As close as I come to baking bread

December 12th, 2007

I know. Any way you slice it, going someplace else to practice is going too far. I used to live three states away from my practice center and that was too far. Now I live 19 miles away and it’s too far. Believe me, I understand how far it can be.

I also understand that bread doesn’t bake until you turn up the heat and close the oven door. When you are ready for results – when your life and everyone else’s depends on it – you have to take your lumpy rumpus on the road.

People always ask me if it is necessary to have a teacher to have a practice. The answer is yes and no. No, because you can cruise along for quite some time on your own power. Yes, because cruising along on your own power rarely gets you anywhere else. We all, naturally, find a comfort zone for ourselves, by ourselves, and we stay there. A teacher helps you recognize your sticking points. Comfort zones become discomfort zones, and a teacher won’t let you wallow. So a teacher is your best, worst friend.

At the same time, practicing with other people in the room gives you amazing power and encouragement. It is like family, only better, because you never have to speak to one another!

All of this gets scary and most people opt out right there. But consider this: We might go to a chiropractor to fix our back, a therapist to fix our head, a facialist to squeeze our zits, a fitness studio to squeeze our glutes, a stylist to cut and color our hair, a manicurist, a nutritionist, an acupuncturist, a massage therapist, a naturopath, a palm reader, and so on. You get my point. We do all that and more, and sometimes in one day! But it’s too far out to go to a Zen center and sit in solitude for an hour.

Here’s your first stop to see if there’s one near you: a roster of centers from the American Zen Teachers Association.

Here’s an even easier way: Madison, Philadelphia, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, St. Louis, Houston, San Diego, Minneapolis, Portland or Washington DC. Otherwise just Google it. If you found me, you can find out where to go in your own backyard. If you’re lucky, you can try a few places to zero in on one that fits.

This is the time of year when we naturally turn inward. We celebrate the light illuminating the darkness, the dawn of the new. It is an auspicious time to reflect. If you go looking, you may find a way to participate in part or all of a New Year’s retreat, like this one in Silver Spring, Maryland in the company of one of our own, or this one in Los Angeles at my own practice home and haven.

This is the last I’ll post on practice for a while. I always, however, welcome your questions publicly or privately, just so you know.

In spite of my daughter’s fever, my ill temper and all those missed appointments (see above), we did get out to sign a stack of books headed for you know who, making it the best kind of day. You can still order inscribed copies of Momma Zen for Christmas or any occasion by visiting here.


  1. Karen,

    Thanks for the link. We have about 10 people so far that are coming, about 1/2 it’ll be their first retreat, 1/2 it won’t, so people do not have to be afraid to come. It’s January 4-6, and you can even come for just bits of it if the whole time is not possible.

    I would like to share a slightly different perspective on starting up a zazen practice. I started zazen in the midst of children, in conjunction with quitting my paying job to stay at home, with a spouse who was running for political office (and was therefore extremely busy, hence leaving me as lonely as you can be with two exuberant children as constant companions). While it is true that in zazen one sees such unpleasant things as one’s own pride and anger, and often has sore legs and so forth, I found that being the main caretaker of small kids is already so uncomfortable and so focused on the kids rather than the self, I experienced the group sittings and especially the retreats as being a real refuge. My God, instead of beloved people sitting in your lap trying to touch your teeth, people bowing at you. Instead of a constant stream of questions, such deep silence as does heal the organism a bit. Rather than finding myself irritated that my hard work was appreciated by no one, I felt full of gratitude for the teachers, the people cooking, and the very cushions. Even the person sitting near me who was compelled to move 3 minutes before the end of each sitting period I found refreshing. Sure, it was boring and I am no longer proud of my mental life (but I had already yelled meanly enough to scare my child, so I knew I don’t live up to my own hype; the nice thing about noticing the bad thoughts in zazen is noticing them fade, and in noticing that they are just thoughts, nothing more serious than leaves falling). My knees hurt. But quiet, respect, and uninterrupted sleep, that was nice.

    So I would say that zazen is less unpleasant if you’ve already been softened up a bit by the small-child-parenting lifestyle a bit.

    Your mileage may vary, of course,

    I hope that makes some sort of sense.


    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — December 12, 2007 @ 7:06 pm


    I hope Georgia feels better, make her a chicken soup.

    Comment by Mika — December 12, 2007 @ 9:22 pm

  3. Oh, dear. I went zen-hunting around my area. An embarrassment of riches!
    Tibetan, Korean, Vietnamese, Non-sectarian, lots of stuff I couldn’t pronounce . . .

    I can see that a little research will be called for here.

    Is it OK for me to ask if any of the traditions are particularly beginner friendly?

    Comment by Mama Zen — December 13, 2007 @ 5:54 am

  4. Thanks for this post – very relevant to me right now! Have a good break 🙂

    Comment by Fiona Robyn — December 13, 2007 @ 2:36 pm

  5. MZ: All should be beginner friendly. Beginning is the first and only point to the practice. However . . . not all Buddhist traditions emphasize meditation practice. Investigate for yourself and you’ll know. 🙂

    Comment by Karen — December 13, 2007 @ 3:20 pm

  6. Thanks, Karen. I found that adding “zazen” to my search helped, and gave me a better idea what I was finding!

    Comment by Mama Zen — December 13, 2007 @ 5:02 pm

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