A Silent Lesson

As a student of Zen, an imperative is to cut off the ‘mind road’. To silence the narrative discourse of mind that, far from telling the story of reality, often usurps the present and becomes a reality unto itself. Sometimes these exercises - though noble in intent - become as divorced and disembodied from reality as the original narrative was, due to a failure to integrate them into our everyday lives.

Recently, my son was born five weeks premature. As a result, his ability to breathe, eat, regulate his body temperature and blood pressure were compromised, and he was placed in an incubator. Deprived of the normal fatherly instruments of sound and touch to communicate, a sort of helplessness began to set in. I wondered how it would be possible to tell him that I was his father, that I was there for him, and that I loved him.

Not long thereafter, he opened one eye and our gazes met. I felt that while I had his attention it was urgent I somehow assure him of my presence, my concern, and my love - but he closed his eye shortly thereafter and drifted back off to sleep. I stayed by his side - awaiting my chance to somehow get a message through to him that he wasn’t alone - and that I was right there.

Over the coming hours and days, his little eyes would often open, and be met with a furtive attempt on my part to, once again, convince him I was right by his side. Just as I was really beginning to feel a profound sense of failure and despair he opened his eye again. As he was accustomed to my gaze meeting him close by, and I had moved away to pace and bemoan the circumstances, he began to slowly scan back and forth for me. I quickly came back close to him, and as our eyes met he dozed off again. It was then it finally dawned upon me: I was there for him. I had been frantic to somehow tell him of my love and concern - but I had been fully embodying it by my constant presence.

The distinction seems subtle, but consider how often the reverse is the case. How often are the words “I love you” merely hollow and abstract concepts completely divorced from the present? How often do flowery sentiments replace true compassion and concern? The simple things we do that are real outweigh our most eloquently articulated speech.

I try now to hold glances with strangers a little longer, to hug more often, and to demonstrate compassion rather than say it. All a lesson in Zen my son taught me - before he could even speak.

by Michael Brunner