Posts Tagged ‘Wisdom’

what my mother taught me

April 13th, 2017    -    12 Comments

It was an attribute of her deep faith and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper when, in facing certain death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. Months before this day my mom had taken quiet confidence in me, telling me what she wanted for her funeral, what she wanted for her body, and asking me to write her obituary. Permission was thus tacitly granted to each other to proceed as we must. At her funeral I rose to say these words. They were not the first thing I had ever written, but they were the first thing I had ever written for myself, to be spoken in my own voice. This is the kind of thing that a mother can teach you. I have remembered it always, and especially on this day every year.

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.” read more

7 tips to de-stress your home

April 4th, 2017    -    18 Comments

 

No matter how much the spring wind loves the peach blossoms, they still fall. —  Dogen Zenji

Is it just me or is anyone else stressing out?

There’s nothing slow about spring. Everything speeds up. Winds howl. Boughs break. Blossoms burst. Things fall apart.

The same devotional practices that turn monasteries into bastions of serenity can relieve the stress that infiltrates life at chaotic times of year. Even if you can’t consistently observe all of these pointers, doing a few will change the way you feel when you come home, and that is nothing less than a modern miracle.

1. Observe light. The natural world wakes with the first light of the sun, why not you? If rising at daybreak is too late for your daily work and commuting schedule, wake before the sun and observe the sunrise. In the habit of hitting the snooze button? Don’t.  If your waking thought is resistance, you wake in stress. You start the day in a race against time, and you stay that way. The sun is not only a natural time management system, it delivers the neurotransmitter serotonin that enhances brain function and reduces stress.

2. Observe darkness. Turn the power off and see what happens when night falls. We’ve turned our homes into temples of electronic stimulation, and our default position is maximum overdrive. Gadgets are handy and appliances are useful, but everything from the microwave to the smoke alarm and the cell phone to the computer is discharging a constant pulsing stream of energy. We cannot afford to be careless about our electronic addictions because we are going out of our minds. Evening brings a natural end to the 24-hour workday, restores mind-body balance, and invites quiet.

3. Observe quiet. I’ll be loud and clear. The quiet that needs observing is not an external silence like the kind imposed at a library or hospital. Our homes are not ivory towers or infirmaries. The quiet that needs stilled is our internal commentary – the nonstop thoughts that stir anger, resentment, anxiety and fear. You may never get around to practicing meditation, but try this technique in the meantime.  Designate a comfortable seat in your bedroom as your “quiet chair.” Clear it of clutter; keep it empty and available. When domestic chaos and turmoil overtake you, retreat to your bedroom and take sanctuary in your quiet chair. Conflicts will decelerate by themselves when you take a step back. When the decibels in your head come down, come out.

4. Observe bells. A mountain of laundry, a forest of weeds, and an avalanche in the hall closet: the sheer size of untended tasks at home can topple us into paralyzing despair. When chores get out of hand, pick up some extra time. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes and focus on doing one thing during that period. It doesn’t matter if you finish; what matters is that you start. Once you start, the finish comes into view.

5. Observe nature. Open a window. The view doesn’t matter. Open a door. You don’t have to be in a national park. Air and light are curative. If you doubt it, just take a walk around the block and watch your mood lift with the breeze and change with the scenery.

6. Observe order. Washing dishes, sweeping floors, folding clothes, clearing the table, and sorting mail: these are not just simple means of practicing mindfulness, they are your mind. As Buddha described our true relationship to our environment, “There is no inside, there is no outside, and there is no in-between.” When we resist order, we are messing with our minds.

7. Observe ritual. Light a candle, and elevate your mealtime. Burn incense, and alleviate anxiety. Sages have always known that rituals are not just symbolic. Your rituals don’t have to reek of religious significance. Give yourself a set of completion rituals to signify the end of the day. Empty the kitchen sink; put your shoes in the closet; brush and floss your teeth. When repeated, rituals prepare you to enter a state of repose.

***

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how to grow a democracy

January 23rd, 2017    -    3 Comments

Study the trees that will outlive you by a thousand years.

Look up to the one sky that unites all beings.

Walk the earth with the millions that came before you and the millions to come after.

With each step, plant a seed so small that it is nearly invisible.

Do not doubt the power of that one seed.

Let clouds, wind, rain, sun and fire pass over.

Trust your feet; believe your eyes.

Hold fast to those truths that are self-evident.

Study the trees.

Before the marches last weekend, my sister, niece and I walked through the Muir Woods National Monument, an old-growth redwood forest north of San Francisco. Redwoods can grow as tall as 380 feet from a seed the size of a tomato seed. The majority of the trees located in Muir Woods National Monument are between 500 to 800 years old. The oldest tree in the protected forest is over 1200 years old.

the lie

January 15th, 2017    -    11 Comments

I’ve been very lucky in my life. I have had many teachers.

When I was a college senior, a teacher offered me a job grading papers. He was not a good teacher; in fact, his classes were notoriously bad. He offered me $2.50 an hour for a few hours a week. My budget at that time left no room for error, and even a dollar misspent would leave me without the cash I needed to wash my clothes or buy a meal. This teacher might have known what students thought of him; in any event, he was grateful for my help. When I was about to graduate, he asked if it would be okay if he set up some job interviews for me.

This was 1978, and there were no jobs for college graduates. My first interview was with a man who had a small public relations agency, although he had a big reputation. He had been president of the local PR association, and everybody knew him. I can’t recall anything we talked about except that when I told him the salary I was expecting, he smiled because it was so little. One day later he called and offered me a job. I started working two weeks after graduation. This was my first lucky break.

The office was in a nice building in a fancy part of town. My boss dressed well and drove a big car. The people I worked with were helpful and friendly. The work was interesting and seemed important. I got a raise. I learned a lot, but the longer I worked there the more uncomfortable I became. I figured out that my boss didn’t pay all his bills, or that he juggled things so that he paid what was necessary to keep things going, and ignored everything else. The problem was that I was the one who hired the suppliers for our projects—the photographers, the printers, the artists—and he was the one who didn’t pay them. This was something I couldn’t fix, and it troubled me. I felt like a liar, a con, a cheat. After about a year, I began to look for another job and found one. When I told my boss I would be leaving, he gave me a farewell party.

A few months later, I got a call from a former client at the PR agency. He told me that he had asked my old boss about me, chiding him for letting a good one get away. He wanted me to know what my old boss had said in case it ever got back to me. “He said that you had a nervous breakdown and that he had to send you back to your parents.”

***

It was ridiculously, even insanely, untrue. Here I was, sitting in another office not three miles away, working for someone else well-known in a relatively small field. But in one sobering instant I knew that as long as I worked in that city, I would have to defend myself against the lie. I had seen behind the curtain, and he had reached out in retribution to steal what little I had: my name.

Perhaps it was luck. I never again went looking for another job. Never had another interview, never asked anyone for a referral or recommendation. The next career move I made was to start my own business with an honest partner. I was 23. I kept that job for nearly 20 years.

I never even thought about my first boss, but he still hung on. Bad business practices don’t necessarily put you out of business. One day I met someone else who had worked for him long after I left. He had told her about me, she said. He had told her the lie.

The guy died in 2010. He had a very long resume.

***

Why would someone keep lying? Liars have to lie, it turns out. They have to keep lying because they are lying to themselves. They have to keep lying because they are a lie.

Over the many years since I learned this lesson, I’ve tossed nearly every bit of the name that was besmirched. In the end, nothing was lost, and the experience gave me a pretty good handle on the truth.

There is a ruckus in the news these days about lies and liars. Should the press call a lie a “lie?” Should they call a liar a “liar?” Should they call cheaters “cheaters,” traitors “traitors,” thieves “thieves,” racists “racists” and monsters “monsters?”

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had many teachers, and so I can answer the question. Yes.

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follow

September 26th, 2016    -    3 Comments

 

A road leads deep into a  Kansas cornfield in late July.

Follow the humble. They will lead you to dignity.

Follow the gentle. They will lead you to strength.

Follow the kind. They will lead you to gratitude.

Follow the silent. They will lead you to truth.

Follow the simple. They will lead you to wisdom.

Follow your heart. It will lead you home.

Follow the path. It will lead you everywhere.

the myth of the missing moon

September 28th, 2015    -    25 Comments

Let’s consider whether we see a crescent moon, a half moon or a full moon. In any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking? — Maezumi Roshi

One day a girl looked up at the sky through a veil of clouds and saw that half the moon was missing.

The moon is missing! The moon is missing! No one could convince her otherwise. In fact, she had seen it shrinking for some time, and every night came more proof of her worst fears.

I was right! This conviction was a miserable consolation.

Where others might have seen a sliver of shine, all she saw was the deepening hollow of absence.

There is something you think you don’t have. A virtue, quality, or substance you need to acquire. Courage. Strength. Patience. Wisdom. Compassion. Wholeheartedness. As soon as I name it, you see it as missing from you, quick to disavow the suggestion that you are complete.

I’m only human, you might say. I’m not at all whole and perfect. I’m injured, inadequate, and yes, even a little bit robbed. Especially robbed.

She tried filling the hole with tears, shouts and bluster. She bought a toaster, a Sub Zero, and a Maserati, a pile of shiny objects. They overflowed her house and storage unit. She stomped her feet and kicked up dust. All of it made a mess, but nothing more. You can’t fill a hole that doesn’t exist.

And so, exhausted, she gave up and sat down, head heavy, heart leaden.

She didn’t notice the shadows shifting into light, the wind lifting, the clouds parting, the days passing. One evening she opened her eyes and saw the moon. It was full, of course. It was full all along, doing what moons do, reflecting light. Only our perspective changes. We rob ourselves when we mistake the unreal for the real.

Your heart is always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way.

Just let everything and anything be so, as it is, without using any kind of standard by which we make ourselves satisfied, dissatisfied, happy or unhappy. Then you’ll see the plain and clear fact.

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

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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

letter from my 16-year-old self

February 19th, 2015    -    28 Comments

mailbox-396694__180Today’s news has brought this old post to mind. Looking at life straight on, death is always at hand.

Yesterday I reached into the bottom of a drawer and rediscovered my English Composition notebook from my junior year in high school. I knew that I had kept it, and flipping through the pages of my tightly curled script, spaced so sincerely between faded blue rules,  I remembered why.

We often think that if we had the chance we would go back in time to illuminate our younger selves with mature insights, to foreshorten expectations and prevent cruel disappointments. Drop the notion that you’re wiser now than you were then. What did your 16-year-old self know that you’ve forgotten? Before your last hour, can you remember again?

My Last Wish
English III
October 23, 1972

My life is a collection of small occurrences. In looking back over sixteen years, I remember incidents which, when they happened, seemed quite forgettable. A handshake with a friendly dog, a gift of bubble gum from my father, and a playground chase are a few of the scenes that come to mind.

When confronted with the possibility of only one more day of life, I immediately respond with a desire to experience all of the thrills our earth has to offer. But, after considering further, I reject that idea as a way to conclude my life.

What experiences, after all, has my memory chosen to include in its vast enclosures? The everyday happenings remain most clearly in my mind’s eye. They have influenced and molded me into the complex person that I am.

If I had one day left to live, I wouldn’t want to circle the world or sail the seas. I might wash my hair, play cards, clear the dinner table, fight with my sister, say my prayers and go to sleep.

We must become the ones we always were. How else to explain the sublime recognition when we meet ourselves again.

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how to see paradise

February 9th, 2015    -    1 Comment

kmm-placeArt by Esmé Weijun Wang.

important things are close by

January 22nd, 2015    -    4 Comments

rockIn the past, I thought the important things were far away from me. I worked hard and thought hard every day in order to get to those important things. But soon I realized that these were actually close by. — Lee Kang-hyo, master potter

I’ve watched a video about this man several times this week. As in some books, the first lines are unforgettable. The simplicity is brilliant. I hope you can make the time to watch it, and if you can’t see it at the bottom of this post, you can go here to watch it. You may never get a chance to meet this man or glimpse his life, and even if you met him, you might not recognize him as a master. His shirts are stained and he smokes.

Earlier this week I spent a day with the ponds in the backyard. The leaves in Southern California have finally shaken loose and there is work. Everything I do in the garden or house I do by hand, like you. I bend low over a small stream under the sycamores and lift layers of wet leaves from the slow flowing water. They smell of earth and decay, a luscious stink. I scuff my hands and crack my fingernails without knowing. I try not to fall into the deeper water, aware that no one will come and fish me out, but I straddle the rocks without fear. After a few hours I’ve built a mound of leaves and muck at the back of the yard. My shoes and pants are wet. I need a shower. I don’t give a backward glance at what I’ve done. It will be meaningless tomorrow. I feel alive.

Do you ever experience something like this? Is it possible to live like this in an everyday way, doing everyday things? The potter in this video is a master of the Korean onggi, which means large jars. They are amazing creations, these massive jars. He says that when he began working, he saw them as sculpture. He wanted to make beautiful sculpture. Now he appreciates that the clay pots, first created to store fermenting food like kimchi, chili paste and soy sauce, are inextricable from Korea’s food culture. Food that people make for their own families and eat in their own homes every day. Large jars are even more beautiful as large jars.

Important things are close by. Let this bring you peace.

a voice in the night

December 14th, 2014    -    57 Comments

41Jec+cLZXLMomma Zen is now available as an audiobook, read by me. Here’s a chance to win a free copy for yourself or a friend.

I can’t remember writing this book. I can’t remember what I wrote. But I can remember the moment when I began to write. I had never written in my own name before. The moment of birth went like this:

Me to my husband: I need a laptop!
Him: Okay.
Me: I need to go away and write!
Him: Okay.
Me: I’m going to write a book!
Him Okay.

The labor, as all labors, continued for quite a long time after, in every kind of circumstance. It was years before I had a sense of what I had done and, more to the point, who had done it. I can see that Momma Zen is not really like the books I’ve written since. One reason is that it reflects my maturity as a Zen student, mother, and writer at the time, which were all three nil. I used to wonder how in the world I had pulled it off. Now I think I know.

These are my mother’s words, after she died, reaching beyond time and space to console me in my darkest hours. When I read these words I see her and feel her; when I hear them I am her. How comforting her voice in the dark, reminding me that I am not alone. Now, how comforting my voice in the dark, reminding you that you are not alone.

Bring yourself into the fold by leaving a comment on this post. I will be awarding several free copies of the new audiobook to commenters next Sunday, the darkest night of the year.

my spectacular failure

September 8th, 2014    -    4 Comments

This week I’ll be going into a recording studio to tape the audiobook of Momma Zen. This is a welcome and unexpected chance to put my speaking voice to my writer’s “voice.” The occasion reminds me of this passage in the book about the eternal power of voice:

“In the cozy darkness, tucking in my three-year-old, I ask her what she loves best. ‘Your voice,’ she says, dreamily. She is halfway dreaming, when answers are undefiled. I am reassured. It will change a bit, weaken and grow old. And then she will hear it in herself: a song without words, a lyric beyond language, a smile, a laugh, a moment’s silent consolation. It will always come back because it never leaves. I know that voice.” — Momma Zen

I’ll be sure and let you know when the Audible book is ready so you can hear my voice in my own voice and share it with those inclined to listen.

In my work and practice, I’m continually exploring the intuitive voice within us, the voice that speaks a truth we know before we know it. Earlier this year I had a videochat with my friend, artist and writer Christine Mason Miller about the mysteries of voice, the peculiar humiliations of a writer’s life, the organic uncertainty of the creative process, and redefining professional success (which in my case looks like spectacular failure). If you wish to write or try to write — or if you harbor any artistic or professional aspirations for that matter — our conversation might be helpful. What I say applies to any expectation or ideal we cherish and it might just be something you need to hear today.

The video was included in a comprehensive e-course Christine put together for aspiring authors called “The Conscious Booksmith.” The six-week course will be offered again in January, and if you’d like to get more information about it, sign up here. It’s worth it.

In the meantime, you can watch us talk about success and failure right here and now. (If you’re reading this post in your email and don’t see the video, click on the headline and you’ll be taken to the blog.)

 

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