Posts Tagged ‘Compassion’

freedom dreams

June 10th, 2020    -    5 Comments

The dreams go like this: I board an airplane and soon after we take off there is a loud boom like a shotgun blast from behind me. We are going down. Or I’m on some kind of a boat that I need to get off of but my baggage is below deck. I run through dark corridors to find my things but they are lost and we are sinking. Or my plane is in the air but I look down and see that we are flying impossibly low over roads and trees, just a few hundred feet off the ground, veering around buildings that tower above us, and I know I won’t survive.

I wake and wonder if I’m having these dreams because I need to get out of the house after three months of confinement. That it’s the virus, the president, the police, the social upheaval, the chaos that haunts these futile efforts to flee.

But then I realize the share of humanity whose dreams are not like mine at all. Their nightmares are lived in broad daylight, their faith and solace shattered every moment by the failed promise of freedom, safety, and belonging.

I’m only beginning to wake up.

***

Friends helped put together this list of Fiction to Change Minds, a selection of powerful novels that help us see the truth beyond our own. Whether you are a reader or a writer, a student or a teacher, it’s a way and a place to start.

Photo by Yulia Agnis on Unsplash

the urgent work of crying in the night

June 1st, 2020    -    2 Comments

The Urgent Work of Crying in the Night dharma talk

finding heart

May 27th, 2020    -    5 Comments

Through the process of sitting still and following your breath, you are connecting with your heart.

Luckily, one day I read this line in a book. It changed my life forever.

It was from a passage in Chögyam Trungpa’s book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. At the time I found it, it was an odd and unlikely thing for me to read. I wasn’t religious; I possessed no spiritual inclinations and had no curiosity about deep things. I didn’t feel like a warrior and had no path. The book had simply fallen into my hands during a desperate time, the contours of which are not too different from today. My world had fallen apart, leaving my mind tormented and my spirit broken. Lonely, depressed, and despairing of fulfillment in either work or relationships, I was looking for something to keep me moving forward into the long shadows of uncertainty. I needed a reason to live.

Without knowing it, the thing I was looking for was my own heart. And here was a stranger telling me how to find it: be still and listen.

The sitting practice of meditation is the means to rediscover basic goodness, and beyond that, it is the means to awaken this genuine heart within yourself.

For all our self-involvement, most of us remain wholly unfamiliar with who and what we really are. Sure, we know well our stories of shame and inadequacy; self-pity, grievance and grudge; desire and attachment. We know our faults and failures. But we may remain blind to the pure marvel of our being, the mystery of breath, and the miracle of our bodies. We may not notice the constancy of the earth and sky that sustain this life, or the sun, water and food that nourish us. Indifferent to the basic goodness of what we already have, it’s not surprising that we feel the aching absence of what cannot be found or filled from outside. How can we see this for ourselves?

By simply letting yourself be, as you are, you develop genuine sympathy toward yourself.

People quibble about the various methods and benefits of meditation, but what shouldn’t be overlooked is the power of the posture itself. Sitting upright, anchored on the ground and supported by the spine, we embody dignity, self-discipline and personal responsibility. At the same time, we are soft, open and vulnerable. With face forward and chest open, we present a self that is undiminished and undefended, completely engaged with reality. We no longer feel the need to hide what we are or pose as something we aren’t. We accept ourselves. Amid worry and sadness, loss and pain, we awaken our own heart of compassion. Now we have something to live for: doing good.

You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.

It is a difficult time to believe in the promise of this ancient practice. Many of us confront circumstances more dire than at any other time in our lives: an entirely unknowable world. Expectations are fruitless. Hope may be pointless. A future once so blithely envisioned will never be. And yet, there is nothing more vital to humankind at this hour than human connection. It is a time for genuine fearlessness and the compassion that rises from it. This is the path of a bodhisattva, opening our eyes to a world in need, and seeing the infinite, ordinary ways we can care for others. This alone will heal us. This alone will last. And we can begin to do it today.

Photo by Sarah Ball on Unsplash

serve literally everyone

May 4th, 2020    -    No Comments

This is the door to the hospital. The ER is what faces the community. I grew up seeing that there was a need, and I wanted to be in the part of the hospital that serves literally everyone. — Dr. Yvette Calderon, chair of emergency medicine, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City, in The New Yorker

Each day I am inspired by the kindness that comes my way, and awed by the selfless service in places I hope to never be. So here I am, keeping the door open and sharing what I can: two new dharma talks on responding to this world of suffering.

An Abundance of Compassion, April 26
Time to Give, May 3

the covid improvisations

April 20th, 2020    -    2 Comments

A month ago when the big one hit and the world shook loose, communities began to gather online. That’s when I started offering weekly zazen and dharma talks to the group of students around the country with whom I practice regularly. The talks are recorded and publicly available, but I am posting them here so you won’t have to go looking. Each talk is 20-30 minutes and informal, arising from the mood of the moment. They are arranged here chronologically, but you can play them in any order that strikes you. Just to pause for that long and listen could keep you afloat.

On my site, you’ll see embedded players below. If you receive my blog via email without the embedded players, the links to each talk are here:

Peace Is All That’s Left, March 29
We’re All Hermits Now, April 5
Beyond Stress & Anxiety, April 12
Breathing Makes Beautiful Sense, April 19

Above photo by Sam Wermut on Unsplash



just give yourself

March 26th, 2020    -    15 Comments

On a walk around town yesterday, I passed a house with glitter-painted rocks lined up along the sidewalk. It looked like a cute way to jazz up a yard, but then I saw the hand-lettered sign taped to a nearby telephone pole.

Adopt a Rock!
(I promise they’ve been Lysoled)

On the way back home, I passed the house again. It didn’t look like any rocks had been taken, despite the invitation. I intended to take one, but then I took two because I couldn’t choose. Plus, I didn’t want to be stingy with the adoption. I have the room to foster a lot of rocks! After I finish jotting this down I’ll take them outside for a photo so you can appreciate them. Like the rest of us, rocks want to be seen, touched, and heard. They want to belong.

We’re all trying to reach out these days even though we can’t really reach out. The Italians set the bar with their sunset serenades across deserted streets. Every evening in Madrid, people throw open their windows and give a round of applause for healthcare workers. Musicians share mini iPhone concerts. A neighbor down the street gives away painted rocks, and me, I do this thing with words.

I’ve been writing quite a bit, in case you’ve noticed. A few years ago I lost interest in it. Writing about kids, or about Zen, or about trees, pets or plants just seemed like a blabbering conceit. I couldn’t stand the sound of myself anymore. After suffering enough pain and penury from publishing I told my Zen teacher I was going to stop writing. He chuckled.

What are you going to do then, he asked. Write?

He had me there. Writing isn’t a matter of what you write about, or who you write it for, and certainly not about praise or profit. Writing is just writing, like a rock is just a rock, and it’s a fine offering, a simple medicine that restores our common humanity while jazzing up the yard.

If you’re sitting at home like I am, wondering what you are supposed to give to a world ravaged by pain and terror, just give yourself. That’s the most beautiful thing.

after the winds

February 9th, 2020    -    9 Comments

Last Sunday evening the wind picked up until it rose into a roaring gale of flying limbs and leaves and it didn’t stop for two days. These are the Santa Ana winds, downslope desert gusts that can rage any time of year, a hated harbinger of force and flame. When the calm finally descended I was sunk as low as yard waste. There would be days of work ahead, hard work, yet knowing that the labor would somehow save me, I went out back and started dragging broken branches into mounds. I’d already quit when I heard a blower out front but I didn’t think it could be in my yard because our gardener Tomas wasn’t due for another two days. But lo, it was him, breezing through heaps of fallen leaves and needles as if parting a sea.

Tomas once told me that he’d worked here since he was 15, and somehow we figured out we were the same age. I’m a late beginner to this life’s work, but he abides my interference. No matter what you think of the racket, those blowers can tidy up a mess, so when Tomas left after an hour, my mind was lighter. A little later I brought a folded slip of paper in from the mailbox:

Dear Customer,

I will be going out of town for a family emergency. I will be out for a week. Sorry for any inconvenience, and thank you for understanding.

It was from Tomas. He’d be driving to Mexico and back, and he’d delayed the emergency to swing by, leave this note, and do what he could to ease my way. I marveled at his goodness. Then I realized that even after 48 years, he’d be afraid his job could disappear in a sudden gust.

It was a hard week all over, or so I heard from folks. Kids are sick or sad; the old and young are dying; the world, so dark and doomed that we are afraid to look ahead. I can’t do much for those in trouble, but I try to ease the way.

Around here now, the paths are swept, the ponds are clear, and all the things that fell or broke are stacked in piles four feet high. We go on, you see. We get through. The way forward is hardly ever what we want to do or where we want to go, but it brings us back.

Thank you for understanding. Understanding each other goes a long way.

***

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

spring and fall

April 18th, 2019    -    10 Comments

“No matter how much the spring wind loves the fragrance, the beauty and the delicacy of the blossom, the same wind that caresses the blossom sets the blossom free. And so we see that. We feel that. This is what life brings to us: spring and fall, the bloom and the faded bloom.

The boundless ocean of love encompasses everything—the rise and the fall. We can know the infinite comfort of love and still grieve. And still be terrified! We can be unafraid to be terrified. We can be unhindered by grief.”

Dedicated to my faithful dog Molly, 2001-2019

An excerpt from Closing Remarks at the Spring Wind Zen Retreat on April 14, 2019. Listen in full using the player shown below, or at this link.

Photo by Robbin Huang on Unsplash

raising your child to be

January 30th, 2019    -    8 Comments

Years ago after Hand Wash Cold came out, I traveled around to people’s homes and gave talks about the book. I called it my Kitchen Table Tour. Folks all over the country were kind enough to host me for a gathering of their friends and sometimes even let me, a complete stranger, spend the night.

I visited a home in Silicon Valley where I gave a short reading and then took questions. One guest quickly raised her hand. I noticed that she’d brought her own copy of the book, which was plastered with sticky notes. She’d done her homework. There was a particular passage that provoked her question. It was the part about how my husband loads the dishwasher differently than I do, and that the way I’d dealt with his unorthodoxy was to just re-wash the dishes, if they needed it, in the morning. Specifically what I’d written was this:

The miracle does not occur in the machine. The miracle does not occur in the second wash. The miracle occurs when I don’t say a word about it.

Why couldn’t I just teach my husband how to load the dishwasher correctly? she asked, adding that she had two sons and she fully intended to raise them knowing the right way to load the dishwasher.

I can understand that way of thinking. We want people to do things the right way, which is often our way, so they will be coequal to household tasks and other critical competencies. Why would we waste the opportunity to produce better, smarter people? It makes perfect sense, so I knew my answer wouldn’t satisfy her.

Because I already know how to end a marriage, and I need to learn how to keep one. 

I think about this episode when I see someone write about what they are raising their children “to be.” Aren’t we all raising our children to be something better? You bet. It’s a fill-in-the-blank kind of thing. We might be trying to raise children to be kind, honest, self-reliant, or emotionally resilient. A loyal friend, a compassionate listener, a good citizen. Raising sons to respect women or raising daughters to respect themselves. We have all kinds of worthy ambitions for our children, I won’t deny that. But how do we teach that? By edict, insistence or imposition? I’d answered that question before too, in Momma Zen, and it might not be satisfying.

My child will do what I do and say what I say, but she will never, without coercion, do what I say.

The answer is that I have to be what needs to be. I have to be honest, self-reliant, and resilient. I have to be patient, tolerant, and optimistic. I have to be open and encouraging. A good listener and a devoted friend. Strong, brave, and self-respecting. I have to be that for her, even now, especially now that she’s gone.

These days when she writes to me, which isn’t often, she says more or less the same thing: that I’ve shown her what a strong and intelligent woman looks like. Here’s how I would answer that.

Not quite yet, but don’t give up on me, and I won’t give up on you.

 

caring letters

November 24th, 2018    -    5 Comments

When he was 23, Jerome Motto led an Army truck regiment in World War II. He drove through mile after mile of devastation, surrounded by enemy fire and praying that he and his 39 men would be safe. His prayers were answered with the occasional cargo drop bringing food, supplies, and the one thing he would later credit for keeping him alive—letters.

There was a day last week when I looked at the papers strewn across my desk and thought, “What a good day.” I had just opened and read three letters: one each from Illinois, Wisconsin and northern California. It isn’t such a strange thing for me to receive or send letters. One or the other happens several times a week. Hearing recently that the Forever stamp would go up by five cents at the end of January, I bought three sheets on Monday. These days, stamps feel like the only investment that will pay off.

Jerome Motto got letters from his family, of course. They wrote about their worry and hardships, and wished he would write back more often. He felt sad and guilty that he couldn’t help them. Surprisingly, the letters he most looked forward to were from a woman he’d met but barely remembered. She wrote about commonplace things, he said, like weather and songs on the radio, and she kept writing whether he did or not. He felt a connection. She was interested; she cared. And although he wondered what might come of their friendship, nothing did. He survived the war, living another 60 years without ever seeing her again.

Two years ago I invited people to write to me, promising that I would respond. The world seemed broken. We were disconnected, alienated and at war. At first, a lot of letters came. And then, as you’d expect, enthusiasm waned. I know: it’s hard to keep correspondence going. I never meant to imply that people could only communicate with me by letter, but there is something intimate about putting words on paper, folding and creasing, then closing, addressing, stamping and posting the envelope. It is personal. It is a person.

I have a thing about letters.

After the war, Motto became a psychiatrist. He happened to read an authoritative paper suggesting that the most disturbed patients could be helped by a feeling of connection to another person. So he came up with a research project. He and his staff would interview patients being discharged from a psychiatric hospital—3,000 in all—and half of them would be sent a series of letters—24 letters over five years—asking how they were doing. The letters were simple and short, intended to create a sense of kinship as if sent by a friend.

The results were dramatic. The suicide rate among the “contact group,” those receiving letters, was half that of the control group to which no letters were sent. The lower incidence continued even after the letters had stopped. His was the first experiment to ever show a decline in suicide rates. But still, not many people ever found out about the work.

Around the time the bounty of letters landed on my desk, I read about Jerome Motto and the legacy of his letters in this in-depth article. After you read it in full, you might reflect on yourself and the people in your life. Should you ever feel alone and in despair, perhaps a caring letter will come. Or perhaps you will send one. Either way works.

 

finding a life

November 18th, 2018    -    2 Comments

You must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it. But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong. — Wendell Berry

This week, should you travel far or close, join the table as a guest or host, may you find your life in all those things to which you belong. And in a quiet hour, perhaps you’ll listen to this. I am grateful to have something to share with you. Thank you for fulfilling my life.

Karen Maezen Miller: Finding a Life podcast

doing something

September 29th, 2018    -    9 Comments

 

Last night I said a service, or chant, invoking compassion and healing for 150 victims of sexual assault. These are our daughters, sisters, mothers, sons, brothers, and, yes, mostly ourselves. After the convulsive end to Thursday’s Senate hearing, I felt like I’d been run over and left for dead. Women were not going to heard or believed. Nothing would ever change. Then I remembered what my teacher said about those times when we think we can do nothing: We can always do something. I asked for the names of sexual assault victims from among my friends on Facebook, and before the sun went down, I lit incense and chanted their names, or for privacy, their initials.

Christine Blasey Ford changed everything on Thursday. Maybe not in the way I thought at first. Maybe not in the way I’d hoped after her painfully honest answers. Beforehand, one expert said she needed to appear unassailable to be a good witness. When I was live-streaming the hearing first thing in the morning, my husband passed by. “How’s she doing? Is she good?” And I said no, she’s not good. She’s nervous. She’s wounded. Her voice is high and cracking. She sounds like a 15-year-old. When she told the prosecutor how the experience had affected the rest of her life—the anxiety, phobias and panic attacks—I recognized the voice.

It was the voice of a girl crying late one summer night about what a boy had forced her to do. Her fear and shame after. Feeling ugly, unwanted, and abnormal. The self-harming, anxiety and panic attacks. No longer belonging. Unable to trust. Being so different than she used to be, with no idea who she was supposed to be.

I hadn’t really put it together until Dr. Ford spoke. I hadn’t known it was one true thing: the trauma of being physically overpowered and dehumanized.

By now I’ve also seen the very same person do brave and big things, finding the seed of faith in herself. I’ve seen her give her whole heart to what she loves, and surprise everyone with her secret strength.

In the U.S., 30 percent of women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Today it feels like 100 percent.

No matter how many, no matter how few, no matter how long, no matter how little, we are the 100 percent. And we can always do something.

Photo by Daniel Jensen

where the fun stops

July 11th, 2018    -    7 Comments

Two years ago we took a summer vacation to Hawaii. Nowadays weather is unpredictable all over, and here it was unseasonably wet. Roads flooded and bridges washed out. One day the clouds lifted. Housebound and bored, we signed up for a kayaking tour that would have us paddling up a river and hiking to a waterfall.

The guide told us that because of the rain, this was the first day in a week that any boats had gone out. When we launched, the river was wide and placid. About two miles in, we pulled out to start the hike. They gave us sandwiches and cold drinks for a picnic in the shade. Then they told us that to start on the trail, we had to cross a ford over slippery rocks in high water with a churning current by holding onto a rope. We’d have to do the same on the way out. There was no way around it.

For some of us, this is where the fun stopped.

I spent last weekend sitting with a group of people in Cincinnati. Anyone who has ever been on a meditation retreat knows that the principal reason you come to sit, whether you realize it or not, is because life is difficult. Sure, meditation helps you focus and calm down. But no one with a half-opened eye comes to Zen just to chill out, be a better person, or get more out of life. This was never clearer to me than when folks began to tell me their troubles. Inside this silent room, amid a rainbow of stained glass, illuminated with the dappled daylight of the glistening garden beyond, disease was spreading, surgeries were pending, marriages were ending, parents and partners had perished, children were stumbling, money was scarce, worry was rampant, and fear flooded our hearts. The sky was falling and the earth was burning. Up ahead, the current was swirling.

Knowing what we know—the swiftness of change—and what we don’t—the miles of uncertainty ahead—how do we live?

There’s a rope over the river and we cross it together.

The rope is love. Take it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat in Upstate New York
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center, Batavia NY
Register here

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