Why “Zen”?

I’ve been putting off writing this post for awhile, though it’s been the big glaring omission from the beginning. Basically, it’s the response to the obvious question: “Why Zen and the Art of Parenting“?

So, the redux version of my history: I’m a recovering Catholic (I’m sure there will be more posts teasing all of THAT out) who discovered Buddhism just after graduating college when I was really struggling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life after years of having a clear path laid out before me. Moreover, it was also to help me deal with my default method of reaction: anger.

I’m a pretty Type A guy, and I like knowing the lay of the land or being in control of the situation. Not a great fit for a new college grad figuring out where to go from there. Now, in many ways being Type A can be helpful. It provides drive, determination, and a clear vision of what you want to see happen. The downside is, when that vision is not realized as you wanted, how do you react?

Discovering Buddhism, or really more generally mindfulness, helped me during that period, and I practiced regularly for a period of time. Then life happened, or rather, life began going generally the way I wanted it to go for awhile, minus the occasional hiccup, and my active practice began to wain.

I hit a point relatively recently, where I realized something had to change. In a nutshell, a little over a year ago we had gone out with some extended family to a wonderful lunch, and visited our family members’ hotel room they were staying at in Boston afterwards. As we made our way back to the parking garage our daughter began acting up – combination of too much sugar and too much stimulation. Michael made the (correct) decision to pull her aside out of the middle of the open marketplace area to have a conversation with her about her behavior.

At this point, a stranger all of a sudden started loudly calling out “He’s hurting that child! He’s abusing that child!” I. Lost. It. I unloaded on her both barrels and left very little for scrap. Like, unhinged my metaphorical jaw and devoured that overbearing termagant whole. Now, the general idea of defending my husband for doing his job as a father (which, for the record was in no way shape or form abusive) is a noble one, but the execution left something very much wanting. Frankly, I’m lucky I didn’t end up as a video clip some passerby caught that went viral on the interwebs, which is something that can happen all too easily these days.

That was the moment I realized something had to change. My default reaction toward anger was way out of balance with how I needed to be living my life, especially as an example for my daughter. I’ve alluded to this in a previous post, but this was the point at which I realized I had been reading books about mindfulness, listening to podcasts and dharma talks about mindfulness – but I hadn’t actually sat for meditation in a VERY long time. The first time I did that, I remembered what I had been missing. It’s the not the research, it’s not the reading, it’s the action that brings the benefits.

I wish I could say that reintegrating meditation into my life has completely quelled my anger issues. It hasn’t. I’m a human being like everyone else – just trying to get a little better day by day. I can report that it has helped, and it continues to help.

So “why Zen”? Because I want to be a better father. I want to be a better human being.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor E. Frankl

As this quote from Viktor Frankl illustrates – there is a precious space between a stimulus and a response. I want to inhabit this space more fully and to use its grace to inform better decisions and take better actions. Don’t we all?

Disney and the Art of Disappointment

Last night, it was much easier to begin writing a post because we had a curve ball thrown at us that had us back in our room earlier than the previous few nights.

Tonight, we were sitting down waiting to watch Disney’s Fantasmic show at Hollywood Studios. I was super excited because neither Maya nor I had ever seen it. We managed to get to the theater early and lucked out with seats that were pretty much perfect – just high enough to see everything clearly without being too far away and dead center with no one sitting in front of Maya, so she didn’t have to peer between adults to see what was going on. The Goldilocks Zone of event seating. The show began and it was, well, fantasmic fantastic. All of a sudden about 20 minutes into the show while Jafar is whirlpooling down to be trapped into his lamp prison the video projection on the water freezes… a collective gasp/groan/sigh emerges from the hundreds of people in the amphitheater, and a moment later blinding house floodlights come on and an announcer informs us that due to technical difficulties the show is unable to continue. Maya bursts into tears.

I gather her up in my arms and squeeze her, wishing I had a Disney magic wand to wave to make either the show go on or Maya’s disappointment disappear. I carry her out of the theater (no mean feat – she’s getting HEAVY and there are a LOT of stairs!) while she sobs and I’m trying to soothe her, apologize for the cancelled show, and assure her it’s going to be alright.

Sidebar Background

Quick note to provide a little more context prior to this evening. For those who are tuning in for the first time, we’ve been planning this Disney trip for three years, and had to lock down a lot of details a year-plus in advance to make this all work. In order to get guaranteed seating at the show, we had to buy a special dining package at a pretty expensive Hollywood Studios restaurant. Without this guaranteed seating, people begin lining up two-plus hours ahead of time to get in. Seating is guaranteed, but not assigned, meaning the earlier you show up the more likely you are to get good seats. That we timed it as well as we did to get these seats was nothing less than Disney magic. Furthermore, after getting our seats, we still had to wait for 45 minutes for the show to start. For anyone with a very fidgety nearly-six-year-old, you can imagine what we were up against. It seemed the stars had aligned and we were due to get our perfect Disney magic memory for our little princess and us. Sigh. So, beyond the initial setup I mentioned, this was years’ worth of planning and additional expense in the making, so needless to say we were disappointed as well.

Disappointment Deconstructed

While carrying Maya out and feeling her shuddering sobs against me, I reflected on how disappointed I felt given all of the circumstances I mentioned above. Yet, somehow, my disappointment seemed…less. Bearing witness to Maya’s reaction (caveat: she was clearly exhausted as well and does not usually cry at the drop of a hat) made it somehow easier to make space for, recognize, and not get lost in my own feelings of disappointment.

Yet our (read: my) reaction to disappointments much smaller than this are often merely a (slightly) more mature version of the meltdown I was carrying in my arms. In particular, when we have a specific situation we have been working toward for a long time, and have a specific vision of how it should and will be that goes sideways – we lose our $#!+ (pardon my %).

Disappointment is totally understandable given the Action/Inspiration/Motivation cycle articulated by Mark Manson in his book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.” If we have enough emotional inspiration, it motivates us to take action to achieve the vision (inspiration) desired. According to Manson, each piece of the cycle reinforces the others. No matter where you begin on the cycle, momentum continues to build, meaning that as you take more steps to make your vision a reality, it increases both your motivation and your inspiration over time. When a vision is realized, it can release this built up motivational and inspirational energy as positive feelings ranging anywhere from satisfaction to utter ecstasy. When this increasingly built up vision suddenly comes crashing down, all of that pent up emotional energy washes over you instead in a negative way: disappointment, anger, frustration, etc.

This is an area I struggle with as a person trying to live mindfully while still living in everyday life situations. On the one hand, the hope is to neither cling to good things nor avoid bad things. On the other, if we went through daily life trying to have neutral feelings about everything from winning the lottery to accidentally chopping off a finger, it seems like a pretty colorless existence. Our innate nature is to change and improve our circumstances, so the challenge lies in using the Action/Inspiration/Motivation cycle to do so, while not becoming so invested that disappointment threatens to overwhelm us.

At the End…?

I wish I had a silver bullet or a specific action plan to get to that magical point, but others far wiser and more enlightened than me have struggled to do this. What I can tell you, is that I did have a conversation with Maya the next morning explaining how her disappointment was shared by us and everyone else in the theater. I used the fact that we’ve been planning this trip for years (she’s been aware of this) means we were particularly disappointed because of the cancellation; however, sometimes, this is what life throws at you. You work hard and have a plan and a goal, and sometimes the plan and/or the goal don’t happen the way you thought. It’s okay to feel sad (disappointed), but it’s also (ultimately) okay that what you planned didn’t happen. Sad but still okay. I hope she got it. Stay tuned to find out I guess…?


“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”

Ram Dass

The holiday season officially kicks off today with Thanksgiving. For many people, their favorite holiday and time of the year centers on Christmas, but for me, now that I’m an adult, it’s Thanksgiving all the way.

Christmas is great, don’t get me wrong – I love the colors, decorations and overall holiday cheer; however, Thanksgiving is the best parts of a holiday minus most of the headaches of a holiday. Basically, you’ve got:

  • Good Food
  • Good Beverages
  • Good Company (hopefully)
  • Good Conversation (as long as you avoid politics)

What you get to avoid? The rampant, baked in commercialism of Christmas that pressures you to buy gifts for everyone in a culture that now largely indulges itself year-round with the click of a button and free shipping. Take a step back and ask yourself: do they really need more stuff? Do you?

Thanksgiving, in contrast, lets you focus on what really matters the most: family and friends. However you celebrate it – whether it’s a massive Martha Stewart turkey feast or going out to a chain restaurant that’s open with your roommate after just having moved into your new apartment (not like I’m speaking from experience…), the point is connection. The point is people.

Today it’s taken for granted that Halloween marketing starts right after school starts, and then quickly transforms to vomit up Christmas on every shelf. As my mother-in-law used to say: “No one respects Thanksgiving!”

So, today, I challenge you to stop, take a breath, and really enjoy the moment. Before we get pulled into the shopping frenzy, the holiday parties, the Christmas decorating, really take a moment to enjoy the day and the people you’re with.

Happy Thanksgiving!