“Shut up! Can’t you see that dad’s meditating?” my 11-year-old son Henry yells at his eight-year-old brothers William and Michael. The noise stops and soon I have two little boys racing to sit in my lap. A lap perfect for an eight-year-old to snuggle into. William pulls my hands off my knees and wraps them around his body.
He remembers it’s more fun if he has his blanket, so he throws my hands off and runs to get it. Michael sees his opportunity and quickly climbs into my lap. I will not be able to focus on breath alone with all the commotion pulling my mind away and so I move from watching my breath to repeating a mantra. All this is happening on the couch in the “office” I share with my wife, a printer, books, some storage, and a dining room table I use for my desk.
William is not happy to find his brother in my lap but fits in by shoving his brother over. They scuffle a bit, but knowing this is supposed to be a quiet meditation, they settle down. Michael, to show his brothers and me his ability to meditate, starts singing “omm” at the top of his lungs. William, not to be outdone, starts chanting chakra sounds.
My mind wanders to advice a meditation friend gave me 32 years ago, when my daughter Akasha was born. “Paul, your children will find your [zazen] posture inviting and come sit in it. Smile and relax into this. It is good for your children.” Akasha would climb out of bed when she heard my footsteps at 6 a.m. and come sit in my lap.
Her long blonde hair would catch on the scruff of my beard and tickle my face. My training would set in. “Be still” I would say to myself. I remembered my teacher’s words: “Only I can move you. Even a mosquito or bee should not allow you to move.” But I could not meditate with my face being tickled. I would mindfully straighten Akasha’s hair off my face and move back into stillness and watching my breath.
My teacher explained how our mind likes to jump from place to place and our aches, tickles, needs to pee, discomforts, and tics need to be acknowledged mindfully but not used as an excuse to move or leave our breath. During a meditation dance of movements from itches, to butt cramps, to shoulder spasms, we must stay on breath and realize those spasms and cramps are just inviting our monkey mind away from our practice. We can go 20 minutes without movement. The itches and cramps will subside.
I have taught meditation over my 38 years of practice, and I have heard a dojo full of excuses. No time, no place, can’t concentrate, too noisy.
Happiness takes self-discipline, as does a mindfulness practice that has the payoff of a calmer, happier, more effective you. Kindness and expressing love when you don’t feel like it also takes self-discipline.
Often when we are tired, we become cranky and expect those around us to forgive our less-than-helpful or unkind actions or words, because we had a tough day, got bad news, or got yelled at by someone. Excuses are a slippery slope to a disconnected life centered around yourself. We can always find an excuse for bad behavior. But if we have chosen to be radically loving, spiritual examples of compassion, we must get our minds off ourselves.
When I was going through a triple-play tough patch in my 30s (health, financial, and emotional), a good friend, a therapist by training who was living in Germany, would call me on her lunch hour, waking me up each morning.
She would, when I said anything about my tough circumstances, say to me in her kindest voice, “Paul, I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes. But then I met a man with no feet.” She would then get me thinking about how to create the future I wanted and solutions to my little problems, help me concentrate on what I could do, and remind me of the serenity prayer.
She also lovingly would say she was on my side but this was my journey, and I must choose how I wished to respond to it and own my behaviors. She would remind me that if I started to do “American self-pity, entitlement, lazy excuses for bad behavior, self-absorbed crap in the name of self-care” she would point it out. She suffered from chronic pain from a deformed back—a fact well-hidden and only discovered much later in our relationship.
Part of our happiness experience comes from allowing ourselves to be in relationship with all of our life experiences, without labeling them good, bad, or neutral. Just accepting them with love and maybe a bit of humor. Her back pain and chronic headaches were not going to mess with her happiness or the relationship she had with me, herself, or anyone else.
One day while I was sitting in meditation, fully dressed and showered for work, one of my six children arranged themselves comfortably on my lap, put their thumb in their mouth, and fell back asleep. A few minutes later, I felt warm moisture streaming along my calf and onto my socks, emanating from my sleeping, not yet fully potty-trained child. My teacher’s instructions, “Don’t move. Be mindful. Let the thoughts, stimulus, or feelings be like a river; you as observer mindfully watching your breath,” was the thought that came to my mind. Then thoughts of a new shower, a bath for my child, a load of laundry, what will I wear to the office, how do you wash a pillow, and should I wake the beautiful creation of God in my lap flooded my consciousness. I smiled. I started to laugh; it was my choice on how I would be in relationship with this event. I chose happiness.