July 13, 2010

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

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

Practice Can Be Neither Created Nor Destroyed.

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.


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.

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