Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Home Version of Our Game

Looking at reviews on Amazon of a book I was considering buying, I came across this gem:

I keep waiting for the day when someone writes a version of Buddhism for the working mom. I think that person should herself be a mother with at least one ADHD child. She should be clinically depressed and have a couch potato for a husband. If she manages to help the child grow into someone with a good marriage and a real profession, I'll buy all of her books. Unfortunately what we keep getting are philosophies created by self-satisfied, introverted, childless, hermits like (Xxxxx.) There is nothing wrong with an introverted, childless, hermit being self-satisfied. What is wrong is suggesting that his way of being represents THE path to enlightenment for everyone.

I see the reviewer’s point: many writers on spiritual topics do seem to be either members of religious communities or unattached people who can order their days more as they wish than we in the married-with-children crowd can.

As I sit on my porch writing this, I can hear my five- and seven-year-old daughters playing inside the house. While they were in school, I was able to meditate twice a day. Now, while they are home for the summer, I read the Office of Morning Prayer and, if I’m lucky, doze off during meditation before bedtime. And vexingly enough, when I have the flexibility to do what I need to in order to present my best self to the world, I only see my children a few hours a day; when I scarcely have time for practice at all, I have them with me hour after hour. They are, I think, not the better for it.
—Hang on…
OK, here’s what I’m talking about: I just had to go change the bedclothes after one of my girls got so involved in an audiobook that she put off going to the bathroom until she wet herself—and because I am not yet the Worst Dad in the World, I did not say, “You did WHAT? How freaking old are you, child?”  But I thought it. I’m pretty sure that never happened to Thomas Merton.

But here’s my point: while hermits and free spirits may have it easier than householders in some ways, I think there is an Absolute Value of Practice in everybody’s life, and that practice can be neither created nor destroyed. The big difference is this: what we all do—householders, hermits and the unattached—on the black mat is mere scrimmage; the game is what happens everywhere else. The difference between “them” and “us” is that we don’t get as much dedicated scrimmage time, and so must do more of our practice “in game.”
—Shit, hang on…
OK—and I am not making this up—my wife is being admitted to the hospital because an injury she received last week (an upholstery nail clean through her thumb) has become infected, and the infection has become systemic, so they’re going to put her on IV antibiotics and possibly operate, so I’ll be taking the children to grandma’s house by myself tonight, I guess.
Ima finish this later.


I’m told that Tibetan Buddhist monks meditate in the charnel pits; I’ve read that Swamis meditate in the cremation grounds.  My life isn’t set up for me to do either of those things right now.  I have to settle for taking Communion to elderly people in nursing homes—which is great practice, too, when I am paying attention, and has the added benefit of giving comfort and a sense of connectedness to a living person while I contemplate mortality and the dissolution of form.

I drove my children to Hershey, where we had planned a weekend with my wife’s family, then drove back to Philadelphia to be near the patient.

There was a certain amount of medical drama the relation of which would compromise my quality of life at home, but though she would have been dead by now had this happened in our grandparents’ time, she is just fine now. As I watched her sleeping on the hospital bed, her bandaged hand suspended from the IV pole, her drawn face pale above the tangle of thin blankets and her gown askew on shoulders that looked frail in the weird hospital half-light, I reached into my pocket for my rosary. Then I changed my mind. I sat down and, for a long time, simply looked mindfully at my wife and the mother of my children, breathed in and out and let go of all thoughts. I cannot describe the experience in words, but I can say that I was present, that the frailty and freakish blessedness of human life was contemplated, and that practice happened.

Of course, every life has drama and exigency; it isn’t the press of events that makes a householders’ life challenging, but the press of non-events, the minutiae of day-to-day life.  Here’s a recent update from one of my Facebook friends:

_______is totally overwhelmed by all the little details of her life: buy stuff for Xxxx’s camps, reschedule orthodonist, find few last props for (the play,) clean house and look for new car. I need a personal manager.

This is what Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Bengali saint whom many consider an Incarnation of God, meant when he praised the householder who also managed to be a bhakta, or devotee:

A devotee who can call upon God while living a householder's life is a hero indeed. God thinks, 'He who has renounced the world for My sake will surely pray to Me…But he is blessed indeed who prays to Me in the midst of his worldly duties…Such a man is a real hero."[i]

The real challenge for us sheet-changers/dog-poop-scoopers/grocery-shoppers/pediatrician-appointment-makers is to find the practice in the game that sometimes leaves us little time or energy for scrimmage. 

Swami Vivekananda told of a young hermit who, after several years of ascetic spiritual exercises in the forest, one day felt a shower of twigs fall on his head as he meditated under a tree. Looking up, he saw a crane and a crow fighting in the tree, and as he inwardly cursed them for disturbing him, fire shot forth from his head and consumed the birds. Elated at his new power, he went as usual into the village to beg his food. At the first house he approached, a woman’s voice within bade him wait.  “How dare she make me wait?” the hermit thought. “She does not yet know my power.”

Again he heard the woman’s voice from within: “Boy, do not be thinking too highly of yourself; here is neither crane nor crow!”

When the woman finally received him, the chastened hermit asked how she had known his thoughts.

"My boy, I do not know your Yoga or your practices. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest.[ii]

I cannot yet say that I match this woman’s zeal—but it’s surely a worthy goal.  I’m going to bed.  I will not be meditating tonight.

[i] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, abridged edition.  RamakrishnaiVivekananda Center, 1988.
[ii] Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982.


  1. Helpful words for those of us trying to be peaceful and mindful within the bittersweet chaos of our lives. Thank you.

    Please send Allison our love, and tell her that we are glad she is okay and that she should stop upholstering things.

  2. Sorry to depart from the point you were actually making, but the frustration of the Amazon reviewer is interesting to me. Despite being someone who typically scoffs at contemporary Christian writing (as if I'm somehow wiser or deeper because I choose to decipher stuff that was written a long time ago), I've recently taken an interest in a few specific spiritual topics and have read a number of books on them. It seems like nearly every Christian writer discusses how spiritual issues evolved in and impacted their marriages. I've become frustrated with my inability to relate to them.

    For example, I've mentioned to you before that I've struggled with clinical depression for about a third of my life. There's this book - a modern Christian classic of sorts - that's supposed to be inspiring for people with emotional struggles. The author spent half the book complaining about her relationship with her husband. I could try to compare it to my relationship with my mother or something, but your spouse and your mother have very different roles in your life. I wanted to say, "Look lady, I'm sorry that your husband was insensitive and that your children only added to your emotional troubles, but on some level, deep down, I'm jealous that you HAVE a husband and children. Give me a way this could apply to MY life." It seems like Christian writers always end up explaining the practical application of their ideas with, "For example, my wife and I would often..." and I think, "*Sigh*... Of course you did."

    Then again, eastern spirituality and modern WASP spirituality are two very different beasts. Perhaps that's why the woman who posted the review on Amazon and I have had such different experiences.

    The main reason why I don't read a lot of modern Christian writing is that I often feel like the ideas are watered down and stretched out ad nauseum. I feel like the author expects the readers to be simple-minded folk who can't read the Bible too good by themselves. I mean, I generally get some good ideas from anything I read, and I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions to my snotty opinion, but, for now, I'm simply tired of reading books written by financially-successful married white men.

    It's interesting (and now I'm just babbling aloud) that I don't mind the way C.S. Lewis writes about his wife. Maybe it's because he's examining the nature of a deep love rather than referencing situations and trials that I've never experienced and assume I don't understand. Or MAYBE I'm just biased because I want to live in Narnia...

    (Gah! Sorry for the rant that was only vaguely related to your post.)


Anyone may comment.