Posts Tagged ‘Suffering’

shoveling gutters

February 22nd, 2015    -    11 Comments

18335467I’m biding my time today until the sun is higher in the sky, the air warms a bit, and I can get out and clean the rain gutters. This is a chore that stands in for all the snow shoveling that might go on where you live. It is a solitary job. No one but me notices that it is time to do it. No one but me will do it. It does not diminish me. On the contrary, cleaning the gutters will give me power and purpose, direction and rhythm: spiritual guidance that doesn’t come when I spend the day merely thinking about what I could be doing, say, tomorrow.

My dear and sensitive friend Katrina Kenison recently sent me a marvelous book, out of the blue, which is what makes something a gift, descending like a bird into your hand from who-knows-where, a memoir by Mary Rose O’Reilley, a poet and author hitherto unknown to me, who once apprenticed herself to a sheep farm. Going to work every day in a barn made no sense in a literal way, her lofty mind knowing nothing about sheep or lambing or castration or shearing or sudden virulent sickness and death, any of the activities that make up the muddy substance of a sheep farm. Perhaps she had an inkling that the experience would spiritually ground her, rescue her from the reaches of her poetic inclinations, and it did. The farm rescued her, and reading about it rescued me too.

I haul the ladder from the garage and put on oversized gloves. I always start by using a trowel to dig out the gutters but before long I’ll pitch the gloves and tool because they don’t quite get at the depth of the matter, the sweet oozing muck, the marriage of last summer’s dust, wind-brittled leaves and December’s forgotten rain. You have to use your hands.

Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel greatly alone and sad. Especially these days, I have to remind myself that I keep company with the earth and sky, and that I alone mother the myriad things in-between. That I am a farmer and a friend, and still an apprentice at both. I have to come back to this wholesome earth and shepherd myself in the best way I can. That’s about the time a gift arrives, and I am saved.

The ladder is shaky because at no spot around this house, which sits on a mountain, is the ground level. I’m not afraid. This old path is muddy, but my aim is straight, and maybe I’ll see a bird.

Going out now.

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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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all I see is suffering

November 26th, 2013    -    6 Comments

fresh-modern-thanksgiving-table-setting-lYears ago when I was doing one of my first internet interviews the host said something that caught me off guard. She said, “Isn’t it hard for you to live in a place like that?”

I couldn’t fathom her meaning. It’s not hard to live in Los Angeles — a beautiful place with nearly perfect year-round weather, where you can go outside any day under a blue sky and climb a mountain, see the ocean, and gather fruit from the trees in your own yard.

But she didn’t mean that. What she wondered was whether it was hard for someone like me to live in a place with people who weren’t like me. A place known for its vanity and pretense, empty dreams and false promises, shallowness, selfishness, fear, lies, and addictions.

In other words, a place like everywhere with people like everyone.

“All I see is suffering,” I answered.

I’m remembering that conversation because Thursday is the day we adorn the table and feel blessed, fed, loved, warm and secure — or at least pretend that we are — among the people who might be the hardest to live with: our own families.

What will you see at your table? And more to the point, whom will you serve?

Happy Thanksgiving.

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prayer list

September 14th, 2013    -    56 Comments

imagesWhenever I am feeling injured or ignored, which I’m sorry to say is quite a bit, all I have to do is open my eyes to someone who has real suffering, not just the imaginary kind like me.

That’s what I’m feeling now as I consider the devastation and despair passing through every news stream in front of me. I feel a triple, quadruple whammy of sad helplessness, which is a powerful invitation to pray.

I’m saying a prayer service today, and tomorrow, and the day after, and after, and after. Let’s assemble a prayer list, shall we? I’ll start the list, and please leave a comment or two and add to it. Tell me who or what to pray for. You can give me actual names if you like. In the face of our suffering world, I can’t imagine doing less, and I don’t know how to do more.

I’m praying for:

All the people of Syria.
All victims of war.
All victims of the Jersey boardwalk fire.
All victims of the Colorado floods.
All victims of natural disasters.
Our mother the Earth.
All children who are troubled and want to die.
All children who are sick and want to live.
All parents who need strength and guidance.
All animals suffering from abuse and neglect.
All beings suffering the pain of parting.

So far it is a short list, but it is a neverending need. Please add your prayers to the list.

prayer

April 21st, 2013    -    7 Comments

goldenkuanyin

I am crying every mother’s tears
waking in every mother’s night
deafened by the blasts
bleeding in the street
broken to the bone
I am not brave
not quick
not done
I will not forget
cannot untie
every child
every child
every child leaves a mother
and the mother is me.

A prayer of compassion
A plea for peace
A word of truth
Amen.

Kuan Yin in the bodhisattva of compassion. The name Kuan Yin is short for Kuan Shih Yin which means “Observing the Sounds of the World.”

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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.

 

lanced

January 20th, 2013    -    42 Comments

011513-Oprah-Armstrong-Interview-600I will confess to having an unhealthy fascination for the Lance Armstrong saga. I watched his interview on Oprah last week.

I am not a fan. I do not follow cycling. I have no stake in his guilt or innocence, punishment or redemption. But I have a stake in the human story and what we can learn about ourselves by opening our eyes to one another. I don’t share the views of those who say, “Cheating doesn’t matter” or “Everyone does it” or “He is a demon” or “He was persecuted” or “He should rot in hell.” I have an interest in pain and suffering. That’s all his story is about. His story is about how we suffer and cause others to suffer. Pain should interest us all.

What I saw on TV last week was not what some saw. I did not see dispassion or denial, not the face of evil or greed. I saw a man stupefied by his own deep terror, his unmet fear. A man who has broken his own heart. And by seeing it, my heart breaks too. Our hearts are lanced—how can they not be?—when we finally face the savagery of our self-deceptions.

He talked about all of the events, all of the doping and dodging, as part of his life strategy to “control the outcome.” And not just in competition. Not just after cancer. He is a small man, actually, and you can see in his slightness the shadow of a small boy. A boy without a father, without a family, without the birthright or build that gives men swagger in Texas. Even then he was mortally afraid. And so he fought, he stole, and he bullied. Audacity can take you far, it just can’t take you to the finish before the cracks open up and the road crumbles beneath you.

His delusion is our own delusion. We all live as if we can control the outcome.

Some were unsatisfied with his stiffness, terseness, and the apparent stinginess of empathy and emotion. But I saw a feeling so big it swallowed him whole. I saw it in the way he turned his head or covered his mouth. In his choking, wordless paralysis. He cannot run. He cannot ride. He cannot even move.

A friend who knows all about the side effects of cancer observed that Armstrong rarely called cancer by name but rather as “the disease.” It’s not really his cancer that goes nameless, because that is not the disease that has killed Lance Armstrong. The disease that felled him—that destroys us in the prime of our lives no matter what the prognosis—is fear.

I am sorry for Lance Armstrong and collaterally, for everyone hurt, down, sad and overcome, like me, by the poison pierce of rampant fear. Let each of us, in our own way, face our fear before we cause more harm. Before our time is up. Then maybe we can live strong.

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it isn’t algebra

December 17th, 2012    -    5 Comments

Image390

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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the way to let go

September 30th, 2012    -    12 Comments

There are few names and no dates on the photos. Together, they span fifty years.  The oldest are bound in a half-torn album tied with a limp shoelace.

The pictures begin with my lithe and lovely grandmother, no more than a teenager, posed alluringly against a tree trunk in a grassless yard. In another, she has arranged herself on top of railroad tracks. Here she is, a poor girl wearing new clothes, and her hair is marcelled. There are pictures of other young women, her friends or sisters; they take turns wearing a fur-trimmed coat. This is their dress-up; these are their aspirations. They have taken pictures to show how desperately they want to get out from the pictures. Cross the tracks. Leave home.

Oh, how you know the feeling.

Many pictures have been ripped from the pages. Glued to the front, as if a new title, the first page remade when the album filled, is a photo labeled “Jim Jimmie Erma,” a family portrait. My father, little Jimmie, looks about four years old. His father holds the boy close in his thick arms, taking responsibility. My grandmother stands alongside wearing the coat and traveling hat. They are squinting into the daylight.

From this vantage point, I can see the secrets and scars in their unblemished faces. They confess to me of future crimes and punishments. Even as an innocent, my father looks exactly as I feared him, a fact that strikes me as peculiar only when I consider that my daughter will see her own hysterical mother in my cherub-cheeked baby pictures. The mother she will misjudge and misunderstand, the mother she might reject and revile, until one day she doesn’t.

But I am going to erase all that—everything I think I see—and give them a fresh start. I’m going to give them what I would if they were my own children, or if they were me. Because they are me. I’m going to give them love. read more

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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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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sitting still and being quiet

February 6th, 2012    -    No Comments

My uncle was a star among us. As a 12-year-old, he had a calling from God, or at least a push from his parents. This was the only kind of call that counted in rural Central Texas at the time. It meant he would be educated, he would preach, and he would go places.

He went overseas as a missionary. Every three years he brought his American bride and his growing family back to the States for furlough. He toured churches where he towered in the pulpit, gave stirring guest sermons, and said grace over potlucks in his honor. Everyone looked up to him.

But he was not spared the fall we all take into human torment and doubt. At midlife, he broke up his family and left his post. During his time of exile, he visited my mother’s house. Grown, I came home to visit. I sat in the room while he told my mother everything. He needed to say everything, and she was a complete listener. There was nothing but love in the room.

During a lull, he looked over to me in the corner and asked, “Karen, how did you get to be so wise?” I was surprised, because I only knew what I saw. My elegant uncle, eyes glistening, heart breaking; a light undimmed, spilling onto earth.

“By sitting still and being quiet.”

Join me when you’re ready.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Feb. 26 9 am-3 pm
Hazy Moon Zen Center, Los Angeles
Register by email here.

If you’re not sure that you’re ready to begin, watch this. Watch it anyway, and you’ve begun.

Ordinary Glories from katherine gill on Vimeo.

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