No Need to Pretend

A co-worker and I stood in the office kitchen this morning as she searched for a spoon. We joked about how she might eat her cereal with a fork, how it might be easier if it were cereal and yogurt. My voice was clear and my laughter sounded easy. But my heart was somewhere else.

What is the toll, I wonder, from laughing, from pretending and projecting that all is well, when the reality is something different?

My wife and kids have been away for a few days, visiting family now that the school year has ended. I stayed home, with a few meetings this week that I could not miss. Last night I returned home close to midnight after one of those meetings and went out to close up the barn. Five of our six chickens were perched up on their roosts, with the sixth lying very still and awkwardly on the floor. I propped her up on some fresh hay for the night, but this morning she was less responsive and clearly dying. By now, she’s certainly passed.

My son was devestated this past fall when we lost our cat, a dear member of the family who the kids had grown up with. I was so deeply moved by his reaction as we buried her that a story poured out of me that night; that story became the inspiration for this blog.

The chickens were a present for him for his eighth birthday in April. He said it was the best birthday present ever.

I grew up raising chickens, along with sheep and rabbits. I remember the first spring flock that I was responsible for, and my dismay when we lost most of them to an intruder in the coop, likely a fox. I like to tell people that growing up around animals was a good experience, that I learned at an early age about caring for others, about life and death. My original Tibetan Buddhist practice, too, spoke of the value of coming to understand death as a part of our lives.

I’m not so sure this morning about either of those stories.

My son will come home today and learn about this new death. I’ll want to make everything all right for him, knowing at the same time that is not possible. I could look at this experience as a gift. But it’s hard. And what will I do when the death in our lives is closer?

I can’t share any of this with the people around me. I move around the office pretending that this is just another day. I pass by co-workers and talk jovially about this and that.

A little while ago I closed the office door to call my wife and let her know about the chicken, what is awaiting her at home. In the course of that conversation, I learned that the emails I have been sending to her over the last few days, reaching out to make a connection, have gone to an account she can’t access away from home. I hung up the phone feeling more isolated, then went to sit in a meeting and discuss the ramifications of the end of the fiscal year.

I didn’t realize it when I began, but my spiritual practice has taken shape as an effort to drop pretense, to live my life as it presents itself. In some respects, I have begun to realize this through Zen. At the Temple I can sit wth the complexity of fatherhood, marriage, love, joy and sadness, or share with a friend in the sangha after the evening practice has ended. I’ve been striving to do this at home too, with my wife and children, and it has allowed me to experience both joy and sadness more fully, more intimately.

At the same time, I am more accutely aware now of the places and times that I cannot. I worry about the cost.

When I get home this afternoon, I’ll hold my son and tell him it is okay to wonder why this has happened again to an animal he loved. I will tell him it is all right to be sad, to cry, to deeply feel whatever arises. I’ll tell him there’s no need to pretend.

27 thoughts on “No Need to Pretend

  1. ken

    It feels trite to click on “like” for this, but I did want to say this is a very honest and refreshing post. We have all been there, in the sense of having to put on a mask at work.

    1. bussokuseki Post author

      How wonderful to connect, Ken. I think we wear lots of masks in lots of places, with work perhaps being the most glaring of mine. Trying to reduce their number and thickness… Be well~

  2. bluebrightly

    I really don’t think I can say anything here, but want you to know that I really appreciate your clear-headed honesty very much. This just all rings very true, and I think chances are good that you’ll make your way through whatever ensues with your son gracefully.

  3. seeingm


    That word crackles in my heart… there is a sparking and fizzing and aching with your writing of it. Grief wrapped around love at the allowing of what currently is in front of the nose to be… profound beauty and challenge at a realization of coming to crossroads where growth has created levels of sustained, continual awareness that can no longer be denied in the moment to moment living of ones life flow. It is a breathless sucking in of air with a pause that comes with some initial hurt as it means seeing and telling oneself deep truths for the first time. Things like… -I am not really happy- or -this relationship as it currently is not working- or -I am not alone, but I often feel so overwhelmingly lonely-


    At times the isolation created by the telling of the truth has hurt so for me. I think the pain often comes because most sane trajectories forward out of those states indicated I needed to change something I was not ready to face changing. Peace came when I was ready to move forward toward change from a place of compassion and love for myself and my role in the creation of my isolation to begin with.

    Is there a cost to awakening? Yes. One can never un-know what they know once they know it. In awakening, the only lasting cost that can ever be to me, is to live a lie in myself and in front of others once I realize it is. We teach each other (& our children 🙂 ) by our examples in this.

    There have been many times in my life I have actively walked away from my “upgrades” in knowing for a time because I did not yet want to be responsible for the changes in the living of my day to day life that I knew that their acknowledged knowing would bring. It was huge for me, the moment I admitted that I am ALWAYS, ALL WAYS alone in the temple. All sangha is just a mirror for my growth… a mirror of me. What happens to the woman who is awake, alive, engaged and supported when she is at temple when she goes home? Am I not that same woman without the physical temple present? Where is temple and sangha then if it is not also found in my spouse… or home or kitchen at work???

    Chickens die and when I allow the feeling of it, I remember. We stand lonely often, but not alone over cereal. It is the utter sacredness of the coup and spoon as temple and teachers as also in all that is walking, breathing & touching me. -x.M

    PS … for what it is worth, in my experience emails usually go astray so that in the ensuing silence, we can hear something even deeper which was meant to be communicated in the missing the words. Isolation to connection, but connection only ever to the level that temple is first found in herself, too. Gulp. At times we are alone, but not ever there lonely precious man!

    1. bussokuseki Post author

      I am grateful for the sincerity and depth of your comment – there is so much to consider and contemplate. The essence, for me, is what you began with:

      profound beauty and challenge at a realization of coming to crossroads where growth has created levels of sustained, continual awareness that can no longer be denied in the moment to moment living of ones life flow

      We do not choose what we come to know and what we realize we actually do not know, which grows as well. Yet there it is, in front of us. In us. In our sangha – who, after all, are us as well. All gates, all awakening.

      Thank you for sharing of yourself so freely. Blessings~

  4. Bill

    Brother, I have lived that life. Peace and blessings to you on your journey.

    As you well know, animals sometimes die for no apparent reason, just as they are often killed by predators. I hate that to my core. We have lost many chickens over the years and I always feel that I have let them down in some sense. There are life lessons in the frustration and pain, I reckon. But that doesn’t make it any easier.


    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you, Bill, for sharing your own experience. Even having grown up with the very same experience, it makes it no simpler to wonder how to guide my own children… Your feeling of letting them down has its roots in compassion, I would expect…wonderful. Be well~

      1. Bill

        I meant that I have lived the professional workaholic life, separated from my wife and children by the demands of my job, having to pretend (at the office) that I was not a miserable wreck, worrying about whether I was neglecting one duty in favor of another, et cetera.

        And I’ve also had to come to grips with the death of livestock, which depend upon me for their safety and health, and struggled with how best to present those life lessons to children.

        It’s a journey..


  5. brenda

    My understanding of Buddhism invites me to consider how my various beliefs, values, and guiding principles define how I interact with all sentient beings, be it within my most intimate relationships to the fleeting eye contact of passing strangers…what may seem to be pretence may be drawn from an unconscious compassion for a need for emotional distance from suffering that is being played out through office jokes. My relationship with various layers of grief is private and only shared with a limited number of people as if it is sacred. Comic relief, in its various shades, may be like tiny spoonfuls of spiritual medicine. Your sharing, through, your words … I am thankful as they invite contemplation

    1. bussokuseki Post author

      The sacred nature of grief is a wonderful insight in your comment. I am so grateful that you shared it. It does, indeed, invite contemplation – blessings to you~

  6. harulawordsthatserve

    I’m really touched by this post, and it also begs me to reflect on my own relationship with authenticity. Sometimes it has seemed to me that it’s easier to pretend a little in certain situations because it would take more energy and perhaps cause discomfort or worse, both for me and others, if I let out the real me show in that moment. Now, reading your post, I’m not so sure. I so appreciate your willingness to allow your children to feel what they feel, even if it’s hard for you to see them so sad.

    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I am touched that it has provoked a reflection. I never want to do people harm and the interaction I describe was a pleasant one… But I wonder how often we do that and about the cumulative effect? When is it compassionate to others? When is it compassionate towards ourselves? And when does it do harm, even if it comes from good will?

      Thank you again – be well this day~

  7. pujakins

    Another lovely piece, and so telling. I appreciate your honesty. As an honest person myself I have had to learn that authenticity can mean caring for others by NOT being totally honest but by being compassionate enough to take their comfort into consideration., When I am able to share what is appropriate with those for whom it is appropriate, I am more comfortable and so is everyone else. It’s tricky walking the path of authenticity. Unfortunately people bring to what they hear their own prejudices or woundings and these can distort meanings in ways it is difficult to imagine. Life is the greatest spiritual teacher of all.

    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you. It is a wonderful and compassionate lens you describe, and I know that you give freely to others of your presence in ways that will benefit them. It is an interesting question, the intersection of authenticity and honesty – thank you so much for raising it. Blessings~

  8. Eric Tonningsen

    As with no other blog post to date, this struck my core. My spirit received and reacted, as I sense yours did. With considerable work over time, I am grateful that I worry less about “the cost.” I continually grow more comfortable with openly expressing my emotions and clearly communicating how I feel to anyone, as well as accepting what is. As some of us realize, it’s an endless learning process. Yet, when I am aware of being increasingly at peace with what presents and I analyze and understand less about the “why,” I (oddly?) become even more emboldened to freely share.

    Yours is a beautiful post. Thank you! for choosing to share.

    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you so much for such a thoughtful sharing and response. The piece about being at peace while also (or perhaps because of) understanding less about the “why” resonates deeply. I am continually amazed at the depth of my not knowing… Thank you again for such thoughtful exchanges. Be well~

  9. Michael

    This was a beautiful post. The short paragraph about pretending while at the office was poignant for me. It brings up a question that comes to visit me from time to time. What does it mean to be “authentic” in the various contextual backdrops of our lives- e.g. the kitchen table, the office boardroom, or the airplane tray table? We know sometimes there is a feeling we do not voice, a paper mache personality we offer instead, like an hors d’oeurve with a pretty napkin. Is this being inauthentic? At the same time, are we safe-keeping something precious within us? Is our sense that dropping the mask could be dangerous even accurate? How was it that I came to learn the most essential parts of myself couldn’t be shared in certain settings?

    (Thank you for the questions…)


    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you for sharing the questions with me – they are wonderful. I love the image of a paper mache personality, it is quite apt and evocative. I wonder, too, if our lives weren’t so contextual, would that make a difference? If we didn’t wear so many hats and try to be so many things to so many people, would our lives – and our authenticity – be simpler?

      Thank you again for sharing. I hope that you will share any thoughts that arise as you explore the questions. Blessings~

      1. Michael

        One thought that came in reflecting on these questions about authenticity was this: there is a time when unleashing the emotional-quick-kneejerk response, the ones that arise from a less than peaceful state, seem like the most authentic and natural responses we could make. But those seldom lead to productive outcomes. And yet maybe the’re not the most authentic, because as we learn to sit with those “reactions”, like those spicy hot cinnamon candies that initially sting the tongue, they eventually dissolve into a softened sweetness. And maybe that is a step towards what is most authentic within us.
        But as we learn to dwell in the depth of the moment, we swing the other way, and are often caught speechless. We think we have learned something new, that others don’t necessarily understand or won’t relate with. We think we have learned a secret. And so we are temporarily mired in awkwardness.
        And then eventually this too dissolves, as we discover truly that all beings share in this Silence, and that talking about forks and spoons and yogurt is a perfectly fine vehicle for dwelling in Everything. And maybe authenticity, in the end, is simply filling the room with our presence- not responding to our past, not consumed with who we are becoming, not needing any certain conversation to occur, just being with the other person. My realization for today!

      2. bussokuseki Post author

        Your comment “lead to productive outcomes” reminds me of the phrase and concept of “skillful means”, used to describe actions we take in this relative world, even as we recognize they are essentially empty.

        Your description, too, of the move from awkwardness to silence is beautiful. I have enjoyed and will benefit from our dialogue and your own skillful means. I look forward to future sharing. Blessings~

  10. j.h. white

    My daughter, fierce as she is, had her two young children help “harvest” the chickens they helped raise when the chickens stopped laying. We were all depending on the eggs for a source of protein and the new chicks were being raised in a bathtub in a spare bathroom. As I watched my grandchildren I realized their child’s minds opening. It was now a science lesson. What is this? What is that? Their chicken buddies were now teaching them about another aspect of life. My own mind stilled in wonder.

    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Memories of harvesting our own animals are some of my earliest, along with watching the birth of the next generation. I wouldn’t trade it – yet find it difficult to conceive of the same for my own children…

  11. momasteblog

    Interesting post. It makes me think about how hard it is for me to pretend, and yet how being authentic can often come with an exorbitant price of its own. I so often feel caught in the middle, and the tug of war creates a lot of anxiety for me. Your son is very fortunate to have such a dedicated and compassionate spirit guide in his life. Blessings to you, and your family, and your chickens.


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