On the edge of physical and emotional exhaustion, we discovered the cranial osteopaths. Over a period of months these bodhisattvas managed to completely clear Karen’s hyperactivity and restore a little of her short-term memory. Their treatments also allowed us to reduce her medication, making her more aware of her surroundings.

But this created new challenges. She was now able to compare herself with other children her age. She was nine-years-old and unable to read, write, or understand most of what the teacher said. For communication, she relied almost entirely on her three-year-old sister (who somehow always knew what she wanted to say). Her already low self-esteem became non-existent and she developed even more anti-social behaviors.

The usual advice for raising a child’s self-esteem is to praise them for every little thing they do well. Karen had lost most of her previous abilities and refused to try anything new, no matter how simple. All attempts at praise were met with severe negativity. It soon became clear that a different approach was needed.

We looked to our Zen practice for answers and saw that true self-esteem is not dependent on praise or capabilities. After much discussion, we decided that each time she entered the room, we would stop whatever we were doing, greet her warmly and give her a hug. At first she rejected us completely, pushing us away and leaving. Although we often felt somewhat less than loving, we persisted. Over time she gradually learned, first to accept the affection, and to return it a little. Then came the magic day when she walked straight up with arms extended and gave us a big hug!

Still, her behavior continued to be volatile and unpredictable. Karen and Natalie enjoyed playing together, but Karen’s tendency to suddenly lash out presented a real danger to her younger, much smaller sister. We had to practice constant vigilance and awareness whenever they were together. When working in another room, we had to continually monitor changes in their voices and intuit nuances of behavior.

Up until then we’d been trying to change Karen. We’d tried medical, alternative, educational, and behavior management techniques with varying successes but the focus was always “out there.” If only we could change Karen, then our lives would improve. Slowly it began to dawn on us that only Karen could change Karen. We had to work on ourselves.

At first we saw only the most obvious ramifications of this, but over the years our understanding has deepened and continues to do so. Almost every day we notice yet another little expectation, or a slight pang of non-acceptance. The layers seem endless. We ask ourselves frequently, “Are we doing this because Karen needs it, or because we hope/expect it will change her?” The difference can be quite subtle but it is vitally important.

Daidoshi advised Shayne to give Karen what she needs when she needs it and we often use this as a sort of genjo-koan to guide us. Gradually we discovered that we could only truly observe/intuit what she needed by going deeper into our own practice. When we asked ourselves, “What does Karen really need?” we found the answer surprisingly simple. Like every child, she needs her parents to love and accept her exactly as she is.

Almost continuously, Karen challenged our ability to love and accept. We gradually learned that expectations are futile, predictions are impossible, and acceptance equals survival. Ideas of how our child should be were shattered over and over again. This process of self-examination had benefits for Natalie as well. Just as we had let go of many of our expectations of Karen, we were able to get out of the road for Natalie, allowing her to grow and develop her own unique personality. As a result of our practice, we were able to intuit Natalie’s needs much more clearly. It allowed us to help her deal with Karen’s difficult behaviors too, on an emotional and spiritual level.

During the next few years we worked steadily on our practice, sitting daily and attending sesshin when possible. The stresses of raising an emotionally-volatile, intellectually-challenged child did not go away but we learned to laugh and play more. We went skating, skiing, rock climbing, mountain biking. Karen and Natalie grew and thrived. We made a few minor adjustments to our lifestyle and created routines to suit our situation. Life became almost “normal.” We convinced ourselves that life really does become easier when you practice. But life, as always, had more lessons to teach.