Posts Tagged ‘samsara’

the best chocolate cake

February 14th, 2013    -    53 Comments

DoubleChocolateSnackingCakeForkMy father-in-law was a simple man, and the things he said could ring with unintended clarity.

Every time he ate something, like a piece of chocolate cake, for instance, he would say, “This is the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted!” He meant it, and it was true, because it came from the exuberance of a mind emptied of critical thought. A mind like that can seem silly and childlike. It is, and that’s what makes it so wise.

Last night I finished a small book that was the best chocolate cake, and I’d love for you to taste it. At the start, you might not think this kind of cake is for you. Nearing middle age, a man faces himself honestly, courageously, admitting that he is gay, a liar, a cheater, a thief, a phony, a creep, a mindless alcoholic and ugly drug addict, and here’s the sweet spot—despite his serial failure at suicide—he wants to live. Does this sound even remotely like your kind of chocolate?

He envisions for himself the sort of idealistic quest that is the stuff of parody. He travels to India in search of enlightenment. What you find in India is, well, India. And what you find on a quest is yourself. But he tells his story with such beauty and feeling, such flavor and artistry, that I could not resist the whole thing.

At the end of the book, he is finishing his trip with a trek to Nepal in the company of a young guide and porter. His months of meditations and mantras, vows and renunciations seem to have failed. On the trail he is back to being angry and resentful, feeling foolish and even exploited. The objects of his spite are the two poor servants who are attending him. Does this sound even remotely like what happens daily in your kitchen, your home, your neighborhood, your world?

I remember the promise I made to myself to keep my heart, mind and senses open for the rest of my stay. My journey was coming to an end too fast. There was no more time to drift off in daydreams, or to lose myself in petty complaints. But all that resolve had flown off like a bird from an untended cage and the hours given over to anger and self-cherishing are now gone forever. What sights, sounds and joys did I miss as I sealed myself off from the world?

This is the practice. Watching my actions, watching my words, watching my mind every day. It does not only occur at holy pilgrimage sites or on retreats or in the presence of great spiritual masters. It occurs everyday, with the people who are with me right now, in this time, in this place.

“Hey, Chris!” my guide waves to me with a big smile. “Your dinner is ready.”

He wipes off a seat on the rough little bench and hands me a bowl of stew and when I look down into the steam and the goodness of it, I already know it will be the best meal I have ever tasted.

I really, sincerely, wholeheartedly recommend The Narrow Way by Chris Lemig. Buy yourself two copies: one for you, one for a friend. Leave a comment below and you could win the copy I’m giving away on Friday.

Update: The winner of the book is commenter #12, Robin Gaphni, whose blog is Grief & Gratitude.

There is still time to register for the Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat on Sun., Feb. 24 at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in LA.

 

it isn’t algebra

December 17th, 2012    -    5 Comments

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There are so many questions, and so many possible answers. But then again, it isn’t algebra.

Even if it were algebra, I’m not very good at algebra, so I wouldn’t be able to help you with your algebra. But it isn’t algebra.

For the last three weeks my daughter has been out of school—a temporary homeschooler—while she finishes the run of a theater production. She’s been doing algebra at home, where I can’t help her with the answers. I can only hover and hound her, stressing the importance of keeping up with algebra.

Around fourth grade, math becomes the marker by which our schoolchildren are judged. Fourth grade was when I stopped being able to do the math.

I dropped by the school to deliver some assignments last week, and I walked into the algebra class with a completed chapter test in hand. The test was a big benchmark for me. Perhaps she could get through this month without falling too far behind, is what I’d been telling myself.

I thought the room was empty until I saw the teacher sitting in the corner, his back to me. When he saw me, he said hello, and his voice sounded strained.

Are you okay? I asked.

Can you tell? He asked.

Is something wrong? I asked.

It’s my mother. She’s dying. He paused. Do you have any advice for me?

I listened. I had no answers. It is so hard, but it isn’t algebra.

Even now, I’m breaking down at how much I’ve misunderstood the questions and mistaken the answers.

None of it is algebra.

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after the storm

October 28th, 2012    -    3 Comments

Do you remember the night we took that long flight from Florida and the pilot came on when we were over New Mexico and said the wind had blown out the power at the airport and we were landing in Phoenix to refuel and wait it out and we took off again and made it to ground and set out in the car up the road towards home and on the other side of downtown the wind bore down and the car started shaking and we saw the branches flying toward us like torpedoes and the dark sky grew darker still, the mountains ahead a pitch black nothing, the roar monstrous, the road littered and ghostly, a cemetery of trees, and we made it to our street and pulled in the driveway, the dirt swirling, darker than midnight, afraid to leave the car but we did, we ran to the house, it was heaving and cold, and we laid sleepless in bed while the storm still shrieked, the trees whipped, windows shook, roofs ripped, and in the morning we saw that everything was a remnant, a splinter, we raked and pulled and piled, and still no power, the candles burned down, the food spoiled, the limbs and leaves on the curb reached six feet high, and no help came, no lights, five nights no lights, it was hopeless, hopeless, and we lost all hope. I’ll never forget that, do you remember that, love? No?

Just as well. Today is balmy and bright.

In these darkening days of fear and dread, of conquests and battlegrounds, disasters natural and unnatural, screaming rage and blind fury, we must face the storms of our own brewing, the hurricane force of our own delusional thinking, and take higher ground. No matter the weather, the high ground is always the ground beneath our feet, where we reunite in the quiet calm of another day.

May you find your peace and live there.

what money buys

September 17th, 2012    -    1 Comment

 

Once you realize how much of our conversation — whether the topic is work, sports, health, happiness or love — is really about money, then you know how broken we are.

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working with anger

September 9th, 2012    -    5 Comments

Sometimes people ask me a question like, “How do I work with my anger?” I give them an answer like this.

Don’t work with your anger. Anger isn’t workable. Anger doesn’t listen and wants to do everything its own way. Why would you want to work with something like that? Better to take the work away from anger. Give it time off.

Work with your absence of anger instead. Give it wide latitude and lots of responsibility. Feed it with laughter and forgetting. Soon, your absence of anger will take over the department, then the division, then the whole company. It is a good worker, and will do anything asked of it except come to work angry.

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.

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the short story of yes

August 26th, 2012    -    7 Comments

At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Facebook newsfeeds were updated with the posting, “Karen Maezen Miller and Georgia Miller are now friends.”

There is a story behind this friendship, as there is a story behind all friendships, and a story behind the end of friendships.

The long version is that preteens around the world know that 13 is the magical year in Facebookland, the year when you can sign up without lying about your age. So that on the morning of a 13th birthday, when a child wakes at dawn to make a bleary-eyed inspection of her overnight transfiguration, she takes up a bleat incessantly alarming and annoying to the parental cochlea. “Can I have a Facebook? Can I have a Facebook? Can I have a Facebook?” (An expression that is peculiar to the young. People of my age might admit to being possessed by Facebook, but our children see it the other way around.) So that after two weeks of hedging and hawing, the answer is given:

Yes.

Behind every friendship is a story. And the short version is yes.

It’s not all that easy to be friends, because it’s not that easy to say yes. It’s not even appropriate to say yes, particularly not to your children. During most of our great and tremulous time together, we are not our children’s friends.

But should you care to make and maintain friendship with, say, your sister or brother, neighbors, co-workers, bosses, partners and spouses, strangers and enemies; should you care to live out your frail and frightened years with a companionship other than bitter loneliness, anger, judgment and blame; should you wail or wonder why you are forgotten, avoided or overlooked, the world shrunken and mean; should you ever attempt to make easy space and grace for the ten thousand million billions who share your blessed blink of time, you are going to have to shorten every one of your stories to one word that includes everything and leaves out nothing that really needs to be said:

Yes.

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the ones who don’t win

August 5th, 2012    -    17 Comments

Last week a friend told me the story of how her daughter learned to swim. She refused at first, terrified that she would sink to the bottom and drown.

The fear of drowning is such an intelligent fear.

The instructor asked her how old she was.

“Five,” the girl answered.

“Five-year-olds don’t drown,” the instructor told her. And thus she learned to swim.

The story struck me for the brute genius with which it obliterated fear. But, of course, it was a lie.

Sometimes we lie a little. Sometimes we lie a lot.

We tell our children little lies for most of their young lives, because the lies are in service of a greater good. We tell our children lies because we tell ourselves lies. They make us feel safe and capable. Confident in the face of staggering uncertainty. We tell lies about effort, desire and glory, about time, dreams and possibilities, success and achievement. Then we come together and celebrate rituals of competition and prowess, pageants of pride and invincibility. You can do it! You can do anything! You can win! You deserve it! The excitement over, spectators leave the stands, plumped on inspiration and daring. Maybe they’ll jog the block in the morning. read more

there is no why

July 20th, 2012    -    10 Comments

When you are unable to understand, there is no why.
When you are unable to accept, there is no why.
When you are unable to forgive, there is no why.
When you are unable to rest, there is no why.
When you are unable to find peace, there is no why.
All the noise and trouble, the rabble and riot, all the anger, the hate, the arrogance, the self-righteousness and blame, the learned opinions and reasoned explanations, the justifiable fear and rampant paranoia, are nothing but the ignorant invention of why.

But there is no why.

In the garden, old redwoods mingle with day-old dragonflies, and there is
no question of why.

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what parents want

April 9th, 2012    -    8 Comments

Speaking only for myself, of course.

When our children are infants, we want them to be normal.

When they are toddlers, we want them to be competent.

When they are preschoolers, we want them to be geniuses.

When they are kindergarteners, we want them to have friends.

When they are first graders, we want them to be polite.

When they are third graders, we want them to be gifted.

When they are fifth graders, we want them to be talented.

When they are middle schoolers, we want them to be competitive.

When they are high schoolers, we want them to be ambitious.

When they are in college, we want them to be elite.

When they are adults, we want them to be normal.

If you’re near San Francisco, join me for “The Art of Non-Parenting,” a public presentation at  Central Elementary School in Belmont on Thurs., May 31.

the empty bento

March 19th, 2012    -    15 Comments

Sometimes when something unexpected happens — which is nearly always — I think these kinds of thoughts:
Oh no!
How will that work out?
How will I fit that in?
How can I make that OK?
I don’t know how.

What about the rest of everything?
What about the plan?
Stop!
Not something else!
I can’t handle any more!
It’s all falling apart.

I feel as if I am holding a box where I’ve given everything a place, a turn, and a time. A box I can’t ever drop. I like to think I’m good at not dropping the box. But then I remember:

There is no box.

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homesick

November 10th, 2011    -    16 Comments

Not long ago I heard from someone who thanked me for giving her permission to struggle with her depression. Oh yes, I assured her, by all means, struggle! Depression is the sane response to the insanity of our lives. Depression is the struggle to be sane! We’re not fools if we struggle with depression. We’re fools if we don’t. It’s crucial that we seek, so we can finally exhaust ourselves, turn around, and find what we already possess.

They say every sickness is homesickness, and when I hear that, I feel sick for every moment I spend running away. They still outweigh the length I stay.

Even on a good day, when we’re snug in the bosom of our sweetest sentiments, in the Eden of our dreams, it doesn’t feel like home for very long. The stirrings start. The restlessness rears. We become feverish with longing, a longing that consumes our every thought. We might even make a home of our homesickness, becoming naturalized to a state of unrest and alienation. I’ve got to get out of here. How many times have you said that to yourself today?

Much of the time, our own life feels like a foreign country we can’t wait to get out of. And not a nice foreign country, either.  Even life with the people we profess to love, to whom we have promised fidelity. (Especially those people.) Even the half-decent job, the nice neighborhood, the loyal friends, the adorable kids, the good luck, the manifold blessings, the plan realized, the wish come true — nothing settles or calms for long, nothing feels quite right. There’s no place like the home you think you don’t have.

We’re all looking for something more, in a state of mild-to-moderate or even chronic despair. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you’ve got — how well you can manage your store of talents or prospects — you are somehow convinced that you haven’t yet got “it.” Not the whole of it, not enough to be completely satisfied or secure. Maybe you haven’t yet figured it out, had it happen, gotten it done, or pulled it together. You might think you need a lucky break, a promotion, a new body, another lover — or the old lover — another child; you might call it higher purpose, passion, or simply, inspiration. Maybe you want things to be as good as they were before, back when you didn’t know how good it was. Maybe you want things to be better than ever, as good as everyone else seems to have it. Feeling as if you’re not enough and don’t have enough, I want you to know, is good enough. It’s what got you this far.

Thus we arrive at the first step on the path of faith, a step that Buddha called “right view.” It is the slender flicker of wisdom, the illuminating certainty that you are lost. As verification of your own insight, it is followed immediately by the second step, the realization that you have to turn yourself around. You have go back home.

And here you are.

under your hat

November 1st, 2011    -    11 Comments

This is not a post you might expect from me, but you’ve heard the likes of it before. I know I don’t need to write this, but I have been quiet so long.

Yesterday there was a stereotypical news leak about a political candidate. Stereotypical news engenders stereotypical responses — denials, blame, defense, sympathy, antipathy, and conspiracy theories.

Maybe the story is fabricated, maybe this didn’t really happen, and maybe it’s just another round of dirty trickery. Maybe the whole thing was a misunderstanding — the case of innocent friendliness being exaggerated and exploited for gain.

If you’ve ever experienced it, you know sexual harassment and discrimination is not an exaggeration.  It’s not exaggerated  because you probably didn’t even say a word about it. But it is a fact: a fact that is usually ignored, tolerated, belittled and then forgotten. Until it happens again. It always happens again.

The story made me remember things I’d forgotten.

When I was just out of college and working in my first job, a client invited me to dinner. He said he wanted me to come to work for him. When he started talking about sex, I excused myself.

Shortly after that I did some writing for an oil company. I flew to another state and spent an hour interviewing a refinery manager for an article in the company magazine. At the end of our conversation about industrial safety, apropos of nothing, he said, “I like that skirt on you.” I said thank you and left.

The day after I was hired to handle publicity for a financial services firm, the president of the company called me and asked point blank, “So, you wanna fool around?” I hung up.

Assigned to work with a regional vice president of a large beverage company, I was told by his assistant, “From now on when you come to a meeting, don’t say anything. We don’t mind looking at you, but we don’t want your opinion.” I resigned.

Everybody can tell stories like this. This stuff happens all the time. No one really gets hurt. It’s all a misunderstanding. Don’t take it the wrong way. Things aren’t always what they seem. Don’t be so touchy.

I’m an old lady now, and I no longer care how I’m seen or heard. I’ve left that conversation for good.

When you feel intimidated, accosted or afraid, what you really want to do is leave. But the people who say and do things like this rarely seem to go away. They’re still out there pulling infinite second chances from under their hats. To them I say nothing. But to you, I say speak up, even if it’s only here.

twitter zen

October 12th, 2011    -    18 Comments

An actual email exchange.

Hello, I am interested in Zen practice and live nearby. I’d like to schedule a visit sometime soon.

>Thank you for contacting us. We recommend that you first take the introductory Zen meditation class offered every Saturday from 8:30-10:30 a.m. It covers the basics of Zen Buddhism, meditation techniques and our lineage.

>>I am not looking for a class on meditation right now. The idea of sitting through a two-hour class is off-putting to say the least. I merely want to visit for 10-15 minutes.

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