I really want you to come

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Sunday Morning

By Bobby Byrd

Two old guys walk single file
Slowly and wordlessly around a room.
A white curtain filters the sunshine.
Outside is the hot desert sun.

The two men are shoeless. The smaller,
the guy in front, is limping because
40 years ago in Vietnam a kid in black pajamas
shot him in the head and almost killed him.

The other guy dodged that war,
lived in the mountains, lived in the city,
wife and three kids, drank a lot,
wrote some poems. A candle flickers,

incense burns. The floor is clean
because these two men cleaned it.
Three others were here but they left.
The man in front slaps two wooden

clappers together. The sound startles
the man behind. He takes a deep breath.
The men stop walking. The first man
lights a stick of incense and places it

in front of a statue of the Buddha.
They bow to their cushions on the floor.
They sit down cross-legged and stare
at the wall. Their legs ache. It’s been

three days now. Not much longer.
One of them is the teacher
one of them the student. It doesn’t
make much difference which is which.

***

I’ve been traveling some lately. I’ve been traveling enough that when I sit down in my own living room, I feel like a piece of cheap, soft-sided luggage tumbling out of the baggage claim shoot on Carrousel 4.

When I go someplace, I never know who’s going to show up. A fair number of the people I expect to show up are nowhere in sight, but the empty spots are always taken by the otherwise ordinary folks who walk through the door.

I was about to head over to Las Cruces, New Mexico earlier this month when my host asked me if I could spend a part of the visit sitting with Bobby Kankin Byrd and his sangha in El Paso. “He really wants you to come,” she said, telling me that Bobby Byrd was the “Dalai Lama of El Paso.” Meeting him, I could see why. If His Holiness is the embodiment of the great monastic lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, then Bobby Byrd is his counterpart in El Paso. He’s a rumpled guy with a head of gray stubble and a giant smile, a fellow who cares a lot about many important things but who is never more than half-serious about himself. He’s a poet, a publisher and a Zen priest, which must be the holy trinity of lost causes, especially when you do them in El Paso. He and his wife Lee are the founders of Cinco Puntos Press, a small and very independent publisher of artfully rendered and lovingly cultivated books. They treat their books like you would your children if you adored your children every minute of the day. He sits with a group of die-hards every Sunday morning in a zendo about the size of a toolshed, a magnificent toolshed I should say, in a blooming backyard. I came because he asked me to and I liked it there an awful lot. I liked the people very much.

Bobby gave me the latest book of his poems, Otherwise, My Life is Ordinary. This poem came from it. It tells you exactly why I will haul myself off to the next who-knows-where to sit with who-knows-who happens to be in the room that day. One will be the teacher and one the student. It doesn’t make much difference which is which. What matters is that we come anyway.

***

Poem excerpted from Otherwise, My Life is Ordinary ©2014 by Bobby Byrd. Printed with permission of Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso.

 

practice no harm

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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.

Paradise in the Easy: An Introduction to Zen Meditation, Sat., Oct. 25 in New Orleans
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, Sun., Nov. 9 in Los Angeles
The Straightforward Path: A Zen Retreat, Kripalu in Western Massachusetts, Fri., Nov. 14-Sun., Nov. 16

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

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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. Always.
9. Give up. Thoughts, ideas, and judgments.
10. Breathe and be still. You can.

Adapted from Dogen Zenji’s Fukanzazengi.

For a day of personal instruction in zazen, attend the Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat on Nov. 9 in Los Angeles.

###

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zen bucket list*

I scooped up the moon

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in my water bucket . . . and

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spilled it on the grass — Ryuho

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Photos from my visit to Las Cruces and Mesilla, NM last weekend

Haiku by Ryuho (1599-1669)

*I have no use for bucket lists, but a bucket comes in handy.

To encourage you in your life and practice, visit the Media page to listen and Videos page to see.

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58 years a mountain

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There is a mountain sixteen miles high.
Every hundred years a butterfly brushes its wings across the granite face.
When the mountain is ground to dust, that’s how long time is.
Multiplied by ten billion.

An hour after midnight on the twenty-sixth
a crown of light
a blear of tears
my father climbed a fire escape
to the third floor rear
no, wait
that wasn’t me
years have smeared
the muddy lines of memory
my mother wept
our bodies two
one snip and from the roof I flew
down the Santa Monica Mountains
into the valley dim
not really, really
thus, pitched from the rim
unseated from the peak
I made slow time across a billion-year cheek
Now stopped in place
an eon nigh
the invisible kiss
of a butterfly.

On the anniversary of my birth.

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how do you become a Zen priest?

scan0034This question has been posed to me a lot lately, in radio interviews and podcasts you can listen to all day long on this page of my website, and in personal conversations. It seems to me that when I answer it, the listener is at least mildly disappointed.

They might expect me to say that I spent five years in theological study. That I’d heard a voice or seen a vision. That as a small child playing with a stick in the dirt outside my family’s mud hut, three strangers approached and told me I was a reincarnated monk. Or that I’d always known deep in my heart that I had been placed on Earth to save the souls of sinners.

The question is laden with expectation, but the answer is not. Because that’s not how you become a Zen Buddhist priest. Zen is entirely one’s own doing, motivated by one’s own aspiration, deepened by one’s own practice of zazen. Ordaining as a priest is simply an expression of personal commitment. In my lineage at least, there are no prerequisites to accomplish and no prescribed pastoral, professional, or organizational tasks to perform. No tests or credentials. I don’t write sermons every week, and I have no congregation. My calendar isn’t booked with couples counseling, parochial education, baptisms, weddings or funerals.

“That sounds kind of laid back,” said the interviewer in one conversation.

“So it isn’t a job,” said another.

“There must be a story behind that,” many have said, and there is. Just not the story you think.

This is the story of how I became a Zen priest. One day I sat down in a place I’d never been before and recognized the scent of something I’d never smelled before: sandalwood incense, burning on an altar. How do you recognize what you’ve never smelled before? Heck if I know. I liked the place, and I stuck around.

Everything came after that: subtle shifts and colossal changes. Denial and avoidance. False certainty. Sudden leaps and setbacks. Vanity, fear, doubt, surrender, and finally, love and devotion. One day I knew what I would do. I would take the vows that would commit myself to the selfless service of others forever.

Is it laid back? It is a matter of life and death.

Is it a job? Never-ending.

Is there a congregation? Everyone and everything I meet.

Is there a story behind it? Not anymore.

Read more about Tokudo, priest ordination, at the Hazy Moon Zen Center.

Watch this short video, “Vows” about monastic discipline in Chinese Buddhism.

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my spectacular failure

This week I’ll be going into a recording studio to tape the audiobook of Momma Zen. This is a welcome and unexpected chance to put my speaking voice to my writer’s “voice.” The occasion reminds me of this passage in the book about the eternal power of voice:

“In the cozy darkness, tucking in my three-year-old, I ask her what she loves best. ‘Your voice,’ she says, dreamily. She is halfway dreaming, when answers are undefiled. I am reassured. It will change a bit, weaken and grow old. And then she will hear it in herself: a song without words, a lyric beyond language, a smile, a laugh, a moment’s silent consolation. It will always come back because it never leaves. I know that voice.” — Momma Zen

I’ll be sure and let you know when the Audible book is ready so you can hear my voice in my own voice and share it with those inclined to listen.

In my work and practice, I’m continually exploring the intuitive voice within us, the voice that speaks a truth we know before we know it. Earlier this year I had a videochat with my friend, artist and writer Christine Mason Miller about the mysteries of voice, the peculiar humiliations of a writer’s life, the organic uncertainty of the creative process, and redefining professional success (which in my case looks like spectacular failure). If you wish to write or try to write — or if you harbor any artistic or professional aspirations for that matter — our conversation might be helpful. What I say applies to any expectation or ideal we cherish and it might just be something you need to hear today.

The video was included in a comprehensive e-course Christine put together for aspiring authors called “The Conscious Booksmith.” The six-week course will be offered again in January, and if you’d like to get more information about it, sign up here. It’s worth it.

In the meantime, you can watch us talk about success and failure right here and now. (If you’re reading this post in your email and don’t see the video, click on the headline and you’ll be taken to the blog.)

 

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buy this book

82522I used to sell signed copies of my books from this website, but before my most recent book was published, I decided I wouldn’t do that anymore. What was I thinking?

It’s not as though it costs me money. I always sell books at the price I pay for them. It’s not as though it takes my time. I slip them into a priority mail flat rate envelope and take them to the post office in my little town, where I don’t much mind the long, slow lines, because the people inside the post office are my neighbors, and the service they offer me is sincere. On the days I do business at the post office, the worker there might be the only person I speak to in real life between the hours of eight and four o’clock.

No, it was never too much trouble, but I talked myself into thinking it wasn’t my job. My job is to write books, I told myself after years of laboring over the page. It’s someone else’s job to sell them.

After Paradise in Plain Sight was published, I realized I was wrong. I was wrong in a very familiar and often-forgotten way. I’m wrong whenever I expect someone else to do something for me. I’m wrong whenever I elevate myself above responsibilities that are mundane and unwanted. I’m wrong whenever I forget why I write, which is to be read. It’s not the writing alone that gratifies me; it’s sharing the work that matters.

So buy this book.

Here is an offering to buy two copies of Paradise in Plain Sight, signed with my name. Two so that you can share one with a friend or neighbor, which will bring you much pleasure. Shipped in a priority mail flat rate envelope to a single domestic address. For $28 total, the best offer on the planet, because no one sells my book better than me.




Two copies of Paradise in Plain Sight
Signed by author
Shipped priority mail to a single US address

prayer for a woman becoming

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May you be strong
Look ahead
Go alone
Hold your own
Speak your piece
State your name
Take your place
Love your face
Bare your skin
Wear it tough
Wear it thin
Cry it out
So many nights
So many sighs
So many wondering whys
Then find yourself
Make your way
Know your heart
Trust your gut
Use your feet
Make a stand
And be utterly, totally, awesomely
unmistakably
you
Leaving me well enough, far away, evermore
behind.

Amen.

For a daughter turning 15.

You may also want to say the Prayer for a Girl Becoming, the Prayer for a Mother Becoming, and the Prayer for a Wife Becoming. It’s becoming a good time to pray.

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does fear exist?

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I can’t tell you how many times I have had this conversation with myself.

Q: Is there really fear? If there isn’t, how can we shift our state of mind to release the shackles of what we define as fear?

That’s a very good question.

First, I’ll point out this: fear only exists in your head. It is a feeling that is reinforced by your pattern of thinking.

Thankfully for me and for you, and for others who begin a seated meditation practice, what you notice is how you think. You notice how you think all the time, and what the content of those thoughts are. Generally speaking, they are negative and self-limiting, full of anxious doubt and fear. For instance, how many times do you think to yourself: I can’t do that. That won’t work. That’s not me. I don’t like it. I’m afraid. Not now.

You see, there’s an infinite variety of those thoughts that we empower. When I say “empower,” I mean that thinking alone is what paralyzes us physically, emotionally, spiritually — in every way. We end up being able to “go nowhere.” Even if we are seeking, we set in place an invisible barrier.

How can we transform that barrier? Marvelously we’re given arms and legs so we can actually transcend the limitations of our thinking with our own bodies. You have to use your feet! That’s what I’m getting at. You have to take a step. You are not going to mentally or emotionally move toward something until you’ve literally moved.

Please listen to more of this conversation below on the Inside Personal Growth podcast, and then visit my Retreats page.

on the road with Brett

10154960_10152344068466885_4491155882900185074_nI get the feeling Brett has always done things head first: farsighted, excitable, bullish.

A well-known angel investor in Silicon Valley, Brett Bullington was past the midpoint of a cross-country bike ride for charity on October 8, 2012 when he fell face-first going downhill on a highway in northern Oklahoma. He had probably been going about 30 mph. His brain injuries were severe. The prognosis wasn’t good. When he was in ICU I got an email from a mutual friend asking me to pray for him.

“I feel strongly that he has not yet passed,” she wrote at that first perilous hour. I stepped outside and said a chant in the garden.

She was right. Brett did not leave this world, but entered a long period of recovery and rehabilitation, with modest daily progress and sudden devastating setbacks. But he has been home and healthy for some time, working on getting better, and I was able to meet him in May when I visited Palo Alto.

Meeting Brett is not like meeting anyone else.

He might tell you straightaway, for instance, how many hours he slept last night or last week, along with his recent nightly average. How many steps he has taken today or yesterday. Who he saw this morning. Where he’s going this afternoon. What he’s planting in his garden. What he ate, what he read (his wife Diana reads books aloud at night) and again, how many hours he slept.

His doctor told him that walking and sleep are vital to brain recovery, so he records his progress on his Jawbone UP fitness band and posts it everyday on Facebook. People like to hear about his improvements, he says, and their appreciation fuels a continuous loop of feedback.

During our visit, we had dinner with friends and meditated together. Sitting still for several hours took a toll on Brett’s walking totals that day, but he did great. After I returned home, he friended me on Facebook. There he posts pictures of the people he meets on his daily walks, some with his dog Trudy. He puts up his Jawbone tallies, which might constitute a good day or a reason to do better tomorrow. His focus is resolutely optimistic and straight-ahead. I am always struck by the unintended profundity in his notations. Everything he does is upfront, pure and simple. In contrast, I’m embarrassed by my own clumsy efforts to say something deep and quotable. read more

a long life

Day after day, day after still day,
The summer has begun to pass away.

When my husband walked past me on the way to work this morning, he asked what I was going to do today.

I did not say what I was really going to do, such as “Wash a week’s worth of towels” or “Iron that clean white shirt of Georgia’s that ended up in the laundry just because it got wrinkled in her suitcase,” or “Make Katrina Kenison’s favorite recipe for gazpacho.” No, I didn’t say any of those things because they seemed trivial compared to the daily march of important activities in which I am no longer employed.

Instead what I said was, “Clean out a few closets.” And I saw the shadow of terror briefly crease my husband’s face, the shadow that crosses whenever I throw out what to him is safely out of sight. By my thinking, closets are where things go to die, and by die I mean lose vitality and disappear from use. Such is my ambition in this eighth month of every year as summer slows and autumn knocks. I become a teeny bit preoccupied with cleaning off the shelves. It’s my thing.

A failing light, no longer numinous,

Now frames the long and solemn afternoons

Where butterflies regret their closed cocoons.

I have just a few closets in my small house and they are in awful shape because I have now lived here longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. As long, and soon longer, than I lived with my parents. Longer than the time spent with my grandparents, whose undying devotion gave me an eternity of perfect memories. Longer than any home I fled or wrecked. A very long time, and the closets show the count.

When I was packing week before last for a family vacation I went hunting for umbrellas, having seen the forecast, and found our “new” umbrellas encased in grime from layers of daily dust creeping through a slender crack in the closet door. Where in the world do closeted umbrellas get dirty through lack of use? My house, that’s where, in the closet I’m aiming for.

But that’s not what this post is about. I will get to the closets, or someone will. This post is about time. I’m feeling it, aren’t you?

Time, time, time. Next week my precious rosebud of a daughter turns 15. Next month I’ll be 58. We are so blessed.

A few years ago I was giving a talk in Boston at which, without shame, I called myself “an old lady.” A lovely woman wearing a look of discomfort raised her hand.

“Why do you keep calling yourself old?” she asked.

“Because I am.”

“But look at you,” she said, as a compliment.

“I feel as though I’ve lived a thousand years,” I said, “and I am satisfied.”

What’s wrong with being old? More to the point, when did age become an insult? It is liberating to open the doors, sweep the shelves and discard what is no longer enlivened by use. To face the present day and the plain, pure facts in front of us.

We reach the place unripe, and made to know

As with a sudden knowledge that we go

Away forever, all hope of return

Cut off, hearing the crackle of the burn-
ing blade behind us, and the terminal sound

Of apples dropping on the dry ground.

I watched a beautiful film on the plane last Sunday, and then commenced a quasi-obsession with Coco Chanel. She was a captivating ingénue, a force of nature, a cultural legend, and she lived until she was a very old lady of 87. She died not sick, but working — and hers was the work of scissors and straight pins. She made a full, long life of doing the simplest things again and again until she was satisfied.

After a week’s trek through some of the great monuments of Western civilization, I came home from vacation to a dry, needy yard and three full laundry hampers. Four loads and three hours of weeding and I was sated. Not done, not by far, but feeling utterly content and alive. Summer nearly gone, and I’m living well past it. To the closets I come.

Excerpts from the poem “Summer’s Elegy” by Howard Nemerov
Photo: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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#meetingnotmeeting

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A remarkable thing—the opportunity to meet after millions of ages.

In 1989 I met the prolific literary genius, Larry McMurtry. It’s hard for me to believe that now because it’s not entirely true.

That year I was working for an old-style businessman’s club in downtown Houston that had declined in favor. To be sure, what we in Texas call “the good old boy’s club” never, ever falls out of favor or privilege, but its clubrooms do. This one had peaked along with white-gloved waiters and dark wood paneling. My job was to fill it again.

So we asked Larry McMurtry to come and speak. Today you might wonder why a crowd of oilmen would rally for a literary type like McMurtry, and the answer is, not because of a book. It was because of TV. Lonesome Dove, the irresistible miniseries made from McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western, had aired on television for four nights in February 1989 and no one alive had missed it. You can bet no one on the club roster wanted to miss a night with the storyteller, and so the event was sold out.

McMurtry brought some books with him. Unfortunately, they weren’t Lonesome Dove. They were the hardcover editions of Anything for Billy, his new novel about Billy the Kid that was far more resistible. He gave a talk. Perhaps it was about his life or his craft. I don’t recall one word of it, except what he didn’t say about Lonesome Dove. He didn’t say anything about Lonesome Dove, but after awhile he asked for questions. Every question was about the miniseries.

No one in the audience gave one hoot about Larry McMurtry, although they thought they did. They were interested in Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, the characters Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. Each questioner had an intimate relationship with the story. What did Larry think would happen to these characters next, if, and when? These fans had worked out future plot lines, and they offered them to inspire the writer toward a sequel. At some frustrated point, McMurtry told them that he had written Lonesome Dove a long time ago. It was old and over. He wasn’t thinking about it at all.

I was a PR counselor at the time, and I thought he was in serious need of PR counseling. The most successful night in the revival of the club was a rank failure.

There was a table set up in the foyer with stacks of the new hardcover, and McMurtry sat there after to sign books. I bought one. There were a lot left over. The club members hadn’t much appreciated the change in subject. This McMurtry fellow was kind of rude and full of himself.

I think about this now because of the perils of offering myself online, as I do here, or through my books, and recognizing the rare significance of meeting one another for real. I think about this because of media that disguises writing to oneself as writing to another and the digital repartee that passes for speech. I think about this because I have presented myself on the page as a kind of soul sister but show up in the flesh as a taskmaster. Because I have told three volumes of personal stories but limit my in-person talks to the practice of silence. It can seem kind of rude, like I’m changing the subject.

In researching this post, I’ve learned that Anything for Billy is considered one of McMurtry’s standalone books, meaning that it isn’t part of a thematic series. I surely saw that for myself all those years ago, the author standing by himself in a room of 400, no one seeing, no one hearing, no one caring, that lonesome night I didn’t meet Larry McMurtry.

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