undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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Struggles of a Buddhist Dad

894-Buddha-and-MangaWhen I was shopping around for a local Buddhist community, I sat down with the abbot and monk of a local Zen center for an interview.

“I’m a father, with a wife and son, and I don’t have much time that isn’t already dedicated to my work or family,” I explained to him. “What do I do about my practice and making time to come to the Zen center?”

“Your family is your priority and your practice,” he responded immediately, with great confidence. He went on to explain that being a father is the situation I am in, and that dictates how I use my time. I should dedicate myself to my family, he explained, and by fully engaging in every action with them, I am practicing Zen.

That did it for me. Up until that time, I had been half-halfheartedly searching for a Buddhist community, but had little faith in the process. I had been biased against American Buddhists for most of my life. I had met too many old White male Buddhists who were more interested in wearing beads and touting their belief system than being engaged and compassionate with those around them. But I’d come to a point in my life where I had to admit to Buddhism’s hold on me, and I wanted to give up my trepidation and stereotypes, and find what might be out there for me. The abbot’s response caught my attention, and I’ve been part of the community ever since.

But this has been the problem: even after I found a faith to embrace, the integration of my family life was a challenge. Most American Buddhist communities are very individualistic in their practice traditions. Most communities offer meditation, retreats, and interviews for the individual practitioner. They may also hold talks, community meals, or discussion groups but, for the most part, these events cater to the individual practitioners in the community. And who are these individual practitioners?  Typically, they are the people who have time to go, by themselves, to a center or temple for meditation. In my journeys, this typically translates to young adults (folks in their early 20’s) or retirees, who have the time to dedicate to individualized practice.

So what about people my age? What about folks with kids? Where are the families?

From my experience, parents can’t make the time to go. Who will watch there kids? Plus it feels rather self-indulgent to go sit in meditation, when there’s a family dinner you’re missing or a soccer practice that the kids need to get to.

But is this what a faith community is supposed to be about? Faith communities are composed of two essential elements: faith and community. Ever religion has its believe system, comprised of world-view, ethics, story tradition, practices, etc. But in order for it to be a religion, it must have a community: that group of people who come together around a particular belief system. Most of these communities culminate naturally around a church, synagogue, or mosque, where there’s an expectation that the family commune regularly with other families of that faith. In some cases everyone in the family comes together for a service or practice, or kids head out for religious education or activity while the parents worship or practice. Regardless, most faith communities are inclusive and embrace families and family life. But few American Buddhist communities feel this way.

As for me, I’d much rather say, “Let’s get in the car and all go to church!” than “Have fun at dinner while dad goes off to sit quietly for an hour.” This was the impetus for me to start a kids group at my local Zen center. I knew that if I wanted a community of Buddhist families, I might just have to help create one. So my wife and I were instrumental in getting a children’s group off the ground. It’s had its ups and downs, but for a while it was quite special, and gave the kids and families an opportunity to come together to learn about mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism.

But four years later, the two elements never connected up: faith and community. Here’s what I mean. We overlaid our kids group onto a functioning Zen community, comprised mostly of the practitioners I mentioned above, young adults and retirees. In some ways, they enjoyed having kids around, but they didn’t know what to do with us. Although our group grew, it grew on the periphery. The second issue was that the parents coming for the kids programming weren’t really part of the Zen center community. They were interested in mindfulness classes for their kids, but they weren’t necessarily Buddhist or practitioners. Plus, most didn’t have the time or interest in connecting with the rest of the community because, although it’s fun to come to a kids class, they don’t have additional time to practice with the broader community. Therefore, we grew this community of kids and families, but it was segmented from the rest of the faith tradition.

At this point, the family community is transient. If you’re coming for a mindfulness “class” it’s much different from, say, going to church. The “class” mentality doesn’t keep parents dedicated to the group. Therefore, folks come and go, and there isn’t a consistent group attending. There isn’t much connection to the rest of the center. Everything feels disjointed.

My wife has more recently been going to a Unitarian Universalist church for services, and I’ve been coming along. UU’s are experts at children’s religious education. It’s a hallmark of the faith community, and I find it to be inclusive, respectful of difference, and amazingly varied across the lifespan. When I see this, I feel an emptiness in my heart. This emptiness comes from my strong desire to force something that isn’t easy. It comes from this a desire to be a part of a Zen faith community that also honors, engages, and loves families and kids. But this isn’t the case within most Zen centers. Even if there is a recognition of the importance of family, there is no outlet to foster and care for parents and kids.

I’m trying to come to peace with where things are for me now. I realize that forcing a community based on my own desire isn’t very Buddhist, isn’t very “Zen”. All my disappointment and grief are a product of that desire, and of seeing what I “can’t have” from the UU community in my own Zen center. I find that I need to remind myself of the teaching I received was from my initial interview with that abbot. My family is my priority and my practice. As an Zen practitioner, I engage fully with the situation I am faced with, whether it’s sitting down for a meal with my family, going to a kids group at the Zen center, or listening to a sermon at the Unitarian church. It will be a process letting go of my grief for the community that never was, but that grief is what holds me back from fully engaging, fully seeing the glory or the community I have right in front of me: my own family.

 

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Don’t Be Like Me, Son

geeksSoccer season is wrapping up for my son, which is a bitter-sweet conclusion to the Fall. With the end of the season, my wife and I get to reclaim our Monday nights, Friday nights, and Saturday mornings, but my son is left without his team and his new favorite sport. I will truly miss seeing my son out there are on the field. His gusto, resilience, and comradery remind me of all the ways he’s not like me, which is a good thing.

As a kid, I was super anxious. I was the good, quiet kid in the back of the class who kept his head down and did his work. I was the kid who was respectful around adults and shy with peers. I was also the kid who was terrified of group sports, because I was awkward, uncoordinated, and un-athletic. During PE or recess, I would shy away from group games and sports for fear that I would mess up and evoke the jeers and disappointment of kids in my class. To combat this scenario, I’d do two things: I’d stay away from competitive games and sports as much as possible, and I’d become self-deprecating among my peers.

When captains were picking teams among a huddle of elementary school boys, I’f be the first to say, “Uh oh, I hope you don’t get me on your team!” or “Okay, I’ll just move to the back so you get a better view of the good players.” or (when I was one of the last few kids) “Looks like you’re down to the worst of the worst.” Basically, I was a 10-year-old Richard Lewis.

In this way, I beat the other kids to the punch, protecting myself from insults because no one insulted me as well as I did. But I also self-segregated myself from other kids. I distinguished myself as the kid no one wanted on his team, and so I never really tried. If I was bad, then why fight against it? So I never tried my hardest. I never fought past the awkwardness to gain any skill.

Apples don’t fall far from the tree, and so my son is like me in many ways. He struggles with coordination and rhythm. He can’t quite move his body as fluidly and nimbly as some other kids his age. He’s also quite shy. He’s very quiet around adults and is slow to meet friends. When I see these traits in him, I feel badly, because he has inherited traits from me that hindered me as a kid. So when I see him shying away from social interactions, or struggling with sports, I feel sorry for him, and wish I hadn’t yoked him with these weighty obstacles.

I think many parents struggle with the challenging traits they see in their kids, especially those the recognize (consciously or unconsciously) as arising from their own genes. They trigger in us all the memories of how we suffered as kids or they ways in which we were hindered or held back because of who we were. Parents want the best for their kids, and so this realization of a parents’ less-optimal traits are sometimes a guiding force for how we attempt to shape our children.

For me, I always push my son to interact with others and have a voice in the world. I prod him to go up and ask adults questions, like librarians, waitresses, or cashiers. I coach him about how to respond to adults if they ask him questions, so he isn’t a nodding mute when confronted with an adult inquiry. I encourage him to make friends or approach other kids. I know I do these things because I was a shy kid who never took social risks and never had much of a voice. I don’t want my son to grow up like that, because I experienced it as so limiting.

Sports were different though. I never pushed him to do them, because I was always terrified of them. For myself, I felt as though they’d be a set-up for ridicule because of my awkwardness. I think that in many ways, perhaps unconsciously, I de-emphasize sports with my son, because I see myself in him, and want to protect him from any rejection.

But my son is not me. When soccer season came around, I was astounded that he wanted to try. He was (perhaps luckily) put on a team that my wife and I dubbed the Bad News Bears, because they were a troop of rag-tag kids on a loosing streak. Their abilities ranged from not-so-good to okay, and so there were very few superstars on the team. I was thankful because I didn’t want any cocky athletic kids making fun of my son.

My son was off to a rough start. He fumbled around with the ball at his feet and shied away from the action. When the kids charged for the ball, he would defer to his teammates and take a supportive role, never taking the lead. When he did get the ball, he’d quickly give it up or pass it to someone else. When I projected my 8-year-old self into his shoes, I knew I’d do the same, but I’d take it to a different level. I would have given up. I would have complained to my parents that I didn’t want to go, or I would completely opt out of receiving the ball for fear of how badly I’d do.

But not my son. Throughout the season, he stuck to it. He practiced and practiced. He gave his all during formal practices, only to go home and ask me to kick the ball around with him. He loved goal keeping and would ask me to shoot balls his way while he defended them from hitting our fence. As games progressed, he’d get gutsier and charge in with the other kids. He scored one of the team’s few goals during the season! He started asking the coach if he could be goalie, and even asked his mom and me to buy him goalie gloves. By the end of the season, he looked like a different player, still with a lot to learn, but a kid who wasn’t afraid to get in there, make mistakes, and push through the struggles.

A childless male friend recently asked me what’s the best part of being a parent. With this soccer season fresh in my mind, I responded that it’s seeing your child surprise you. It’s seeing aspects of you in your child, but realizing that in spite of being an amalgam of you and your partner’s genes, your child is a unique human being who can always surprise you.