Zen and the Art of Family Maintenance

When things are good, when I’ve had enough sleep, sex and solitude (and not necessarily in that order) I try to be a Zen Parent — calm, tranquil, at peace and prepared to maximize my moments with the little ones. During these enlightened times, I’ll notice the beauty of my daughter Rachel’s drawing in permanent marker on the hardwood and think, “Nothing is permanent.” My son Riley’s non-stop slamming of a ball against the bathroom door will sound like the lapping of the ocean tide — rushing, forceful and passing as all things must (please) pass.

I’m no Buddhist master, but it definitely seems more “Zen” to push modern multitasking madness aside in favor of simplicity. Simple, in this case, has nothing to do with Paris Hilton or Red State views on evolution, but refers to a new pace, enjoying occasions as they come — single-tasking, if you will.

Never has it been so difficult to just… be. Trying to slow it down, focus, and pay attention in a new way can take a Herculean effort. For example, as I text this to myself on my iPhone, I’m driving, playing Tetris and propping up a Subway sandwich with my knees. My kids aren’t spared from this madness either. Convincing my 13-year-old twins to set the Wii down for a conversation about loving kindness feels like wresting a T-bone from a tiger.

Perhaps Zen parenting’s biggest hurdle is applying the principles of nonattachment. The challenge to not form bonds, because everything in the end is impermanent, is much easier to employ with an iPhone than with your firstborn. Still, as an emotional exercise, it poses valuable lessons. Love them unconditionally, but don’t live vicariously through them. Control the things you can, and let the barbeque potato chips fall where they may — usually in the backseat of my Volvo.

As Buddha said, “Everything dear to us causes pain.” Life is suffering; this part of the path I get loud and clear. But the big fella’s point wasn’t that being human is a drag, but rather that the highs are always accompanied by lows. Standing in the pouring rain during my son’s Ultimate Frisbee game at 9 am, for example, is not how I would choose to spend my Saturday morning. Attendance, however, is not optional — it’s the kid’s favorite activity, he’s too young to drive himself to the game, and so, rain or shine, my wife and I are there. How we accept the challenge (Bloody Marys in a thermos and toasty foot-warmers in our Uggs) is our choice. As the disc soared from my son’s hands last weekend, an arc of raindrops hit the light in just such a way, shooting rainbows skyward. For that fleeting moment, all was right with the world.

The simple practice of presence is complicated by family — more may be merrier, but merriment is often accompanied by mayhem. So much of parenting is running around like the proverbial decapitated chicken, putting out fires. Shoving snacks, towels and beach balls into a backpack, applying suntan lotion, breaking up fights and making sure everyone has taken a whiz — it’s all we can do to survive the moment, much less be in it.

Still, doing something devotedly — and doing it well — is a beautiful and defiant act in the new millennium. Try fewer simultaneous conversations in order to have just one full of eye contact and without the paper in your lap. Make a salad, without the TV blaring in the background. Examine your kid’s latest watercolor like it’s the most important canvas since da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.

The process will take practice. Even Einstein had difficulty navigating life’s overwhelming number of choices. In order to free his grey matter for more rarified pursuits, he pared down his wardrobe to three identical suits. Lucky Albert didn’t have cable, or his Theory of Relativity might have been lost to theory of reality TV.

At our house, we’ve begun a Family Reading Hour from 8-8:30 pm (okay, so we’re working our way up to the “hour” part). I can’t tell you how hard it is to corral the gang for this one seemingly simple act. Rachel wants to read with her headphones on (no), Riley wants to read with his guinea pig and eat popcorn (no!) and my wife wants to scan cooking magazines and make notes about the next day’s menu (NO!). I, clearly, want to control everyone. But instead, I grit my teeth and try not to let my monkey mind or the kids’ wheedling, side chatter and frequent bathroom trips distract me from the words on the page. Doing less can be hard work, but it always feels good to try.

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