the transfiguration of the bathrobe

1984+The+Robe+Following+Her

The robe my mother wore was blue, quilted, ankle-length, with three-quarter sleeves. She had other robes during my years at home, but this is the one I remember. I remember that she wore it when she got up every morning to make breakfast, and had it on when she opened my bedroom door in the dark and said, “Time to get up, Karen.” I remember her in the robe while we ate our breakfast at the kitchen table—scrambled eggs and toast or cereal and milk—and then we hurriedly got dressed and went to school and her, to work.

My mother did her very best at everything. I would have called her excellent. Our house was small and clean. Sometimes if you looked closely you could see that things were not always so nice. When she wore the blue robe everything seemed warm and safe and reliable. The days began in the same way. There was always breakfast. We were always on time. My mother wasn’t sentimental or silly about anything. She was at all times grown up and good.

None of this may have happened the way I tell it except for the blue bathrobe and the feeling of being loved.

***

There is a lull that opens up between a mother and a daughter. A trench, a sinkhole, a grave and terrible silence. Feelings are overwhelming. Conversation is impossible. Words are dangerous. The truth can seem unbearably close and yet a million miles away.

***

I saw a plush pink bathrobe hanging in the window of a store in town and I knew I would have to buy it. It was expensive but I didn’t care. I took it home and laid it on my daughter’s bed so she would see it the minute she got home.

She put on the robe that night. Then she put it on every night. She would say that she was about to take a long bath and if she washed her hair would I dry it? She would tell me that she was going to take a break and Facetime with a friend. Have some tea with honey. Toast before bed. And twice, seeing me, she would smile, come over and embrace me in a plush hug, suddenly so grown up and good, a mother to a child.

None of this may have happened the way I tell it except for the pink bathrobe and the most excellent, unforgettable feeling of being loved.

***

noun trans·fig·u·ra·tion :  a change in form or appearance :  metamorphosis :  an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change

Jim Dine, 1984: The Robe Following Her

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serene through all their ills

popsicleboat1

When I travel around the country for meditation retreats, they usually take place in rooms that weren’t designed for Zen meditation. We may come together in a converted barn, for instance, or a basement, conference room or classroom. All that matters is that the room be empty. Then into the space we put a little bit of the form, or appearance, of a Zen retreat.

That means a bell, a statue of Buddha, and if allowed, a candle and incense; cushions or chairs; and a schedule of seated meditation, walking meditation, and chanting services throughout the day. It sometimes seems to me like we fashion a retreat out of popsicle sticks, but somehow it works.

To a beginner, the form appears strange. It’s rarely anything you’ve done before; classical Zen is not exactly a free-for-all. It’s important to see that the form of a retreat isn’t imposed, like a rule. It is offered, like a life raft. Form gives us a place and a way to rescue ourselves from ourselves. What do I do now, our crazy mind shrieks. Do this, form tells us. But how, we wail. Like this, the form shows us, and we have one less thing to fret about.

One of the first things I invite people to do at a retreat is write down the name of someone who is suffering, someone other than themselves. Even though people come to a retreat to get something—something called Zen—we automatically receive the benefit of our own practice. The point is to extend the benefit to others. The names go onto our retreat sick list which is chanted out loud as part of each day’s service. People might offer the name of someone who has cancer or is going through a personal calamity. Someone ill, elderly, or near death. We all know someone in those straits, and those are the first names that come to mind.

At the first morning service, people are self-conscious. Anyone would be. They are chanting things they don’t understand, mumbling words and syllables that don’t make sense. The chant leader is trying to find the right rhythm and pitch; the names on the sick list are mangled. But this is practice: everyone doing everything together for the first time. There is no criticism spoken, but of course, we often judge ourselves harshly.

With each service, the chanting grows clearer and more confident, and each morning the sick list grows a little bit longer. In our empty room, our minds are growing clearer. We think more compassionately of others when we stop obsessing about ourselves. We might approach the chant leader and ask, can I add one more name to the list?

On the last day of retreat, the chanting is strong and beautiful. The words merge in one voice. All are alert and present. The chant leader makes a point of sounding out each syllable. The names are carefully pronounced, and the list is twice as long. That’s when I hear the names of our children, partners, and parents: people who may not be distressed except by what we say to them, what we do to them, what we expect of them, and what we think of them. We have, by the last day, forgotten ourselves, and in that forgetting, taken responsibility for everything and everyone. After saying the last name on the list, the chant leader intones the final benediction:

May they be serene through all their ills
and may we accomplish the Buddha Way together

And in that instant, they are, and we do.

***

Even when it’s made of popsicle sticks, there is room in the raft.
Come sit by me.

Zen Retreat: Meditation as Love
Feb. 5-7, 2016
Kripalu
Stockbridge, MA

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a poem about feelings

Stonehenge-Clouds

don’t be curious about clouds

where they come, where they go

water in the sky

be curious about water

be curious about sky

cave painters who chiseled rocks

painted in blood,

burnt bones,

piss and spit

never stayed in caves

be curious about rocks

be curious about blood

come out come out

be curious about sky

be curious about water

flowing

Stonehenge, still standing after thousands of years, was, apparently, quarried and originally constructed at a Neolithic site in Wales; many centuries later, it was taken apart and pulled on sledges about a hundred and forty miles east, to be rebuilt at its present location.*

 

after the accident

IMG_1827

Last year about this time I told my husband our new azaleas were dying. The leaves looked like rust, and I thought I knew why. Not enough water, too much sun, the wrong plants in the wrong place, the money for nothing, the work wasted. Before pulling the dead ones out, he snipped some leaves and took them to the nursery. That’s when I learned something new.

The leaves of some evergreen azaleas turn red in winter.

Even good drivers in the morning rain

don’t see the other car coming.

Paint nicks. Glass cracks.

One world ends before another.

You are not safe.

So remember what your mother has told you:

Effect is the noun. Affect is the verb.

When in doubt, leave out the comma.

Add salt. Use butter.

Never serve food you haven’t tasted first.

Rinse stains in cold water.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow

but soon and for the rest of your life.

You’ll see.

In springtime, flowers bloom.

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a prayer for the end of time

gardener 4x6_postcard print version

Yesterday I went to the dry cleaner’s in town. I stop by nearly once a week to drop off or pick up a sweater or two, pants or a skirt to be hemmed, my husband’s dress shirts. This place has been continuously operating since 1956. The people there know your name and the last four digits of your phone number, which is how they track your order. Truth is, they probably know a whole lot more just by emptying your pockets and letting out your waistbands. These kinds of places are pretty rare these days. And these days, everything rare seems to be getting rarer. I find myself in mourning.

December 22, the counter lady said when she saw me pause over the check I was writing, another piece of obsolescence I still cling to.

Can you believe it?

It goes by so fast it’s scary.

And it’s getting more scary.

It sure is.

I could have a conversation like this about everything everywhere all the time. It’s all scary. The world is spinning ever faster into extinction. I saw a terrifying documentary on the Discovery Channel. Maybe it’s the news: wave after wave of eternal warfare, the eerily weird climate, and the shocking flood of suffering covering every corner of the earth. Maybe it’s too much Donald Trump. Or just the time of year: the dark, the chill, the fury, the hurry, the end.

Next week, if you let it, a pause will arrive. Take care that you do not fill it with restless anxiety or dread. Take care that you do not fear what you do not know or have not done. Set no goals. Have no intentions. Make no plans. There is a lesson in these fallow days, a lesson that does not come in frantic motion, but in the soft light of a lengthening day.

I am going to sit quietly and enter the fullness of time. Because I have time.

And soon enough I will see that nothing is wasted, nothing is over, and everything is already here. Fear not! The gate is open, and the gardener is not afraid.

May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free from suffering.

Photo by Wendy Cook.

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unto us a child is born

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A woman came to the retreat in Kansas City in October. With her doctor’s permission, she had driven three hours from Iowa to be there. She was 34 weeks pregnant and, as you might expect, radiant. But in her case there was a little more to it: after nine years of infertility, miscarriages and stillbirth, here she was. The chance had been so slim, the journey so grim, she never believed she could get this far.

The truth is always like that: unbelievable.

She smiled all weekend. Fear and doubt had fled her face. She was beginning to let herself feel blessed. After we parted, I kept an eye on her as the remaining weeks passed. The baby was late. In the final days she went to and from the hospital over and over in false labor. Her burden was heavy. Nothing seemed to happen. The good news never came. I was worried.

Up close, possibilities seem to disappear.

Two days ago she sent me the first pictures of her newborn son swaddled in her arms. One look and I recalled that wide-open sense of wonder. Love surpassing all pain, resting in the infinite circle of light. The night has passed! The baby has come! Suddenly, everything is perfect, everything is possible. Not one thought creased either brow. Together they have attained grace.

Mother and child are doing beautifully.

The promise of a spiritual path is like this: to return to the natural state of fulfillment and ease. The old masters call it “the circle of wonder.” In it are the boundless love of a mother and the eternal innocence of a child. To be sure, the journey is difficult. Obstacles mount. Expectations fail, hope sinks, fear overwhelms, and you have to do it alone. Alone! Not even the helpers can help.

Who among us is willing? Who indeed.

Last weekend I sat a retreat with many newcomers. Newcomers uplift me, and yet, I worry. Silent retreats are always powerful, but this one struck like thunder. Not everyone could ride the storm. Alas, in Zen as in life, there’s no shelter at the side of the road. No avoiding, no denying, no way out. Fear must be overcome. Peace must prevail. Near the end of the retreat, the newest newcomers came by ones to see me alone. How is your retreat? I asked, although the awed stillness on their faces told it in full. Wonderful, came the quietest replies. Amazing. Lovely. Indescribable. Life-altering.

Doubt fled my heart, and I let myself feel blessed. The night has passed; the prophecy has been fulfilled. Now peace is at hand and the possibilities are endless.

Let it begin with me.

And he shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. — Isaiah 9:6

Merry Christmas Everyone. Peace on Earth. Goodwill to Men.

what I could have said

Stillness-1

Though I think not
To think about it,
I do think about it
And shed tears
Thinking about it.

—Ryokan

I could have said good morning.
Are you hungry?
Did you sleep okay?
Are you warm enough?
They say it might rain today.
You look happy.
Sounds like fun.
Sounds perfect.
Have a good time.
Enjoy yourself.
Love your shoes.
Love your hair.
Sure.
Relax.
Not a problem.
It will work out.
I wouldn’t worry if I were you.
You’re a hard worker.
You’re a good person.
You’ll figure it out.
You’ll do the right thing.
You can always change your mind.
I think you’ll do just fine.
It will be OK.
Take your time.
There’s no hurry.
I understand.
I trust you.
I love you.
I’m proud of you.
I’ll be here when you get home.

Because bad things really do happen to people we love, and we might wonder if we could have said something different.

 

it will be OK, mom

beaches-splendid-day-beach-sea-cloud-sky-sand-shore-cool-wallpapers

Last week I walked into my 16-year-old daughter’s bedroom, an occasion equivalent in a teenager’s life to an armed invasion. There I sat down, wound myself up, and started in on it.

I had allowed — indeed, encouraged — her to join the brilliant cast of a marvelous play with two weeks of rehearsals and three weeks of performances, and now I was afraid. Yes, I want her to pursue her passion, realize her potential, follow her heart, live life, have fun, be herself, yes, yes, I want all that, but the sky was suddenly clouded by the ominous shadow of late nights, missed school, botched tests, tardy term papers and the pitch-black importance that is modern high school.

I questioned how everything was going to get done, doubting whether she could avert the threat of regret and failure. Maybe not, but it’s possible I was this paranoid when she was in kindergarten or third grade, when she was 6 or 8 or 12, and perhaps I was. Good grief, I think I was.

She sat there and let the storm subside, let my every qualm and warning wash over her and then she said a few words.

I think it will be OK, mom.

Sometimes I regret having written so much about parenthood for these many years, to have implied that I knew anything about doing it differently. The process has revealed itself as one step forward, two steps back, one step forward, ten steps back, one step forward, ten billion steps back, back, back, until it’s just you with your lonely fear and worry ’til the day you die. My first Zen teacher Maezumi Roshi said that worry was a mother’s occupation, and that occupation isn’t the kind that pays. It doesn’t bear fruit or fulfillment; no, it’s an occupation that consumes you day and night until you are just a stalking, zombie husk of a mother that scatters every living thing within her doomed reach to seek the wide shelter of an opposite shore.

Those few words of hers, so simple, comforting and kind, sounded like what I might have said once, and should say, and will say, and hope to say in some future moment of selfless grace and faith, when I get the chance, if I get the chance, to be her mother again, when it will all most definitely be OK.

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out of the park

1

Last week I asked a friend, an educational psychologist, where he had gone to college. When he told me I said, “That’s a good school.” He shook it off, admitting that he’d seen no difference between the top-ranked public institution and another one he had also attended, except for one thing. At the higher-rated school, tests consisted of multiple choice questions and essays, the essays being graded by graduate minions. At the other university, tests were strictly multiple choice, there being no surplus of labor to do the tedious work.

His own opinion was that, once you’re there, schools are more or less about the same. Some are simply harder to get into. Whatever you call your experience, it is entirely you.

Just then my head exploded. It felt like a party, a really good party, the kind where the parents aren’t home.

Is it possible that any place could be the right place?

I’m the mother of a high school sophomore, so you can guess why I’m susceptible to exploding. Although I know better, I still consider myself the undercarriage of my daughter’s future, and it never feels like I’ve done enough to secure the launch. Have I said enough, seen enough, provided enough — in other words, is she good enough — to make it out there on her own, so far away from my help?

I wish I didn’t think like that. So does she.

The other day my husband and I were reminiscing about fourth grade — our daughter’s fourth grade — which was a high point in my parental confidence, a veritable blue sky. We sat across a desk from the teacher, whom we loved. She flipped open a manila folder and scanned the contents for a few seconds. I can’t imagine what, of any significance, was written there. Then she looked up and broke into wide-eyed awe: “She’s hitting it out of the park!”

We took it all on faith then, having no way to judge, no doubt, no fear, no need to second-guess or strategize. I have wondered lately what park that teacher was talking about, a park open in every direction, unbounded by expectation, unmarred by fence or failure, and certainly without me.

Oh yes, I realize. It is my daughter’s park, still my daughter’s park, the one she’s playing in.

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a mother’s unmanifesto

window1Do not be me.
Do not act like me, look like me, talk like me, live like me or remember me.
If you should, in some late season, see me in yourself, realize that I am long gone and happy to live forever in the deep well of your forgetting.
Forget my voice.
Absolutely, I mean it this time.
Even this voice!
Allow yourself the quiet I disturbed.
Remember instead what you said and what you did.
The things I overlooked.
The things I tried to change.
Your silliness.
Your friends.
Your fascinations.
Your refusal to listen to my worry and fear.
I was trying to turn you into me!
Find your heart.
Free your mind.
Use your feet.
Love your life and hate it, sometimes, too.
Everything is permitted.
Give yourself totally to your world.
Overrule me.
Remove my hands.
Escape my grip.
Kick me out of the house.
I will fly in on the starlight
between the cracks
through the gaps
in the empty veil of time
and watch you.
Silently watch you.
It’s all I ever wanted to do.
Love, Mom.

For my daughter, in tribute to my mother, with apologies all around.

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10 steps to start meditating

gobelet-forme-basse-verre-a-whisky-24-cl-strauss-luigi-bormioli1. Make the room quiet. As if no one were inside.
2. Eat and drink moderately. Empty before you fill.
3. Set aside all involvements. Do not invite disturbances.
4. At your sitting place, spread a thick mat. To cushion your knees.
5. Put your cushion on the mat. To elevate your spine.
6. Sit upright. Like a mountain.
7. Align your head. Ears over shoulders; nose over navel.
8. Keep your eyes open. Lower the gaze.
9. Give up. Thoughts, ideas, and judgments.
10. Breathe and be still. You can.

Adapted from Dogen Zenji’s Fukanzazengi.

###

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in the backseat

Downtown LA view from the backseat of my friend's car

There was a shadowy presence, and I was afraid.

This summer I had a dream. In the dream my daughter was driving a car. In the backseat there was a shadowy presence. I could not see who it was, and I was afraid.

I’d been feeling a little wobbly since my daughter declared last fall that on February 12, 2015, she would be 15 1/2 years old and eligible for a learner’s permit under California motor vehicle law.

I braced myself.

Suddenly she was speeding through a series of tight turns, each more unexpected than the last. She had already researched online driver’s ed and would I please sign her up? You mean today? And having finished the course, would I schedule the permit test at the DMV? Are you sure you’re ready? And having passed the test, would I arrange for the six hours of driving instruction? So soon? And if I was going to the grocery store, could she drive? Right now? And could we go to the mall and practice parking? Tonight? And could she drive home in the dark? And in the rain? And in traffic? And on the freeway?

Freeway driving I scheduled with her certified driving instructor, and they drove off one Saturday morning in September. When she got home two hours later, I asked how it went.

Fine.

Where did you go?

I took the 210 to the 134 to the 101 to Studio City and then the 101 to the 5 to the 134 to the 210. (Forty-five miles round trip.)

Doesn’t he know you can’t drive? I didn’t say.

***

One day she saw a used car for sale in the parking lot at In & Out Burger. It was the exact car she wanted! She took a picture of the car, the license plate and the phone number. Two months later, the car was still for sale. She took it to our mechanic, who gave it a thumb’s up. Then she passed the driving test. The last question was: could she buy the car?

I didn’t answer. I didn’t have to. Before she died 15 years ago, my mother sent a gift for Georgia: some money to save, which turned out to be the exact amount of the car. I can imagine what my mother was feeling as she was about to let go. Her last grandchild only a year old, all her journeys still to come. She must have wanted her to feel loved and strong, confident and free, always.

In my dream I couldn’t see, but now I know who’s in the backseat riding with Georgia, and my heart is at rest.

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practice no harm

Cracked_Pavement

When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.

***

For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Oct. 18
Introductory Zen Retreat, Kansas City, Oct. 23-25
Zen Retreat at Meadowkirk, Middleburg VA Dec. 10-13
Meditation as Love, Kripalu, Feb. 5-7

Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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