly almost as unenjoyable) if you're not counting off any of those hours.

Being able to just be in the present moment and tell myself that what I was going through was simply the part of the human experience that was "giving birth" and simultaneously not even thinking for a moment about the length of time that this was taking is how I managed to stay focused for the two days I was in labor.

Y'know, that… and the epidural.

I didn't attend a single birth class, but I truly did find that when I detached my mind from the contractions and just gave myself over to them, I did instinctively know how to handle them. The positions I chose were exactly what my body needed to do. I needed encouragement to not get "too comfortable" and keep the contractions coming, but I didn't need to be told how to breathe or how to position my body beyond a few pointers here and there.

I've done my best to give up on the idea of any kind of time frame for my son sleeping more at night and just think of this as the reality that exists indefinitely.

Now that I've gotten through labor, my next "trick" is trying to use the same Zen techniques to get through feeding every two hours round the clock. I must say, this phase is much more trying and exhausting to me than labor. I've done my best to give up on the idea of any kind of time frame for my son sleeping more at night and just think of this as the reality that exists indefinitely. It's helped as getting focused on reports from friends/pediatricians/etc. that "Oh, he'll start nursing less at X age" has thus far just been other people's experiences — not mine. Giving up on the sense of time the way that I did in labor is more difficult now, but when I can do so and not think about "Oh, I hope he sleeps more next week!" the nights are much less frustrating.

In the mean time, I find myself saying "This is how exhaustion feels" quite a lot.

  1. I also applied Buddhism to the whole ordeal. I skipped childbirth classes and just let the baby and my body do what they needed to do. The L&D staff kept asking how was was being so calm and I just kept saying 'what good would screaming and complaining do me?' (The epidural helped a bit, too.) I don't know if I could have hung in there for 2 days though. You are a goddess.

  2. In the style of yoga I study, there's a similar principle called "drashta bhava," or the attitude of witness. I haven't had any babies of my own yet, but keeping the attitude of witness has gotten me through a myriad of un-fun (less painful, more just uncomfortable) situations. It's awesome to see it working on such a large scale.
    Congrats on the baby and thank you for sharing your story with us.

  3. I'm not a budhist or really any kind of meditative person, but I had a similar experience with labor. It's not 36 hours of labor, it's a minute, and then another minute, and another minute… I actual forgot, several times during the birthing process, that it would eventually end. (luckily, though, it did!) 🙂
    With the sleepless nights and the unending exhaustion, I will always remember the way my French sister-in-law described it: "I have a day, and then I have another day. And then it is morning, and I have another day."

  4. I read a great book when my son was 3.5 months old called Momma Zen. It, plus your essay here, makes me want to read more Zen Buddhism. The Momma Zen book has some good stuff on sleep deprivation that I reread several times when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed on the sleep front. I recommend this book if you haven't read it already! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Loved this. I had a similar experience during labor, although not so intentional. During each contraction I found myself simply focusing on exactly how it felt, instead of trying to ignore it – "naming the pain," is how I thought of it. By not trying to escape something clearly inescapable, I never felt scared or powerless – just curious, and tired, mostly!

    I think your strategy for the early months exhaustion is a good one – you never know when it will change, so just roll with it.

  6. I absolutely loved Sonja's birth story. My labor was a lengthy one also. It started on a tuesday and end on a thursday in front of a toilet. But regardless of where I was I recieved the most amazing gift of my life–Josie Emmanuelle. I was told I was never in active labor as my contractions stayed 6 minutes apart almost the entire time. I wish they had zen labor for the birth partners. My mom kept answering her phone and telling everyone how many hours I had been in labor. It made it difficult. I started to feel like I had a time frame in which I should birth my baby. I will definitly pick up the books others have mentioned in their comments. I want them for my next birth and as a doula I should have them on my lending shelf.

    Thanks to Sonja for sharing this beautiful approach to the transitions she has encountered in her new motherhood.

  7. Beautiful story! Great work, Mama!

    I, too, had a long labor… 63 steady hours if you're counting from the very first contraction I was aware of, although only the last day was very very difficult. I was proud that I succeeded in having my daughter intervention-free — I know many people don't get to have that, despite best efforts. I stayed at home for all but the last five hours, which helped.

    Like Ashby above, I didn't call it Zen Buddhism, but my best pain management technique was to not resist it, but to relax into it and accept it. Letting go of fearing it and fighting it made all the difference for me. Being present in every moment and not looking at the clock, or anticipating how quickly or slowly things might progress, freed me up to just focus on the work at hand.

    Thanks for sharing a lovely way of looking at things!

  8. Same here. Several years ago I went to a 10 day Vipassana (Goenka, in North Fork, CA, near Yosemite) – it was total silence and sitting meditation for 10 days straight, no eye contact, no nothing. When I was in labor I kept coming back to that experience. And when my new baby was crying nonstop and I had no idea why, I kept coming back to that experience. I go away from it. Notice it. Come back to it. What a great resource! Thx for writing about it.
    xx Andrea @GoDiaper Free

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.