Tag Archives: Zen

Zenful Reminder at Bedtime


Photo by: Ivan Ellis

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.

Grab Your Zen

SO … I’m just going to start off this post saying that I haven’t always believed that you could just choose to be happy. I mean, when you’re dealt some crappy cards, maybe you can muster a poker face and “fake it till you make it”, but really, how can you just choose to be happy? Well, it might start with baby steps that involve taking care of ourselves. If you’re a single mom who doesn’t get much relief or family help, like I am, it can seem especially hard to do. But really, it can begin with one commitment. Even if you have to force fitting it into your day, do it. You’ll be on your way to seizing your happiness. Here’s what it looks like with me on an especially chaotic day, such as today. (And I’m sure many of you single moms know exactly what kind of day this is.)

6:10 a.m. Three-year-old wakes me up by hitting the cat when crawling in bed, then crying because “I don’t want the sun to come up!” To this I reply, “Ok, so go back to sleep. Pleeeassee.”  “NO!!”

6:20 a.m. – 7:45 a.m. Re-edit and then re-print oldest son’s biggest report of the year, while keeping boys from killing one another as they fight over who gets to pull paper out of the printer. Breakfast, feed cat, feed fish, etc.

7:50 a.m. – 8:15 a.m. Yell at boys to get dressed, brush teeth, change a huge poopy diaper (Is there a potty-training fairy out there??), rush to the car. At school, realize oldest son has report, but doesn’t have violin for practice.

8:15 a.m. – 8:30 a.m. Try to calm down 3-year-old who is now screaming because big brother didn’t kiss him goodbye. Race in to get violin. Get back to car (oh, still wearing jammy top with stretch pants) and smell more poop. Get baby out of car seat, change diaper, yet again, put him back in. More screaming over not being able to buckle the seat, then go to school to deliver violin. Then realize that I owe someone an edit of a big proposal, so we rush back home.

8:30 a.m. – 9:15 a.m. Edit proposal with bullets for changes, send emails to editors, cancel appointment with accountant, wash face, freshen up. As I start to go to the car, remember the f***ing valentines! Go back up with the youngest to put together 15 Buzz Lightyear valentines for his party.

9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Mommy and Me class with youngest. Dance, sing, make valentines crafts, give away valentines … and almost go postal on a special needs child from a different class who hits my son over and over again on the playground. Not one teacher intervened, so after he tried to bang my son’s head into a play structure, I lean in and say, “NO. You don’t hit. You’ve lost your playtime” and walk my son over to the other side of the playground. As I play with Jamesy, I see this kid hit at least 5 more kids and no one stopped him. I’m starting to wonder about their discipline strategies. Go back in for circle time, listen to some younger moms babble about botox and leave early….For me.

11:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. I race to take Jamesy to daycare and run like mad to make a community yoga class. While I’m racing to get there, I actually feel a twinge of guilt for taking the time out. But the minute I put my mat down and see my smiling instructor, I instantly know I’ve done the right thing. (Insert wind chime, Hindi music here.) The topic for the class: Choosing Happiness. How marvelous. We smiled through the difficult poses and it seemed a metaphor for my life. Instead of ruminating about a proposal from an attorney, or the surmounting work with demands from the kiddos and my own deadlines, or the fact I haven’t slept-in or had a break in a loong time … I took a time out. For one hour, I sweat, I breathed deeply and tried to hold insane poses. During meditation I focussed on lightness, happiness, and letting anger, stress, anxiety, jealousy and other ego-centric issues holding me down, lift up in a balloon and sail away. Leaving that class I was at peace and ready to race on with the rest of my madness:

1:30 p.m. Pick up oldest from school. Race to the high school for his honors strings performance rehearsal that I’m helping to coordinate.

2 p.m. – 4 p.m. – Assist the strings teacher with all the children, which included kids from five elementary schools, one middle school and the high school. The music is overwhelming. (I’m so proud of my son for making this honor’s orchestra. I found myself in tears at the back of the performance hall—overwhelmed with pride and gratitude.)

4 p.m. – Race with son to find white shoes for his orchestra performance uniform. (It’s harder than you’d think!) Buy more Sudafed for the nagging allergies.

5 p.m. – 8 p.m. Pick up youngest from school. Race home to start dinner and oversee math homework with oldest, while trying to keep youngest entertained. (Oi! Math is getting harder.) Struggle to get meatballs finished before both boys nosh their appetite away. Take picture of 3-year-old eating a huge meatball and send it to my godsend of a friend. Email a Syrian friend and former London classmate of my oldest son’s to see how his family is doing. (Long discussion ensues about Syria, The Middle East, democracy, etc. with oldest son.)

8 p.m. – 9 p.m. Bath, (resulting in water fight soaking all towels and bathroom floor with youngest peeing on oldest…I know…) books, teeth brushed, thankful lists said, and more water, before bed. (Why do kids have to have more water just after they get under their covers??)

9 p.m. – 10 p.m. Gently try to get youngest to fall asleep. (STILL having sleep issues.)

10:15 p.m. – 11:30 p.m. Clean up kitchen, do two loads of laundry, send an editor two pitches as promised, wash face … and … write this.

Why, you might ask, am I venturing to write this when I’m obviously sleep-deprived?? Because it’s a reminder to me (and perhaps to some of you too) that even when you are overwhelmed with responsibilities—take a moment for yourself. Doing so allows you to continue with this lovely chaos that remarkably means the world to your children. It’s essential for our health and mental sanity. It helps us be better parents.

And, over time, it might just help you to believe that you can, in fact, choose happiness. What do you think? Is happiness a choice? Maybe it is something you have to seize. Perhaps happiness is something that us single moms have to realize involves putting ourselves on the mounting To-Do list. We deserve a moment to take care of ourselves because our work is never, really done. I challenge all of you single parents out there to force yourself to take one hour a day, three days a week, for some exercise such as yoga. Get back to me and let me know how it goes. And, for those on a tight budget, check out community classes at your local studio as they’re much cheaper and usually for beginners.

Nameste, y’all.