Posts Tagged ‘Gratitude’

teachers are special

June 12th, 2017    -    4 Comments

Last Wednesday at 10:32 a.m. I got a 16-word text from my daughter, which is noteworthy regardless of what it said. She was at the awards assembly on the last day of her junior year of high school. She wasn’t expecting to hear her name announced. Middle school convinced her that “they don’t give awards to people like me” and it wasn’t a complaint, but a clear-eyed wager, since that’s when a handful of kids emerge at the top of Geometry and Robotics and Chess Club and Debate, with better-than-perfect grades so that when I asked who they do give awards to she answered, “the same people every time.”

Won most improved in APUSH and AP bio and magna cum laude and summa cum laude

That night she had dinner with a friend of my husband’s, an entrepreneur who offered to advise her on applying to his alma mater, a school that has emerged as her new Number 1. He told her that there are lots of kids with good grades—good grades don’t set you apart to the admissions director at a great school. She needed to be special. She needed to stand out by standing up for something. Where did she want to make her mark?

That sounds crazy to me, suggesting as it does that our teenagers rave about themselves before they have any idea who they are or want to be. Isn’t that what college is supposed to be about? Taking the long road to arrive at a better understanding of the world and how you might fit into it?

She and I wondered why her two favorite teachers awarded her “most improved.” Her history grade had held steady all year long. There were a lot of good students in AP Bio. I told her what her teachers had said at the parent conference last fall: She writes down everything I say, she’s eager to participate, and she’s heading in the right direction.

If I could, I would turn around and tell those teachers what I’ve learned this year: She loves and respects you, you’ve inspired her, and she couldn’t wait to go to your class each day.

I have a daughter who cannot bullshit. She won’t boast, can’t pretend, and doesn’t waltz around thinking she’s special. She thinks her teachers are special.

They are.

****

Coffee mug by PhotoCeramics on Etsy.

5 steps to joy

September 1st, 2016    -    9 Comments

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How do we find joy amid chaos?

I’ve been practicing meditation for 23 years now, and this question tells you why. It’s why I do retreats as a student, and it’s why I offer them as a teacher. Each of us, no matter what the circumstances, can find ourselves in a daily struggle to stay sane. And if not completely sane, at least positive. And if not totally positive, than at least moderately hopeful. There is so much going on. We can’t catch up or get ahead. Even our kids are too busy. Everyone is stressed, pressured, and anxious. The outlook is for more of the same. We may feel an urgent need to slow things down, or a depressing belief that nothing we do will make a difference.

We might think that chaos is a unique feature of our 21st century culture, but that isn’t so. True, technology means that we can work 24/7, and we have our devices to thank for our chronic distractibility. We may lack the support of family and friends, and feel disconnected from meaningful relationships. But I bet that you don’t need to look very far back in your family history to find a time when your own ancestors struggled just to maintain adequate food and shelter, or labored under catastrophic wars, disasters, and economic or social injustice. In short, life has always been hard, and often a lot harder than it is now. The proverbial “simpler time” we yearn for might not have been simple at all.

Contemplative practices such as meditation originated many thousands of years ago and haven’t changed. They don’t need to change. They don’t need to be modernized or adapted to the millennial mindset. They depend solely on oneself. And they work. This is what I have observed in my own meditation practice: stillness and silence bring peace, and from that peace springs radiant joy that you can experience for yourself.

It begins in chaos. Are you troubled, confused, anxious or overwhelmed? You’ve taken the first step to joy.

Enter the chaos

All spiritual practices are born in chaos — the shock of loss, the pain of despair, the sobering certainty of old age, sickness and death — the recognition that time swiftly passes and you are not in control. When the world is moving too fast, we always have a choice: to be tossed about by external events, or to center ourselves in the midst.

Drop resistance

The fact is, you’re upset. Frustrated, disappointed and annoyed. Resentful, regretful or indignant. Uncomfortable, uneasy and afraid. Most of us have developed a hard outer edge: the edginess that comes from resisting the way things are. Once you recognize what you are holding on to, you can drop it. It’s a lot of work to haul that extra stuff around, and it makes you feel terrible.

Exhaust yourself

No longer struggling against anything, you might instead feel . . . tired, very tired, and tender, very tender. Your heart softens, and you feel genuine compassion for yourself and others. Everyone is simply doing their best. This is a key step on the journey, because now you are courageous enough to do the most difficult thing of all.

Be still

A great teacher once said, “The effort of no effort is the hardest effort of all.” Using breath as a guide, meditation draws you into the still center of your being. You can stay, rest, and relax there. Your core of stillness, which is pure presence, is the place where healing and transformation occurs.

Enter the silence

Some people approaching their first retreat think that keeping silent will be the biggest challenge for them. I always remind folks that silence is not a prohibition. It is instead an invitation to enter the silence that is already here. Once the mind is quieted and the heart is calmed, everything is exactly as before, but without the noisy rat-a-tat-tat of our judgments. Inner silence harmonizes with all outer activity.

In silence we find quiet joy and gratitude for our life, and for all those who share it with us.

What a useful thing to bring home from retreat. Perhaps you could find out for yourself.

***

Join me at  Quiet Joy: A Zen Retreat for Busy People, the weekend of Oct. 28-30 at Copper Beech Institute in West Hartford, Conn.

coming home grateful

May 21st, 2015    -    1 Comment
COME-HOME

 

Not long ago, the artist and writer Susa Talan contacted me with what has become an unusual courtesy: asking permission. She was assembling a small book of her drawings to illustrate things she was grateful for, especially as they arose in her daily life. She had come upon some stray words of mine she wished to include. Was that possible?

I said yes. Saying yes is itself the practice of being grateful for what appears.

Now the book is all done, a collection of simple, daily reminders to be kind, to feel something directly and not just think about it. It is called Wear Gratitude (Like a Sweater). This is how Susa explains the title:

“If I wear gratitude, it means that I carry it with me, and I’m surrounded by an outlook that says, There are so many reasons to be grateful and notice the good.”

Her intention reminds me of something we say every morning in formal Zen practice. After the sun rises during dawn meditation, we repeat an old chant called the Verse of the Kesa, which means verse of the robe. At this point, some people put on their rakusu, which is a bib worn by lay practitioners, or an okesa, which is the sari that priests wear over their robes. Even if you don’t wear either of those things you’ll say the verse just the same. Long or short, on a priest or a plumber, what you wear — head, toe, earth, sky — adorns the Buddha, the awakened mind. The whole universe is your sweater.

Vast is the robe of liberation.
A formless field of benefaction.
I wear the Tathagata’s teaching.
Saving all sentient beings. 

It is a song of love, a vow to transform our habits of greed, anger, and ignorance into a selfless field of compassion. Not by just saying it, but by wearing it. Not by just thinking it, but by doing it. Not by just wanting it, but by being it.

These days, what used to be called “common courtesies” are few and far between. Person-to-person, face-to-face connections are rare. More and more it seems like a sterile and distant world, where blessings are hard to find. But home is always closer than you think, and gratitude is the warmth you find just by looking inside.

Copies of the book, along with Susa’s charming cards, prints and calendars, are available in her Etsy Shop. Right now she’s offering everyone 10% off anything and everything using the promo code: GRATITUDE2015

Illustration © Susa Talan

come together in grace

November 23rd, 2014    -    7 Comments

knives forks and spoons in cup of dry food dishes“From an early age I knew that I was different.”

Last weekend I went to a place far away that I’d never been before and sat in silence for two days in a small room with people I’d never met. All of us who find ourselves in that kind of predicament — even if we’ve done it a hundred times — are a bit uncomfortable at the outset. First, we don’t know the people we are sitting with, we don’t know what will happen, we don’t know what we are doing, and we aren’t able to talk about what is bothering us.

So when it was over, we went around the room and said our names and gave a parting word or two. What I said was that, no matter what we presumed about the strangers sitting next to us, everyone in the room had been sitting in a world of hurt. It is a guarantee.

No matter what, we hurt. We have trouble in our lives. We have pain. We have pain even when there’s no pain because the things we cherish won’t last. This universal suffering, this eternal ache, is our greatest blessing, in a way, because through it we realize that we are not different, we are not better or worse, we are not special or chosen, we are just alike, and this recognition allows us to get over ourselves and care deeply for one another. Very few realize it, and so we live at war, wars big and small, public and private, and they go on forever. Our world is a world of hurt. It is a guarantee.

There is a kind of standard-issue biography among spiritual entrepreneurs that goes something like this: “From an early age I knew that I was different. Teachers recognized that I was spiritually gifted. I possessed a profound awareness that I was meant to do something special. I decided to go out into the world and share what I was born to do.”

From an early age, know that you are not different.

Being different has not been a transformative experience for me. Neither was it the experience of Buddha, who from an early age knew that he was not different. His spiritual awakening began when he left the phony shelter of his delusions and realized that he would get old, get sick, and die. Like the rest of us, he had no special gift, no deferment, no way out or around reality. This stone-cold clarity is the root of wisdom and the source of compassion.

I offer this up today so that we can be a bit less uncomfortable in the days ahead. So that we can experience things in a new way. We can be tolerant of one another. We can be generous. We can be forgiving. We can be at ease in a crowded airport, house or kitchen. We can clasp hands around the table, giving thanks not only for life’s abundance, but for its scarcity, its brevity, and its painful guarantee of impermanence. Until we realize that we are not different, we can never, even for one moment, come together in grace.

Amen.

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7 ways to make Thanksgiving mindful

November 18th, 2014    -    2 Comments

129309418-new-york-new-york-city-stacked-plates-and-gettyimages

Of course you want it to be good. You’d like the mashed potatoes to keep warm, the stuffing to stay moist and the gravy to taste homemade. You’re hoping the pies turn out, the guests turn up and the TV gets turned off. You’ll be grateful to have it over with, but can you take a week of hectic cooking and turn it into a mindfulness practice?

The sages did, and still do.

Mindfulness practice is exactly like preparing a holiday dinner. In fact, one of the most profound and practical texts in Zen, “Instructions for the Cook,” was written nearly 800 years ago for the monastery kitchen staff. That ancient teaching inspires these 7 ways to prepare your Thanksgiving meal more mindfully. read more

buy this book

August 31st, 2014    -    11 Comments

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

everything is perfect

January 3rd, 2014    -    6 Comments

cupidIn yesterday’s mail there was an envelope from my sister. Inside a drawer of old Christmas cards she’d found a note that I sent to my mom after Christmas 1993.

Mom & Dad –

Thank you for an extra special Christmas that was full of quiet, listening, and generous giving. I have so much to appreciate. Thank you for celebrating it with me.

As always, everything was perfect.

Your Karen

I can’t remember the Christmas or the card. I know that 1993 was the hardest year of my life, but I had pulled myself back from an abyss and begun my practice. I can imagine how tenderly aware and grateful I must have been for the first time.

I wasn’t in the practice of writing such notes to my folks. We don’t know how it came to be with my sister, or why my mother might have saved or shared it. Perhaps because she had been waiting for it for so long.

As always, everything is perfect.

 

a new day on the old place

December 23rd, 2013    -    4 Comments

It’s a new day
on the old place.
With every good wish for peace and plenty
and a very
Happy New Year!
From our home to yours,
The Millers

On the left: The garden circa 1916
On the right: December 2013

wonderful life

December 17th, 2013    -    12 Comments

wonderfullife-stewart-snow-bridge-tsr

There is a meme going around the teen social media sites (something you will only learn in a dark and fearful hour). If you had to live the rest of your life in a movie which one would you pick? It’s one of the least troubling things you’ll see your kids talking about, although the movies they mention might scare the beejesus out of you.

Someone answered It’s a Wonderful Life.

What a great movie. But it’s not a movie about a wonderful life. George Bailey has a terrible life, remember? And it keeps getting worse. First off, he is not the favored son. He’s denied his dreams, stuck in a dead-end job in a no-count town, left behind to take care of his needy neighbors and crazy relatives. He’s mortgaged up to his eyeballs living in a drafty old house with a passel of noisy kids. He’s dead broke, out of his mind with fear and rage, and probably going to jail if he doesn’t jump off a bridge first. And he’s not exactly father of the year.

Janie, will you stop playing that lousy piano?!$#@&%

Yesterday afternoon after I dropped my daughter off at the tutoring place I stepped into the Starbucks next door for a cup of tea and noticed the guy standing in line behind me. It was the tutor, grabbing a quick cup before the start of the session. Telling you the second story in a week about math tutoring might lead you to conclude that my daughter is either less fortunate or more fortunate than you thought. Either way, this year at school hasn’t been easy. There is a passage that befalls young people: the journey to discover who they are reveals by process of elimination who they aren’t.

I’m not the smartest girl in the class, Mom. I’m not that girl anymore.
I’m not a nerd, I’m not a geek, I’m not a math whiz.
I’m not like that. I don’t want that. I don’t care.
I hate my life. Get out of my room.

It’s not what you would call wonderful.

The tutor didn’t recognize me until I told him who my daughter was, and then the first thing he said was this:

Your daughter is wonderful.

The worry that lifted from me at that moment—the fear, doubt, brittle aching raging pain that departed my heart at the Starbucks on Rosemead at Del Mar on Monday at 4:21 p.m. was so divinely lifesaving that I have to repeat it.

Your child is wonderful. Yes, yours.

We all have to repeat it, every day, over and over, because it’s probably true and we’ve probably forgotten.

It’s not until the last six minutes of the movie that George Bailey’s life turns into any kind of wonderful, because that’s when he wakes up and realizes that it was wonderful all along.

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a moment of shame

March 24th, 2013    -    20 Comments

Let it be well understood: once desire for the truth arises, the desire for fame and riches will disappear in a moment.
– Dogen Zenji

I worked for a few days on a blog post. It expressed my feelings perfectly—outrage, cynicism, moral superiority—but I just couldn’t bring myself to put it up. Then I saw this quote and it corrected me instantly! I was ashamed of my bluster and threw it out.

There’s a lot of psycho/spiritual talk out there. Shame on me if I add to it. All around me are better teachers innocently delivering an instantaneous correction. Who don’t busy themselves talking mighty talk while sitting on comfy sofas or chairs. The purity of their faith and the discipline of their practice humbles me.

When it comes to authenticity and humility, I’ll throw in my lot with a Pope who rides the bus. For courage and vulnerability, I’ll take the TV host who trades fame for farming. For gratitude and compassion, look to the billionaire who gives 99 percent of his wealth to charity. For a teacher, follow anyone who actually gets down on the ground and helps sick babies and teen mothers and old people, the homeless, hopeless and unwanted—while unpaid and unseen.

As for me, I hardly help anyone at all except when I roll down my window at the stoplight and hand a dollar bill to the lost soul on the corner. That’s my master class. I can really learn from people who don’t try to teach me a thing. Who aren’t selling me a credential or an e-course.  People who have more important things to be than right or wise or popular.

Let me well understand myself. Let me be quiet. Let me do good.

 

gratitude list

November 21st, 2012    -    6 Comments

A 35-year-old oven
Prayer
Miracles
Tap dancing
Microwaves
Mashed potatoes
Wine
Wishes
Small families
Small appetites
No expectations
Pie
Laughter
Leftovers
Forgiveness
Sunshine
Rain
Moon
Stars
Age
Perspective
Children
Ancestors
Memory
Forgetfulness
Forever

Gratitude is humility on a plate. Thank you for coming to my table.

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a life in a day

October 30th, 2012    -    5 Comments

Would you walk us through a typical day in your life?

Oh dear! It’s just like yours, literally. I’m the first up and into the kitchen. (I love a quiet house at dawn.) I feed the dog, make a breakfast that my daughter is likely to ignore. I check e-mail, and begin the daylong practice of responding to whatever appears. I quickly make the bed, get dressed, drive my daughter to school, take an exercise class and then I’m home again for the dog walk. I have a grand scheme of what I’d like to do each day, but am usually overtaken by small practicalities and urgencies. Sometimes the big thing on my list is something as little as pruning the azaleas! I do a little bit of writing here and there, sometimes for the blog, an article or something longer. Words sing to me all day long, and every now and then I catch one or two! My daughter is out of school at 2:30, the afternoon falls, I cook dinner, run the vacuum, finish a load of laundry, take my daughter to gymnastics. Before bed I sit on my cushion, and this is how I keep company with all the ancestors who have come before me. Then I let the day be done. I never regret what I haven’t done. Even as I write this I am overwhelmed with gratitude that this right here is my life. Who could want more?

. . . Read more of the interview on Mama Here Now.

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deep sanity

October 8th, 2012    -    3 Comments

Sometimes the room is so still that the only thing you can babble about is gratitude. I am forever grateful to my teacher, and my teacher’s teacher, for showing me the deep sanity of practice.

A sky that never darkens.
An ocean that never empties.
Beyond patience and surrender,
the dignity of having no choice.
Sitting quietly, doing nothing
giving birth to a whole wide world.

Sharing my practice is the only thing that matters, because practice takes care of every single thing. Come sit by me two weeks from now in a world of your own creation.

Deeper Still: a Breath & Meditation Workshop, Washington DC, Oct. 21.

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