Tonight my four-year-old picked out Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth for me to read at bedtime. He has never picked out this book before. All the times that I’ve suggested it, he’d say no and hand me a truck, car, or train book. One night I tried to read it anyway, and he couldn’t follow the story and started flipping through the pages of a favorite garbage truck book. Tonight, he seemed to be channeling Stillwater, the book’s main character—a giant Panda who tells Buddhist short stories to his new young neighbors: Addy, Michael and Karl.
As I read the stories Stillwater tells the children, based on centuries old Zen Buddhist literature, it became very clear that I needed to pay attention to these stories.
In the past 11 to 12 days, I’ve been out of my element. I’ve been very distracted and not able to do regular meditation or exercise. The kids were out of school for ‘ski week’ last week and I had work to do for a new client, as well as the boy’s grandmother in town. We had fun and it was so lovely of her to come in to help, as her son had to cancel his week with the boys. It really was a gift to have an old friend back and I’m very grateful. I was able to go out of town for two days, and then the two of us took the boys to Vegas, which was a bit nutty, but I’d never been. All in all, it was fun, but then of course, the typical happens—which is that my youngest gets sick again on Saturday night and up all night Sunday. So, my Monday was a mad dash to get a sitter, juggle an important early morning meeting and get all the documentation together for kindergarten application. I just haven’t been present. In my mind, I’m juggling a million things—which really isn’t that unusual. But having thoughts drift to even more things—such as past events, people, places, things people have done to hurt me, pressure to move or change careers, etc.—doesn’t help. I let my mind wander, scatter, jiggle and otherwise dive in and out of this sort of fear-based, or guilt-based, nonsense for at least the last two days. During this time, I also wasn’t able to do regular yoga or meditation—and it showed with my tired, defeated mindset.
Stillwater, Jon J Muth’s panda, gets his name from the Buddhist’s method of meditation—which is to sit very still, while remaining completely alert. Quoting the Zen Short’s author: “When you look into a pool of water, if the water is still, you can see the moon reflected. If the water is agitated, the moon is fragmented and scattered. It is harder to see the true moon. Our minds are like that. When our minds are agitated, we cannot see the true world.”
As I read these Zen Shorts, it became clear that I’ve got work to do. Being able to stay still and calm in any storm is a Buddhist’s goal—and likely only obtainable by Tibetan monks! Still, when I let my mind race, get scattered or fearful, it’s easy to jump to conclusions or react—when I might not have done so if I had been taking better care of myself and had a calm mind. As I read each parable to my son, who was commenting on each one and somehow listening intently, I realized: ‘wow, if he learns this now, just think what sort of man he’ll become!’
For instance, the story of “A Heavy Load” is one that I need to keep close at heart. It’s about letting go. And to truly let go, we have to do it in our hearts and minds too. The parable is about two monks who run across a wealthy woman who is being carried across the mud. The men carrying her and her packages, can’t manage to lift her across without soiling her silk gowns. A young monk notices how she yells and snaps at the servants and does nothing to help. The old monk, goes over and carries her on his back across the mud and sets her down. She pushes him aside, doesn’t say thank you and walks away. Two hours later, as the two monks travel, the younger can’t help himself and complains about how awful the woman was and how she didn’t even say thank you. The older replies, “I set the woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
Can you think of a time when you’ve held a grudge? Do you go over and over events in your mind making it impossible for you to be present? It’s easy to do, yet changes nothing. It’s really difficult to forgive those who have hurt us. It’s especially frustrating to see injustice done or cruelty. But sometimes, we just have to let it go. The person who is cruel or selfish will ultimately have to look in the mirror someday, or not. It’s out of our control. Karma may or may not exist. That’s life. But giving power to those who hurt us by thinking about what they’ve done over and over again, robs us of our precious moments in the here and now.
And you know what? Not all things that seem bad, end up that way. Like the parable “The Farmer’s Luck” teaches us about bad luck resulting in good luck—sometimes the worst things that happen to us, are exactly what we need to grow and make space for even better things to come. That doesn’t make them easy to move through at the time, and I really get that. But what I’m really noticing with me, is that when I don’t write, breathe deeply, meditate, exercise regularly or do yoga, I notice that even petty grievances, fears, or past hurts, can spring back into my mind. I can be in the room, but a million miles and years away. That’s not serving my health or the wellness of my boys. I know I won’t be able to achieve stillness all the time, but if I can just become aware of it, as I drift away, and gently bring my focus back to the present (as mindfulness expert Janice Marturano explains in this interview) I’ll get one step closer. This is going to be a daily process that will require forgiveness and a sense of humor.
- the endless training of zen: book review of A Guide to Zen (108zenbooks.com)
- Top Ten Favorite Characters from Picture Books (thepicturebookreview.com)
- The zen of sleep: new in bookstores (nickowchar.wordpress.com)