Tag Archives: meditation

Touching the Heart Mind

I finished work early today,
walked out of the office
I built in my barn
into a cool afternoon.

I took the clippers from the
upstairs linen closet and
cut my hair with the shortest blade.

There were still a few errands to run
before I came to sit here in our kitchen,
distracted by house sounds and
typing out a home-leaving poem
for sesshin,

where I’ll sit with the sangha,
alone together
under autumn skies.


Touching the Heart Mind

In a few hours time, I’ll be seated on a zafu and zabuton at the Temple, where I will sit for sesshin until Monday, rising for dokusan, sleep, kinhin, and to serve meals.

Outside, the sun will set and then rise to shine through autumn-colored leaves while small animals collect winter food. Cars and trucks will move down the road in front of the Temple as people inside them tune radios, make phone calls, and converse with friends and family.

Farther away, my wife and children will shuttle back and forth to soccer games and gymnastics, laughing, running, probably arguing too. We may take tea at the same time, not seeing but perhaps knowing.

Each of us will chase thoughts before stumbling upon moments of rest. We will cry. We will take breaths and release them, feeling the air around us, shouting and whispering.

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.

Shiny Rocks

I’ve gained nothing
from the practice,
instead losing some
of what I used to have.

What I looked for isn’t here.

Still fearful,
bitter at separation —

but, too,
softened against the day
and quicker to tears.

My daughter’s pockets
are filled with shiny rocks,
just like mine.

A Small Book of Poems without a Shelf

Clutter has built up
around the edges of the room.

Facing the altar,
I can not see it,
but the gravity
of its accumulation
pulls me backward
toward the west window.

It isn’t much –
an iron, a board,
and hangers from the morning;
my daughter’s cloth cuttings
spilling from a box she has
decorated in tissue paper;
a small book of poems
without a shelf;

remnants awaiting
places to fit
just so.

Fatherhood and the Five Remembrances

As a part of our sutra service at the temple, we regularly chant the Five Remembrances. Intended by the Buddha to ward off an impression of permanence in our current existence, these ancient words remind us that we are of the nature to die, and that we cannot escape separation from those who are dear to us.

It is stark reality – but it isn’t while chanting at the temple that I feel the weight of this realization.

Last night, in the brief interim between the frenzy of the day and the full silence of night, my wife and I were talking about our children. I commented about the way in which our youngest son had greeted me when I arrived home from work. He ran to me with a stack of coupons he had cut out of a junk mail flyer from the local warehouse store. We stood in the middle of the kitchen, the table being set, the oven opening and closing, his brother and sister whirling around us. He wanted to sit right there, right then, and show me. Later on, I wondered aloud to my wife about what had held him there. Was it the coupons themselves that he was so eager to share? Was it his pride in the careful cutting? Or was it just the chance be together, no matter what was at the center of it or what was going on around us?

My son is always reaching into my back pocket, looking for my phone to take pictures. He takes snapshots of crayon boxes, books on the floor, our feet together on a stool, cookies cooling on the counter, and toy dragons on windowsills. Pictures of each room, doorway, lamp, and family member. Hundreds of them at a time. It clogs the memory on my phone, and we try not to have our kids spend too much time with electronics. But I always give in when he asks. Each time I hear the shutter click, I feel his joy and his presence in that moment.

So when he was perusing and clipping these junk mail coupons earlier in the afternoon, my wife remembered, he had paused when he came across a camera. Could I get a camera, he asked her. She replied that maybe he should put it on his Christmas list. She showed me how his eyes brightened as he offered, Or maybe I should get a phone.

I could see his face in my mind as my wife finished this story and as I walked toward the kitchen to make the next day’s coffee. I could imagine his deep pleasure at the idea of having his own phone with which to take endless pictures. I reveled, as I reached into the cupboard, in how much I adore him.

Then, in the time it took to pull down the box of coffee filters from the second shelf, the warmth of that adoration was swiftly swallowed whole by the remembrance of change. My change, his change. The remembrance that I am of the nature to die, of the nature to be separated from him. From everyone. From everything. The feeling sank deep into my gut, an impossibly heavy mixture of sadness, anger, and confusion.

Some say the words of the Five Remembrances help them to live in the present moment. I didn’t have the sutra in mind then, but I did make an effort to stand in the kitchen and accept all that was being offered, that koan pulling deep inside me. Mostly, it was a moment filled with wanting desperately to go and wake up my son, to watch him walk about taking pictures, then sit closely and talk about the ones we liked best. Would it matter how tightly I held him?

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to grow old.
  There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
  there is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
  There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature of change.
  There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closest companions.
  I am the beneficiary of my deeds.
  My deeds are the ground on which I stand.