I am a legitimate confirmation class dropout. My family used to go to a Presbyterian church, but quit after one too many screaming matches when I didn't get my weekly Pokemon card bribe for going to Sunday School. After that, as a family we were most invested in the church of bacon and sarcasm, and basically left Jesus at the door. The one person in my family who was the exception was my dad. My father converted from Catholicism, which he grew up with, to Buddhism after becoming more in touch with his own personal spirituality after a series of tough situations he experienced later in his life.
As I get older, I find the influences of Buddhism during my childhood permeate my own day-to-day thinking more and more often. I can still hear the type of structured advice he would offer throughout my growing up, see him every morning sitting Shiva in our living room in daily meditation, reminding my sister and I of the vast importance of self-agency, Until the age of around thirteen, I didn't realize the depth of my dad's belief-system. Meditation and Zen practice is a very personal business for my father, and while I would constantly see him meditating, I grew up unaware of the reasons why he did it. It is with surprising ease that one may incorporate an Eastern religion such as Buddhism into their daily lives in a culture that leaves no time for personal meditation, nor the necessary time in which one can focus on their spirituality sans ambition.
Virtually every morning without fail, I woke for school at 6:45 a.m. to find my father, having already gone to a daily meeting and meditated for at least an hour, making my bowl of cereal. When I was much younger, I would sneak out of my room into the living room to watch him meditate, assuming he was in an alternate state and would have no idea I was leaning against a wall in our hallway, directly in his line of vision, watching his face and closed eyes for signs of movement or life. Much of the time, he would scare me by opening up one eye really fast after realizing I was there and flustered, I would fly back into my room without acknowledging that I'd been spying. Other times, he would never acknowledge my presence while meditating but sometimes over breakfast ask me why I was up early enough to catch him meditating.
He meditates in front of a small chair about a foot tall that my sister built in second grade carpentry class, on which lies a postcard with a photo of a Buddha sculpture, a purple rock crystal, a little box I built and painted when I was very young, and a small grey stone. While these specific things clearly hold importance for him in his meditation, the thoughts induced are so much more important to him than the objects themselves. For instance, a few years ago I was home from college for winter break and bored, so I replaced all his things on the little chair with my crappy little toys we never got rid of, like a Whoopee cushion and a plastic sculpture of an ice cream cone. I left them there without thinking, and when I returned home a few months later, I saw that all my crap was still on his little meditation table. He had been meditating to them for almost a month! I never questioned the reasons he had for holding on to the new collection on his chair. My belief is that every time he looked at the collection of junk I had procured over the years and organized into a shrine, it reminded him of my weird sense of humor. It mirrored his sense of humor, inherited from both his mother and father, and had finally trickled down to me. Humor, as it is with the Zen community, is a large part of my family's experience. His practice, while a serious part of his daily routine, was never taken too seriously. He could laugh at the severity of a "shrine" along with me while simultaneously meditating to it. He had incorporated chuckling at my ridiculous 'shrine' into his very practice.
My father's Zen ways of thinking softly permeated his parenting techniques. He would remind me to breathe deeply and to focus on my breath for ten seconds when I began to get upset. While this answer still infuriates me, understanding the statement through a Buddhist perspective gives it a more tangible meaning. At thirteen years old, shaking with rage after realizing my sister just stole my only pair of stockings for a week long trip, I was in no mood to think about breathing.
However, once my father would tell me to breathe, I wasn't allowed to talk again for ten seconds. I always resented this forced silence, but ten seconds was an irritatingly perfect amount of time for me to realize I needed to cool my shit. One of his most common pieces of advice to me growing up was, "they don't make you feel that way, you make you feel that way," and it was true. I would work myself up, and then feel the physical effects of my own anger. Nobody else was experiencing these negative feelings but myself. Slow, deep breathing slowed my heart rate and brought my blood pressure down, alleviating my insatiable rage. In this way, my father just shoved some Zen Buddhist wisdom into my brain before I could see what hit me.
Practicing aspects of Zen Buddhism isn't signing your life away to a monastery, and doesn't necessitate any prior knowledge of Zen as a religion. The all-encompassing nature of Zen practice, as well as the variation in practice and intensity, is what attracted my father to Buddhism in the first place, and it is what keeps me interested in the study of Buddhism and the utilization of Zen beliefs and practices in my daily life. After all, don't we all need to remind ourselves to breathe sometimes? Or just stare for an hour or so at things that remind you of people you love and things that make you laugh?