Umi no Nami Dan Rotnem

Part of my commitment to Hollow Bones Zen is to embody awakening practice in daily life. Sometimes it’s challenging, but it’s always rewarding. When preparing for this post, I remembered that Zen is pretty hot in pop-culture, too. Out of curiosity, I decided to see what was up on Instagram. (If it’s not painfully obvious, I don’t do much social media…)

#Zen had 16.5 M posts. #ZenLife has 269k. #ZenAF has 91k.

I learned that, apparently, Zen is synonymous with watching squirrels chew and fake Buddha quotes. Cute aphorisms and sayings from yogis, yoga poses in tropical locations, and artsy things. Being super chill, not caring, and some interesting ideas about energy and being a star. I’m sure somewhere in there are buried amazing gems that really represent the essence of what I understand to be Zen. There have to be.

But my overall takeaway is that what I think of as living zen just isn’t on the radar of mainstream social consciousness. While not surprised, I still had a moment of:

“Woah, THIS is what’s associated with Zen?”

It did help me better contextualize the experience of building a local sangha. People find out that I do this Zen thing and a conversation happens something like this… :

Them: I love Zen! It seems so relaxing!

Me: Well, eventually, ya! Not so much at first though, or always.

Them: What do you mean?!

Me: Zen is a way of understanding who we really are and bringing that forward in daily life. It can be pretty intense.

Them: How do you do that?

Me: It’s a whole-life practice. We build conscious relationships with the people and environment around us. We study things that help us understand how life works. We reflect on, and transform, our unhealthy patterns of emotions and behaviors so that we can live out lives of deep caring. We take care of our bodies and learn how to listen to them. We practice meditation to strengthen our ability to be present to all of these things. Altogether, we’re learning how to be complete within ourselves and to engage life fully.

Them: That does sound intense. What does that actually mean though, like, in real life?

Me: An example would be that we don’t really get to ignore or turn away from things, we take full responsibility for how we live. For example, even though I have practiced a lot for a long time, including going on week-long silent meditation retreats …

Them: Wait, what?!? (Side conversation ensues…)

Me: Anyway, even with all that, and despite the fact that I can show up “well” so much of the time, I still get triggered and freak out. Like, the other day, my daughter threw a tantrum about going to school and because we missed the bus I had to cancel a meeting with a client. My reaction was to yell and scream at her for not doing what she’s supposed to do and negatively impacting my life. I was pretty mean about it. I got caught up in the visceral reaction around fear that I’m not meeting my commitments and sad that I haven’t been able to raise a kid that behaves the way I think she should. Underneath all that is a really deep caring; caring for who she becomes, caring for the clients I serve, caring for the impact such fights have on my wife and son, caring that she ignored me asking nicely 10 times and I didn’t have the skill to deal with her temper tantrum better.

By itself I imagine this is a pretty normal parenting moment. But by living this #ZenLife I don’t get to use any of the things I used to do to get through it. I don’t get to go check out with inspirational quotes about how other people not being able to handle my intensity is their problem, and feel superior in my spirituality. I don’t get to justify my behavior and say “she made me get angry.” I don’t get to forget about it and walk away and repeat the cycle again tomorrow. I don’t get to collapse into shame and hate myself and miss out on the rest of the day brooding over it.

It’s totally reasonable to lose my cool in such a situation, and I’m fully committed to not ever letting it happen again. And I share this commitment with my family so they can help hold me accountable.

I have to face the fact that I did this. I screamed at my daughter, whom I love and who was suffering, in front of my wife and son. I feel it in my body right now, the tightness in the chest – the explosion building. So I learn to notice it, to hold it gently, and to let it inform me that I’m afraid and sad and that I care. I get to learn this pattern, to see through it, and next time I will show up differently. I may not know how, exactly, to be – but I know that I won’t be that way. I celebrate noticing it again, trying again, and being a little better prepared to show my family how much I love them next time. The longer I’ve done this, the more often I’m able to show up with that deep caring. By learning how to accept the intensity of my fear and sadness, I can hear the message that they bring and am no longer controlled by them.

Them: Oh, ya… that’s not what I thought Zen was at all! I could probably use some of that…

+1 for #HBZLife! This way of living brings the wisdom, compassion and skillful means of deep meditative practice into our lives. It’s not always pleasant, especially at first when we are just beginning to turn in and take responsibility for our awakening. But it does lead to some fantastic outcomes—not just for me, but for my family and the community I engage with. At first I thought it was just a cute aphorism, but now I think I get it…


Umi no Nami Dan Rotnem is a priest and teacher, currently serving as Executive Director for Hollow Bones Zen.

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