“I will not be meditating tonight.” On Family Life as Spiritual Practice.

Via on Jul 13, 2010

Tired of Meditation Books penned by “childless hermits”? On family vs. spiritual practice.

Practice Can Be Neither Created Nor Destroyed.

~

Illustrations via Ziji (click image for link) Kerry Lee Maclean is the author of The Family Meditation Book, Peaceful Piggy Meditation, Peaceful Piggy Yoga and Pigs Over Shambhala.

~

Looking at reviews on Amazon of a book I was considering buying, I came across this gem:

I keep waiting for the day when someone writes a version of Buddhism for the working mom.

I think that person should herself be a mother with at least one ADHD child. She should be clinically depressed and have a couch potato for a husband. If she manages to help the child grow into someone with a good marriage and a real profession, I’ll buy all of her books.

Unfortunately what we keep getting are philosophies created by self-satisfied, introverted, childless, hermits like (XXXXX). There is nothing wrong with an introverted, childless, hermit being self-satisfied.

What is wrong is suggesting that his way of being represents THE path to enlightenment for everyone.

 

I see the reviewer’s point: many writers on spiritual topics do seem to be either members of religious orders or unattached people who can order their days more as they wish than we in the married-with-children crowd can.

As I sit on my porch writing this, I can hear my five- and seven-year-old daughters playing inside the house. While they were in school, I was able to meditate twice a day. Now, while they are home for the summer, I read the Office of Morning Prayer and, if I’m lucky, doze off during meditation before bedtime.

And vexingly enough, when I have the flexibility to do what I need to in order to present my best self to the world, I only see my children a few hours a day; when I scarcely have time for practice at all, I have them with me hour after hour.

They are, I think, not the better for it.

—Hang on…

OK, here’s what I’m talking about: I just had to go change the bedclothes after one of my girls got so involved in an audiobook that she put off going to the bathroom until she wet herself—and because I am not yet the Worst Dad in the World, I did not say, “You did WHAT? How freaking old are you, child?”  But I thought it.

I’m pretty sure that never happened to Thomas Merton (a different kind of Father).

But here’s my point: while hermits and free spirits may have it easier than householders in some ways, I think there is an Absolute Value of Practice in everybody’s life, and that practice can be neither created nor destroyed. The big difference is this: what we all do—householders, hermits and the unattached—on the black mat is mere scrimmage; the game is what happens everywhere else. The difference between “them” and “us” is that we don’t get as much dedicated scrimmage time, and so must do more of our practice “in game.”

—Shit, hang on…

OK—and I am not making this up—my wife is being admitted to the hospital because an injury she received last week (an upholstery nail clean through her thumb) has become infected, and the infection has become systemic, so they’re going to put her on IV antibiotics and possibly operate, so I’ll be taking the children to grandma’s house by myself tonight, I guess.

I’m told that Tibetan Buddhist monks meditate in the charnel pits; I’ve read that Swamis meditate in the cremation grounds. My life isn’t set up for me to do either of those things right now. I have to settle for taking Communion to elderly people in nursing homes—which is great practice, too—when I am paying attention—and has the added benefit of giving comfort and a sense of connectedness to a living person, while I contemplate mortality and the dissolution of form.

I drove my children to Hershey, where we had planned a weekend with my wife’s family, then drove back to Philadelphia to be near my wife, the patient.

There was a certain amount of medical drama, the relation of which would compromise my quality of life at home, but though she would have been dead by now had this happened in our grandparents’ time, she is just fine now. As I watched her sleeping on the hospital bed, her bandaged hand suspended from the IV pole, her drawn face pale above the tangle of thin blankets and her gown askew on shoulders that looked frail in the weird hospital half-light, I reached into my pocket for my rosary.

Then I changed my mind.

I sat down and, for a long time, simply looked mindfully at my wife and the mother of my children, breathed in and out and let go of all thoughts. I cannot describe the experience in words, but I can say that I was present, that the frailty and freakish blessedness of human life was contemplated, and that practice happened.

Of course, every life has drama and exigency; it isn’t the press of events that makes a householders’ life challenging, but the press of non-events, the minutiae of day-to-day life.

A recent update from one of my Facebook friends:

 

_______is totally overwhelmed by all the little details of her life: buy stuff for XXXX’s camps, reschedule orthodonist, find few last props for (the play), clean house and look for new car. I need a personal manager.

 

This is what Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Bengali saint whom many consider an Incarnation of God, meant when he praised the householder who also managed to be a bhakta, or devotee:

A devotee who can call upon God while living a householder’s life is a hero indeed.

God thinks, ‘He who has renounced the world for My sake will surely pray to Me…But he is blessed indeed who prays to Me in the midst of his worldly duties…

Such a man is a real hero.”[i]

 

The real challenge for us sheet-changers/dog-poop-scoopers/grocery-shoppers/pediatrician-appointment-makers is to find the practice in the game that sometimes leaves us little time or energy for scrimmage.

Swami Vivekananda told of a young hermit who, after several years of ascetic spiritual exercises in the forest, one day felt a shower of twigs fall on his head as he meditated under a tree. Looking up, he saw a crane and a crow fighting in the tree, and as he inwardly cursed them for disturbing him, fire shot forth from his head and consumed the birds. Elated at his new power, he went as usual into the village to beg his food. At the first house he approached, a woman’s voice within bade him wait.  “How dare she make me wait?” the hermit thought. “She does not yet know my power.”

Again he heard the woman’s voice from within: “Boy, do not be thinking too highly of yourself; here is neither crane nor crow!”

When the woman finally received him, the chastened hermit asked how she had known his thoughts.

“My boy, I do not know your Yoga or your practices. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest.[ii]

 

I cannot yet say that I match this woman’s zeal—but it’s surely a worthy goal. I’m going to bed.  I will not be meditating tonight.


[i] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, abridged edition.  RamakrishnaiVivekananda Center, 1988.

[ii] Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982.

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  His has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  His currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala (http://mandalaband.net).  Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs.

About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 

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38 Responses to ““I will not be meditating tonight.” On Family Life as Spiritual Practice.”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Nice!!!! Very Nice!!! This is the Vajrayana. The householders in the Vajrayana and Dzogchen were and still are the practitioners who accomplished rainbow body. Chagdud Rinpoche never asked for children to be quiet during pujas. They could be running and screaming and nothing would be done or said by anyone. When asked, and I am paraphrasing, about the children and allowing them to be so loud, he said," learn to meditate now because when you enter the Bardo the sounds will be much more overwhelming".

  2. Thanks, Padma! That’s what my wife, especially, likes about Tibetan practice, as presented by Pema Chödrön–that sitting-with, and acceptance of, whatever is, here and now. (The Noisy Bardo part I had not thought of!)

    The church I used to attend in St. Paul shared its building with a Latino congregation, and they were the same way–while we uptight Anglos would make every effort to shush our children or, failing that, remove them, the Latinos made no attempt to quiet their kids; it irritated me at first, even though I realized that it was a cultural difference and not inconsiderateness. (The fact that I was in the choir and thought people couldn’t hear us sing had a lot to do with my irritation, I imagine.) Besides, as Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these!”

  3. Layniekazan says:

    All of our activities can be transformed into the path. Whether it's sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, or cleaning the catbox or poopy diapers or caring for sick loved ones or even rescheduling orthodontist appointments! Whatever activity we are attending to, we can take a wider perspective. We are all interdependent — each group relies on the other. If we only listened to other people raising children, then we would miss out on all the great insights the monatics have on the ultimate nature of reality. And if we only listened to the monastics, then there would be no grist for the mill of enlightenment from the day-to-day activities of us laypeople — we're feeding them the raw material for the teaching! Without both there would be no one to teach or to listen.

  4. Well said, Laynie–thanks! Yes, I think balance is key.

    Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, the French 18th-century Catholic monk who wrote "The Practice of the Presence of God", was assigned to work regularly in the kitchen at his monastery, and he is one of my inspirations in my household role as Chief Cook and Bottle Washer!

  5. Charlotte says:

    Thank you for your story. I feel passionate about the idea that yoga is in the world, not outside it. I wrote a book about this because I feel that everyday life practice is so vitally important (Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life). What's the point of practicing on the mat if all it changes is your physical strength and flexibility? Yoga (the whole system) is about how we live our lives.

    As a childless householder, I do take exception to the idea that childless people are hermits. Childless people deal with real-world situations every day. Most of my life is about work (juggling three professions to make ends meet), my primary relationship (and his 95-year-old mother), and caring for my home, garden and cats. These are the most compelling practices for me, as they are for most of the modern-day yogis—parents and childless—that I know. This isn't to say that I take sitting and asana practices lightly. I practice when I can and I never regret it. The lives of all householders do not look the same and being childless doesn't necessarily translate to a carefree, introspective life.

  6. Charlotte: Thanks for writing. Yes, I agree; I don’t think that Amazon reviewer was necessarily equating childlessness with hermit-ness, but I can see how it would come off that way. As if significant others and elderly parents weren’t plenty to think about!

    I like “yoga is in the world, not outside of it.”

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks, Scott. We all deal with the messy business of human relationships in families and friends. For me, the most telling sign of "good" practice is the ability to be present in relationships with some measure of grace.

  7. Ann says:

    I read that review months ago and it was the first thing I thought about when I saw your tweet. I had no idea til I clicked on the article that you would be referring to that. I think she made a very valid point, and it obviously resonated with me. It's easy to feel resentful when you feel that people expect so much of you, you are about to break. Meditation can just seem like another thing to do. I really appreciate your perspective though. It really helps me see how I can channel the frustration.

    • Thanks, Ann; it's good to know that the post was helpful! And I know exactly what you mean about the "another thing to do" trap.

      My latest struggle is audiobooks, which I love, and which I use to beguile the boredom of folding laundry, cleaning up the kitchen, etc. I used to use those activities as opportunities to practice mindfulness, but I have "backslid" lately in that regard. So which has more potential benefit–listening to Thich Nhat Han, or being present with a sink full of dishes?

  8. whollyafool says:

    Thanks for this. I am not a mother but a college music student working to make rent, practicing between 2 and 4 hours a day most of the year, studying for exams, and trying to maintain my own personal organization amongst all of this. It's really easy for me to beat myself up over not finding time to meditate (which is pretty contradictory!). I love the blend of humor & seriousness in this post, and it makes me feel better about my own growing (however slowly) spiritual practice. Thanks :)

  9. Thanks, Whollyafool! Glad to help; sounds like you indeed have a lot on your plate. I presume you are a music student?

  10. Adriana says:

    There is a third side, if you will, of those of us who wanted children, but didn’t have or take the opportunity nor had the financial strength or emotional support, and now we are empty. Stop whining about what you have. Those of us w/o children are bombarded with baby and children ads, questions, etc. constantly. It is painful. I have compassion for those who go through trials and tribulations with their children. It would be nice for the childless to be held with compassion instead of being ridiculed for not being “normal”…

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks for your perspective on this. I am also childless, and I totally get what you're saying here. Where I live (Utah) there's an unbelievable amount of pressure to have children, ready or not. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've heard people without children labeled as selfish. Most parents and people without children have thought long and hard about their choices, and as you say, sometimes it's not a choice. This choice is intensely personal for everyone. It's important that all of us respect what others decide in this incredibly momentous undertaking.

      • Charlotte: I heard similar things when I lived in rural Lancaster County, PA–childless people were selfish, vegetarianism was against the God-given order of things, etc. It must be very wearing to be "on the wrong side" of statements like that day after day, and to feel you need to justify your choices.

        On the other hand, if your barn burned down in those parts, your neighbors would build you a new one. I guess we humans just can't seem to get it all together in one place!

  11. I’m sorry to hear that, Adriana; that must indeed be painful. The pressure to be parents, to be skinny, “successful,” “enlightened” or any of a number of other things is indeed relentless. I don’t suppose that will change as long as there is money to be made by making people feel inadequate.

    And when any of us clamor to be recognized and included, to have our perspective taken seriously and what we’re going through honored and taken into account, it certainly can seem to sound like–or even, on a bad day, degenerate into–”whining about what we have.”

  12. Lasara Allen LasaraAllen says:

    Beautiful stuff. Thank you.

  13. Lindsey Lewis Lindsey Lewis says:

    BIG thank you for this, Scott! Something I've been mulling over, feeling out myself lately, in relation to my relationship with the amazing man in my life. It hit me just recently–I'm a little slow sometimes ;), no matter how many times the universe hits me over the head with a message–that here is an incredible opportunity to simplify it all down to the unconditional, endless love I tap into when teaching, and on my mat during my morning practice.

    • Thanks for writing, Lindsey! I'm glad the piece was helpful. There's a Buddhist sutra that says, "Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away; we are like one who, in the midst of water, cries out in thirst so piteously; we are like the children of rich parents who wandered away among the poor."

  14. no idea says:

    I will never tired of books by childless hermits. People value things according to the time they give them. People who wish they were meditating but are doing something else don't value meditation – they value something else.

    If you were going in for surgery, would you rather take the childless doctor who dedicated his life to the science of surgery, or the one who really couldn't be bothered to practice anything except in emergencies? The same is true with spiritual guidance.

    I notice that you never tire of quoting childless hermits when their quotes suit your cause. Then you attack their method as what I can only read as a jealous rant – precious.

    Many things never happened to Thomas Merton. He had better things to do.

    • Thanks for writing, no idea. When I taught college music history, I made an effort to make sure African American, Latin American and women composers were represented–not because my female and minority students were jealous of the "standard repertoire," but because the actual history of music is far more rich and diverse than music-history-as-taught can make it seem. Just striving for a balance that more accurately represents the wonderful diversity of life–not attacking those who are already well-represented.

      My wife is a pediatrician, and her children's parents are greatly comforted by knowing that she is also a mother.

      • no idea says:

        Scott,

        I appreciate the effort to be inclusive rather than exclusive. As someone with a music degree, I certainly would have appreciated a teacher like you, one who finds illumination using many lights. I only offer that we shouldn't extinguish the brightest lights because of the glare from where we're standing.

        Much peace and love!

  15. As a mom, I could really appreciate this piece.

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  21. Trish Adkins says:

    This is the best thing I've read in about forever.

  22. Angelica says:

    Thanks for this article. It's refreshing and authentic. I'm also married with kids and it took some time for me to surrender to all of it as being my practice.

  23. phx says:

    That was great. Good wishes for your practice and your family.

  24. [...] written before about how different spiritual practice is for the married-with-children set than for the [...]

  25. ortodonti says:

    Clementine is on the left. Thumbs up if you know her!

  26. elle says:

    First world problems… whining Westerners. Be thankful you have children, have all of the luxuries you complain about AND the privilege and awareness to meditate at all. Boring!

  27. Oh, you're very welcome! It's funny; when I used to write about "stuff," I was really writing about "me"–that is, what *I* thought about "stuff." Now that I write mostly about "me,"–what I notice as I "keep my eyes and ears open as I live my life the best I can"–so many people have stepped up to say how much it resonates with their experience. The more it's about me, the less it's about me! Maybe I'll get to hear one of your talks some day!

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