Attention is the most concrete expression of love. What you pay attention to thrives. What you do not pay attention to withers and dies.
Quite simply, it bears repeating.
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When a four- or five-year-old uses the word, bored, it’s a safe bet they are playing with the word. But when they are eight or nine, it might be time to pay attention. When I did, it changed my life.
I like Georgia’s historic, charming, well-staffed, well-intentioned public school. She does too. This post is not about the shortcomings of her school. It is about the shortcomings of my attention.
My daughter and her classmates are being taught superlatively well how to write to rules and rubrics. But to write freely, for fun and without judgment? That’s a different story.
Stuck in my own nowhere of creative momentum, I plunged instead into a new adventure. I proposed to Georgia’s teacher that I lead a classroom project in something I’d never done, but that amounted to the only thing I could contribute. The magnificent teacher did her part: she said yes. Then, over a four-month period, she and I worked together with 19 third-graders to write their own creative nonfiction (and a bit of fiction) stories.
We tell our children stories. We read books aloud, and prod our kids to read for themselves. So they read about famous people, folk tales and legends, biographies, historical fiction and fantasies. But do they realize that their own lives are stories? That they have the experience and imagination to create and share stories that come entirely from themselves? Based on their own remarkable lives and the future they envision?
Well, of course, they can. Give them tools and attention and you will be amazed. I was amazed. I was encouraged. I was uplifted and transported. I was repaid a million times over, with the only payment that counts or lasts.
I want you to know that wherever your child goes to school, or doesn’t, whatever their age or grade level, they are brilliant. They are geniuses. They are authors. I am convinced already. I am their first fan.
I word-processed and printed out each three-chapter-long book on my computer. They drew illustrations and a cover design that we laminated. They wrote author bios and I snapped their photos and we put that together on the last page. We spiral bound everything together and then they went on book tour reading their stories aloud in classrooms of younger ages. We’re having a book festival next week where the kids will read their stories to their fellow authors and everyone gets a literary prize. An eraser. Oh how I prize my own, because the most important thing about writing is not that you finish. It’s that you start, and then start all over again.
What did they write? To keep it short, I assembled 19 lines from their work into this abridged life story. It gives you an idea of the treasure they handed to me.
My story is unlike any other.
I was born early because I wanted to go places.
My first smile wasn’t a real smile, it was my “about to cry” smile.
It was like being sad and happy at the same time.
When I was little I liked excitement. I put Cheetos in the microwave.
When people asked how many friends I had, I said, “It would take a long time to count them.”
It seems like I have friends all over the world.
Friends are magic, movies are magic and spelling is magic because people can read your writing.
Making people feel happy and safe is the most important thing there is.
Everywhere we went, we went fast.
I thought a lot about growing up, but my parents thought about when I was little.
That’s what parents do.
Sometimes you have to lose something to find something better.
What you love never really goes away.
I used to want to work in an ice cream store, but something tells me life will be more interesting than that.
The day you read this I may be 9 or 90.
Now my energy goes up in the daytime and down in the nighttime.
The funeral lasted three hours.
Somewhere I’ll be watching, and I’ll be happy if you are good citizens.
I could go on forever, but my heart is bursting, and I find I have some writing to do.
If you are a parent or teacher and you would like a copy of the lesson plan I created for this project, “My Life Story: A Creative Nonfiction Project for 3rd Graders,” just leave a comment with a way to contact you, or email me and I’ll gladly share.
From time to time I’m asked this question: What do Buddhists believe? I like to respond that Buddhism requires no beliefs, but that’s rather hard to believe. And so I offer this.
I believe in love. Not the love that is the enemy of hate, but the love that has no enemies or rivals, no end and no beginning, no justification and no reason at all. Love and hate are completely unrelated and incomparable. Hate is born of human fear. Love is never born, which is to say, it is eternal and absolutely fearless. This love does not require my belief; it requires my practice.
I believe in truth. Not the truth that is investigated or exposed, interpreted or debated. But the truth that is revealed, inevitably and without a doubt, right in front of my eyes. All truth is self-revealed; it just doesn’t always appear as quickly or emphatically as I’d like it to. This truth does not require my belief; it requires my practice.
I believe in freedom. Not the freedom that is confined or decreed by ideology, but the freedom that is free of all confining impositions, definitions, expectations and doctrines. Not the freedom in whose name we tremble and fight, but the freedom that needs no defense. This freedom does not require my belief; it requires my practice.
I believe in justice. Not the justice that is deliberated or prosecuted; not that is weighed or measured or meted by my own corruptible self-interest. I believe in the unfailing precision of cause and effect, the universal and inviolable law of interdependence. It shows itself to me in my own suffering every single time I act with a savage hand, a greedy mind or a selfish thought. It shows itself in the state of the world, and the state of the mind, we each inhabit. This justice does not require my belief; it requires my practice.
I believe in peace. Not the peace that is a prize. Not the peace that can be won. There is no peace in victory; there is only lasting resentment, recrimination and pain. The peace I seek is the peace that surpasses all understanding. It is the peace that is always at hand when I empty my hand. No matter what you believe, this peace does not require belief, it requires practice.
I believe in wisdom. Not the wisdom that is imparted or achieved; not the wisdom sought or the wisdom gained. But the wisdom that we each already own as our birthright. The wisdom that manifests in our own clear minds and selfless hearts, and that we embody as love, truth, freedom, justice and peace. The wisdom that is practice.
What do you believe?
I’m off for a three-day retreat at my practice home starting tonight, because this silent spaciousness is where all stories begin and end.
Before I leave I want to share some recent inspiration.
First, the Shambhala Sun has reposted my piece on the Dharma of Barbie. Even after you think you’ve tossed her, the old girl never dies. And there’s always a new generation of parents for her to haunt. If you scroll down to the end of the story, you’ll see the announcement that I’ll soon be launching a blog on their site named after the stuff that is always near to my heart. Once I sort the lights from the darks, we’ll see what comes out of it. Leave a comment over there and let them know that I’m not just full of suds.
This column in the New Yorker snapped, crackled and popped my eyes open earlier this week. It’s a fascinating look that could leave you wondering about how much you’re willing to commit to yourself during troubling times.
Speaking of troubles, I was touched by this letter to fellow practitioners. Not just because the need is urgent and the time is now, but because of the sheer delight in seeing that, even to a Rinpoche, practice is just pretense. We must all pretend harder!
Lastly, I was so moved by Cam’s reflection on loss. It reminds me that the why that has no answer is the very why we keep going, and that love and loss are never separate.
And just for a parting grin, this snippet of conversation two days ago over a sleeping dog.
Mom, you know what I’ve figured out?
A well-trained dog isn’t that much fun.
Because you don’t get to wrestle it, and have trouble with it. You don’t get to be mad at it.
So a well-trained dog isn’t the best kind.
If we ever get a new puppy can we name it Squiggly or Wiggly?
A reader wrote the other day with a bit of earnest confusion that gave me a quick tickle. Earnestness tends to promote hilarity. She said she’d finished the book and pretty much liked it until part of the last chapter that she didn’t understand.
Frankly, I can never imagine how my writing perplexes. To me, I’m always blathering about the most literal, obvious, barenaked things. Perhaps I can’t imagine the confusion because I’m so lousy at imagining.
The reader wondered if by skipping over the evil parts of fairy tales when reading to my wee daughter, did I do that for Buddhist reasons?
This is a very good question, and one that few would be sincere enough to ask.
Did I do it to overcome dualism? So that I didn’t present the dichotomy of good versus bad? Did I likewise edit out so-called good parts? To teach nonjudgmental equanimity? Which is to say, even-mindedness?
This is a question that points to the very trouble with Buddhism.
I laughed the moment I saw it, because no philosophy, Buddhist or otherwise, has ever guided my parenting. Philosophies aren’t very effective at guiding anything. It’s like learning how to drive by studying the motor vehicle code.
So I want to take a minute to make it clear. Many people want to be better, to do good, to raise better children, to save the world, to promote peace, etc. etc. and they reach for a philosophy to do it. Buddhism seems like a pretty nice one. But then, all philosophies are pretty nice ones. They just don’t ever seem to change behavior very much. (See items 1-10.)
What I apply in parenting is not an ideology or worldview, it is not Buddhism or any -ism. It is the magnificent, miraculous, intelligent, intuitive product of Buddhist practice. What I apply, on those lucky days I can find it, is attention.
Attention is what works when I crack open a Disney Read-Aloud Princess Storybook and see that the evil stepmother is about to dispatch an axeman to lop off Snow White’s head. Attention alerts me that it is an inappropriate and unwelcome image to insert into my baby’s silky haired noggin, especially at bedtime. So I skip it, and when my girl points to the picture of the hatchet and asks what it is, I say, “a pencil.”
Until you practice, you might have a hard time believing that attention alone can spontaneously direct and correct behavior without the substructure of a philosophy. A set of prescribed rights and wrongs. Or in the Buddhist sense, a set of prescribed non-right rights and non-wrong wrongs.
People are fond of saying about their chosen ethics or morality, “How else will we know right from wrong?” And I ask this: beneath your skin, in your bones, within your heart, have you ever not known right from wrong? Just attend to that knowing.
Attention alone is what assuages anger, abates greed, and promotes kindness. Attention alone is even-minded. Attention is love, and love always knows what to do.
I’m so glad you wrote and brought it to my attention.
Get up when the alarm goes off. Make your bed without a second thought.
Greet her teacher with a wide smile that imparts your trust and respect.
Walk the dog. The dog knows the way.
Say hello to your neighbor sweeping his sidewalk. He is nearly recovered from that terrible train collision. When he asks you for some good news, say, “Rain is in the forecast.”
Let him tell you about the groundcover seeds he’s about to plant. Laugh that between the two of you, you’ll keep the nursery in business this year.
Visit Jim’s blog and donate a couple of dollars to rebuild the far side of the world. Extend the domestic rescue and recovery to Mongolia, where English is still revered as the language of liberation, and learning it is an act of love.
Using what’s at hand, make dinner.
Drop by the grocery store for extra cheese from California, Wisconsin and Ohio.
When the checker asks if you found everything, say yes. Then ask her how her day is going, and mean it.
Clean up the kitchen without complaint, because one day soon you may need the rain gutters cleaned.
Day done, go to bed. Don’t waste a minute of this wondrous mind to self-criticism, worry or distraction.
Rest easy, knowing that tomorrow won’t bring any more than you can handle, or any less than you absolutely need.
I was fuming. I spend a lot of my time fuming. Because of my husband. Know what I mean?
You don’t pay attention, I say.
When I fume, he does too and the cause of it, from what I gather, is this:
You pay too much attention, he says.
Neither of us is right, but both of us have our reasons. Reasons are a big problem in this house, but they usually get rinsed out in the wash.
Except lately, I haven’t been doing his wash for him. I don’t know how or why. I just stopped. He has the most clothes, wearable and unwearable, the most laundry, washed and unwashed, of anyone in the house. I think one has to do with the other.
My reasoning goes like this. Perhaps because he hasn’t – oh, in the last 13 years – had a weekly face-to-face with his laundry pile, he unduly cherishes his wardrobe, and unduly dismisses the meticulous task of caring for clothes.
Can I donate this to the rag pile, he says.
Trying to be helpful, he holds up a single pair of old socks.
Just throw them away, I instruct. He doesn’t like to give away worn out or outgrown clothes, and you know how I feel about that. He likes to buy new ones. I noticed last week he was sporting a handsome new sweater of a dense weave.
I picked it up while I was at the mall, he says.
I have a judgmental eye for those kinds of things. A judgmental eye for all kinds of things. I see that his old sweaters are stretched out and threadbare, but they are still crowding his drawers and closet. Still filling the hamper with to-dos.
Are you doing your laundry, I say.
He’s put a small load in on Sunday before I could start the heavy lifting. A few important things along with the new sweater.
Let me put it in the dryer, he says.
He is being responsible, cheery, chastened after one of my harangues. Washer cleared, I start my own load. About 30 minutes later, I open up the dryer to empty out his stuff. One glance at the surviving swatch of sweater and I turn it inside out to read the label he hadn’t.
Hand wash cold, it says.
Only some of you know what unexpected encouragement I took in finding those three words. Those three little words. Not because of what they meant about him: that he hadn’t paid attention, but because of what they meant to me: to take heart and keep going. To keep washing, drying, rinsing, and writing. To have faith, because I now have a new sweater that fits me perfectly!
It only cost $25, he says.
My name is Georgia Miller. I’m 9 and from California. I watched your Inauguration at school today. What is it like at the White House? What I really want to know is if you want to be pen pals. I would love it if we could but it’s ok if you don’t want to. I hope to get a letter from you!
When my sisters and I were really little, we were lovestruck by our handsome president and wished that we could be his darling princess daughter. Then came the teen throbs of Lynda Bird and Luci to moon over. I understand what we have going on now in our house. I understand it completely.
It’s Malia time all the time.
First, she wrote and mailed this letter. Then she decided to name the lead character in the story she’s writing “Malia.” Then she wrote a one-act play last night after dinner about a girl named Malia, age 9, doing her homework.
Malia: Ugh! More homework! I’m already on my third page!
It’s not a pure love, you see, because romantic love never is. It’s subtly and insidiously self-serving. “You see,” she says bright-eyed, “I think everyone will be writing to President Obama and Malia won’t get any letters. Mine might be the first! And if we become pen pals then she might invite me to the White House.”
Later on she asked her dad if he might ever run for president. She’s scrambling to cover all the routes of admission, you see, since she’s heard there are 132 rooms in the building, a movie theater, a bowling alley and the Jonas Brothers.
Last night I tried to coach her (my mistake) through an intense monologue she’s doing in her theater class. “Say it with the kind of feeling you have for Malia,” I offered, intending to stir up passion and enthusiasm.
“You mean, like I’m jealous?”
All that aside, click here to see why I no longer worry how she gets her feet wet.
I read a fascinating piece in The New Yorker the other day. It became more fascinating days after I read it, as the implications surfaced in all kinds of other events right before my eyes. It’s from an interview more than 10 years ago of the young Obama couple. It’s delightfully honest, because you can see the truth and trajectory in what they say long before it was made known to them or to us.
There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career – Michelle
You can hear the foreboding, see the vulnerability, in her words and her picture. She describes herself as more traditional, more risk-averse, pretty private. She is so much like many of us, with a family background so much more like the rest of us, without ambiguity, and yet we see ourselves so clearly in him. How so?
I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me – Barack
Reading this I thought, wow, having a family is like an adventure to him, a journey. Because he didn’t have the kind of family that brings with it such an overriding sense of identity, such confining identity, he is free of expectations. He is comfortable with mystery even in those he loves. His arms are wide; his pose is relaxed and natural. On this wide open face, we have projected our hopes and dreams, and he alone can bear them.
Even as you build a life of trust, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person – Barack
How many of us can say that? Do that? Withstand and pursue that? How many of us can abandon our expectations and free those we love from the prison of being who we think they are? Who we want them to be? This is the recipe for all loving relationships and the point of an article I wrote for the February issue of Shambhala Sun entitled, radically enough, “Parents, Leave Your Home.” If you subscribe, you’ll get the magazine any day. If you don’t, you’ll see it at the Whole Foods checkout. Or, you can download it from my website right now by scrolling down the home page to a list of my articles and anthologies.
Thank you, Mr. President, for making me part of your family. You encourage me to do the same with my own. Let them be. Let them be a mystery. Let them be home wherever they roam.
– Dogen Zenji
This is how it flowers. This is how it is. This is how it has always been.
Deep love and appreciation for you on these holidays and everyday. Be of good cheer. Your life is in bloom. Just look.
The Miller Family
The other night my book group met at the mall (you read that right!) for a quick dinner and an even quicker discussion of our latest read, the most pathologically unfunny franchise of bestselling books I’ve ever encountered. We did this with our hearts in the right place, having dutifully taken up the task of spending money to help those less fortunate than we, a faceless group that has, in these torturous last months, come perilously close to resembling ourselves.
We had absolutely nothing to say about the book, which filled most of us with silent gratitude to be done with it once and for all.
So the conversation turned to other things, other less frivolous things, thankfully not politics but the circumstantially relevant topic of religion.
It is easy to think of your religion as the religion. And by that I mean the right one. I sat at the far end of the table literally and figuratively.
First came the question of whether Jesus had brothers and if so, who they were. That brought up the subject of Mary’s imagined life as the wife of Joseph and mother of mortals and the implications of conception, immaculate and otherwise.
The most authoritative Catholic in the group appraised us all of the doctrinal meaning of “immaculate conception” which may not be the conception you, or I for that matter, were conceiving of, that is, the virginal conception of Baby Jesus. Rather, it refers to the concept of Mary’s own conception as a human being born without sin. We outliers on the far end voiced misconceptions about all these conceptions, and the devout one said, Google it.
Google it is the modern-day conversation stopper. But then, that’s what dogma is designed to do. Stop conversation.
So we stopped talking and each went on separate pilgrimage for socks, scarves, hats, books, toys and a shred of holiday warmth for some unknown poor family. It was easy to conceive of them wandering in the chill outside the high walls of this nearly empty temple, immaculately lit on this eve like an ancient shrine to economic redemption.
I doubt that any of us did any Googling on the dinner topic when we got home. The next morning came an email followup inviting us all to convert our erroneous thinking about the immaculate conception by clicking a link to a page in Wikipedia. I encourage you all likewise to go look at it right now while I keep quiet and ponder these things in my heart.
How about it? When I looked at it I thought: Has there ever been a more faith-defying argument, explanation, fabrication, extrapolation, interpretation or complication than this? Holy catechism! Buying all that takes a lot more intellectual credit than I have on hand!
I can fathom how the doctrine came about. Catholicism venerates Mary as an intercessor, and so divinely sanctified she must be made to be. But I was raised a good Lutheran (which is to say, a bad Lutheran) and we didn’t make so much of Mary. Except some of us little Lutheran girls prayed like hell to be cast as the comely mother in the yearly Christmas program. As you can guess, back then I never got the part. Now I see it as a part we are perpetually called to fill.
All this conceptualization is beyond us; the arguments are beneath us; they conquer and divide us when we know the really important things in life perfectly well for ourselves.
We all came together again before the night was over, setting down the blessed burdens we carried, opening up to share the modest gifts we had come to deliver. Without shame, we had used our half-price offers and twofer coupons to bring comfort to the humblest. We offered a package of girls’ white socks size XS, travel umbrellas, toys, playing cards, marked-down scarves, hats and bargain books. We saved far more money than we spent, but we still did right and we did good, without the slightest defilement of doctrinal debate.
This is the gospel few preach, but all of us, unified by inherent grace and goodness, can practice it: Doing good. There is no need to understand it. There is only a need to do it. And that’s so easy.
No matter what we believe, we’ve all been cast in the nativity pageant. No matter what our means, we have it within ourselves to deliver comfort, love and peace from our own pure hearts. Thank heaven, heaven is ours to share.