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Practicing in Daily Life as a New Parent – Colin

Here’s Colin Salmon’s account as a first time parent:

“When I have asked in the past about how to practice as part of family life, or whilst raising a small child, I meant one of two things.  Firstly, how do I keep doing zazen?  Secondly, how do I see myself as a proper Buddhist when I am cleaning up shit at three in the morning, have a cold and argued with my wife before going to bed because it was all a bit too much?

In my opinion the latter question is the more straightforward to answer.  You don’t.  If you previously took pride in being the kind of person who doesn’t lose their cool, doesn’t get frustrated, and always arrives on time, well then, welcome to parenthood.  It is not like that for anyone.  It is inevitable that it will get to you at times.  When that happens to me, if I am not too busy telling myself that it shouldn’t be this way, or I shouldn’t be this way, then I can learn something.  That might not change the reality of the situation, but it can make it a bit easier next time.  One of the biggest challenges for myself and many new parents I know is the sudden loss of personal space and time for oneself.  As a coping mechanism it might be important to engineer some opportunities for these things.  This is of course easier if you can share the load with a partner.  I don’t think either of them are really necessary for practice though.  What’s more important to me is that whatever is happening, I am feeling what is there without judgement and I am seeing my reactions for what they are.  In a sense there is more opportunity for that when I can’t take a pit stop to rebuild my notions of what kind of person I am.  However it is also easy to get so caught up in the chaos that I just indulge in the kind of complaining narrative that makes everything worse and reinforces poor habits.  And that brings me back to the first point, because it is much easier in my experience to be present to what is happening if I am doing some kind of regular zazen.  Without zazen the statement that my life is my practice becomes just that; a statement, not a lived experience.

The question of how to maintain or establish a sitting practice is a bit more tricky.  I certainly have not sat every day since my son was born.  There were periods at the beginning when I stopped completely.  It was way down on a list that included keeping someone alive who seemed to be incapable of eating, and having an enormous amount of fun with him. Probably the flexibility to say “screw this, there is more important stuff going on,” is quite important, but that can in turn become a habit which continues to assert itself when it no longer needs to.  After the immersive shock of the first few weeks I decided that I wanted to start sitting properly again, but it didn’t happen.  Again the problem was “properly.”  It was not realistic to have that regular slot of meditation that I could rely on, especially not in the morning.  Zazen became part of the day once again when I stopped setting up standards for it to be “worth it.”  “That’s not long enough, there’s no point.”  “The room is too messy.”  “The bin smells.”  And the best of all “I am not in the right frame of mind.”  This sort of reasoning is no different to the way I sometimes wriggled out of zazen early on in practice, after the first flush of enthusiasm had passed.  My answer to it then was to establish a disciplined routine, and my answer this time had to be to let go of that.  I have sat zazen over the last year in my stock cupboard before leaving work, in the living room for a couple of minutes next to the toys and pizza boxes, once or twice in the bathroom (yes, on the toilet seat) and, occasionally, for a good half hour with incense, bows and the whole shebang because the house was empty, or the stars of snooze time, work and home life were otherwise in alignment.

In a sense, practice is the same as it always was.  There may be less time to sit, but rarely is there no time.  If I want to do it, I’ll do it.  It is important for me that I know when I sit, or don’t sit, it is a choice.  My family (and life) is not reduced to an excuse.  After all, who do I need to excuse myself to?  The more honest I am with myself, the more easily zazen enmeshes itself with my day.  And the situations that arise, though they are very different, offer the same choice again.  To feel it and be there with the love, joy, tiredness and everything else, or tell myself that there will come a time, at some point in the future, when practice will be perfectly straightforward.”