what keeps me going

J0OfawB

About twice a year I spend six hours sitting still and quiet with a small group of total strangers in the converted attic of a century-old house in a tricky neighborhood near downtown LA. That’s what I call a beginner’s Zen meditation retreat. These days, an event like that is probably considered old school. But that’s how we used to learn and practice meditation, and some of us still do: in real life in a real place with real people in real time. When I got home, I had a message from an old friend who said she wasn’t calling for any particular reason. That’s what friends used to do too. Just be friends for no reason.

Today, these two events are so rare, so nearly impossible to believe, that it makes me want to write them down. I don’t write many things down anymore. Someone asked me about that recently. He said, “You don’t write on your blog much anymore.” And it’s true, I don’t. I tried to give him an answer why. There’s the matter of privacy, and the wrenching realization that I have exploited much of my life and family for the sake of . . . just for the sake of me! And then there’s the sad situation that not as many people read anymore. They say they do, but they don’t read blogs, don’t read books, and don’t even search the internet as much as they did last year, let alone last month. It’s even true of me. I read a whole helluva lot all the time but I don’t buy books very often anymore. I borrow them for free from my library’s digital database. And you might argue that kind of reading still counts but I know it doesn’t count for the author or the library.

Last year my hometown library canceled my library card because I hadn’t been to the library for two years. I called up, confused and upset. I told them I read about three e-books a week from them, and they said, but you haven’t been to the library. And you might say setting foot inside a library doesn’t count, but I know it does count when it comes to keeping the library open. Every year they have to fight the good fight at City Hall—where the not-so-hard choice is between keeping the library open or providing water and sanitation services—and so they keep cutting the library hours into fractions of fractions of fractions. They renewed my card because I asked. Librarians will do that for you.

Two weeks ago I heard from a writer at a magazine who was working on a story about “the evolution of iPhone Buddhism and someone said I should talk to you.” I told him I didn’t know what iPhone Buddhism was (although I could make a cynical guess) and he confirmed that my guess was right. Someone is seriously suggesting how important the phone is for the dissemination of Buddhist teachings and practice today, and I admitted that I don’t use a smartphone so I couldn’t comment, but I could suggest a revolutionary new mindfulness app: put the goddamn phone down!  The advanced version would be: turn the goddamn phone off. He said that was the most profound thing he’d heard anyone say on the topic.

Whenever I do a beginner’s retreat I am reminded why people would leave their homes, turn off their phones, take off their shoes, come up two flights of stairs and sit with strangers in silence all day.

The reason why is that something is missing from our screens. There’s no social in our social; no life in our life. There has to be something real, something that can’t be digitized, monetized, and sold. And there is. It’s what keeps me going, and perhaps it will keep you going too.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
March 31, 2019, 9-3
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Register by email

This post was originally published on Mar. 21, 2016, and look! It’s still going.

truer colors

This is a picture of my daughter and some of her friends before they went to prom last spring. When I posted it on Facebook, people kindly said they looked like movie or rock stars, brilliant and beautiful. That’s true for all young people, and yet it seems especially so for this group of young actors, writers, and filmmakers.

In the foreground is my daughter, Georgia, with her favorite cinematic artist, Dylan.

When people ask me how my daughter enjoyed her experience at an arts high school, I rarely give the answer they expect. The fact is, it’s hard to be an artist. There is doubt, discouragement and rejection. There are endless obstacles and outright impossibilities. You don’t get the part; you don’t get the prize. You fall apart. So I say something else. I say the life of an artist—like each of our lives—is a life of pain. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the song gets sung.

Right now, Dylan is trying to raise money to make the final film of his high school career. It’s such an outsized undertaking that he has to ask for help from strangers, and that’s where I come in. Even if you can only give a little drop in the bucket, that helps enormously. As a small-time author, I carry a bucket, so I know that every drop counts. If his campaign link isn’t visible below, you can find it at this Go Fund Me page.

Since I’ve been spending some time looking at this year-old photo, I’ve realized that everyone is still pursuing their art, even with personal setbacks, turnabouts, and a fair share of rotten luck. They haven’t given up on themselves, and they haven’t given up on each other. These are the seers and scribes, the poets and storytellers, who will paint tomorrow’s world in truer colors. Take inspiration from them, and if you can, give a little bit back. Encouragement is never wasted.

Dear friends, I am profoundly and deeply grateful for your gifts.

writing to you

A few days before my daughter left for college, the air between us was not air. It was more like tar. Neither of us could budge from our opposing sides. Inside her room, she was petrified; outside, I was petrified. You’d think that at a crossroads like this we could’ve shared a sentiment. But no, if you can’t share the oxygen in a room, it’s unlikely you can share anything else.

That’s when a thought came to me. I’ve written about her, but I’ve never written to her. I scooted out to Staples and bought a red-covered Moleskin, then filled the first dozen pages. I told her what I knew and believed beneath the sticky pitch of my fear. Whatever I wrote, it was quick. I don’t remember any of it.

I knocked on her door and handed the journal to her. I’ve written a little bit about you, and now you can fill in the rest. A few minutes later she came out in tears. We shared a long embrace.

After she’d landed cross-country in a world of her own, I continued to write to her. A letter a week, perhaps, because what else could I do with myself? Although in person most of what I say is a tiresome nag, the words on paper were love.

She told me that she’d started to write in the journal, and then one day she wrote to me. When I told people that my daughter had written me a letter, they all responded the same way. On paper?

Yes, on paper. Words on paper, written to me.

***

About my books, some people say This is drivel, irritating, unhelpful. I couldn’t finish. Don’t bother. At the same time, other folks will say You have cracked me open and read my thoughts. I underlined the whole thing. This book is for everyone. 

It’s a curious thing: how people see or hear each other so differently when at the deepest level we are all alike.

Last week I mailed my daughter one of my books, the one called Hand Wash Cold. It was a blind leap, but she was feeling lost and hopeless, and I knew that feeling well.

Then I got a text. I’ve been reading all night.

How could it be that the words I’d written for me would turn out to be written for her? Because of love.

***

I want to write to you today about writing, since we now share writing with each other. It blows my mind that you are reading my books and loving them. That’s because I put love into the words when I wrote them, even though I can’t remember writing them or even what they were.

If you take anything from the old, dried-up words on a page, it is love, because love put them there. And the same can be true of every word you write and every word you say, even if it’s someone else’s written word. It is your breath and your blood that brings words to life. So you, too, will always have the power to bring forth words that will help other people even as the words help you.

This is how we bring the broken pieces of ourselves back together.

***

Photo by Brandi Redd.

raising your child to be

Years ago after Hand Wash Cold came out, I traveled around to people’s homes and gave talks about the book. I called it my Kitchen Table Tour. Folks all over the country were kind enough to host me for a gathering of their friends and sometimes even let me, a complete stranger, spend the night.

I visited a home in Silicon Valley where I gave a short reading and then took questions. One guest quickly raised her hand. I noticed that she’d brought her own copy of the book, which was plastered with sticky notes. She’d done her homework. There was a particular passage that provoked her question. It was the part about how my husband loads the dishwasher differently than I do, and that the way I’d dealt with his unorthodoxy was to just re-wash the dishes, if they needed it, in the morning. Specifically what I’d written was this:

The miracle does not occur in the machine. The miracle does not occur in the second wash. The miracle occurs when I don’t say a word about it.

Why couldn’t I just teach my husband how to load the dishwasher correctly? she asked, adding that she had two sons and she fully intended to raise them knowing the right way to load the dishwasher.

I can understand that way of thinking. We want people to do things the right way, which is often our way, so they will be coequal to household tasks and other critical competencies. Why would we waste the opportunity to produce better, smarter people? It makes perfect sense, so I knew my answer wouldn’t satisfy her.

Because I already know how to end a marriage, and I need to learn how to keep one. 

I think about this episode when I see someone write about what they are raising their children “to be.” Aren’t we all raising our children to be something better? You bet. It’s a fill-in-the-blank kind of thing. We might be trying to raise children to be kind, honest, self-reliant, or emotionally resilient. A loyal friend, a compassionate listener, a good citizen. Raising sons to respect women or raising daughters to respect themselves. We have all kinds of worthy ambitions for our children, I won’t deny that. But how do we teach that? By edict, insistence or imposition? I’d answered that question before too, in Momma Zen, and it might not be satisfying.

My child will do what I do and say what I say, but she will never, without coercion, do what I say.

The answer is that I have to be what needs to be. I have to be honest, self-reliant, and resilient. I have to be patient, tolerant, and optimistic. I have to be open and encouraging. A good listener and a devoted friend. Strong, brave, and self-respecting. I have to be that for her, even now, especially now that she’s gone.

These days when she writes to me, which isn’t often, she says more or less the same thing: that I’ve shown her what a strong and intelligent woman looks like. Here’s how I would answer that.

Not quite yet, but don’t give up on me, and I won’t give up on you.

 

they didn’t see

If you don’t see the Way,
you don’t see it even as you walk on it.

—Identity of Relative and Absolute

Over the last 20-plus years, I’ve heard my teacher tell a lot of stories. Actually, I’ve heard him tell one or two stories a lot of times. One of them is about Maezumi Roshi visiting a psychiatric hospital.

A member of the sangha was having trouble, and she had ended up in psychiatric care. When Maezumi heard about the powerful drugs the doctors were giving her, he said, “We have to go get her.” So they went to the hospital. Maezumi was wearing his traveling robes. There were many times Maezumi wore Western clothes, so for this trip, he must have thought the robes were appropriate.

They were standing near the day room talking to the staff about a discharge. The room was full of patients. Some were visibly disturbed or aggressive. Maezumi just stood there, a funny little man in a weird get-up, and didn’t say anything. One of the patients walked up to him carrying a chair. He signaled for Maezumi to sit down in it. Maezumi sat. Then the guy pulled up a chair and sat right next to him. And so did others. Soon Maezumi was sitting in a circle of psychiatric patients. Everyone was still and quiet, like it was nothing special.

When you walk the Way it is not near, it is not far
If you are deluded you are mountains and rivers away from it.

My teacher says that none of the staff or doctors even noticed what had happened.

“They didn’t see,” he would say everytime he told the story.

I used to wonder what it was that they didn’t see, and why. For awhile I thought he was saying that the whole event was come sort of glitch in the matrix, a hidden world on the other side of the space-time continuum. Zen students can be deluded by woo-woo like that.

“Oh,” I’d repeat, “they didn’t see!” still not seeing.

Not so long ago I realized what the doctors didn’t see: what was right in front of them. Reality. What most of us don’t see even as we walk on it.

In taking a seat and wearing robes, observe it for yourself later on. — Case 32, Book of Serenity

It used to be that if I was giving a talk or leading a workshop, I would put on a sleek J. Jill outfit and use a PowerPoint. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, or alarm anyone else, by doing anything Buddhist. I was an entertainer of sorts, and I was good at it. But entertainment doesn’t last. So I gave up trying to be popular and started going out in my robes to do what we do in Zen: sit. Instantly, it made everything easier. I didn’t have to make up what to say, and even strangers were consoled by it. I realized that it wasn’t me that made the difference, it was the robe.

In Zen, the teaching is said to be conveyed from teacher to student by “the robe and the bowl.”

The robe is the Dharma, or the teaching. The Dharma is as it is with nothing extra, nothing fabricated. It’s a powerful thing—what is—and it heals—when nothing is added to it—so maybe that’s why Maezumi wore his robe into the room where people were sick and suffering, their minds spinning in psychotic storms. It must have seemed like heaven to step into the quiet calm of his non-distracted presence, or samadhi. A passerby might have thought he was one more crazy person in a room of crazy people. And that would have been true too. Wherever he went, Maezumi left no trace of himself.

The robe was a signal that he was there to share the Dharma, pure presence, which shares itself when we don’t add our judgments to it.

The Great Way is not difficult;
it only avoids picking and choosing.

—Verses on the Faith Mind

I ran across a survey the other day asking “What is the greatest challenge Zen faces in the West today?” That’s a pretty common question among those who compare good versus bad, right versus wrong, past versus future. People have opinions. The truth, however, could not be clearer. The Way is not difficult. Reality is not hidden. There are no challenges to being present except the walls we erect by our judgmental mind, liking one thing and disliking another, cherishing our views of this or that.

It reminds me of Maezumi Roshi in the psychiatric ward. The doctors and nurses whizzing past, lost in their expertise, seeing only diagnoses and prognoses, cases and labels, in a room full of human beings just like them.

The more you talk and think about it,
The further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking
And there is nothing that you will not be able to know.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
March 31, 2019
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Register by email

a book I didn’t write

My daughter gave this to me for Christmas. She said I could write in it.

I took it as a sign. Perhaps like me you go looking for signs. Not actual signs, which tell you exactly what to do, like No Parking On Wednesdays Between 12 and 3 p.m., but the kind of sign that you can read into. A sign that you should write that next book, for example. The book about how to be the mother of a teenager.

Shortly after Momma Zen was published a few people said I wish you would write about parenting a teenager!  Yeah, right. I had a six-year-old. It was like asking me to write about the moons of Pluto. You take it on faith that the frozen rocks are floating way out there, but who cares? Later on, in the thick of age 14 or so, I knew what those parents had been asking for, but I couldn’t write about it until I’d stumbled out of the wilderness and into the clearing.

The thing is, it’s a really big wilderness.

Along the way, I marked a trail. The first thing I learned was that the teenage years start long before the teenage years. Like around age 9 or 10, when the sunshine dims and shadows creep. Soon, it became obvious that the only thing I could carry with me on the trip was love, extravagant love. And by love, I mean wide open space and silence. Trouble is, I was a slow learner. Stripped of the false sense of accomplishment, humility was my steady companion. Determined not to repeat my mistakes, I aimed to be just a tiny bit useful. To find the way, I’d have to listen, and more than listen, trust. Every step was a lesson in letting go. It’s scariest when you’ve gone just about as far as you can. But right about then, the light dawns. You’re back home, but it’s somewhere else entirely.

There are five moons around Pluto. That’s one book I can’t begin to write.

your child is a boat on the ocean

boat-on-ocean

Your child is a boat on the ocean. There are clear skies and calm nights. There are storms and rain and fog. You cannot control the course. Every time you exhale, the boat is carried toward the horizon, its distant harbor and home.

You are the breeze.

I am reposting this from the forgotten past. Because it is so true, and I forget what is true.

bloom

Let all karma be wiped out and the mind-flower bloom in eternal spring!

This April I’ll be returning to the wide-open prairies of Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin to observe the flow of spring amid the stillness of Zen. All levels of practitioners are invited to join this weekend of seated meditation (zazen), walking meditation (kinhin), chanting, and Dharma talks.

Holy Wisdom Monastery is less than 10 miles outside of Madison. This ecumenical center welcomes visitors with inspiring views, comfortable rooms and lovingly prepared meals. It is the perfect place to come alive again.

Spring Wind: A Zen Retreat
April 11-14, 2019
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Registration open

from every corner

Clockwise from top left:

  1. Cassini spacecraft plunges into Saturn to end its successful mission
  2. Turtle Island after 102 years in the garden
  3. NYU campus
  4. InSight mission lands on Mars in 2018
  5. Washington Square Park, New York City
  6. Valencia oranges ripening another season on Lima Street

what we do for love

A practitioner at a meditation retreat asks a question.

Q: What am I practicing here that helps me be more present and connected in my daily life?

A: Here, what you’re practicing is presence and connection, so that you can be more present and connected. Although right now you’re in a different place doing something different than usual, this really is your daily life. Yours alone. Even among all of us gathered here in one place, no one else is having the experience that you are having. Furthermore, if I were to tell you that practice is transactional, that if you sit like this you’re going to have a certain wonderful experience in your other, “normal” life someday – that would be a lie. This isn’t a transaction. Practice isn’t a product, a course of study or a life hack. There are not two things: your life and your practice. They are the same thing. You never leave your life, and the point is to never leave your practice. It’s all one thing.

We are here practicing being human beings. This is the practice of being a human being. In the old days they called Zen the practice of everyday life. You think, “This isn’t my everyday life. This is the opposite of my everyday life.” But nonetheless, this is your everyday life. Since the very beginning, and I don’t know why, human beings are not so good at everyday life. Unless they really practice everyday life.

Can I practice handling just this moment, however it is? Because when I’m out and about in my everyday life, I’m perfectly fine until someone does something that I don’t like or something happens that I don’t want. That’s where it gets tough, and it can get tough every day. It can get tough today. This environment here is very artificial and contrived. We’ve arranged ourselves in this nearly empty room, everyone in funny clothes trying to sit still and be silent. We don’t intentionally add stress here, but you experience stress here. I promise you that in your life, you experience stress. Can you sit it out? Wait it out? Breathe it out? Refrain from involving yourself in sticky situations that you don’t need to be in?

I can only speak from my own experience. At a certain point in my everyday life, I just could not handle it! I didn’t want any more of it! I tried everything I could think of to fix the problems and nothing worked. So when I finally sat down like this, it was an act of complete surrender. A sign of total failure. I’m going to have to do this on my own, I said. I’m going to have to figure out how to be a human being, with a life that has other people and things in it.

That’s what we’re here to do. And why do we do it? I think it’s why we do everything. Not because we’re high-minded or religious. This is not a religion. It’s a practice. You do not worship Buddha, and you do not worship me. Let’s see for a moment if you can stop worshipping yourself.

We’re here for love, because we have a capacity for love and we want to love and we want to be loved. That’s the connection. It’s not romantic love. It’s unconditional love. Unconditional love is pure presence.

Here we are among strangers. It’s a good idea to find love among strangers. It gets complicated after you know each other’s names and stories. When you know all that, you might find that you can’t relate to someone else. You might not even be able to tolerate them. But here you can simply have respect and gratitude for one another. Here you can just be present with everyone and everything.

It’s a beautiful practice, this practice of presence. It comes in many shapes and forms. Some people find connection on a swim team, or a cooking class, or off-road racing. And then you wonder how does that apply to life? But it does.

What we’re doing here this weekend requires a very modest amount of time, compared to how long it takes to stream a Netflix series. And it is relatively painless. So ask yourself. Why am I here?

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
March 31, 2019

Spring Wind Weekend Retreat
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Madison, WI
April 11-14, 2019

Photo: The Dewdrop Sangha by Rick McCleary.

This is an excerpt from an informal Q&A at one of this year’s Dewdrop Sangha meditation retreats. You can listen to the full recording here.

the orbit is elliptical

Sunday morning I was standing on the sidewalk with my dog Molly. Standing is what passes for walking when you have a dog this old and infirm. I saw my neighbor striding down the hill toward us. Straightaway he asked about my daughter.

I think about her all the time! She’s so brave. You are all so brave.

This neighbor attended the same university where my daughter is now, and has embraced her college choice and field of study with unfiltered enthusiasm.

The energy is so amazing! The people are so creative! It’s the best place in the world for her!  Then he asked about her recent visit home.

It hadn’t gone the way I’d expected. After three months away, she spent most of her time in her room or ricocheting from one friend to another, special people she just had to see, spinning in happiness and heartache. Three days later she got up at 4 a.m. without complaint to catch her return flight. It was barely noon here when she texted a valediction: Landed. I told my neighbor that I realized her life now is all about moving forward.

You know, the orbit is elliptical. It’s not circular.

He said this with the insight of an astrophysicist, which he isn’t, but I could grant him that, since he is a professor of supportive care at one of the world’s leading cancer centers. He knows all about comings and goings and the paths we travel in-between. Our children return home to refuel before they accelerate outward again.

Once indoors, I sounded out the science with the astronautical expert I live with. I vaguely remembered not listening to him tell me about the elliptical flight path of a mission to Saturn, when the spacecraft slingshotted back around two or three planets en route to its faraway destination. Why do you have to do that? I asked him.

The planet’s gravity accelerates your velocity so you can get where you’re going.

I’m schooled now on the mechanics: we pull her in so we can fling her out. Hers is a distant world.

***

The interplanetary flight path of the Cassini mission to Saturn began with launch from Earth on Oct. 15, 1997, followed by gravity-assist flybys of Venus, Earth, and Jupiter before arriving at Saturn on July 1, 2004. The flybys of the different planets were designed to increase the spacecraft’s velocity relative to the sun so it could reach Saturn. During these flybys, there is an exchange of energy between the planet and the spacecraft which accelerates the latter and changes its velocity direction relative to the Sun.

Image: How small the sun looks from Saturn.

 

caring letters

When he was 23, Jerome Motto led an Army truck regiment in World War II. He drove through mile after mile of devastation, surrounded by enemy fire and praying that he and his 39 men would be safe. His prayers were answered with the occasional cargo drop bringing food, supplies, and the one thing he would later credit for keeping him alive—letters.

There was a day last week when I looked at the papers strewn across my desk and thought, “What a good day.” I had just opened and read three letters: one each from Illinois, Wisconsin and northern California. It isn’t such a strange thing for me to receive or send letters. One or the other happens several times a week. Hearing recently that the Forever stamp would go up by five cents at the end of January, I bought three sheets on Monday. These days, stamps feel like the only investment that will pay off.

Jerome Motto got letters from his family, of course. They wrote about their worry and hardships, and wished he would write back more often. He felt sad and guilty that he couldn’t help them. Surprisingly, the letters he most looked forward to were from a woman he’d met but barely remembered. She wrote about commonplace things, he said, like weather and songs on the radio, and she kept writing whether he did or not. He felt a connection. She was interested; she cared. And although he wondered what might come of their friendship, nothing did. He survived the war, living another 60 years without ever seeing her again.

Two years ago I invited people to write to me, promising that I would respond. The world seemed broken. We were disconnected, alienated and at war. At first, a lot of letters came. And then, as you’d expect, enthusiasm waned. I know: it’s hard to keep correspondence going. I never meant to imply that people could only communicate with me by letter, but there is something intimate about putting words on paper, folding and creasing, then closing, addressing, stamping and posting the envelope. It is personal. It is a person.

I have a thing about letters.

After the war, Motto became a psychiatrist. He happened to read an authoritative paper suggesting that the most disturbed patients could be helped by a feeling of connection to another person. So he came up with a research project. He and his staff would interview patients being discharged from a psychiatric hospital—3,000 in all—and half of them would be sent a series of letters—24 letters over five years—asking how they were doing. The letters were simple and short, intended to create a sense of kinship as if sent by a friend.

The results were dramatic. The suicide rate among the “contact group,” those receiving letters, was half that of the control group to which no letters were sent. The lower incidence continued even after the letters had stopped. His was the first experiment to ever show a decline in suicide rates. But still, not many people ever found out about the work.

Around the time the bounty of letters landed on my desk, I read about Jerome Motto and the legacy of his letters in this in-depth article. After you read it in full, you might reflect on yourself and the people in your life. Should you ever feel alone and in despair, perhaps a caring letter will come. Or perhaps you will send one. Either way works.

 

finding a life

You must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it. But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong. — Wendell Berry

This week, should you travel far or close, join the table as a guest or host, may you find your life in all those things to which you belong. And in a quiet hour, perhaps you’ll listen to this. I am grateful to have something to share with you. Thank you for fulfilling my life.

Karen Maezen Miller: Finding a Life podcast

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