Available as a print by visiting here.
Find a short interview with me at Shambhala SunSpace.
Enter the Goodreads Giveaway for a free copy. You have until Sunday to find faith in yourself.
Step through the gate by watching this video.
Spend thirty minutes in the garden by listening to this podcast.
Take a picture of your Personal Paradise and post it to my author page on Facebook.
When you see your life, you bring it to life.
Paradise in Plain Sight is now available from online sellers and will soon be in neighborhood stores. Please share this video glimpse into my home and garden via Facebook or Twitter, and then leave a comment on this post for a chance to win the very first signed copy.
If you are reading this in your email, click here to see the video.
I will notify the winner by Monday, April 28.
This is a simple set of instructions that I always give children when they visit my backyard garden. Beginning when she was three years old, we invited Georgia’s class to our garden for a field trip each year. She is now 14, and I am far older, and yet the instructions still apply. Children find them easier to do than adults.
Life is a garden and we are the gardeners. Here are the rules for a mindful garden:
1. Be kind. Every time we are kind to another, we are kind to ourselves, because we have left our stingy self-centeredness behind. It’s important: kindness is the supreme religion. It’s not hard: pure silence is the ultimate kindness. We already know how to do it.
2. Don’t throw rocks. The garden path is paved with stones. For children, it’s tempting to pick one up and loft it into the ponds. For adults, it’s tempting to pick one up and loft it at each other. Consider how very often we blame others, and the circumstances around us, for whatever displeases us. It’s not my fault, we say, it’s you, it’s my job, it’s my parents, it’s my kids, it’s my neighbor that’s causing all the trouble, tossing rocks with wild abandon. To maintain peace in your garden, don’t pick up a rock if you can’t set it down.
3. No running. There’s no hurry and no one chasing you. Running in my backyard is a sure way to fall headfirst into the murky mud beneath you. How much of life do we miss because we are racing headfirst toward some place else? A place we never reach? You have all the time in the world to savor the life you have.
4. Pay attention. Bring all your attention to what is at hand. You’ll wake up to the glorious view before you and realize you’re right at home where you are.
It’s Mindfulness Reminder Week on the blog. I’ve reprised some of my most popular posts on mindfulness at home and work. To learn how to put the preaching into practice, come to the Plunge Retreat in Boise on Saturday, Oct. 5.
Empty handed, holding a hoe. —Mahasattva Fu
No matter how pretty it might look on a good day, paradise is just a patch of weeds.
What loyal friends, these undesirables that infiltrate the impeccable lawn, insinuate between cracks, and luxuriate in the deep shade of my neglect. Weeds are everywhere, thank heaven, reporting for duty every day. I have quite a bit of help around here but weeds are my most reliable underlings. Where would I be without them? I would run out of reasons to wake up every morning. I would lack motivation and direction. I might consider the job here to be done.
The job here is never done.
As if it isn’t obvious enough, I must confess that in these sixteen years of gardening I have not yet learned how to garden. Oops! By this I mean that I do not know the chemistry of soils or the biology of compost. I have not learned the nomenclature; I do not know the right time or way to prune. My most useful tools are the ones farthest from my hands: sun and water. I have not planted a single thing still standing. In all this time in the yard I have cultivated no worthwhile skills, save one that is decidedly unskilled.
I offer this up as a modest qualification because I have noticed how reluctantly most people bring themselves to the task. Weeding is not a popular pastime, even among gardeners. Weeds are the very emblem of aversion. One spring I directed our revered Mr. Isobe to a troublesome spot in the backyard where invasives were spreading through the miniature mondo. He squinted to see what I was pointing to. Subsequently he did not share my alarm, but broke into laughter. “You want me to weed?” I suppose he felt the need to verify that someone of his stature would be asked to stoop to the occasion. After that, I didn’t ask him again. The weeds were all mine. read more
In the end, what ties everything together is how predictably it falls apart.
Like everyone, I must have seen heaps of leaves all my life, but I never really noticed the part where they fall to the earth. When you watch a tree drop its leaves, it will change you. It will alter your ambition and interrupt your agenda. There’s nothing like the sight of falling leaves to give you a glimpse of reality, especially if it’s in your own backyard.
It was my forty-first birthday. I was looking out the garden window in our guest room, also called our office, but which would be lost to either use when a baby took up residence a year later. I was alone, in the middle of the day, amid September’s melancholy stillness, with nothing to do except give undue consideration to the sad landscape of my recent loss. Three months earlier I’d left my job, planted my savings into this decrepit house, sacrificed my slim claim to fame and greatness and brought myself down to earth. And for what? I was no clearer on the why. Then it began to rain, more like the suggestion of rain, a translucent veil that fell like lace from the crown of the sky. Did this even qualify as rain? I had to wonder, being a transplant from the land of whipcracking cloudbursts and tornado warnings with sudden raging floods that crested two feet higher than your front door. That was rain.
I remember this event not because of the birthday, one of many that would come after the year I stopped counting, but because of the delicate mists that carried the first leaves down from the sycamores, leaves still partly green and as wide across as my two hands. What a show—the water, the light, and the leaves gliding into a soft landing of letting go.
I was forty-one years old before I ever saw a tree lose its leaves. After that, everything I saw was a falling leaf. Everything came down. read more
This is an excerpt from my next book Paradise in Plain Sight, coming next spring from New World Library.
A monk asked Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?” Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden.” —Gateless Gate, Case 37
From the beginning, I called it a grandfather tree, the oak tree in the garden. The reasons were self-evident. It was tall, broad-shouldered and thick around the middle, like my grandfathers. Plus, I had an album of photos that showed it standing at full height before I was born. Only later did I learn that there wasn’t even such a description in arboriculture. What I called a grandfather tree was instead grandfathered, protected from removal by a village tree ordinance. But that made sense, too. It’s impossible to remove your grandfathers from the line of life you’ve been given. When you’re little, they hold you. You look up to them. They might teach you something useful that no one else has the time or patience for. In time, they slow down, grow feeble, drop things—but you can’t do a damn thing about it.
Even approaching a hundred years old, the oak tree in our garden was a fount of life. It cradled nests of marauding rats and raccoons. Noisy squirrels chased the length of it all day long. Jays shrieked, hawks roosted, and the wind flew through its wide-open arms. Its canopy shaded a teahouse built by a groundskeeper in the 1920s for his kids to play in. That’s a lot of hide-and-seek and games of tag: generations of joy and laughter. Two years after we got here, our daughter Georgia was born. Suddenly, we saw only peril in a yard full of rocks and water, not to mention dirt. If it had been left to me, fear would have kept us locked indoors. But Georgia kept proving that she was born to play in the garden, as we are all born to play in the garden. She watched her step; she knew her place. Before long, the neglected teahouse was crawling with kids for parties and play-acts: revivals of The Wizard of Oz and Little House on the Prairie, stories about making yourself at home wherever you are, stories retold with every generation.
The oak tree in the garden drops more than two thousand acorns a year. Each acorn is both a culmination and a seed; each carries its own ancestral imprint and the full potential to evolve. In California, the principal propagator of oaks is the scrub jay. A jay picks up thousands of acorns and stores them underground in the fall, and when it’s time to eat, remembers where nearly all of them are placed. Nearly all. A few stay undisturbed underground, and those are the ones that sprout. The lineage of the coastal live oak depends on what a bird forgets, and the survival of the Western scrub jay depends on what a live oak leaves behind. It sounds like a willy-nilly proposition, only it isn’t.
One acorn in ten thousand becomes a tree. On the one hand, what a waste. On the other, it works. In the crapshoot of life, you—I mean you—turned up. You rose from the ground of your ancestors, their dust in your bones. Without accomplishing another thing, you are the complete fulfillment of all those who came before you. How can you doubt yourself?
This is an excerpt from my next book Paradise in Plain Sight, coming next spring from New World Publishing.
The blue sky and bright day,
No more searching around!
—Mumon’s Verse, Gateless Gate, Case 30
And then I saw the garden.
I’m going to slow down and choose my words carefully. Not because the garden is hard to describe, but because I want you to see.
Sometimes people come to the garden and say, “It’s so much smaller than I thought.” Or “It’s so much bigger than I thought.” Or “It’s not at all what I thought.” They have created a picture in their minds of what the garden would look like, or what it should look like, and when they see the real thing they aren’t seeing it at all, but comparing it to the picture in their minds. We cherish the pictures in our minds. We prize our fantasies or they wouldn’t be our fantasies, perfected with every wish. Nearly everything we cherish is just a picture: our ambitions and ideals, size 4 or 6 or 8; our notions of what happy families and their homes should look like (not this); the past, the future; our vision of love, lovers, and life ever after. The picture might even be a nightmare—frightening and forlorn—but we cherish it just the same.
Sometimes people come to the garden and say, “I had no idea.” Then they don’t say anything else, because they are actually seeing the garden. They are actually seeing what is right in front of them, and experiencing it. Then nothing needs to be said.
I had no idea what to expect when my husband called me to the kitchen. By this time we’d entered the house, and because it was empty, we did not take offense at what we saw. Empty rooms are full of possibilities. Possibility is full of love.
“You should see this,” he said.
I stepped into the kitchen where he stood at a plate glass window, looking out.
And then I saw the garden.
I saw a multitude of greens, iridescent greens. The glint of rocks and sunbleached stones. Red bark and burnished branches. The sheen on still water. The light on a hill. A foreground, a background: the seamless whole of three dimensions. Colors with no names because I wasn’t naming them. Beauty beyond measure because I wasn’t measuring it. A view unspoiled because I wasn’t judging it. The shine of the sky making everything visible, everything vivid, even the shadows, with the radiance of being alive.
This was not a picture of a garden. This was not a picture that I could ever conjure from memory or make-believe. This was true life, so unexpected it made me cry.
Now do you see? When you see your life, you bring it to life. When you don’t see your life, it is lifeless.
You are all perfect the way you are, and you could use a little improvement.
I’m a guest teacher this month at Shambhala Publication’s Under 35 Project, where the topic is Experiencing Loss.
Under 35 is a site for young meditators to write about finding, beginning and encouraging a mindfulness practice. I hope you’ll visit and read this month’s submissions. If you’re a writer looking for a new venue, or a practitioner looking for support, please consider writing a short essay and contributing it to the site. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re under 35 or not. I view age limitations the same way I view loss: there’s no way over but through, and getting through is what makes a difference.
This remind me of a passage I came across in James Ishmael Ford’s book Zen Master Who?
There are numerous stories about Maezumi Roshi’s teaching style, but one I particularly like has to do with a student who had been a professional dancer.
As recounted in Sean Murphy’s One Bird, One Stone, the student had badly hurt one of her feet in an accident and was forced to retire from the stage. Embarrassed by her injury, she always kept her foot covered with a sock. In her first interview she asked Maezumi a question about her Zen practice. But he answered, “Never mind that. Tell me about your foot.” She was reluctant to talk but he insisted. She told him the story, weeping, and even took off her sock and showed him her foot.
Maezumi placed his hand silently on her foot. She looked up to find that he was crying too. Their exchanges went on like this for some time. Every time she asked the roshi about her practice, he’d ask about her foot instead, and they’d cry together. “You might think you have suffered terrible karma,” Maezumi told her, “But this is not the right way to think. Practice is about learning to turn disadvantage to great advantage.” Finally the day came when the student walked into the interview room and began to tell her teacher about her injury, but it summoned no tears from her. “Never mind about that,” Maezumi told her. “Let’s talk about your practice.”
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat on Sept. 23 in LA.
The Art of Non-Parenting: Discovering the Wisdom of Easy, and Deeper Still: Breath & Meditation Workshop on Oct. 20-21 in Wash. DC.
In memory of Mr. Nobuaki “Jeffery” Isobe, age 83, born in Tateyama, Chiba, Japan, resident of Rosemead, Calif., who passed away peacefully on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012.
A letter received two weeks after the last one.
Dear Mrs. Miller,
I would like to take this time to inform you of my resignation as your gardener due to an unfortunate discovery of a potentially terminal illness. My illness will require extended treatment and recovery, and I am unsure that my ability to perform my duties will ever return. In addition to considering my age, this is my only option.
It has been a pleasure to work for you and I do apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
A letter received in a hand-addressed envelope in the mail:
Dear loyal customer,
I have been in the hospital since 3/5/2012 and will be undergoing surgery on Friday 3/9/2012. After surgery, I will be out of commission for 2-3 weeks due to recovery. I would like to continue to work for you in your garden after my recovery and hope you can be patient until then. I do apologize for this inconvenience.
This gentleman is close to 80 years old. Today, he swept away inconvenience and pruned my impatience. I will never take his work away from him. His work will never end.
Last year I was visited by a filmmaker making a documentary about Japanese gardens. By the time we met in my backyard, she had spoken with many experts and had hundreds of hours of footage, but she was still confused about Zen Buddhism and the metaphors illustrated by a Zen garden. I tried to simplify things for her. That’s what Zen does for our lives: simplify the way we see it, so that we no longer confuse one thing for another, and see it whole.
Come set foot into the garden.