Fatherhood, Reality, and the Promise of Zen

I was excited to have the day off today, to spend some time with the kids in the warm comfort of our home while a bitter winter wind howled outside. With dinner time just ended, though, I stood on the front porch in the eleven-degree cold. Alone. In the quiet.

Back inside, the boys where whirling around the family room. They alternately laughed and bickered with each other about the rules to a game that involved holding your breath while running and seeing who could land sideways on the couch from the furthest distance. My daughter played the flute in the kitchen in unintended accompaniment, each note a bit off since my wife was trying to fix one of the keys on the removed lower third of the instrument. It had just been too much for me, and so I found myself standing outside. Breathing.

So much of the day hadn’t seemed to line up quite right. I was trying to make progress on a project that involved working the odd and inconsistent angles you find in a 19th century New England home. Our pantry has no door, and since the space was originally designed a literal ice box, well, it’s quite cold, and that chilled air rushes into the adjoining kitchen. I worked on reshaping a rescued antique door to fit, but between the angles and the interruptions, I didn’t get very far, except for breaking the hinge that I was trying to rescue.

There were a few of the peaceful moments with my children of the kind I imagine as I look forward to a day such as this. An errand out with one son, being asked by the other to sit on the couch and watch him draw, listening to my daughter make invitations for her brothers to an after-dinner episode of Word Girl.

But each fell apart in the chaos that inevitably overcomes a household of five human beings. Someone sits too close to another, complaints about household arise, frustration at the way the toy train tracks are coming together bubbles over, and a father who sometimes just wants a moment of quiet can’t find one and raises his voice. All of it like the angles and lines of antique door frames that won’t accommodate a partner.

Yet this is the great promise of Zen. Not a promise that it will all someday get better, that if I meditate long enough, everything will become free and easy. Instead the promise is that there is nothing to fix. Nothing to do. This is it.

That’s what I’m told. That’s the lesson that has been presented to me over and over and over – yet one that is so very difficult to grasp in the moment.

Shohaku Okumura wrote in his Realizing Genjokoan that “Zazen is not a method of correcting the distortion of our fabricated conceptual maps, but rather the act of letting go of all maps, and sitting down on the ground of reality.” I read this tonight as I prepared to sit and realized I have a lot of conceptual maps that preclude the difficulties I faced today. Perhaps I draw even more maps when I write in these spaces about moments of quietude and serenity; how much I write about these moments is disproportionate to how much I actually find of it in my daily life.

The reality of fatherhood is that it involves bickering, no matter how much I wish it didn’t. It involves having a child whose natural inclination and joy is found in a nonstop stream of talking, which doesn’t always line up with my own joy, no matter how much it endears him to me in late night reflection. It involves days that don’t go the way I planned, and the self-discovery of realizing I’m clinging to something that just isn’t there. It involves disappointing my children, who had their own ideas about what this day with their Dad might be.

Fatherhood is an incomparable joy. One that comes with generous doses of frustration, loss, and helplessness. This, too, is a truth I have encountered innumerable times, but one that is difficult to meet fully. Perhaps I have been waiting to get really good at fatherhood, just as we imagine we might get really good at meditation when we first arrive on a cushion.

But this is the same lesson, the promise of Zen that I have heard so many times. Now so clearly in front of my face that I have no choice but to hear it. There is nothing to fix. Nothing to do. Except get up tomorrow morning, sit with my children and pour them bowls of cereal, quiet breakfast time or not – and it does tend to vary.


29 thoughts on “Fatherhood, Reality, and the Promise of Zen

  1. pujakins

    You certainly got that right: Before enlightenment, Fetch wood and carry water, after enlightenment, fetch wood and carry water. What else is there to do? I love it!!! It’s fun being human. Makes me giggle. Thanks for this fine piece of writing. My sense is that the best we have to offer the world is a good example. You are presenting one for sure. Warm Wishes, Tasha

  2. Long-Distance Dad

    There is much truth to the zen concept that this is simply “what is” and to just be with it. My difficulty in parenting a poor South African teen from half a world away is that “what is” in his life is so damaging and desperate. Accepting that isn’t an option. I need to push him beyond his entrenched perspectives so he can hopefully move into a more healthy and fulfilling “what is” … and this epic challenge makes it difficult for me, personally, to just roll with it and let life take its course.

    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Sounds like he’s lucky to have you. One of my teachers is fond of saying, “You’re perfect just the way you are. And you could use a little work.” While not perfectly analogous to your comment, I think it exemplifies the essence of Zen in that we have no choice but to accept what is (it simply “is”), no matter what form it takes. Yet we also don’t have to relish or prefer it. Our desire to reject, to run…those are also part of this moment. So perhaps accepting is not the most useful word, as much as thinking of it is “being with” whatever is there.

      Blessings to you and your son on your path. Be well~

      1. Long-Distance Dad

        Wow… thanks for the great perspective. I love the “use a little work” concept. Indeed, I think my “being with what is” in this situation more reflects the need for patience, the idea that “it is possible to move a mountain by carrying away small stones.” It’s just that with my son, his life is filled with so many risks that I want to move that mountain out of harm’s way as fast as possible. I want a bulldozer, not a teacup — and yet South African culture tends to operate on teacup speed anyway. In the end, it is a fascinating journey: up, down and sideways.

  3. tomcummings726

    My 18-year-old twins are now both away at college, but for the eleven years prior to this one I had the daily pleasure – and the frequent frustration – of being with them as their primary caregiver (and chauffeur!) before and after school, until their mom would arrive home in the evening from her job in the city. Your poems and essays always bring me back to those days gone by, and your reflections on your own present-day experiences with your children help me to keep learning today from what I experienced yesterday. There is a deep timelessness in your writings that I am grateful to be able to share in.

    1. bussokuseki Post author


      I am deeply touched by your comment. I have learned a great deal myself from trying to put my experiences into words, and like you, from reading about the experiences of others. Thank you, as always for your visit and your heartfelt response. Be well~

  4. thenerdyscribe

    Life never does always go as planned. This is something I have had to learn and in some ways I am still learning. I wish you well!

  5. SGC

    Wow. Your post was very timely for me. My main struggle at the moment revolves around desperately longing for more quiet time but also wanting to be there for my family. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I needed the reminder.
    I hope you manage to get the pantry door sorted. 😀

  6. hrosez

    First post I have read by you, and this confirms my belief, that even though my husband says ‘he’s ready’ for children, I’m not so sure. He works during the day, comes home and spends 5-7 hours on his computer playing games, and then goes to bed around 2-3 in the morning. He’s in for a huge shock, isn’t he? hehe 🙂

    1. bussokuseki Post author

      All I would say is that it is the most rewarding, most joyful, most difficult thing I have ever done… Thank you so much for visiting and for taking the time to comment. I wish you well on your path~

  7. marga t.

    Thank you for capturing the rawness of this – the mess and the beauty – the frustration and the gratitude of the family journey – just in, myself, from breathing on the outside stairs in the rain – more maps burning for a nice winter glow 🙂

  8. chrisbkm

    Sounds like life… and the ongoing realization of… life. I always appreciate the very grounded and sincere way that you share your journey and insights. You always bring me back to the days when our children were “children”. Life. Nice post, as always.


    1. bussokuseki Post author


      Thank you, as always, for reading and commenting – I always appreciate your presence here just as I do in your own writing on your blog. The realization is certainly ongoing, whether it feels new or like the 100th time… Be well, my friend.


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