The junk drawer


How the search for a hammer can lead to a life of unmitigated suffering, or Look How Far We’ll Go to Stay in the Same Trouble We’re In:

Hammer – Last Sunday we went looking for a hammer to hang Halloween decorations. The hammer was last seen in our bottomless kitchen junk drawer. 16 oz. claw hammer with fiberglass handle $6.89 at Staples.

Storage Chest – A sturdy 4-drawer storage chest seems like it would solve our junk problem. $39.99 at The Container Store.

Container Store – Thirty-nine stores each with more than 10,000 products devoted to helping people simplify their lives. Projected 2007 sales of more than $600 million. Guess one storage chest is never simple enough.

Self Storage – At $22.6 billion in revenue each year, the self-storage business is the fastest-growing real estate segment in the US and perhaps the fastest-growing industry overall. This country now has 60,000 self-storage facilities totaling 2.2 billion square feet of space. Shoulder-to-shoulder, all 300 million Americans could fit inside these handy self-storage units now ranging across our homeland. But then, where would we put our stuff?

FlyLady – Looks like we have some de-cluttering to do! This online champion of household organization and tidiness sells $4 million a year in books, kitchen timers, license plate holders, ostrich-feather dusters, calendars, mouse pads, T-shirts, tote bags, sink stoppers, water bottles, and lapel pins. She does this by sending up to 15 emails each day to her flock of 400,000 subscribers reminding them to get out of bed, get dressed, make their beds, clean their sinks, cook dinner and buy more stuff. So much to do.

Get Things Done – This guru du jour has created the GTD® System for sorting excess stuff like paper, things, worries, thoughts and those hundreds of unwanted emails flooding your inbox every day. His sold-out, $600 per day seminars reveal the inner workings of his complex “decide-not-to-decide” system that includes a 20-point flowchart on how to process your thoughts so that you can free yourself from thinking.

Now do you know what to do with the hammer?

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up the week and throw it away for good.

Weapon of mass construction

Disclaimer: This post is not about my husband. He was simply cast in the role of an ordinary human being for the purpose of this retelling.

Last weekend we installed scads of scary decorations outside our house. The following conversation is recounted with complete accuracy.

Me: Honey, will you get me a hammer?
He: We don’t have one.

Me: I’m sure we do.

He: I can’t find it.

Me: Did you look in the junk drawer?

He: Yeah, that’s the problem.

Who doesn’t have one of these junk drawers? We had one that became two that became three. And when that happens, you’ve got a lot of junk but you no longer have a hammer. This is what it means to be human.

I thought to myself, “Somebody’s going to have to get in there and just throw stuff out.” But my husband did not easily accord with that approach. He went onto the computer and researched the precise kind of storage device that would fix our problem, retailed at the best upmarket specialty store, and set out to cover the distance in search of the solution.

Two hours and $108 later, he returned. I found him sitting spread eagled on the kitchen floor. He had begun to empty the drawers, and he looked discouragingly like someone who was going to have to get in there and just throw stuff out.

For the record, we no longer possess a dozen kitty toys for the 14-year-old cat who expired in 2006. We no longer have the unopened “Baby on Board” sign for the amazing disappearing baby. We no longer have a childproof VCR lock to protect the off-board baby from the nonexistent VCR. But we do have a hammer.

All of this brings me to the point of fearlessness about tackling a topic that I find truly horrifying: the rise of the junk-drawer industry – the gurus, books, seminars, coaches, the storage units, systems, devices, calendars, custom closets, the artifice, the edifice, the mountain of fluff being pedaled, the ton of money being amassed because no one will get in there and just throw stuff out.

In that spirit, there’s more to come!

Gives rise to


Personal misunderstandings; flawed, disrupted, or delayed communications, negotiations and trade; glitches and breakdowns with phones, computers, cars, buses, and trains. And all of these problems usually arise because some crucial piece of information, or component, has gone astray, or awry.

Gee, ya think it could be that time again?

spooked

Dear Karen,
Lets get some
spookyer
Halloween
decorashons.
To get a
little spookyer.
Love,
Georgia

Last Monday my daughter brought home her regular weekly packet of homework. Half-way into the second month of the second grade, this packet is getting bigger, downright monstrous, and although she has four days to finish, it is enough to haunt my daily after-school agenda.

Have you done your homework?
Time to do your homework.
Sit down and do your homework.
Let’s do your homework.

Just three pages.

Just two pages.

Just one more page.

The homework isn’t massively hard. It’s avoiding homework that is monumental. After an hour or so of this banter, I snapped and shrieked, terrifying us both.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK!!!!!

She froze, then completed 12 pages, the full week’s assignment, in 19 minutes of shivering silence. Afterwards, she took a sheet of blank paper and wrote a page in secret, folded it and placed it in an envelope snuck from my stationery drawer. She excused herself to go outside where I knew she placed the letter in the mailbox. I expected the mail that day would carry a letter of reproach for a certain mommy, and I apologized repeatedly. We made a banana cake together and shared a treat before supper.

When the mail came, I opened my surprise letter.

Spookyer? That’s what she wants? As if one screaming meemie in this house isn’t enough.

Offered in proof that our children have come to save us, to redeem and reform us, and to forgive us no matter what. May we parents hasten our homework.

Oh, and we put up the decorashons this weekend. Are they ever!

On that note

We’ve been having so much fun around here talking about happiness that I wanted to strike a different note to the tune of full disclosure.

Sad.

What about when you’re sad? What about when bad things happen or good things don’t? What about tears and disappointments?

It’s easy, as long as you’re in the mode of self-improvement and life betterment, to think of sadness as the enemy of happiness. To think of bad times as the opposite of good. But they are only opposites in the realm of antonyms and synonyms. They are only opposites in your thinking mind, the mind that compares and judges things to be one way or the other. In the real world, happiness and sadness, highs and lows, spring and fall, occur in one place – the same place – your life.

So is being sad somehow less than good? Is it wrong?

Sadness can be a springboard to a spiritual practice. Because most of us suffer when we are sad, and cause others to suffer too, it can lead us to seek solace and resolution. Sadness is always a good guide and even a good sign. You might notice, for instance, that when you begin a meditation or yoga practice, or when you find a church home, that you begin to cry for no good reason at all. This can indicate that you are releasing long-held emotions and fears. It feels good to cry. And it feels good to stop too. By itself, crying always ends, eventually. Sadness changes to something else. Because all things, even emotions and thoughts, change when we let them.

One time I went to see Maezumi Roshi after a meditation session in which the tears streamed in rivulets down my cheeks.

“I’m sitting in a field of sadness,” I said to him. I was a tiny bit pleased by my poetic expression. I thought we might talk about it, rooting out the cause, and apply a kind of treatment.

“When you’re sad, be sad,” he said. And that was all he said. I confess I found it abrupt, considering my experience with other kinds of counselors. He didn’t criticize me, he didn’t correct me, he just didn’t dwell. He didn’t dwell.

In life, nothing dwells. The wind blows and then stops. The blossoms burst forth and then fall. Things come and go. The melody drifts back onto an aching E-flat and then back to E again. The song of your life is played on white and black keys.

I won’t linger but I am likely to post again about sadness as a cornerstone of Buddhism, as an essential truth of human life. I won’t dwell. I won’t build a hut. Promise me you won’t build one either. Not while the song is still playing.

The Zen bookshelf

“I do not say that there is no Zen, but that there is no Zen teacher.” – Zen koan

Awhile ago I tumbled onto a blogger’s review of Momma Zen. I say “tumbled” because the writer didn’t share my elevated view of my work, and I fell down hard. She found the book a wee bit lacking and lamented that she didn’t learn anything new, finally confessing that she viewed mothers like me with half-pity, half-scorn.

The thing is, she was right about everything, even the pity part, because I bet even you pity me now.

Most people approach Buddhism the way they approach everything else: venturing only so far. They want to investigate, read, discuss and cogitate. They want to “wrap their minds around it.” This is precisely why I don’t play tennis. This is precisely why we don’t do most things.

But Zen isn’t like that, and reading a Zen book, a real Zen book, isn’t going to teach you anything new. It is going to reveal what you already know, the wisdom that you instantly recognize but have long since forgotten. When you read it, you won’t feel like you acquired anything at all, but rather like you dropped a lot of unnecessary stuff. Your breathing will relax and your tensions, ease. A good Zen book does all this by being about nothing at all.

So this weekend I want to leave you with a nice, empty bookshelf: a selection of contemporary and classic readings that I recommend. I do this as a gift to you and as recompense for the blind faith repeatedly misplaced in me by my publisher.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This book is like a song; it’s like a whisper. The edited transcriptions of Suzuki Roshi’s talks are effortless and spare. Zen hors d’oeuvres they are, and yet somehow a complete meal.

Writing Down the Bones. Show me a writer without this on the shelf. Now show me the writer who truly appreciates how Natalie Goldberg applies the inscrutable words of her Zen teacher to her life and art. You be the one.

Letters to a Young Poet. This slim classic bears re-reading, especially if you find yourself still chasing the idea of a perfect life. Rilke is haunting as he speaks of true love as the mutual gift of solitude. It is startling to hear this from a die-hard romantic, and this makes him a must-read in the pantheon of inadvertent Zen masters.

Appreciate Your Life. My first teacher Maezumi Roshi never wrote a book. He never felt ready to add anything to the titanic body of Zen commentary. He was that wise. Before he died he cautioned me that his teachings were being editorially intellectualized, but this book offers the only way to hear the depth and nuance of his voice.

Tao te Ching. There are nearly 50 translations of the Tao te Ching out there to choose from. You can look or you can find. This ancient Chinese verse will help you locate your hara, the center of your being, because when you read it, the words will fall all the way down to your gut and echo back up again. Taoism is Zen’s cousin, inextricably akin, hence the striking family resemblance.

Finally, I am happy to reveal the winner of this week’s random drawing of commenters, as chosen by my able, honest and blind-folded assistant, Georgia. Marta will be receiving one of the first copies of The Best Buddhist Writing of 2007 as soon as I get one and I can inscribe it inscrutably. That will easily make her one of the best-read non-Buddhists on the block, which is naturally worth nothing at all.

Thank you all for a week of eloquence and honesty. Your attention is love, and I return it in full.


Peace at last

Jizo asked Hogen, “Where have you come from?” “I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Hogen. – Zen koan

You might have wondered where we were going to end up this week with this conversation of ours. Just so you know, I never have any idea. So much of the motion in my posts comes from you, from what you say here and what some of you say elsewhere. This aimlessness is a wonderful new practice for me; trust me when I say that it you are showing me amazing new worlds, opening a deeper level of trust and exhilaration in this life we share, because everything seems to come together in the end.

When I started posting on Sunday night about the question of whether parenthood, or motherhood in particular, was a job or a relationship, you might have noticed that I tagged every post “Mommy Wars.” That was intentional, even though I never seemed to touch on it in so many words. I certainly didn’t mean to imply there was a war between mothers or to incite one. We all know there is no such thing, the words being just another method the media use to pressure cook the news on an otherwise placid day.

I was referring to the other war: the war we have with ourselves anytime we divide our lives into opposing parcels, into either and or, this or that, which or what. We all, each of us, wages a ceaseless battle with ourselves, undermining our choices, ambushing our instincts, dreading that the wrong move made long ago has already set in motion our certain, future defeat. We are our own worst enemy; in most cases, we are our only enemy. And we’re all so tired of the fight.

Make peace. Be free. Call your life whatever you like. You own the world you occupy, and you’re doing a beautiful job. Remember, everything comes together in the end.

Tomorrow this week’s winner in the comment pool is revealed, along with a flurry of priceless consolations!

Somebody’s got to do it


That’s how I feel whenever there’s a bag of chips in the house. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

We’re looking this week at our lives as parents and whether we call that a job or a relationship. Last weekend while I was on retreat, I did quite a bit of introspection on the ultimate truth of our existence (translation: wondering what’s for dinner) and what I came up with was this recipe:

Life is a Five Layer Bean Dip

Everything you do well requires these ingredients.

Attention – Giving undistracted attention to what appears in front of you. If you are only paying attention to your thoughts and feelings, that is fantasy. Fantasy is what is far away. Fantasy jobs and relationships are the easiest to maintain, because they don’t have the sticky stuff of:

Proximity – Showing up, shoulder to shoulder and hand to hand. This can be uncomfortable at times. And because a lot of the time we have a lot of reasons we’d rather be somewhere else, we have to make a:

Commitment – We can quit anything, and we will. There are even ways to opt-out of parenthood in one way or the other. To keep showing up requires:

Self-discipline – The will to get out of bed. To overcome inertia. To transcend self-interest and delay gratification, which isn’t delayed forever, but eventually comes in one of the many faces of:

Love – Sometimes it’s a direct deposit into your bank account, sometimes a pat on the back, sometimes a burp, a smile or a cuddle. Love is currency, the only currency in the universe. The more you give (at work, they don’t use the l-word, they call this passion), the more you receive in return. What I’ve noticed is that love is nothing but attention, and that brings us neatly back around to a bottomless bowl of bean dip.

Now when you take your tortilla chip and dive in, you don’t just scrape the sour cream off the top. Oh no, you don’t just extract the beans in the center. You can’t! You go for the whole thing at once. It’s all one thing: the flavors intermingled, the textures combined, the taste complete. You swallow it whole, or at least I do, in about 15 minutes.

Although there are many ingredients in your life, with many names, you only have one life. It’s you! Every relationship is you, every job is you, the salsa and cheese are you! Somebody lives your life, somebody eats every bit of it, and it can only be you. Your only job is to have an intimate relationship with yourself, and the more you do, the more you’ll enhance your life and everything in it. You’ll see that there is no separation between job and relationship. They are just words for you, who happens to be hungry right now.

A final desperate prod to elicit your erudite comment and thereby up your chance to own an as-yet unpublished dustcatcher volume that I will further adorn with the nib of my 99-cent Pilot finepoint before expressing to our lucky winner drawn at the end of the week!

The problem is


So while I’m busily non-thinking about this question of whether motherhood is a job or a relationship during my silent meditation retreat last weekend, I remembered what my husband said recently as he glanced over my sagging shoulders:

“The problem is, you spend too much time doing things that don’t pay.” Meaning, I guess, teaching meditation and yoga, volunteering and writing the things I most love to write, including this blog. But not meaning, I presume, taking care of our house, yard, dog and daughter, because at least to him that is my job. (To be fair, he was being supportive, and given the source of my discouragement, accurate.)

“The problem is,” I think in quick retort, “you don’t.” Meaning his absence of hours, days, nights and vast distances, whether miles away or just on the computer at home, working, always only working apart from the rest of us. I’m reluctant to recognize even for a moment that his job also provides him with a whole world of companionable and rewarding relationships.

So where exactly does the distinction occur? Where, as Kathryn and Chris commented yesterday, is there a line drawn between jobs and relationships and how does it get there? This question matters, because most of the time, we see our life delineated into little sections. There’s a job over here, and a relationship over there. There’s work, and there’s family, and then there’s everything else, each with its own time, place, name, definition, merit and value. All these jillion pieces seem to jostle and compete with each other, confounding us, like a jigsaw puzzle that won’t fit.

And so then, completely immersed in the oceanic no-mind of deep, wordless meditation, I made a list in my head of the essential components of relationships, I mean jobs, I mean well, you know what I mean.

After investing hours in this invigorating internal debate with myself, recalling and reliving the discussions of days and even months earlier, I said to myself, admittedly self-satisfied, from the profound state of unutterable egolessness, “See Karen, meditation really works for you!”

I will share the list with you tomorrow when I hope to remember the darn thing.

And as a gentle reminder, every time you comment this week your name will be entered in a drawing to win a paperweight provocative prize. I promise you this prize is not something you have; it is not something anyone yet has, not even me, and I have grave doubts that anyone would even want it. Good luck!

Mom: are you a job or a relationship?


I’ve just come from a weekend retreat so I’m feeling frisky and ready to mix things up.

The always energetic and informative Amy Tiemann of Mojo Mom had a post awhile back (waaay back in January) about whether motherhood was a job or a relationship. She came down convincingly on the side of relationship.

Now this is precisely the kind of thing that can set our heads to bobbling. Is it this way or is it that way? Are we one thing or the other? I want to take a look this week at how we deal with this question – how we see ourselves and the life that lies before us.

So tell me: is motherhood a job or a relationship? There are plenty of good arguments on either side. You don’t need to be a mother to have an opinion. Just tell me where you stand. Weigh in on any of our conversations this week, starting now, and you’ll be entered to win a doorstop an intriguing gift at week’s end. Keep the comments coming. I can be influenced by your effort, swayed by your attention, and romanced by having you near.

But wait – I reveal too much.

Let the bobbling begin.

The last word on happiness

Buddha held out a flower to his listeners. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile.

– Zen koan

Get it?!

I’ll spell it out for you: 🙂

If you’re out of practice, this could help.

Happy now

two-scoops-sugar-cone“Momma, are you happy now?”
– A certain pipsqueak

Someday, I will write a book about happiness. Oh wait, I already did, in a roundabout way.

This week I’ve joined the chattering class, the quotable notables, who make their life’s work out of happiness. Three days and I’m nearly done. I don’t quite understand how anyone can make their life’s work out of it. I don’t know how you can make a project out of something that takes less than an instant. You can make a project out of writing a book. You can make a project out of writing about writing a book. But happiness itself takes no time at all because we possess it already.

But let’s clarify what we call happiness. Let’s get wise to it. Let’s discern the difference between pleasure, which is sensory and fleeting, like an ice cream cone, and happiness, which is our fundamental nature, like an ice cream factory. Let’s not confuse the double scoop, which is temporary, with its source, which operates 24/7. So let’s call the factory of happiness by a different name (choose any or all): joy, contentment, satisfaction, bliss. Put your name on it. It’s you.

You can make your life’s work out of finding pleasure (and we do). It takes up your whole life because pleasure doesn’t last, there’s never enough, it takes a lot of work, and I can guarantee it doesn’t satisfy. You keep running around, making lists, checking them twice, trying one thing and then the other to produce the feeling of pleasure. Now maybe this pleasure isn’t tied up in a fancy house or jet skis. Maybe it’s just the feeling of being “better” or “good enough.” What a terrific feeling! That doesn’t last either, and how I wish it did! This is not a contemporary problem. Remember how the founding fathers called it the “pursuit of happiness?” That’s what human life consists of. A pursuit of something rarely found and never kept, but still, we’d all prefer to be free to keep looking fruitlessly.

When you stop pursuing and settle where you are, when you smooth your brow and unclench your knuckles, when you give yourself a break from finding the next, next, next great thing, your lucky day, the open sesame, the magic flute, when your little one looks into your haunted eyes, your perpetual frown, and asks “Are you happy now?” all you have to do is say “Yes.”

Say yes.

And then you can all go out for ice cream and be happy six ways ’til Sunday.

Could it really be that simple? Tomorrow I’ll give you one more clue.

This is the third in a series of posts on happiness. If you haven’t read the first two, look here and here or just keep scrolling down.

Picking and choosing

If you wish to know the truth, then hold to no opinions for or against anything.
– Seng-tsan

A reader wisely pointed out in yesterday’s comments that the things I identify as my sources of unhappiness are probably also my sources of happiness. Exactly! I alone choose how to view them: as a plus or a minus, a keeper or a weeper. That choice changes all the time. I’m forever judging every aspect of my life. As I make those determinations, I’m using what we in Zen call “the picking and choosing” mind. The deliberative, evaluative, ruminating mind. I’m particularly fond of this mind. This is the mind that each of us calls “myself” because it is the mind that we use to talk to ourselves.

This is the voice that pipes up and says, “This is good. I like this. I’m happy.” Or that might say, even about the very same circumstance that once gave me pleasure, “This is not good. I’m tired of it. I’m not happy.” Very often, nothing has changed about the circumstance but my determination of it. One time my mom let me eat a whole bowl of whipped cream to my heart’s content. (I think she knew what she was doing.) I ate myself sick and I never liked it again. The whipped cream didn’t change. My view of it did.

In Buddhism, we call this endless cycle of like, dislike, good, bad, up, down, happy, sad, hot cold, in, out samsara. There’s nothing new about it, even though it might seem like we’ve become particularly aggrieved with our lives lately. There has never been a human being who lived anywhere else but samsara. But we can escape it, and we do, whenever we don’t pick or choose. Now I don’t mean that we go brain-dead. That we can’t tell right from left or our arms from our legs. I just mean that we stop blaming the whipped cream.

There’s a survey published every year by the very smart people at the Harris Poll that tells us The Most Popular Places People Would Choose to Live. Reading the poll, you might surmise that – no surprise – the most popular places to live are California, Florida and Hawaii. But then I noticed the question that they ask people. They don’t ask, “Where would you choose to live?” No, they ask “Where, except where you live now, would you choose to live?” At first I wondered why they asked it that way. Then I realized that if they asked the first question they might not have a poll at all. Perhaps people would say, “You know, I’m just fine right where I am.” I’ve lived a lot of places, and the thing is, my home is always my home. The poll question is nothing but a grass-is-greener question. It’s a pick-and-choose question. It’s a “Gee, come to think of it, I’m sick of whipped cream” question.

My first teacher Maezumi Roshi was famous for saying simply, “Appreciate your life.” He didn’t mean conjure up some contrived sentiment of gratitude, or humility, or abundance about your life. He didn’t mean count your blessings. He meant don’t count anything. He meant don’t pick and choose. Make your life your life and swallow it whole. When you do that, things have a way of getting happier right quick.

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