“The absolute fits the ordinary as a box to its lid.“
My name is Jenifer, a stay-at-home-mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend, ex-corporate professional, former teacher and a new practitioner of Zen Buddhism. I’m no stranger to Buddhism. About sixteen years ago, I studied Comparative Religion at a competitive college and used to visit a Buddhist monastery for the occasional retreat or Sunday service. The little Buddhism in my life served as an escape. Removing my shoes and stepping into a monastic environment allowed me to avoid coping with the demands of life and looking at myself. I also thought I “got it” because I understand the literature and the dialectic. For the most part, I read in lieu of practice. As time went on, I strayed from Zen.
On year ago to date, I had a son. While I was very comfortable with motherhood, everything else suffered. In becoming a stay at home mom, I experienced an identity crisis because no longer was I that “smart and talented” professional. Motherhood proved to be a very sobering experience because I could not escape my anxiety and frustrations with my usual means: a glass of wine, a pill for this or that, running off to a foreign country, over-indulging in psycho-babble or simply not dealing. In becoming a new parent, I saw the shortcomings of my own parents and became fearful that my son would have the same difficulties I had growing up. I harbored a great deal of resentment towards family. I became very critical of my husband for his shortcomings and blamed his family. My husband stopped speaking to me because he “just didn’t want to fight.” All of my anger was in the name of trying to create the best possible life for my son.
I was very demanding of others but I was equally as hard, if not threefold, on myself. Life was this never ending task list that would make me feel accomplished and shape my day as a stay at home mom. This list, metaphoric and real, gave me structure. It kept me from feeling the anxiety of “Who am I?”, “What do I do today?” I kept saying, “When this list is complete, I’ll feel better, and then I can enjoy life.” The problem was that this list was unending. Something was always wrong and needed fixing. I obsessively hopped to therapists, to marriage counselors, to books, to medical doctors, to exercising, to different friends, to this that or the other thing. Simply put, I was spinning. Nothing felt like it was the answer. While therapy was useful at a point, I began to realize that I didn’t need to pick scabs any longer. Others weren’t going to change. I had to find a different way to live and make peace with all those around me, and myself.
Years ago, Daido Loori Roshi said that I needed to meditate ten minutes a day, everyday instead of throwing myself with full gusto into weekends of sesshin and extended meditation. Consistency was the key for someone like me so that was where I began. Just ten minutes a day while my son napped but every single day. I began attending Sunday morning sittings and service at Heart Circle Sangha and having interviews with Sensei. The small non-monastic environment was strange to me at first. This wasn’t the Zen I knew. Where were the monks? Where were the robes? Where were the shaved heads? This is someone’s home? I passed judgment on a few of the members because clearly someone like that couldn’t know anything about Buddhism.
….and then I began to see things differently. Studying in a smaller community, two miles from my house afforded me many opportunities to meet with a teacher that I never had in a larger monastic setting. It was profound for me to meet with a teacher that aside from having a clerical life, she had an ordinary, day to day life similar to mine, and was a woman. Attending Sunday sittings and service then coming home to my family challenged me in a very unique way. Zen wasn’t an escape from my life; it was becoming integrated into my life. In Buddhism, it’s called “lotus in the fire”, practicing in the midst of ordinary life with it’s daily struggles of sick children, cooking dinner, family issues, financial issues – and all the myriad of things ordinary life bears.
My practice is very much so part of my life and my family’s life. I sit everyday, regardless while my son takes his morning nap. I do not waver no matter where I am. If the only quiet place is the bathroom floor in a hotel room in some random town in Texas during a family reunion – so be it! I still sit, the same time of day as if I were home. Every Sunday my family and I have made the commitment that “Mommy goes to the zendo”. It’s a permanent, indefinite “event” on our family‘s synced ifone calendar! (It’s also a wonderful time for my husband and son to be together.)
Today, people around me unknowingly ask what has changed. Why am I so happy? Was I lobotomized? Did I become a Stepford Wife? Why is someone as intense as me enjoying the simplicity of very ordinary days of nothing special? Cooking dinner, changing diapers, cleaning the house, or not cleaning the house, taking walks with my son. Visiting with my Mom and Dad (or now I should say “Gran’ma and Gran’poppy”). Not a thing in my life has changed. Nothing. Actually, I’m still me too. Me is there. Difficult, intense, judgmental, righteous, superior, cranky, anxious, overly- analytical but me is slowly loosing some of that steam and my feathers don’t get quite so ruffled so easily. I still have a task list but more times than not I put it aside and see where the day takes me.
I began sitting for longer periods, everyday, regardless and practiced letting thoughts arise and dissipate, not latching onto them or judging them. Sometimes my mind can tailspin – and that’s ok. That’s just the nature of the mind, especially mine! I let it go, and I come back to the breath. I began to learn to listen to my body when it feels tension and experience it without judgment or trying to fix it or grasp for things outside of myself to make me feel better. I’m learning to be upset when I’m upset, disappointed when I’m disappointed, hurt when I’m hurt, anxious when I’m anxious and tense and fearful when I’m fearful. I’m learning to experience my pain, fully and not attempt to control these feelings by assigning blame or becoming angry. Meditation provides me that safe place to experience just how vulnerable and fragile I am and how uncertain the world is. I’m learning to accept these feelings which started creating peace within me that emanates throughout my home and life. My husband doesn’t practice. Doesn’t even understand what I do at a zendo or anything about Buddhism (and funny he’s Japanese!) but this space I started to create by not reacting in anger allowed my husband to move forward and talk to me without fear.
I began studying my armor, my frustrations and anger with Sensei. This armor for me is the stringent code of how things should or shouldn’t be so I could classify people as “good” or “bad”, sort life out, judge it, separate myself and not experience pain…and man, was I getting hurt and disappointed an awful lot by life when nothing “measured up”, when no one “measured up”, myself included. When people did things I did not like or the world was the way I didn’t believe it should be my armor would get chinked. Everything and everyone was a perceived threat causing fear and anxiety.
As I continue to sit, the self that is full of anxiety, anger and frustrations who gets so easily wounded is gradually, slowly being deconstructed thought by thought creating an emptiness that is terrifying at times. But in that space a different self is starting to emerge. A nicer self. A calmer self. A more connected self. I see my shortcomings and that of others but as Argentinean poet Jorge Luis Borges once wrote,
“My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty.”
I used to be the kind of person riddled with anxiety who would play events over and over in her head of how I would execute a situation and “be perfect”, “get it right” say the most profound thing, be witty, be nice, be this be that. I stopped “trying.” A lot of my inner dialogue of how things should or shouldn’t be is quieting. I’m more present in all I do, not anticipating the next thing. For the first time in my life, I’m not tenaciously grasping onto thoughts and am actually absent-minded and I forget the milk all the time at the grocery store! I’m nice when I don’t want to be nice to ex-wives at weddings! I try to be self-righteous but am a bit more forgiving of our humanity, and poverty. I’m less ambitious, less fearful of economic insecurity. My house is a bit messy. I ate way too many of those on Halloween. My one year old son accidentally dialed 911 and the police busted down my door! I say the wrong thing. I laugh too loudly. This is what happens when you’re living, take one, scene one, no dress rehearsal.