For the bulk of our relationship, my wife and I identified as travelers. We backpacked in Southeast Asia, surfed in Portugal, camped in Maine, rode motorcycles along the California coast, and honeymooned in New Zealand. Those trips were fun. They were thrilling and adventurous, novel and joyous.

Then we had a kid. 

We canceled our daughter’s first birthday party because of the pandemic. Little did we know, we were effectively grounded. We had another kid. Travel became all but a distant memory, and occasionally we’d find ourselves flipping through old journals, recalling the lively characters and unpredictable moments we encountered on the road. Then we’d hear a cry, and one of us would have to go change a diaper, our reverie interrupted by one of the lively characters we created.

Last fall, we decided it was time to indoctrinate our kids, both under 5, into the joys of travel, with a trip to visit friends in Austin, Texas. We navigated the complexities of flying with children and found ourselves once again on the cusp of having fun. Except that the sunshine we thought we were escaping to from frigid Boston turned out to be drizzly skies and middling temperatures. And thanks to the tyranny of naptime, most of our excursions were abbreviated and within stroller range. What’s more, on the second night there, our daughter did her best Exorcist reenactment, projectile-vomit-screaming in the house of our gracious hosts, waking everyone up in the process. As I groggily cleaned everything up with a spray bottle and a roll of paper towels, I had to wonder: “was this fun?”

In many ways I was reminded of being on so many Zen retreats, during which I perform chores, hold uncomfortable poses, and often wonder at some point, as my back is aching and my exhaustion peaking, “is this fun?” And yet, for some reason, I return, again and again, having sat upwards of thirty retreats over the last twenty years. I’ve even come up with a shorthand for when I’m asked about my experience post-retreat: “hard but good.” This simple phrase seems to summarize the rigor and gratification without having to explain that it wasn’t necessarily relaxing.

In Austin, the idea of “fun,” or lack thereof, was a frequent topic of conversation with our friends, who also have two kids under 5. I explained my recent fascination with the concept of “type two fun,” a popular notion in masochistic outdoor adventure communities, in which running five miles in freezing rain on muddy trails might qualify as something that is not quite enjoyable in the moment but that you are glad that you did afterward, the amount of suffering acting in direct proportion to the post-experience satisfaction. Perhaps some of us are simply gluttons for funishment.” Is parenting even supposed to be fun? Is parenting mindfulness practice?

Having endured (I mean enjoyed) thousands of hours of both of these endeavors, it occurred to me that they could be useful analogues for each other. After all, nowhere in the Buddhist canon, or in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, is fun guaranteed. Yet it can be somewhat disheartening for new meditators and new parents alike to discover that bliss goes hand-in-hand with boredom, that reality doesn’t adhere to expectation, and that bodies and minds are prone to highly random patterns of behavior that don’t always go along with the setting, whether that manifests as projectile vomiting on a friend’s wall or distracting mental projections on a monastery wall.

Bliss goes hand-in-hand with boredom

Part of the problem might be that fun has an incredible PR department. Everywhere you look, people seem to be having it, their social media exploits revealing all of the ways in which you are not. But upon closer inspection, this projected idea of fun starts to develop some cracks. When I look back at my earlier travels, I recognize that it was a time in my life when the highs were high but the lows were low. Sure, I had a blast seeking extremes, but I was also fleeing a general sense of ennui and looking for ways to fill a perceived lack. The bells and whistles of fun can be thrilling, but they also keep you chasing the next high, raising the fun threshold in what can become an increasingly discontented cycle (samsara, anyone?).

When I reached out to Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki, the director of the Mindfulness Studies program at Lesley University, to ask about the relationship between fun and Buddhism, he explained that in practice “the point is to fully experience the whole range of feeling tones with equanimity.” It is not to lean toward fun or joy or pleasure and away from boredom or sorrow or pain. “We can experience pleasure one moment and displeasure the next,” said Olendzki, “but we are presumably not favoring one over the other.”

In fact, it is by seeing this dissonance brought upon by our expectations of fun that we can begin to let go of our preconceptions and create space for a whole nuanced range of feeling tones. Part of the power of meditation practice is seeing the ways we set ourselves up to suffer precisely because of our skewed expectations. Expecting bliss, we are met with sore knees and that annoying construction din across the street. Yet the richness of our pained knees and these shrieking noises can also be engrossing elements for our experience if we are willing to notice them with equanimity, without trying to bypass what we characterize as the mundane so that we can get to the “important stuff.”

In parenting and in practice, we get to exchange “fun” for something that may be deeper, more challenging, and more lasting. We get to step away from the claustrophobic environment of our domains and desires and see anew. We get to expand our horizons beyond our own self-image, loosening the holds of the ego and tending to a wider web of beings with care and compassion. On retreat, I have had memorable highs and lows, but one of the most salient lessons may be that there is no need to identify with any of them. In Austin, the day after the exorcism, as my daughter slept off her illness, I meditated on a cushion beside her, grateful for the respite. Fun is fleeting, but there may be nothing more strangely enduring than sitting vigil next to your recovering child as they get the rest that they need. In the end, the trip was hard but good.