forget what you call it

July 21st, 2010

OK friends. I am officially now part of the problem. In Zen we call this kind of talk “going into the weeds” and I caution you not to get entangled in the vines. Here are my worthless opinions on the meanings of some commonly misunderstood Buddhist terms and why I think they are so easily misjudged.

DISCLAIMER: Notice that I just used the words problem, opinion, meaning, misunderstood, why, think and misjudge at the same time. Watch your step, and don’t take my word for any of this.

Glossary of Misconceptions

Attachment – Oooh la la. We think attachment means loving devotion, as in “attached at the hip.” But sometimes that isn’t love, is it? When we’re intoxicated by romance (or just intoxicated) we might want to stay attached forever. Don’t leave me! I can’t live without you! But attachment becomes uncomfortable and confining, suffocating and debilitating. And it doesn’t only mean clinging to what we like, it also means rejecting what we don’t like. Attachments are desires and aversions that we can’t let go of; the places we get emotionally, physically and mentally stuck. Life itself never sticks. So when an attachment gets ripped from our grasp by the ebb and sway of life as it is, we hurt. Attachments are the source of our suffering and unfulfillment. Can we ever let ourselves stop hurting? Can we ever be satisfied and happy with life as it is? The dark truth is that we are often attached to our suffering. We relive it over and over in our minds and reignite familiar, painful feelings. Sometimes we’re not quite sure who we would be if we didn’t have our unfulfillment to fill us up. The funny thing is, when we drop an attachment we find out that we’ve lost nothing at all.

Non-attachment – Boo hiss! Who wants non-attachment? That sounds downright sinister and at the very least indifferent. But non-attachment isn’t inhumane, unconcerned or indifferent. It simply means that when the ebb and sway of life carries us along, we can let go because we see all of it in a different way. It doesn’t create the absence of feeling or smug disregard. It allows instead the complete acceptance of all feelings and circumstances as they are, empty and impermanent. We hurt, and then we stop hurting. We grieve, and then we stop grieving. We are free. When we truly love someone or something, we grant them freedom from our own preferences. We neither clutch nor reject. Non-attachment is the nature of life itself: it keeps going. Non-attachment allows us to love one another and life as it is regardless of whether we like it right now or not. It gives rise to trust and cultivates faith in something far greater than what we wish: life as it is. Non-attachment is selfless compassion.

Ego – Uh-oh. Now the party’s over. Who invited the deadly sins? Envy, anger, greed, pride and all the rest are sure signs of ego. Thankfully I don’t have any of those symptoms if I do say so myself! There: that’s ego too. Ego is you when you are talking to yourself. “I like this; I don’t like that. I think so; I don’t think so. I agree; I disagree.” Ego is the voice of the thinking mind, the mind that conceives, perceives, measures, judges, evaluates, picks and chooses, likes and dislikes, clutches and rejects from the standpoint of a separate “I.” There is nothing wrong with ego, or thinking. Only most of your thoughts are not pleasant, and egoism is by nature self-serving and fearful. The attachment to ego is our most pernicious attachment. Still, we do not aim to destroy ego, just suspend its driving privileges!

True Self – Now here’s a term I keep running into in peculiar places. What is true self or true nature? When you dig down deep into your psyche, examine your honest feelings, and find the courage to say what you really think and do what you really want, is that true self? No, that’s ego. True self is you when you are not thinking about or serving yourself at all. You’re not formulating likes and dislikes based on conversations with yourself. There is no “I” in true self. There is no “self” in true self. But there is everything else. The whole universe, in fact. That’s what makes the true self true: it’s not just your idea. Your true self is the source of infinite wisdom and eternal, unconditional love, the real “you” you might bump into some night when it’s dark and quiet.


Just as I finished writing this, I went into my daughter’s bedroom to tuck her in to sleep.

“Will you snuggle with me?” she asked in the shadowy light, and I laid sideways on the rim of the twin bed. We’ve outgrown the bed, you see, but not each other.

I remembered all the nights we’d shared this hour and place. She on my lap, in my arms, in the rocker, in the crib, until she was weightless in slumber.

“If I could have one wish, it would be that nothing would change from the way it is now,” she whispered.

“Me too,” I said. “But I’ll still love you more than anything else. More than any number I can count or even imagine.”

“Me too,” she said. “That’s how I love you too. And I’ll always be your baby,” she reassured us. Then night’s calm descended into the spaces we’d left behind. Every night, every day, every hour, we leave all of it behind.


This is how I see the truth, and this is how I live my faith. Not by definition. I sincerely encourage you to just keep going, and forget whatever it is you call it.

Reprinted from March 2008, because we always forget what is important to remember, and remember what is important to forget.

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  1. Ain’t that the truth?

    Comment by MamaShift — March 26, 2008 @ 7:26 am

  2. I think you just wrote the perfect post. Thank you.

    Comment by barefootwoman — March 26, 2008 @ 10:00 am

  3. Thank you. Anything more would be another bundle of weeds. 🙂

    Comment by Lorianne — March 26, 2008 @ 10:43 am

  4. Thanks for the post, plenty for me to think about.

    Isn’t wonderful that our children are our ultimate reminders of core reality and importance?

    Comment by Onedia — March 26, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  5. Dear Karen,
    Thanks for risking “becoming part of the problem” in order to explain some things. This post is a gift to me in so many ways today.

    Comment by Phyl — March 26, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

  6. thank you for this post, truly.

    Comment by red sun — March 26, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  7. I got teary when I read your conversation with Georgia. I got teary because I, too, now am experiencing that particular love.

    Your definitions (even though you advise us to take it all “with a grain of salt”) clarify a number of misconceptions for me. Thank you.

    Comment by kathryn — March 26, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

  8. Beautiful w/many glimmers of recognition. Thankyou for all the reminders.

    Comment by crystine — March 26, 2008 @ 6:38 pm

  9. This has really inspired me today. Thank you.

    Comment by Lyonmom — March 26, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

  10. So what is “healthy ego”? Is that a misnomer? Can there be a sense of “I” or self that isn’t fearful and self-serving?

    Comment by Jena Strong — March 26, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

  11. Jena, you’ll have to ask someone in another weed patch! Believe me, there are plenty of them.

    Healthy/unhealthy: who judges those kind of things? I certainly know how I would judge myself! Can you see the trap we create with our dualistic thinking? Open your eyes and see for yourself, then step free of those kinds of judgments. They aren’t real. I’m sure you’ll feel healthier right away. The whole world will be healthier.

    Reflect on what Buddha said upon enlightenment: “I, the great earth, and all beings simultaneously attain the Way.” There’s an “I” we can all live with.

    But I’m not worried about you. You’re perfect as you are. 🙂

    Comment by Karen — March 26, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

  12. Thank you for the reminder to get out of my head…

    Comment by Sarina — March 26, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

  13. thank you. i understand that you were talking about buddhist terms and ideas…but i think that they apply to all, buddhist or not. i’m catholic and a happy catholic at that – but i love reading your blog b/c i feel that i learn something about how to live life better, fuller, healthier from all that you have to say. i hope that doesn’t come across the wrong way…i mean it only in the right way. 🙂
    thank you.

    Comment by sarah — March 26, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

  14. Sarah, thank you. I consider myself one of the best darn Catholics you could ever find! 🙂 Seriously,one truth people. It’s just that sometimes people want me to talk Buddhist at them. Then I have to drop my aversions and get on with it.

    Comment by Karen — March 26, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

  15. Oh, Karen, I love when you talk Buddhist at me!

    Comment by Mama Zen — March 26, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

  16. I’m always curious when you “talk Buddhist” because I know so little and realize I likely have many misconceptions. As with most things. 🙂
    I have to let go of whatever I call it because, for me, the second I start calling it things, tying it down, I begin to lose the very little I do know to be true. The Ideas make me weary and thank god we can leave them be and go on living our wonderful lives.

    Comment by bella — March 26, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

  17. Karen-Thanks for this. I loved the image of Georgia and you in her bed, she growing up, the space in the bed for cuddling, shifting, changing, never permanent but love always growing, always building, changing a thousands times and yet strong, brilliant beautiful…That image will stay with me when I feel caught in the weeds.

    Comment by Meg Casey — March 26, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

  18. I think I get it. I think.

    Comment by Mika — March 26, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

  19. Love to see someone write “just keep going, and forget whatever it is you call it.” That seems true with so many things. The moment I call “it” something, it gets away from, loses something, becomes a little less what I thought I wanted.

    I’ve always preferred to keep going (usually after dusting myself off).

    Comment by marta — March 27, 2008 @ 3:12 am

  20. This is a wonderful post. And just what I needed this week.

    Thank you, Karen.


    Comment by Els — March 27, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

  21. My uncle used to say that Indians didn’t stutter because they didn’t have a name for it. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I think his point is now clearer.

    Comment by Shannon — March 27, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  22. Shannon, I’ll probably steal that line, true or not, because it works. When I teach meditation I tell people that the cushion, the posture, the breathing, all of it is the saddle and the horse is your life. We use meditation as a saddle so we can learn to ride our life. I remind everybody that Native Americans of course didn’t use saddles. They just hopped on the horse bareback and were “one with it.” The devices are useful as long as we don’t confuse them with the underlying truth.

    Comment by Karen — March 27, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

  23. thanks, karen, for once again giving me a moment to breathe it all in and then let it all go.
    even when i’m half-listening to “curious george” in the background.
    this is the post i’ll go back to later on when there is more silence for me.
    thanks thanks thanks.

    Comment by Holly Lash — March 27, 2008 @ 11:51 pm

  24. I liked this, especially your take on “true self,” and suspending ego’s driving privileges. So much of my life is spent learning to get out of my own way!

    Comment by Judy Merrill-Smith — March 28, 2008 @ 1:42 am

  25. the non-attachment is the real CRUX of it all to me.

    zack and i spent days in a car traveling to montana before our wedding contemplating this ‘path’.

    i find this to be the most challenging in a marriage. it makes perfect sense in theory – but is extremely difficult in practice.

    boy that ego sure gets in the way doesn’t it??


    Comment by Stella — March 28, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  26. thanks for the profound wisdom!

    Comment by zenator — March 28, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  27. as i was ready to leave you a comment my oldest daughter came up to me with a picture she drew for me. “mama there is you and a rainbow and many flowers and the sunshine and grass and you only have four teeth but the rest are hiding in your mouth and you have eye make-up on, too”.

    then we left and walked bya river for 2 hours and ate grilled cheese at a dive cafe.

    thank you.

    Comment by mb — March 30, 2008 @ 11:03 pm

  28. Followed the toasted oats here tonight. Beautiful. I have been spending many exhausted hours in life-as-it-is. Hmm, I think I am attached to the exhaustion. I took a break to come here, and now I see it is already time to head back.

    Comment by RocketMom — April 29, 2008 @ 3:00 am

  29. thank you. a little late to the party, but i feel i needed to read this today.

    Comment by nowlze — October 12, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

  30. I think the definition you use for ego causes problems for the rest of your post. I like your moxie, though.
    @mukyo (on twitter)

    Comment by Ted Bagley — July 21, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

  31. Think+definition+ego = problems

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — July 21, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

  32. Oh I love this… thank you.
    And that moment with your daughter, just beautiful.

    Comment by Corinne — July 21, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

  33. Thank you. _/|\_

    Comment by Rafael — July 22, 2010 @ 2:05 am

  34. What a great post. I love the humor in it and the beautiful recollection of the time and space spent with your daughter. To leave it all behind can be such a big leap of faith, but it is one we are all bound into in some way or another…for truth.


    Comment by Earth Mama — July 22, 2010 @ 4:24 am

  35. {Thank you}

    Comment by Swirly — July 22, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

  36. Thank you for re-posting, Maezen.

    Comment by Rhea — July 22, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

  37. thank you for re-posting this – please repost again, and again, and again..
    so we don’t forget

    Comment by kathleen — July 22, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

  38. sometimes I just follow a trail from one of your posts back through the highlighted links. A trail of words leading to just the treasure I need. You wrote, months before my son was born, more than a year before your book arrived in the mail:
    “It’s never too late to be the new mother of your own life.”

    On a day of relentless tantrums and tears (my son’s and mine), at a time of preoccupation with the second child we almost certainly will not have (but everyone else seems to be having), these words went straight to the refrigerator door. The phantom second child is so much about wanting a second chance to do it right, do it better, not mess up, not be a mess. But I get that chance every minute, every day. As for everyone else . . . . Attachment, envy, ego.

    Comment by Laura — July 22, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

  39. As someone who loves stories, I respond best to stories, and that little anecdote about your daughter told me more than the definitions. Maybe my mind still thinks like a child. I understand the story. The words and the definitions just makes me want to ask, “Why? Why? Why?” like a bratty twelve year old boy. While I understand intellectually what you are saying about attachment, ego, etc., I don’t even know where to begin with that information. Granted, being too attached to people and objects, or being self-absorbed is bad for you. Who’s going to disagree? I think most people are on board with the negative stuff. It is the positive concepts that require stepping into another zone. True self? Non-attachment, like nature itself? I just don’t see it. I feel very rooted in the physical world, where we all have urges and struggles within us, and the Western idea of morality — the Golden rule — “Don’t do unto others…” is the best we have come up with so far.

    Comment by Neil — July 22, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

  40. So beautiful- this belongs on our fridge (although it’s pretty darn cluttered as it is right now- a sign of my cluttered life?) I am probably way overthinking this, but I wonder about being attached/non-attached when it comes to love for my children. For instance, if something were to happen to them, would I just be able to hurt and then not hurt and move on? This is a stumbling block for me, but I’m sure it’s more of a “not getting it” than anything else.

    I really hope to attend one of your retreats. (Oops- I think that’s attachment too? Gosh-it’s hard,except when it’s easy….)Well, in any case, my ego really really wants to attend one of your retreats! Soon! 🙂

    Comment by Heather — July 23, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

  41. Thank you Karen for this beautiful, beautiful post. Clear and sincere, as always. A source of inspiration for today, when I´m on the way of making a change!!!
    It´s so difficult to let ego go!!!

    Comment by ariane — July 23, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

  42. Stunning. Love. Thank you!

    Comment by Katie Murphy — July 23, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

  43. Thank you Karen!

    Comment by Imelda — July 24, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

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