explorations of mindful fatherhood


Struggles of a Buddhist Dad

894-Buddha-and-MangaWhen I was shopping around for a local Buddhist community, I sat down with the abbot and monk of a local Zen center for an interview.

“I’m a father, with a wife and son, and I don’t have much time that isn’t already dedicated to my work or family,” I explained to him. “What do I do about my practice and making time to come to the Zen center?”

“Your family is your priority and your practice,” he responded immediately, with great confidence. He went on to explain that being a father is the situation I am in, and that dictates how I use my time. I should dedicate myself to my family, he explained, and by fully engaging in every action with them, I am practicing Zen.

That did it for me. Up until that time, I had been half-halfheartedly searching for a Buddhist community, but had little faith in the process. I had been biased against American Buddhists for most of my life. I had met too many old White male Buddhists who were more interested in wearing beads and touting their belief system than being engaged and compassionate with those around them. But I’d come to a point in my life where I had to admit to Buddhism’s hold on me, and I wanted to give up my trepidation and stereotypes, and find what might be out there for me. The abbot’s response caught my attention, and I’ve been part of the community ever since.

But this has been the problem: even after I found a faith to embrace, the integration of my family life was a challenge. Most American Buddhist communities are very individualistic in their practice traditions. Most communities offer meditation, retreats, and interviews for the individual practitioner. They may also hold talks, community meals, or discussion groups but, for the most part, these events cater to the individual practitioners in the community. And who are these individual practitioners?  Typically, they are the people who have time to go, by themselves, to a center or temple for meditation. In my journeys, this typically translates to young adults (folks in their early 20’s) or retirees, who have the time to dedicate to individualized practice.

So what about people my age? What about folks with kids? Where are the families?

From my experience, parents can’t make the time to go. Who will watch there kids? Plus it feels rather self-indulgent to go sit in meditation, when there’s a family dinner you’re missing or a soccer practice that the kids need to get to.

But is this what a faith community is supposed to be about? Faith communities are composed of two essential elements: faith and community. Ever religion has its believe system, comprised of world-view, ethics, story tradition, practices, etc. But in order for it to be a religion, it must have a community: that group of people who come together around a particular belief system. Most of these communities culminate naturally around a church, synagogue, or mosque, where there’s an expectation that the family commune regularly with other families of that faith. In some cases everyone in the family comes together for a service or practice, or kids head out for religious education or activity while the parents worship or practice. Regardless, most faith communities are inclusive and embrace families and family life. But few American Buddhist communities feel this way.

As for me, I’d much rather say, “Let’s get in the car and all go to church!” than “Have fun at dinner while dad goes off to sit quietly for an hour.” This was the impetus for me to start a kids group at my local Zen center. I knew that if I wanted a community of Buddhist families, I might just have to help create one. So my wife and I were instrumental in getting a children’s group off the ground. It’s had its ups and downs, but for a while it was quite special, and gave the kids and families an opportunity to come together to learn about mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism.

But four years later, the two elements never connected up: faith and community. Here’s what I mean. We overlaid our kids group onto a functioning Zen community, comprised mostly of the practitioners I mentioned above, young adults and retirees. In some ways, they enjoyed having kids around, but they didn’t know what to do with us. Although our group grew, it grew on the periphery. The second issue was that the parents coming for the kids programming weren’t really part of the Zen center community. They were interested in mindfulness classes for their kids, but they weren’t necessarily Buddhist or practitioners. Plus, most didn’t have the time or interest in connecting with the rest of the community because, although it’s fun to come to a kids class, they don’t have additional time to practice with the broader community. Therefore, we grew this community of kids and families, but it was segmented from the rest of the faith tradition.

At this point, the family community is transient. If you’re coming for a mindfulness “class” it’s much different from, say, going to church. The “class” mentality doesn’t keep parents dedicated to the group. Therefore, folks come and go, and there isn’t a consistent group attending. There isn’t much connection to the rest of the center. Everything feels disjointed.

My wife has more recently been going to a Unitarian Universalist church for services, and I’ve been coming along. UU’s are experts at children’s religious education. It’s a hallmark of the faith community, and I find it to be inclusive, respectful of difference, and amazingly varied across the lifespan. When I see this, I feel an emptiness in my heart. This emptiness comes from my strong desire to force something that isn’t easy. It comes from this a desire to be a part of a Zen faith community that also honors, engages, and loves families and kids. But this isn’t the case within most Zen centers. Even if there is a recognition of the importance of family, there is no outlet to foster and care for parents and kids.

I’m trying to come to peace with where things are for me now. I realize that forcing a community based on my own desire isn’t very Buddhist, isn’t very “Zen”. All my disappointment and grief are a product of that desire, and of seeing what I “can’t have” from the UU community in my own Zen center. I find that I need to remind myself of the teaching I received was from my initial interview with that abbot. My family is my priority and my practice. As an Zen practitioner, I engage fully with the situation I am faced with, whether it’s sitting down for a meal with my family, going to a kids group at the Zen center, or listening to a sermon at the Unitarian church. It will be a process letting go of my grief for the community that never was, but that grief is what holds me back from fully engaging, fully seeing the glory or the community I have right in front of me: my own family.



The Birds

hitchcock-birdsThere’s this image that plagues me most nights as I’m trying to drift off to sleep. I see birds swarming my body, concentrating around my head. It’s like a personal Hitchcokian-horror show. The perimeters of my being start to blur, as the birds begin swarming in and out of my cranium, like parakeets fighting for a roost.

At that point, some semi-conscious part of myself imagines putting a shotgun to my head and blasting the little demons right out of there. This imagined action is paired with a pining for release, freedom, and quiet.

I have this semi-dream most often when I’m overwhelmed, and have given it lots of thought.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the birds are my thoughts, my worries, constantly circling around my brain. None of them find a roost or discover a quiet place to land. Instead, they’re all fluttering around, restless. These embodied thoughts torture my mind and prevent me from sleep, and my fantasy about blasting them to smithereens is my desire to be rid of them; to have an empty, restful head that can pass into the oblivion of sleep. The longing to pull of that trigger is the longing for quiet, delivered in one glorious shotgun blast.

Ugh, that sounded morbid, but it’s not meant to. I think my life is too easily consumed by thoughts, worries, and preoccupations. These things flutter in and out of my cranium, preventing me from focusing on what’s right in front of me. These birds get in the way when I’m trying to unwind, when I’m trying to have fun, when I’m trying to listen.

It’s insights like this that spur on my need for three things: meditation, therapy, and writing. The Zen teacher inside of me wants to rely solely upon meditation and mindfulness practice, recognizing that the way to “put things down” is by cultivating a mind that can be present in the here-and-now, and allow thoughts to pass. That voice tells me to get back to my mediation, to get back to my chanting, to get back to my practice.

But then there’s the therapist voice in my head, which tells me that’s not the full story. Theses swarming thoughts are also signs that there are many things in my life I need to work through: issues with my parents, my desire to be a good husband and father, my conflicts about my relationships and my place in the world. There is a time to put these things down, but there’s also a time to pick them up and look them over. A time to make sense of them and to make peace with them. It’s in my therapy, my conversations with my wife, and my writing that I’m able to hold these issues in my hands, turn them over, and really examine them.

I have to listen to these birds. There’s a time to shoo them away (perhaps less violently), allowing them to fly away, leaving my cranium empty. But there are also times when I need to pick them up gently and to show them understanding and care, so that they can eventually learn to roost.


Who’s That Freak in the Tree?

Dad, come on down.

Dad, come on down.

As I write this, there’s a public works guy about 50 feet behind me, thinking this exact thought, “Who’s that freak in the tree?”

Last summer, when we moved to the burbs, I had the ingenious idea to build a tree house with my son. In my mind, it was meant to be a time to bond, a time to create a memory for my son that he’d pass down to his own children.  It didn’t happen that way.   My post from last year explored the whole debacle, and how my son couldn’t have cared less about the tree house in plan, construction, or product.  It turned out I was just forcing “fun” down my son’s throat.

So here we are, a year later.  In fact, this is probably very close to the time of year last summer when we bolted that first brace into the towering evergreen at the edge of our yard.  And now the house sits dormant.  Except for those rare early mornings when some creepy middle aged man can be spotted up there, doing god knows what.

That guy is me.

That’s because when you have a tree house in your backyard, which you spent a collective 100 hours building, you need to do something with it.  The thought came to me when one of my friends visited us for brunch last Fall.  He climbed up into the tree house, and exclaimed, “This is amazing. You should come up here sometime to meditate.”

I laughed.  That was hilarious.  I’m a grown-ass man.  Like I’d actually climb up there in the morning to meditate.  And yet a few weeks later I found myself grabbing my cushion and headed up into the tree.  I was completely self-conscious.  The tree house has windows on all sides, built almost like a look-out, from which you can see around on every side.  So, even sitting on the floor, I could be seen from down below.  To make matters worse, the tree’s set on the edge of our property, some 10 feet from the side of the road.  Any passersby can look straight up into the tree from the road below.

But, I bit the bullet and I sat up in the tree that breezy Fall morning, and it was great.  The calm of the outdoors, the birds singing in the trees, the sun glinting through the leaves.

Then the cops showed up.

I couldn’t help but notice that just minutes before I was set to end my sitting, there were blue and red flashing lights bouncing off the bare wooden studs surrounding me.  I froze.  I turned my head ever so slowly toward the street and spotted an officer emerging from his car, heading toward the guy he’d just pulled over.  Whew!  They weren’t here for the freak in the tree.  But at that point I knew they probably hadn’t even seen me. So, how the hell was I going to get out of there?  I silenced my timer, which was set to go off with a bell, and literally crawled out of the tree house on my belly, slunk down the steps, and ran back into the house.

My first messy visit up into the tree wasn’t my last, and I spent many more mornings up there. But up until now, I’d only used it for meditation.  This morning, I knew that to get any writing done, I’d have to sneak out of the house before anyone woke up.  But, without a dollar in my pocket, I wanted to avoid the coffee shops.  So, I got the idea to grab my laptop and head into the tree.

I’m up here now, and I’m quite enjoying it.  In spite of the public works guy leering behind me.  Plus, I’m getting used to it.  I nonchalantly sauntered up here just like I was heading to my front patio.  I’m even perched up on a chair, so that the dozen cars and handful of joggers that have passed by have definitely spotted me.  But at this point I don’t mind.  The question is, how much longer can I do this?

For me, I don’t quite mind being the weird guy down the block, up in the tree.  I think it has something to do with how stodgy this suburb is.  There’s some deranged pride I take in being the guy up the tree.  But, I have a family to think about, and a son’s reputation to uphold.  For now, I’m sure it’s fine.  My son’s only in first grade.  But as the elementary years progress and he enters middle school, the last thing the poor kid needs is to be known as the boy whose creepy dad is up in the tree house every weekend.

For now, I’ll just go with it.  I guess if I built this tree house based on my fantasy of what a kid wants, there must be some part of me that really wanted a tree house for myself.  So, now I have it, and I might as well make use of it.  At least until the cops show up again.


Weeding Out

2011-08-21-13.38.03I love weeding.  And yet I’ve met many people who despise it.  In fact, I meet very few people who weed their lawns or gardens by hand, presumably because they have gardeners or a fondness for Round-Up.  I found myself doing a lot of weeding and other yard work this past weekend.

But I discovered I was weeding a lot more than just the flowerbeds.

Personally, I’ve had a terrible couple of weeks.  There has been an ever-widening gap between me and my own parents, and a recent communication from my father drove one more nail into that coffin. It’s one of those things that I’m either not ready or not willing to blog about at this point.  Maybe because I don’t have the strength, or maybe because it feels too vulnerable.  Suffice it say that these events left me feeling completely untethered.  I wasn’t sure what grounded me anymore, and felt as though I was wasting my time in a multitude of endeavors.

One such endeavor was blogging.  This is the first post I’ve written in over a week, which is unlike me, as I’ve typically posted twice a week for the past half a year.  But this past week, I couldn’t find it in me to do it.  Blogging had become one of those things that I did for me; one of those things that I felt could be an expression of my struggles.  However, feeling as though I’d been kicked down by your own flesh-and-blood, I questioned whether I was worth anything; whether my blogging even mattered.  There was a lot of thinking and self-doubt and questioning.  Lots going on in my head: thinking, thinking, thinking.

I had to clear things out.  I had to get out and weed the garden.

I’ve been dying to get outside for quite a while, but these damn snow/sleet/rain storms in the Northeast have become increasingly maddening. Finally some halfway decent weather this past weekend gave me that rare opportunity to get outside.   At first it wasn’t weeding.  It was just yard work, hauling big-ass rocks from a pit in my backyard to the front of the house to line my driveway.  It became a sequence of throwing 20 pound rocks out of hole, running them up a steep incline in a backpack, and then putting them on a sled (I’m currently wheelbarrow-less) and sliding them over the lawn to their final destination.  Just throwing, hauling and dumping.  Throwing, hauling and dumping.  I did that for hours and hours.  I attempted reigning my son into it too, saying that I needed his “artistic eye” to line up the rocks just right.  He got very distracted and disappeared in spite of my flattery.  Even at 6-years-old, I got the “nice try old man” look as he walked to the backyard to play with sticks.

So I continued, as content as could be with my rocks.  Then Sunday came and I woke up much earlier than anyone else in the family. That’s the time of day when I’d usually write.  But I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to look at the computer.  I suited up and went out to the front yard for about two and a half hours.  I wanted to be outside in the bitter 30-something degree March cold, digging in the dirt.

Weeding is just about the most meditative action I can think of.  I get down on my knees, look for weeds, then twist, pull, toss.  Over and over again.  Twist, pull, toss.  Engaged in that action, I find that I don’t or can’t think of anything else.  I’ve even TRIED thinking about things as I weed, but I just can’t do it.  My mind always goes back to the weeding.  After all, that’s the heart of meditation, noticing a thought, releasing it, and returning to what’s right in front of you.  I weed time and again, and always feel calm and complete during my weeding practice.

I’m sure that I’m also attracted to the metaphor of weeding.  Post winter my lawn looks like a wreck.  Decorative grasses have shed their husks, which drift across the semi-green grass.  Weeds and grass intrude on the mulch.  Fallen sticks from hurricane winds and blizzard snow are cast like war zone obstacles on my grass.  Entangled masses of dead perennials choke the flowerbeds.  Spring weeding is a chance to get rid of it all.  It’s a chance to slog through all the death and decay and make room for new life awaiting in the fertile soil. There’s nothing quite like clearing dead leaves with your hands to uncover a crocus popping through the soil.  Or standing up from hours of crawling around on your hands and knees to admire order emerging from the chaos (or at least the illusion of order).

I finished this weekend with a little more clarity.  Of course, there is a time for thinking.  There are many issues that I need to make sense of, feelings that I need to work out.  But in the flurry of thoughts and feelings around issues with my own parents, I lost sight of some of the important things in my life, and lost hope that these things were worth anything at all.  This past weekend was one of those times when thinking wasn’t going to do me any good.  I just had to weed, weed, weed, uncovering some of the new growth under the decay.


From My Hidey Hole

Hide-and-Seek-GameHide-and-seek has always been my favorite game.  And this weekend, hide-and-seek took on new meaning for me, when I found a place for myself, stuffed away in my hidey hole.

I loved hide-and-seek as a child.  There’s a thrill in hiding yourself away, attempting invisibility.  I remember the giddy pleasure I’d feel tucked away under some bed, behind some curtain, in some closet, waiting and listening.  Waiting to discover who would find me and how quickly.  A rush of adrenaline would wash over me when my seeker came near.  The ultimate excitement was when the seeker came so close to me that I could sense her presence, feel her brush along the coats that hid me or knock into the bed under which I lay, and yet she’d move away, searching somewhere else instead. I’d revel in the joy that even in the closest of contact, I could go unseen.  But even the act of getting found was a thrill; shocked, exuberant, and yet slightly disappointed all at once.  And then I got to do it all over again.

I remember when my son became old enough for more purposeful games.  Games with rules and sequences.  When he was a toddler, it was all about make-believe, and I had pretended to be a cat so many times that I thought I’d grown whiskers.  So when we started playing games like hide-and-seek, I was relieved.  Our first games were the simplest, with him often hiding in the same place he’d found me or retreating to his favorite spot behind the love-seat.  But as time went by, our games continued evolving, as he got better or I presented him more challenges.  And yet, games were not all giddy glee.  There would be times when I’d secretly bring a magazine or iPad with me and read while “counting” in the bathroom, or scan my screen from some darkened spot under the bed.  It felt necessary to do “something” while waiting to seek or be sought.

This weekend, while his mom was out kicking butt at Crossfit, he and I spent the morning playing hide-and-seek. This time, however, I abandoned my Entertainment Weekly and simply hid.  I found a few awesome spots (under the dirty laundry in the bathtub, standing twisted behind the coat rack). They were so good that he couldn’t find me for the longest time.  I experienced an amazing arc of thought and emotion during it all.  Hid away, I progressively becoming more excited as he walked past me several times, and then giddy to the point of almost bursting with laughter.  Then, I settled into my hiding spot, assuming that if he hadn’t found me by then, I’d be tucked away for the long haul.

Hidden away, I amazingly settled into my body and my mind.  Without anything to “do” my mind drifted to writing, imagining clever posts or wild story lines.   This is something I imagine regularly, but always with the competing distraction of driving, or work, or pending sleep.  But I was stuck.  Stuck without being able to move, without being able to divert myself.  And then a warm calm rushed over me.  I realized that I never have a chance to just stay put and think.  Even with solitary meditation, there’s that fidgety desire to give up, to get up, to “do” something else.   But not in hide-and-seek.  I had to stay there, or I’d ruin the game.  And that was when I was able to surrender.  Surrender to myself and just sit, tucked away, with only me.

It was the best game of hide-and-seek ever. It was just further proof of why “just doing it” is so important.  Just being in the moment, and experiencing it for what it is.  In parenting, I find that I try multitasking too frequently.  This weekend hide-and-seek taught me a valuable lesson about settling into the moment, and simply being there.


Dawn of the Undead Dad

The dogs sense him on the opposite side of the door and come howling, alerting the family to the creature’s presence.  The mother looks up from her soup pot and the boy from his artwork, their senses enlivened by the scamper of paws.  The doorknob wiggles and turns. The door was left unlocked.

The creature stumbles in and pierces the air with a wail as the dogs dig their claws through his tattered work pants.  The family winces. Undead dad drops his bag at the door and removes his coat.  He grunts a hello to the mother and boy, before trudging upstairs.  He brings his ipad with him, and exchanges the deadening mess of work for the glowing screen of webpages and emails.  He gets stuck halfway up the stairs, engrossed in a facebook post by another member of the undead.  He eventually disentangles himself and rips off his clothes to replace them with a pair of ripped pajama pants and a t-shirt with holes in the armpits.  The creature staggers down the steps, in search of food.

The zombie’s head stoops toward his food bowl.  Silence pervades the dinner table as the mother and son eat quietly and exchange looks. After dinner, the mother picks up the son and puts on an old Beastie Boys song.  The two bounce around the kitchen as the song reverberates from the marble tile and stainless refrigerator.  Undead dad grunts out a chuckle, but remains on the chair, unable to muster the gusto to dance with the mom and her pop-locking five-year-old.  At the boy’s bedtime, the creature is in charge of reading to the boy.  He reads the first two pages like a normal human being, as though literature has sparked some memory of his old self, his old passions, and he is able to infuse the text with a multitude of voices and even a few sound effects.  In spite of his best efforts, he cannot sustain his radio play.  The reading drains him.  By the third pages his words slur and he stops abruptly, as though his neural pathways have shriveled mid-connection.  His son delivers an irritated jab and the creature is stirred, but the pattern is repeated across the many pages of bears, bunnies, and woods.

Later the undead man and his wife share the couch, watching some favorite reality show.  The cushions lull the undead dad and the cognitive blurring evidenced during the storybook is relived with the wife.  After several bouts of his snoring, she orders him to bed, and his brain pulls his body upstairs to a cold bed.

This is the undead dad. He is a zombie to the world at home.  He’s there, but not quite there.  His family is conflicted; they’re happy to have him home after a long absence at work, but annoyed by his stumbling, slurring, and sleeping.  Undead dad is me.  I wake up early most mornings so that I can get work done and come home before the early evening rush.  Even though I carve out the time to be home, I’m exhausted by the end of the day.  I feel as though work has culled every ounce of life from my body and brain, leaving nothing for my life at home.  I realize the pattern and fight it as best I can, but I feel like some creature whose brain isn’t under his control.  My mind searches out food and sleep without noticing the people around me or the effect I have on them.  When I wake up to the effect I have on my family, I’m too exhausted to do anything.  I see opportunities to laugh, to play, to dance, to be engaged, but my mind won’t let me go there.  It is clouded with a seemingly impenetrable haze of sleep and exhaustion and hunger.

I am sick of being this person.  My family is sick of me being this person.  This is the impetus for the blog.  Although I find it important to avoid defining oneself by the absence of some attribute or trait, it’s a starting point.  That’s where this blog begins.  I am sure my experience resonates with many dads.  They see what they’ve become, and know they don’t want to be that.  They see the potential for a more engaged life, but too much seems to get in the way.

This is where this blog begins.  It’s a discussion of the fight against the brainless, soul-sucking experience  of the undead dad.  The fight against the devastation taking place in his brain and body, and the fight against the haze he casts on those in his life.  This blog is an opportunity to talk about my particular fight against that person.  It’s a chance to talk about ways of engaging in mindful fatherhood.

I’m certain that many mothers out there might experience their lives in much the same way I do.  In many ways, this blog could be about mindful parenting.  My particular experience happens to be that of a father, and so I speak in particular to the dads out there, although it’s my hope that this blog can translate to parenting by anyone: fathers, mothers, grandparents, and guardians.

I will be writing about my own struggles to avoid becoming an undead dad, and the creation of opportunities to become a more engaged parent.  I will reflect on my own experiences of deadened parents, notice the times that the undead dad is taking over, expand on the times that I can learn to be mindful of my family, my son, my wife, and myself.  I’ll write about my frustration with technology: its benefits for connection and its alluring siren song of distraction and disconnection.  I will also write about mediation and mindfulness and its role in fighting against my undead status.

Thank you for taking the time to read, and I hope this blog resonates with some.  I also hope that others will leave comments and post their own stories so that we can rise up together against the zombie scourge of deadness.