then you start crying

February 19th, 2012

Last week I went to Indianapolis to meet people. I stood alone in an empty room, let it fill, looked into faces looking at mine, spoke and listened, each sound beginning from silence and returning to the same, let the room empty again, and then sat in a quivering aftershock, unable to understand what had just happened, even though it happens every time.

We might think that when we come together in a room and speak our names, extending a hand or a hug, that we are meeting each other. Two discrete beings at a meet and greet. But what we’re meeting is much more and different than that. It is not really two people meeting; it is minds meeting, and not as two minds, but as one. It is inexpressible, but unmistakable. Something happens, and then you might start crying. At that instant, you feel incredibly lucky. Rich, even. As if your own paltry life is suddenly revealed as a priceless treasure.

From time to time people ask me, usually from a distance, if I will be their teacher. I try not to answer that question, because it is irrelevant from a distance, and certainly meaningless over the Internet. I’m never sure what the questioner is asking for — a friend, a counselor, a correspondent, an advisor, a coach, an eye, an ear, a hand? Although I can supply a metaphoric approximation of that from a distance, that’s not what a teacher does.

The teacher and student enter a room that is not a metaphor. They stand on the same ground. What they communicate is words and not-words. You needn’t worry about how it works. To explain it is to confuse it. No one knows how it works, but it does. We always know who our teachers are: they are the ones in the room with us. It’s really not a matter of choosing or asking. What a relief.

To that end, I heard something as I was in the car yesterday driving home from the Zen Center. It was an episode of Radio Lab in which a teacher tells how she broke through the conceptual isolation of a 27-year-old deaf student who had never been given language. “Something happened,” she said, “and then he started crying.”

I did too. I hope you’ll listen past the point where you think you know what it means. That’s the place things happen.



  1. Thank you for your time.

    Comment by Ben — February 20, 2012 @ 7:40 am

  2. “We always know who our teachers are: they are the ones in the room with us. It’s not really a matter of choosing or asking. What a relief.”
    So. True. I’m adding that little nugget to one of my favorite reminders, from Kafka:
    “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

    {{Grateful to have shared space in the same room as you}}

    Comment by Alyssa T — February 20, 2012 @ 8:15 am

  3. Thank you. (Beyond that, words still fail me – I hope you understand the depth of those two simple words.)

    Comment by Lisa — February 21, 2012 @ 5:10 am

  4. From the beginning, I’ve loved my teacher’s passion, though I didn’t fully understand the content. In private conferences, in that non-metaphor room, he shines a light on precisely the dark corner of my mind that hides my confusion. Last year I was shocked to realize the deeper meaning of our relationship. Half a dozen years of listening to him in group and individual settings, I thought I’d heard his voice. But all those years it was my own, trying to wake myself up. Never had been two discrete beings.

    Comment by Dawn — February 21, 2012 @ 7:20 am

  5. Thank you for writing Dawn. For me, you truly are a glimmer of light on the horizon.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — February 21, 2012 @ 7:33 am

  6. I really got this, the link was also really good.

    Comment by Cat — February 21, 2012 @ 8:50 am

  7. one of the most deeply moving posts for me as i remember very clearly that day back in June 2010 when I first met you and our minds met and my brain surrendered, my heart opened, and then “something happened” and I began to cry.

    I haven’t been in a room with you since, but you and your posts continue to work on me.

    thank you.

    Comment by laura — February 21, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  8. Well, goodness gracious. Just yesterday I was thinking about tears as language, and I’ve been thinking for weeks about how I’m kinda’ moving away from words into a more visual place, so this has really given me fodder to add to the mix. It’s as though tears . . . words . . . images . . . feelings – they are all still separate islands in me, having not yet encountered the spark to whoosh them into Left Of The Blue Wall. Fortunately I love pondering and am well acquainted with pondering (seemingly) imponderables.

    Comment by wholly jeanne — February 21, 2012 @ 10:35 am

  9. “I hope you’ll listen past the point where you think you know what it means. That’s the place things happen.”

    To this my heart smiles and opens wide… my mouth smiles and closes tight.

    Comment by Suzanne Tucker — February 21, 2012 @ 11:54 am

  10. I believe teacher’s are different to all of us, and even to us individually they are different at different times. Even across the miles, and over the interconnectedness that is this Internet, you have been a teacher for me. Your words were there for me just when I needed them most.

    Comment by Christine @ Coffees & Commutes — February 21, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

  11. Intellectually true. But reality has its own dimension.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — February 21, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

  12. Although it has been two years, I am forever grateful for your kindness and guidance when I called you from Amsterdam. Thanks for listening.

    Comment by Lauren P. — February 21, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  13. I’d like to see zen teachers like Ms.Miller develop an answer for the question “Will you be my teacher?” Sincere students deserve a sincere answer. What she writes here points at the truth, for certain, but as she notes, that’s not really the question they are asking.

    The question is really “will you do for me what others have done for you?’ Anyone with understanding will of course do so, in fact, they can’t really not do so. The problem is that the authentic teacher-student relationship involves relatively little “doing.” It is a “being.” The teacher doesn’t make the choice, the student does.

    I regard “Hand Wash Cold” as an important influence in my practice. Accordingly, one could say that Ms. Miller is a teacher of mine even though I have not ever stood in a room with her. But, it was my mind, and how it made use of the words on those pages, that was the doer, not Ms. Miller. Accordingly, one could say that Ms. Miller is not a teacher of mine, I rather taught myself, using this collection of words. So, if she is a teacher of mine, it is because I chose so.

    Much is made of students and teachers, and too often students want to display their teachers like a team t-shirt, and teachers too often want to display their students like a license.

    I watch my posture and offer a deep bow of gratitude to Karen Maezen Miller, her students and her teachers. Nice post.

    Comment by Richard — February 22, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

  14. Teachers and students practice together. It’s really quite simple. Thank you for your compliment. I have never been fed by a cookbook, although it makes me hungry to eat real food.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — February 22, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

  15. […] :: we’re not separate […]

    Pingback by February Goodies — March 1, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

  16. You teach me every day.

    You guide me in every moment.

    You are always with me, and for this I will always be grateful.

    Comment by Swirly — March 6, 2012 @ 7:29 am

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