On and off the shelf

It’s about 1am on Thursday night, and we’ve just got our 1 month old daughter, Zoa, to sleep. It’s been and on-and-off (mostly on) struggle to get her down at night. And then my son Corbin wakes up. I go in, try to comfort him, but nothing works. I’m not able to get him back to sleep until nearly 5am, and then have to wake up at 6:45 to head to work.

In this 4 hour period I go from rage to depression to fear to calm to half-asleep to happy. No where do I find my Buddhism. Why? Because it is in its usual resting place, the shelf.

The Literal Shelf:

I haven’t meditated since before my daughter was born, which was a month ago. My son has been sleeping less at night, sometimes waking up for 4-5 hours, sometimes 30 minutes at a time 3-4 times a night. Or sometimes he sleeps right through. My daughter hasn’t been going to sleep well either. I used to do my meditation routine at night, right after everyone was in bed. Meditate, or sleep… meditate, or sleep…. not really a hard choice on my part now. Setting up the altar and meditating in the morning isn’t really an option, as I wake up with my son (anywhere from 4:30am-7am) and there is no chance in hell I can sit staring at the floor with him running around loose.

So right now, my Buddhism sits on the shelf, in the form of a book usually. I’ve decided that for now, study shall suffice, at least until we can get some kind of regular night-time and sleep routine going. I realize that meditation is only a tiny part of Buddhist and Zen practice, I do. I realize that really living the path means bringing the teachings with you into the mud of life. But I’m having enough difficulty just remembering to take out the damn trash, let alone to do it “mindfully”. I have no teacher, no formal sangha. My knowledge is a lacking, and my insights are few and rare. Right now study isn’t just a way to practice while being convienent, but is a necessary and important part of my practice for today and tomorrow. I simply wish I had the time, capacity, and patience to bring “it” off the shelf more often. Which brings me to-

The Figurative Shelf:

I notice more and more that the times when I’m “being a Buddhist”, come short and fast, and they are gone. I can remember to breathe from the hara, but then it’s gone as soon as my breath leaves. And when I remember again a few minutes later, I kick myself when I look at all the crap I filled my head up with in between.

But much of my life is no different from this. Those feelings I had late the other night, they came and went faster than I would have admitted at the time. I’m finding most of my life resides on the shelf. Little stories I have of “me” to be taken down and checked out when convenient. Some of them barely get out of their usual space before they come right back, while others are near impossible to put back once taken.


Anger in its many forms is one of these. Stress, rage, loneliness, burden. This story I call “Only my self and the fire” is an old and familiar one. One too familiar, and not old enough. I know how harmful it can be, yet its pages suck me in and keep me there longer than I’d like. But eventually a chapter or two in, and I realize how many times I have read this one, and how it always ends the same. As time passes I’m finding that it goes back on the shelf a little easier each time, and that it takes me a page or two less each time to get it there. Progress.

There is another, one titled “Riding on Cloud 9 in Fantasy Land”. This story sits on my shelf more often than not, but when I pick it up, I am transported. Taken away to a place where nothing can harm me. No bill collectors are allowed here and everyone has a perfect credit score. People don’t fight. Kids sleep through the night. Cats scoop their own litter box. Cars repair themselves for free. Everything works out in the end here. This book isn’t just hard to put back on the shelf, it’s impossible. The only way to get it back on the shelf is if another one of my stories knocks it out of my hand. I don’t like it when that happens. I really enjoy that story.

And this goes on and on and on. These novels and short stories that I’ve created for me and about me, are constantly going from hand to shelf, hand to shelf. The speed at which must be quite dizzying to onlookers, as I know it wears me out. And to top it off, there are times at which the books and stories I’m grabbing seem to have no real rhyme or reason, other than to grab them and hold on.

I’ve done this for years and my shelf is in disarray. Unfortunately, I’ve been viewing Buddhism and spirituality as just another story, to take on and off the shelf. If I had the presence of mind, I’d open up the pages, and realize that they aren’t things to be taken off the shelf and put back on at a whim. No, these are much more powerful. They are a Dewey Decimal system to keep these books organized. Help me clean them up and put them where they go. Separate the fiction from non-fiction. Buddhism and spirituality are there for when it’s time to let some of these books go, and reduce some of my inventory.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to do this type research needed into these very special ‘books’. They are there at home now, sitting on that damned shelf. Too often I leave them on that shelf, ignored until they are to be picked up when convienent.

In a flurry, on and off they go.

But they are an empty shelf!

Just hear without the noise.

Unite heart and mind.




Filed under Buddhism, Personal

12 responses to “On and off the shelf

  1. @_karmadorje

    This is an excellent post & an excellent way of viewing one’s life. I have never read anything like this before. I’m going to sit down & have a look at my own life using this formula.

    Can I say one thing? You still ARE practicing Dharma. You simply feel too overwhelmed at the moment & for good reason, so maybe not be so hard on yourself. You are practicing patience, responsibility, bodhichitta, loving-kindness, responsibility & a whole bunch of other things. You have even manage to write about the process & inspire at least one other person (me). That’s got to be worth something.

    You are a householder with a lot of responsibility on your plate at the moment. You may be surprised just how much your behaviour, attitude & thoughts are inline with the Dharma, despite that you can’t do your usual practice. I think your children & your wife are major beneficiaries of your practice. We can be full of knowledge, spend heaps of time locked away meditating, but the real heart of Dharma practice (as far as I am concerned) is how we are when life is busy & demanding a lot from us. Your post tells me you have a good heart & you have quite serious insight. I look forward to reading some more.

  2. Zen Outlaw


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  4. anonymous

    This is a story you might enjoy that i thought of while reading your post.
    “There’s a Zen story about a teenage girl who got pregnant. She was frightened, so when her parents asked her who the father was, she lied and said it was the old Zen monk down the road.

    When the baby was born, the angry parents went to the monk’s little cottage and banged on his door. When the monk answered, the father said, “This baby is yours,” and held it out to him.

    The monk said, “Is that so?” and took the baby. Over the next few years, the monk raised the child with as much concern and tenderness and love as if it had been his own.

    Meanwhile, the teenage girl was overcome by remorse and told her parents the truth, that the father was her boyfriend.

    The parents, in righteous indignation, marched back to the monk’s home and pounded on the door again. When the monk appeared, the angry father said, “The child is not yours. We want it back.”

    The monk said, “Is that so?” and gave them the child.”

    its found at…www.robertfish.com/?p=166

  5. Oh Equanimity… and then not… I so remember those sleepless nights that taught me about the vulnerability of little ones (especially the little one inside me).

    I really appreciate the “Dewey Decimal System” of Buddhism. Will use that with full creds to you!

    Deep bows to you and your family. May you be replenished by many catnaps!

  6. I would imagine being a parent is a Dharma practice in and of itself. Lessons in patience, determination, compassion, love, tenderness and stay aware of what’s going on around your child.

    You might be surprised how many of us are in the same boat–minus the kid in my case. However, I haven’t “formally” meditated in awhile too. I think reading a Buddhist book is just fine for practice if that’s where you are. It’s where I am right now and as long as we are in the now–we’re still on the path. 🙂

    It’s better than not having any Dharma in our lives. I think we (I know I do this) place too much importance on formal meditation. So much of Buddhist practice takes place off the cushion. I think you’re doing just fine Dharma brother. 🙂

    • It sure is James. I have plans to write some of my own Jatakas about parenting = practice. More info to come on that soon…

      And yeah, I agree that a little is a lot more than none when it comes to the dharma in our lives.

  7. As far as kids go, hang in there, it will get easier in a few years !
    As far as practice goes, reflective. giving parenting in the married person can be more true to practice than zazen is for a single person. The “practice” is work on the mind-relationships — that and that alone. IMHO

  8. Thank you for your candid sharing! Great post.

  9. Hello! Very recently have I began reading about mindfulness and meditation, and although without seeking professional opinion, I have already identified that should I enroll in a meditation course, I will be unable to focus. As I learn more from books and blogs (like this one) I tend to think that I have been living life mindlessly, doing things merely because it has been my routine for my whole life. I seriously am considering going into a meditation class, changing my perspective in life and being aware of myself and the life I am living. I have always had questioned whether I will be able to attain the state of “inner peace” by being mindful, but I guess I wouldn’t really know until I try. I do hope I will be able to be fully aware, “mindful” of myself. I just need to know the first step.