Posts Tagged ‘Practice’

preparing for retreat

June 5th, 2017    -    4 Comments

How do you know if you are prepared to handle the silence, the stillness, the discipline, and the single-minded focus of a meditation retreat?

Relax. You can’t know. You don’t need to know. There is no way to prepare. The very notion of preparation traps us in false expectation and self-evaluation. It shows us how often we are paralyzed by the feeling of inadequacy in our lives. We are never inadequate but we are immobilized just the same.

A Zen retreat, which is the only kind of retreat I’ve experienced, is designed to cure you of that paralysis. It is intended to rid you of hobbling second thoughts and hesitation. I like to tell people to leave preparation aside and just bring readiness to a retreat. Readiness is no small thing. It can be quite compelling and even desperate, but it does not require preparation.

So here are a few tips on getting ready for a retreat:

1. The organizers will tell you when to come and what to bring. Follow those instructions to the letter. It is good practice for a retreat, which consists entirely of following instructions.

2. Find a pet sitter, a house sitter, a babysitter, and every other kind of sitter you think you need in order to leave home and its responsibilities completely. You are creating a trusted community to support you in your ongoing practice. Reliable surrogates may not relieve you of anxiety, but they rob you of excuses.

3. You may be inclined to read about retreats before you attempt one. This is natural, but it’s not such a good idea. You are bound to form erroneous preconceptions about what you haven’t yet experienced. I read Robert Aitken Roshi’s Taking the Path of Zen before my first retreat, and of all the books I read it helped me to prepare the least.

4. Leave all books at home. Books aren’t the subject of retreats, so you’ll only be discussing it with yourself, probably on the cushion. Not helpful.

5. Leave your laptop, your tablet, your every little ringing thing behind, or just turned off. (Except bring an alarm clock!) You are without a doubt central to the universe, you just aren’t all that important. Your retreat will be richly enhanced if your keypad is out of reach, so you’re not tempted to live tweet your retreat or Instagram your sudden enlightenment. In this way you can see how the dharma works by itself when we truly commit ourselves to doing nothing, not even Facebook.

6. What’s holding you back? Pack your fear in your suitcase and bring it along. You won’t need it, and next time you’ll be unafraid to pack lighter.

In practice centers everywhere, summer is retreat season. What’s still on your mind? Leave it out of the suitcase.

Cincinnati – June 29-July 2
One Mind: A Weekend Zen Retreat in Ohio
Jesuit Spiritual Center
Milford, OH
Registration closes June 9

Washington DC – Oct. 5-Oct. 8
Autumn Moon Zen Retreat
Washington Retreat House
Registration open

no shoes

May 19th, 2017    -    1 Comment

I met plenty of powerful people in interesting situations before I began my practice.

I met the heads of some of the world’s largest companies.

I met the founder of Enron before his titanic collapse.

I stayed too long having cocktails with the Governor of Texas and missed my flight home.

I saw a President of the United States having a club sandwich on a sun deck outside a hotel.

I met Frank Sinatra when he was still doing it his way.

I met a Super Bowl quarterback, a Hall of Fame pitcher, and the general manager of the New York Yankees.

I met three Heisman Trophy winners, including one who would be acquitted of the crime of the century.

I met a half-dozen television anchors, two big-city mayors, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

None of this was because of me, but because when you are a young woman in business, certain doors open to you.

What I remember about all of these fellows is that they were well-dressed. (Except for the writer.) And by that I mean they wore fine shoes: expensive and polished to a mirror shine. Because when it comes right down to it, shoes really do make the man.

And then I met the most powerful human being I’ve ever encountered, in the most uninteresting situation imaginable, and he wore no shoes.

He wore no shoes.

***

Everyone you ever meet is holding up a mirror to you. If you like what you see, it’s because it validates or elevates your self-image. If you don’t like it, it’s because you’ve seen some aspect of yourself that you’d rather hide or run away from.

A teacher is a mirror. A good teacher is a mirror without any distortion, which is to say, no judgment. From time to time, my teacher will say something that completely offends my ego. He will say, “I don’t care what you think about yourself.” This is actually the deepest and most compassionate form of caring. It means that what I think about myself is never true. This can be a shock, but it can also be a profound relief, like kicking off the shoes that are killing you.

Seeing yourself clearly seems like it would be the simplest thing in the world. Just look! But to see what’s here we have to slowly, painstakingly wipe away all the ideas, images and narratives sticking to us. We have to drop the costume that got us inside the door in the first place. This can be painful, but there is fresh-faced innocence on the other side of the mask.

The world’s largest companies don’t stay that way forever. Eventually they collapse, merge, shrink, or disappear in the churn of commerce.

The founder of Enron died in disgrace and exile. Some think it was suicide.

The governor lost re-election because he signed a law making high schoolers pass classes before playing sports.

The president lost too, for raising taxes when they needed to be raised.

Sinatra got old, got sick and died. What people remember are his early years.

The famous athletes, except for the murderer, retired to the oblivion of a record book.

Paper is dust; TV is yesterday; stars go dark.

But the Dharma never dies.

Never dies.

***

You might want to think about coming to a retreat.

you won’t believe what I don’t believe

March 20th, 2017    -    21 Comments


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.

***

I invite you to join me at an upcoming practice retreat this year. I know it is too far, too much, too long, too impossible to ask, and I understand. I just believe in asking.

the answer is practice

August 16th, 2016    -    5 Comments

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Q: I am confused when you say, “Mindfulness without meditation is just a word.” Do you mean that in addition to practicing mindfulness whenever we can throughout the day, we also need to spend time in quiet mindfulness meditation?

A: I understand the confusion. The current mindfulness movement originated as a way to share the benefits of meditation in a medical or therapeutic setting. Although the practice of meditation was retained, the word “meditation” was not, perhaps because of its association with Eastern traditions. As a result, today there is some confusion that mindfulness and meditation are not related. Mindfulness is attention, true, but meditation is the cultivation of one’s attention. We cannot be mindful without practicing paying attention. If we are only thinking, “I am mindful,” it doesn’t get us very far. The old masters didn’t worry about words, but having practiced seated meditation, they took their concentrated mind with them throughout the day in all activities.

If one happens to only read books about mindfulness, the practice aspect may be overlooked.

Another analogy might be telling ourselves that we are full, when in fact we have failed to eat.

Good places to eat:

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 11, 9 am-3 pm
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles

Quiet Joy: A Zen Retreat for Busy People
Oct. 28-30
Copper Beech Institute
West Hartford, CT

8 steps to happy laundering

July 3rd, 2016    -    12 Comments

You might think I’m using a metaphor when I say that my spiritual practice is doing the laundry. Metaphor or not, laundry is the practice of seeing things as they are. Take a look at how to go from the hamper to happiness in eight steps.

Empty the hamper – Laundry gives us an honest encounter with ourselves before we’re freshened, fluffed and sanitized. It gives us a mirror to the parts of ourselves we’d rather overlook, and makes us take responsibility for our own messes. Self-examination reveals the pure wisdom that resides within each of us.

The instructions are in your hands – The tag inside a garment tells you exactly how to care for what you hold in your hands. Not just clothing, but very bit of life comes with instructions when we are attentive enough to notice. Doing it well may take more work than we’d like, but the effort is always worth it in the long run.

Handle with care – It’s inevitable: everything shrinks, fades and falls apart. Nothing stays brand-new. The most precious things we have are fashioned of flimsy fabric. Be mindful with each moment you have and you will experience your life in a different way. read more

practice no harm

October 4th, 2015    -    2 Comments

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When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.

***

For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Oct. 18
Introductory Zen Retreat, Kansas City, Oct. 23-25
Zen Retreat at Meadowkirk, Middleburg VA Dec. 10-13
Meditation as Love, Kripalu, Feb. 5-7

Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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my practice isn’t working

August 20th, 2015    -    20 Comments

If my practice doesn’t make me more tolerant, humble,
and generous,
my practice isn’t working.
If my practice doesn’t make me more respectful, loving, and
sympathetic,
my practice isn’t working.
If I can’t forgive and forget
begin again
stop, drop
turn around
wake up
say hello say goodbye
be kind be quiet be still
listen laugh
cry it out
give it time
sit down stand up
get over myself
smile
admit I don’t know
then my practice isn’t working.
If I’m not less cynical, less critical, less arrogant, less mean
then my practice isn’t working.
If my practice doesn’t fill me with wonder, gratitude,
fearlessness, faith and trembling doubt
my practice doesn’t work.

Does my practice work?
Only when I practice.
Let’s do it. Soon.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Oct. 18
Introductory Zen Retreat, Kansas City, Oct. 23-25
Zen Retreat at Meadowkirk, Middleburg VA Dec. 10-13
Meditation as Love, Kripalu, Feb. 5-7

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a healing summer

July 5th, 2015    -    1 Comment

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During a three-month summer ango, or training period, a novice monk is selected to serve as the head trainee at the monastery. He or she will monitor the practice inside the meditation hall, acting as a model and mentor for those who join in. The monk maintains order, harmony, motivation, and discipline through the depth of his or her own samadhi, the non-distracted awareness that is the healing nature of meditation. Ango means “peaceful dwelling.”

A simple ceremony marks the beginning of the training period, when the student formally enters the temple to begin the term of service. The trainee and the teacher will commence a long stretch of silence sitting side by side in zazen, doing their work alone and together. The student will swim through a flood of fear and crawl over a mountain of doubt. The work will consume light and dark, days and nights on end. At first he will cherish nothing more than the thought of escape, but in time he will plant himself deep in the ground and give up the search. On the last day of training, the student will enter a place he has never been. It will be in the exact same place he’s never left, but the walls will be gone, a cramped and airless room transformed into a universe of living things. He will know perfectly well how to take good care of it.

But this is still the first day, and he has no idea where the path is leading.

Ceremonies in the zendo are orchestrated, the script ordained in the manner of a thousand students and a hundred teachers before. The student stands before the teacher and expresses humility and gratitude. He moves to make his bows, but the teacher waves him off. There is no need for formality between them, no show of rank. The two are fellow travelers, and they will make this trip as one.

With palms together, the student speaks the last public words that will pass between them until they reach the other side. The room is quiet. Nothing stirs. Paradise comes into view.

“California weather is peaceful and calm. May your days go well.”

May you enjoy peace and healing this summer.

In gassho,
Maezen

Adapted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

Buddha’s last 8 instructions

May 13th, 2015    -    8 Comments

nutshellI hesitated before I wrote that title because there is no such thing as “last” or even “first,” but there is a short list commonly known as Buddha’s final teaching before he died, and so I am sharing it here and now.

Words attributed to Buddha are the basis of much industry, interpretation, and enterprise. Buddha’s teachings were entirely spoken and conveyed for hundreds of years by word of mouth until the first written records were made. This is just the way it is and in one sense it works just fine. Sure, words are subject to erroneous understanding by deluded people, but with a bit of practice and a flicker of clarity, you can look at a modern quotation, especially a popular one, and know instantly that Buddha never said any such thing.

And this is precisely what his instructions foretold. There’s a good chance you guys are going to get this all wrong.

“Last words” are interesting in another way. When you’re present at someone’s death, you don’t know when the final moment will come, or what the critical utterance will be. Sometime later you reflect on what happened last and then decide for yourself what it means. Before her death, my mother told me, “Be yourself and take good care of your family.” She lived for several days after I heard that, and she may have said more that I didn’t hear or recall. But the words I retained were useful for me — simple and straightforward — carrying with them a mother’s hope that I wouldn’t complicate things quite so much.

That’s the spirit with which I see Buddha’s last instructions. A human being, surrounded by devotees and dependents, with a final chance to bring peace and ease to a population crazed with fear and grief. I have simplified these from a scholarly translation, but in a nutshell, this is what Buddha tells you to do here and now:

1. Want little — Suffer less.
2. Be satisfied — Enough is enough.
3. Avoid crowds — Be alone and quiet.
4. Keep going — Don’t turn back.
5. Pay attention — Guard your mind.
6. Meditate — Or you are lost.
7. See for yourself — Cultivate wisdom.
8. Don’t talk about it — Do it.

“Now, all of you be quiet and do not speak. Time is passing and I am going to cross over. This is my last admonition to you.”

***

Based on “Eight Awakenings of Great Beings” by Dogen Zenji. From Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

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meditation is love

March 9th, 2015    -    7 Comments

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Whether we know it or not, everyone comes to meditation for love. And the good news is, everyone leaves with it. It can’t be any other way, because we are each beings of immeasurable compassion. This runs contrary to the way we think about ourselves — our motivations, virtues, and abilities — but the way we think about ourselves is usually stingy and wrong.

We typically think we lack compassion, or the capacity for unconditional love. We want to define it, learn it, teach or acquire it. But none of us lacks it in the least. We are simply unaware of the compassion we possess, preoccupied by the judgmental thinking that darkens our hearts with fear, greed, and anger. When we quiet our thoughts through meditation, we finally see the truth about ourselves. This kind of seeing is called “waking up,” like waking up first thing in the morning before your headed is clouded by even a single distraction.

The awakened mind has two natural attributes. One is compassion, what some would call love. The other is clarity, what some would call sight. They are not really two things. Each is a function of the other. When you see, really see, you just love. When you love, really love, you just see. You see things as they are, not as you expect, and in that wide-open clarity is love. read more

to handle the weather

March 2nd, 2015    -    7 Comments

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Vast, empty sky, and occasionally a cloud drifts by. — Maezumi Roshi

This photo was taken yesterday morning on my front lawn, looking over the leafy tops of bamboo into the endless sky. When I shared it on Facebook, someone doubted that it was a recent photo, since storms were presently slamming the other side of LA. Sure enough, by late afternoon the sky over my house was low and gray. There was a crash of thunder and downpour sometime in the night, but by the time I remembered it had happened, it seemed like a dream.

Weather is like that. Even during a stretch when it never changes, it’s changing continuously, clouds and shadows. Life is like that, joy and sorrow. Weather makes things interesting, but most of us are not that interested in what’s interesting. We want to predict, prepare, and avoid: be sure and steady, on course, in control. Thinking we can achieve that is delusion.

There is a sad little store I drive by on my way around the city. The sign outside reads “Safe N’ Ready Emergency Supplies Disaster Preparedness.” They sell stuff for your earthquake kit, like water, batteries and generators, freeze-dried food for survivalists, everything you think you’d need to outlast the end of the world. I call it a sad store because I never see anyone inside. But then again, maybe they do most of their business online, to people who are already too afraid to leave their houses. Those who can’t see that things change in unpredictable ways, and not always for the worst.

“You are the sky. Everything else — it’s just the weather.” Pema Chodron wrote that and it’s true, you are the sky. But you are also the weather, which after all, is not separate from the sky. All those ups and downs; thunder, wind, snow and rain; light and dark; doubt and fury; change and sameness — all you, all you. Can’t very well get rid of the weather, can you?

Last week I heard from someone who had attended a recent retreat with me. It was a powerful retreat (they all are), and everyone came home changed. This person said that after retreat they had felt so positive and energetic, so happy, so good, but now they didn’t.

Me too, I said, that’s why we practice. So we can handle the weather.

In some places, last month was the coldest February ever. The snowfall is insane. There’s no end in sight. You don’t know how you can face another day, let alone another year. I hear you; I get it; I know the feeling. And so I always say the same thing.

Come to California.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat
Sunday, March 22
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles

how to peel an orange

February 6th, 2015    -    2 Comments

Grandpa showed me how to peel an orange.

Hold the fruit in one hand and the pocketknife in the other.

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First, score a circle in the rind around the navel below and the stem on top.

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Draw the blade down the sides in vertical strokes all around the whole, no deeper than the skin, an inch between each cut. Be careful. Go slow. Do not harm the flesh.

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Lift off the top and bottom pieces.

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Pull each section of rind away from the fruit. It will come easily, and with it, the pith.

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Wedge your thumb into the center and splay the fruit wide open.

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There will be ten or so segments—enough to share.

Once you taste the living truth, you are never again fooled by the imitation flavored drink in a carton.

A lesson from my garden to yours, via my newest book,  Paradise in Plain Sight. Order signed copies of all my books here.

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fresh start

January 1st, 2015    -    7 Comments

new-years-day

For old times and a new year, here is an excerpt from Momma Zen, now fresher than ever as an audiobook.

“Again, again, again!”

There is a saying about life: you don’t get a second chance. Children are here to tell us otherwise. You get a lot of second chances. You get a lot of third chances. You get many fourth chances. Before all is said and done, you get about a gazillion chances to do things that you never wanted to do even once. You will do many things again, so many times again: knocking down the same old blocks, pushing the same old swing, reading the same old story, singing the same old song, winding the same old wind-up to its predictable ending. Predictable to you, that is, same old, same old you.

Children learn by repetition. And by their repetition we can learn too. We can learn how cynical we are; how busy and easily bored; how impatient and restless. Those are the things we can see in ourselves many times a day. It can take far longer — a lifetime — for us to realize what they, with their brilliantly open minds, still see quite plainly: nothing, absolutely nothing repeats. Every moment of this life is altogether new. They do things again and again because they haven’t yet calculated the probabilities; they haven’t yet anticipated the ending. They are still doing what we have ceased to do: see the infinite possibilities. They are not yet cutting life short by their jaded cleverness. “Been there, done that,” we say, as we dispose of our unrealized potential.

It is impossible to conceive of the true, dynamic nature of life. It is ever-flowing, never arriving at the same place twice; indeed, never even pausing to arrive. And yet we think we’ve seen it all. read more

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