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

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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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it’s okay to be angry

It’s okay to be angry. Be totally angry. You don’t have to build it, bury it or chew it. Anger incinerates itself, and it will end.

It’s okay to be sad. Be sad. You don’t have to drug it, drag it out or plumb it. Sadness subsumes itself, and it will end.

It’s okay to be tired. Be nothing but tired. Fed up, over, out, done. You don’t have to fix it. Tiredness tires of itself, and it will end.

Be angry. Be sad. Be tired. Be as you are, not as you think you should be.

I bet you feel better already.

 

the myth of the missing moon

Let’s consider whether we see a crescent moon, a half moon or a full moon. In any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking? — Maezumi Roshi

One day a girl looked up at the sky through a veil of clouds and saw that half the moon was missing.

The moon is missing! The moon is missing! No one could convince her otherwise. In fact, she had seen it shrinking for some time, and every night came more proof of her worst fears.

I was right! This conviction was a miserable consolation.

Where others might have seen a sliver of shine, all she saw was the deepening hollow of absence.

There is something you think you don’t have. A virtue, quality, or substance you need to acquire. Courage. Strength. Patience. Wisdom. Compassion. Wholeheartedness. As soon as I name it, you see it as missing from you, quick to disavow the suggestion that you are complete.

I’m only human, you might say. I’m not at all whole and perfect. I’m injured, inadequate, and yes, even a little bit robbed. Especially robbed.

She tried filling the hole with tears, shouts and bluster. She bought a toaster, a Sub Zero, and a Maserati, a pile of shiny objects. They overflowed her house and storage unit. She stomped her feet and kicked up dust. All of it made a mess, but nothing more. You can’t fill a hole that doesn’t exist.

And so, exhausted, she gave up and sat down, head heavy, heart leaden.

She didn’t notice the shadows shifting into light, the wind lifting, the clouds parting, the days passing. One evening she opened her eyes and saw the moon. It was full, of course. It was full all along, doing what moons do, reflecting light. Only our perspective changes. We rob ourselves when we mistake the unreal for the real.

Your heart is always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way.

Just let everything and anything be so, as it is, without using any kind of standard by which we make ourselves satisfied, dissatisfied, happy or unhappy. Then you’ll see the plain and clear fact.

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

Buy a personally signed copy of Paradise in Plain Sight right here for the best price under the sun.

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not the story you wrote

lista

A couple of weeks ago I saw one of those charity appeals scroll past on my Facebook feed. Someone was sick and needed help. I let it pass at first, and then it came back again. So I clicked on the link. It was for this fellow I’d never met, who lived across town, a Facebook friend who was always kind and—get this—encouraging. He’d been hit with a triple whammy on the health front: lymphoma, kidney disease and congestive heart failure. I hesitated before I signed up. My choices were to give money, make a meal, or ignore it altogether. His location wasn’t exactly convenient, so maybe money would suffice. Or I could drive a meal over. In the end, I decided that if I couldn’t do that little, my friendship wasn’t worth that much. So I put my name next to a date, cooked that morning, and showed up on his doorstep.

I apologized when I got there, because the food I brought didn’t even taste good. There were dietary restrictions to follow, and anything cooked without salt ends up tasting like wet cardboard. But it turned out we had a lot in common and had a nice visit. The meal I brought, and the meal he needed, wasn’t my tasteless stuff in the plastic containers. The meal was the company we shared. I told him I could drop by and hang out anytime, and I meant it.

The next day he learned that his lymphoma had progressed even further throughout his body. He was devastated.

This isn’t the ending you’d like for this story, is it? And yet, it’s the ending we all share.

There’s a New Age mantra that tells us if we own our story and reframe the story we can rewrite the story. We can turn down into up, failure to success, pain into promise, and fear into courage just by changing the way we talk to ourselves. It’s true up to a point, and it’s not a bad way to spend a few days if you find yourself in a career or lifestyle funk. But the suffering I see all around me is too real for that.

The other night I flipped open a Buddhist magazine and saw what are called the Buddha’s Five Remembrances. These are the remembrances that we spend our whole life trying to forget.

  1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.
  2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
  3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

With every true thing staring me in the face, I stopped flipping through the pages.

***

The response American crowds gave to Pope Francis last week was not surprising. We are drawn to his being because we suffer deep ills that cannot be fixed by ego’s clever devices, wounds that cannot be healed by the shallow salve of American self-help. We need a real priest for real times. The times we’re in.

So here’s the purpose of this post: I’ve been handed two beautiful books that I’m going to give away to folks who are ready to read them. If you’re interested in winning either one or both, leave a comment on this post by this Saturday, Oct. 3. Let me tell you what you’re in for.

410mchq-dOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Taste of Silence: How I Came To Be at Home With Myself  by Bieke Vandekerckhove. This is the most profoundly brilliant book I’ve read in a long time, and it took me completely by surprise. When she was 19 and in college, the Belgian author was diagnosed with ALS and quickly became paralyzed from the pelvis up. Facing the certainty of approaching death, she took refuge in the silence of a Benedictine monastery and Zen practice. Remarkably, she experienced an unheard-of remission, and from her extreme forbearance came this small book of shining teachings. A week after I read this long-awaited English translation, I learned that Bieke had died after 27 years with the disease.

41HyRSSg4xL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness by Toni Bernhard. Fourteen years ago, Toni was traveling in Paris when she fell ill with an acute virus. She never got better. She is still sick. Toni is no longer a law professor or college dean. She is instead a tireless author of books about the unavoidable presence of pain and the power of sickness. Her work is wonderfully honest, practical and wise, proof that living ill can be living well. From the midst of suffering, Toni is generous and clear. This book is a bountiful gift to caregivers too, so they can keep giving when they’ve given just about everything.

A taste of hard wisdom offered with love and delivered to your doorstep. If you could use the company, just tell me so.

broccoli in the mac and cheese

MacCheeseBrocCaulThere comes a day as a parent when you realize you have accomplished nothing because there was nothing to accomplish.

I have a strange relationship with readers. Or rather, they have a strange relationship with me through my books. Some of them are new to parenthood, and so they find me musing about the first terribly shocking and sincere years of raising a child. Some of them are at a later stage and so they find themselves on the outer edge of midlife with grown children. And then there’s me and my family, defying the demography, crossing the currents, merging the streams.

Sixteen years of personal research into parenting and I can tell you this much: it doesn’t work. My conclusions have been premature. The early signs were irrelevant. We do not raise our children. They do not conform to a graph, a glyph, or a stamp. We do not mold them. We have been thoroughly misled and mistaken.

I started clapping before the scene was over; stood up to leave before the encore. There’s a twist, an alternate ending, an extra feature, a director’s cut!

They grow up to make their own choices, and it doesn’t matter if they liked asparagus at age three.

It doesn’t matter if you hid spinach in the meatballs, zucchini in the muffins or broccoli in the mac and cheese.

They have their own interests, and their passions are not based on how many evenings you read them to sleep.

It doesn’t matter if the preschool aide called them a “genius.” I, for one, will never forget that day.

They don’t floss just because you nagged them nightly until they were twelve.

They don’t care just because you do.

Nothing was lost by waking up four times in the middle of the night; nothing was gained by sleeping through.

They have their own hearts, and you cannot mend them.

Their own feet, and you cannot steer them.

Their own voice, and they do not speak the words you sounded out for them so long ago.

My child will not be a giraffe when she grows up (her first choice), not a superhero, a princess, or a cowboy. She probably doesn’t even know what a cowboy is. Or was.

My daughter was born premature, but I was the one ahead of myself. Every expectation has been erroneous. I can finally admit that I don’t have any idea what will happen next or when. I’m eavesdropping through a soundproof door.

I no longer think of my daughter as something for me to do, or parenting as something to accomplish. We are ordinary people who love and need each other in ever-changing and unpredictable ways. Let’s hope I can keep the broccoli out of 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

8 ways to raise a mindful child

Parents are rightfully concerned about the capacity their children have to pay attention, express empathy, and cope with the stresses that infiltrate their lives. Should we then coerce our children onto meditation cushions? Impose artificial silence, stillness or philosophical indoctrination? Before you do that, take a closer look.

Children are exemplars of the art of being. Wherever they are, they are completely immersed: in mud, in make believe, in laughter, in tears or in spaghetti sauce up to their eyeballs. Without a bit of self-consciousness, they lose themselves in what they are; they literally throw themselves away. This is the kind of losing in which mindfulness is found.

Without making a big deal about it, parents can gently encourage everyday actions that nourish and grow attention, empathy and self-care.

1. Read picture books – Illustrated children’s books have fallen out of favor as parents push children into early reading as a competitive outcome. Mindfulness is perception, and the rich visual content of picture books nourish the capacity to see, explore and relate to what appears in front of us.

 2. Listen – When your children speak to you, turn your face toward them, meet their gaze, and listen. Your own non-distracted attention is a wellspring for theirs. We cannot extract from our children what we fail to give.

 3. Sing  – Encourage singing: at home, at play, in the bath, anywhere. Singing is breathing and breathing is the body’s natural calming mechanism. Hearing your children sing to themselves will release your own deep sense of well-being, and you will smile.

 4. Smile – Smiling is a silent song. For heaven’s sake, greet your children with enough presence of mind to smile at them.

 5. Brush teeth – The ritual of brushing teeth imparts subtle disciplines.  It is rhythmic and therefore soothing; attentive and self-managing; and it stretches our capacity to tend to what we’d rather put off. Then add flossing. You’re developing concentration and fighting cavities in a single stroke.

 6. Walk to school – If that’s not feasible, walk the dog. Walk to the store. Walk to the post office. Or just walk around the block. Walking is meditative and mood-altering. Moreover, walking in your neighborhood overcomes the isolation and alienation we can unwittingly breed in our lives. You might meet or make a friend.

 7. Handwrite – The mysterious art and skill of writing by hand is being shunted aside by the keyboard. Writing with paper and pencil takes time, practice and mind-body focus. Researchers say it enhances learning, memory and ideation. Our children will all learn how to type, but will they learn how to write? Take time now.

 8. Start now – The list of things we want for our children – and expect from them – seems endless. Where will we ever find the time? Until you know what it is to live in the present moment, you will never be able to relax. So relax! It doesn’t take long to be mindful. Devote one hour a day to giving undistracted attention to your small children. Not in activities driven by your agenda, but in free play and casual company according to their terms. Undivided attention is the most concrete expression of love you can give. Amply supplied, your children will return their love to the world through mindfulness.

Mindful children grow up in mindful homes.

***

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