On July 25, 2015, my fiancée, Courtney, and I got married. It was truly incredible, partly because now I never have to say the word fiancée again. While other people said girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or wife, for 14 months we used this flowery French term that made it sound like we were constantly one-upping everyone. “Oh, you got married in a hotel? My fiancée and I are getting married in a barn in Vermont.” Even the mundane began to sound pretentious: “My fiancée and I had cereal for breakfast.” (And of course, we used Dom Perignon instead of milk.)
Thankfully, those days are over. My wife and I are newlyweds, but before we become oldlyweds, I wanted to pass on the lessons we gleaned from the experience of the wedding itself. Courtney was raised in the Shambhala community, and I have been a Zen practitioner for the last dozen years, so the celebration was mostly secular with a splash of dharma. Despite some bumps along the way, this proved to be a winning recipe. Therefore, in true Mahayana fashion, I wanted to share our experience, bumps and all, for the benefit of all beings (but particularly for those beings with weddings on the horizon). What follows are my 10 steps to a mindful wedding.
As far as the planning process was concerned, my approach was that of a bullfighter facing a raging bull: step to the side and thereby dodge any danger, stress, or linen debates. What I didn’t realize was that stepping to the side left Courtney out there to get metaphorically gored. I thought I was being generous in getting out of the way and letting her plan her perfect day. Really, I was abdicating responsibility and creating mass confusion about the details of what was our day.
Like tying your shoes or learning to ride a bike, planning a wedding is one of those things that you can only truly understand by doing. By the time the wedding day arrives, you almost wish you could start over with the knowledge you’ve acquired in the preceding months. Of course, unlike tying your shoes or riding a bike, you’ll only be getting married once (divorce rate statistics be damned). So heed the advice of someone who has been there: at the start of the process sit down and set clear expectations about how everything will unfold and who will be responsible for what. As I said in one of my vows: “Should we ever undertake an event of this magnitude again, I vow to be at least three times as helpful.” I probably should’ve said 300.
2. “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Our officiant, Wayne, is one of the coolest guys I know. He has a bonsai tree business, is a minister in the Shambhala community, and speaks with a perfect blend of sarcasm and depth. When it came to details like the marriage license, however, he just wasn’t interested. Thus, after Courtney and I obtained our marriage license, he never asked for it, and we totally forgot to give it to him. Then, in the aftermath of the wedding, the license disappeared. This meant that upon returning from our honeymoon, Courtney and I had to go back to the town clerk and obtain a new license. Technically, this means we are on our second marriage.
Before marriage, obtain a license. After marriage, turn in the license.
3. Watch your parents’ pill intake.
This one might be hyper-specific to my parents, but here goes: the Tuesday before the wedding, as we sat down to breakfast with my folks, my dad took his usual concoction of morning pills. Fifteen minutes later he was stumbling around knocking over furniture like a man who had just downed five Ambien. This is because my dad had in fact just downed five Ambien. Since we didn’t know that, the ensuing hours were mostly terrifying . . . but also kind of hilarious. If you’ve never seen your dad roll around on the front lawn with a smile on his face, insisting he is completely fine, then passing out mid-sentence, well, it will certainly keep your mind off the wedding. There was a bright side: on the ride home from the hospital, I thanked my dad for the powerful reminder about the importance of family just days before the wedding. It was a lesson I’ll never forget, and one he can’t quite remember.
4. Have Great Faith . . . and Great Doubt.
Prior to the wedding, Courtney’s Great Doubt was that the weather would be poor, forcing us to move the welcome party and ceremony indoors. I, on the other hand, had Great Faith—not that the weather would be perfect but that whatever happened would become part of the joyful narrative of our wedding day. We had a rain plan, after all. In the end, the weather was eerily perfect. The welcome party started at 5 p.m. on Friday and the rain let up at 4:30, giving way to a rainbow. The clouds that were supposed to lead to a gray Saturday were instead replaced by radiant sunshine.
I have no idea what kind of karma resulted in this situation. But I fully believe Courtney and I appeased the weather gods by each playing our necessary roles (I guess this was the least secular part of the process). Expect the worst and hope for the best, and if necessary, divide those tasks.
5. “When you sit, sit. When you stand, stand. Whatever you do, don’t wobble.”
I’ve seen plenty of wobbly grooms. I’ve seen plenty of nervous grooms. I was hoping to be neither. So the day of the wedding, as I was getting dressed, I had a glass of cognac. Minutes before the wedding, Wayne had Courtney and I gather for a last-minute check-in and a glass of sake. It allowed us time to decompress and steal a little sanity before the madness. I highly recommend it.
Following the ceremony, I paced myself on the drinks until it was time for the dance party. Then I had a few in rapid succession and let myself go. Pace yourself. And then don’t pace yourself. Just don’t wobble.
6. Take a moment.
One piece of advice I’d heard from several people prior to the wedding was to take a moment with your spouse, step back, and appreciate all the people who have gathered there for you. As I mentioned, Courtney and I got married in a barn—which is so on trend that at the start of the wedding it was hip and by the end it was passé—so after the cocktail hour we went up on the second level, looked down at all of our friends and family, and shared a moment of appreciation. It was truly special. And as an added bonus we got to wave down at everyone like a royal couple.
7. Let go.
You know the story: two Zen monks are walking along and find a woman unable to cross a river. One monk lifts her up and carries her across. Hours later the other monk, astonished that the first monk forbade the monastic rules about touching a woman, scolds his companion. To which the first monk says, “I only carried her across the river. You’ve been carrying her all day.”
Once the day arrives, you’ve done all you can to arrange it to your liking. There is nothing more you can do. So quit carrying the woman across the river (unless, for some reason, there is a literal river that the bride needs help crossing). Don’t try and orchestrate anything, don’t get involved in the nitty-gritty. Just let go.
On our wedding day, since I’d done so much research into the band, and since we’d booked such a great one, I became very adamant in convincing people to leave the beautiful veranda and bar and return to the dance floor. I spent way too much time and energy running around demanding that everyone “cut a rug.” Looking back, not only did I embarrass myself with my antiquated phrasing, I wasn’t able to let go and follow the energy of the evening. It is my only regret from our wedding day.
8. Be aware of impermanence.
It’s all temporary. Not your marriage, of course—that will last ‘til death do you part and, depending on your particular beliefs, potentially long after. I mean the wedding weekend. It is not longer than a typical weekend. It is not shorter. It is like a flock of birds landing on a tree and taking off again at the sound of thunder . . . only the tree is a barn in Vermont, and hopefully there is no thunder.
Heading into the weekend Courtney and I both reminded ourselves of how temporary this experience would be. She did it to brace herself for the inevitable end, and I did it so as not to freak out. It was one of the reasons we knew Wayne would be the perfect officiant for us. During a wedding weekend for another couple the summer prior, we bonded with him over our shared recognition that even though it was only Saturday, and we were at a bar enjoying a great live band, the weekend would soon be over. The looming end tinged all the joy of the experience with a streak of sorrow. Luckily, that is how I prefer my joy. Being aware of impermanence gives you all the more reason to appreciate what you have right now.
As the crucial hour arrived, and Courtney and I stood at the altar under the brilliant sunshine, I found that contrary to the preoccupied terror I had imagined feeling, I was completely calm and present. I felt my breath rising and falling, I felt a cooling breeze, and I felt a mosquito crawl up my wrist and take a few freebies that I couldn’t stop since I was holding my soon-to-be-wife’s hands in front of 130 people.
I would like to attribute this calm to all that time spent on the sitting cushion, but Courtney, who does not routinely meditate, felt it too. All I know is that when it counted, we were able to be present, and I will forever be grateful for that. So remember to breathe. Should you stop breathing, hopefully you are marrying into a family of doctors.
10. Get the hell out of dodge.
Come Sunday you will find yourself beset by a powerful inertia. I’ve never felt anything quite like it. Courtney and I were about to take off for a week in Canada, and suddenly we had no desire to move. All we had to do was pack up and hit the road, and yet this process took hours. My final piece of advice may be the most practical: have your honeymoon bags packed ahead of time. Then—mindfully, of course—flee.