Posts Tagged ‘Kindness’

coming home grateful

May 21st, 2015    -    1 Comment
COME-HOME

 

Not long ago, the artist and writer Susa Talan contacted me with what has become an unusual courtesy: asking permission. She was assembling a small book of her drawings to illustrate things she was grateful for, especially as they arose in her daily life. She had come upon some stray words of mine she wished to include. Was that possible?

I said yes. Saying yes is itself the practice of being grateful for what appears.

Now the book is all done, a collection of simple, daily reminders to be kind, to feel something directly and not just think about it. It is called Wear Gratitude (Like a Sweater). This is how Susa explains the title:

“If I wear gratitude, it means that I carry it with me, and I’m surrounded by an outlook that says, There are so many reasons to be grateful and notice the good.”

Her intention reminds me of something we say every morning in formal Zen practice. After the sun rises during dawn meditation, we repeat an old chant called the Verse of the Kesa, which means verse of the robe. At this point, some people put on their rakusu, which is a bib worn by lay practitioners, or an okesa, which is the sari that priests wear over their robes. Even if you don’t wear either of those things you’ll say the verse just the same. Long or short, on a priest or a plumber, what you wear — head, toe, earth, sky — adorns the Buddha, the awakened mind. The whole universe is your sweater.

Vast is the robe of liberation.
A formless field of benefaction.
I wear the Tathagata’s teaching.
Saving all sentient beings. 

It is a song of love, a vow to transform our habits of greed, anger, and ignorance into a selfless field of compassion. Not by just saying it, but by wearing it. Not by just thinking it, but by doing it. Not by just wanting it, but by being it.

These days, what used to be called “common courtesies” are few and far between. Person-to-person, face-to-face connections are rare. More and more it seems like a sterile and distant world, where blessings are hard to find. But home is always closer than you think, and gratitude is the warmth you find just by looking inside.

Copies of the book, along with Susa’s charming cards, prints and calendars, are available in her Etsy Shop. Right now she’s offering everyone 10% off anything and everything using the promo code: GRATITUDE2015

Illustration © Susa Talan

shoveling gutters

February 22nd, 2015    -    11 Comments

18335467I’m biding my time today until the sun is higher in the sky, the air warms a bit, and I can get out and clean the rain gutters. This is a chore that stands in for all the snow shoveling that might go on where you live. It is a solitary job. No one but me notices that it is time to do it. No one but me will do it. It does not diminish me. On the contrary, cleaning the gutters will give me power and purpose, direction and rhythm: spiritual guidance that doesn’t come when I spend the day merely thinking about what I could be doing, say, tomorrow.

My dear and sensitive friend Katrina Kenison recently sent me a marvelous book, out of the blue, which is what makes something a gift, descending like a bird into your hand from who-knows-where, a memoir by Mary Rose O’Reilley, a poet and author hitherto unknown to me, who once apprenticed herself to a sheep farm. Going to work every day in a barn made no sense in a literal way, her lofty mind knowing nothing about sheep or lambing or castration or shearing or sudden virulent sickness and death, any of the activities that make up the muddy substance of a sheep farm. Perhaps she had an inkling that the experience would spiritually ground her, rescue her from the reaches of her poetic inclinations, and it did. The farm rescued her, and reading about it rescued me too.

I haul the ladder from the garage and put on oversized gloves. I always start by using a trowel to dig out the gutters but before long I’ll pitch the gloves and tool because they don’t quite get at the depth of the matter, the sweet oozing muck, the marriage of last summer’s dust, wind-brittled leaves and December’s forgotten rain. You have to use your hands.

Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel greatly alone and sad. Especially these days, I have to remind myself that I keep company with the earth and sky, and that I alone mother the myriad things in-between. That I am a farmer and a friend, and still an apprentice at both. I have to come back to this wholesome earth and shepherd myself in the best way I can. That’s about the time a gift arrives, and I am saved.

The ladder is shaky because at no spot around this house, which sits on a mountain, is the ground level. I’m not afraid. This old path is muddy, but my aim is straight, and maybe I’ll see a bird.

Going out now.

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how to peel an orange

February 6th, 2015    -    2 Comments

Grandpa showed me how to peel an orange.

Hold the fruit in one hand and the pocketknife in the other.

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First, score a circle in the rind around the navel below and the stem on top.

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Draw the blade down the sides in vertical strokes all around the whole, no deeper than the skin, an inch between each cut. Be careful. Go slow. Do not harm the flesh.

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Lift off the top and bottom pieces.

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Pull each section of rind away from the fruit. It will come easily, and with it, the pith.

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Wedge your thumb into the center and splay the fruit wide open.

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There will be ten or so segments—enough to share.

Once you taste the living truth, you are never again fooled by the imitation flavored drink in a carton.

A lesson from my garden to yours, via my newest book,  Paradise in Plain Sight. Order signed copies of all my books here.

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rules for a mindful garden

December 9th, 2014    -    1 Comment

rules for a mindful garden

Available as a print by visiting here.

the truth about lying

March 9th, 2014    -    3 Comments

buddha

Or, what a buddha does not say.

An untroubled mind,
No longer seeking to consider
What is right and what is wrong,
A mind beyond judgments,
Watches and understands.
— The Dhammapada

Why would a Buddhist have to think twice about lying? Admittedly, lying is disagreeable. If we don’t agree on that, there’s no sense having a conversation about honesty. “Right speech” is codified into the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s teaching on the way out of suffering. It’s there in black and white: “Don’t lie.”

Only it’s not black and white and it’s doesn’t say that. The “right” in right speech (and each element of the path) does not mean the opposite of “wrong.” It is not a dualistic comparison. Right speech is whole, perfected, wise, skillful, appropriate, necessary, and non-divisive. That’s a lot of words to describe the language that arises out of the nondistracted awareness of your awakened mind, free of judgments about this or that, right and wrong, if and when, you and me. That’s why right speech is so often expressed by silence.

The Abhaya Sutra categorizes what a buddha does not say:

1. Words known to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others.

2. Words known to be factual, true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others.

3. Words known to be factual, true, beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, because it is not yet the proper time to say them.

4. Words known to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.

5. Words known to be factual, true, but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.

Right speech is not only a lesson in how to speak. It is an admonition to practice: to watch and wait until the mind opens and intuitive wisdom finds its own compassionate expression. In the real world, abstract discussion about honesty doesn’t go far enough, because living beings are not abstractions. That’s the most inconvenient truth of all.

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
Then you can care for all things.
— Tao Te Ching

why you need a teacher

January 7th, 2014    -    9 Comments

I stayed home in my pajamas this morning filling out forms. My daughter has decided to apply to private high schools and I’m only now realizing what that entails. Rather a lot of forms and questions and tests and interviews, many benefactors, and a slate of events rich with expectation and anxiety.

I support her in this effort unreservedly. After nine years as a precocious public school student, she makes her case convincingly.

“I need a teacher,” she says.

And it is true that since those sweet years in the lower grades when she positioned herself wide-eyed and smiling at the front of a room of darling children, she has been squashed and lost in a class of 41 high-testing kids on whom the burden of excellence is placed without concomitant resources: without time or attention; absent relationship; void of eye contact; empty of personal encouragement; and even shy of enough books, tables and chairs. Not every student appreciates a teacher in the same way, but my daughter says she does and so I stayed home in my pajamas today.

A teacher is important. A teacher is the most important thing of all. Go as far as you need to go to find a teacher. There is a teacher waiting for you.

******

It was near the end of his time at home, and my father-in-law was deep in dementia.

He would sit alone for hours in an empty room, and if you should enter quietly, he would make the kindest conversation.

“You look pretty today,” he said. He said this to all women.

“Did you come with that fellow?” he asked about the son whom he no longer recognized.

“Where did you find that girl?” he asked about his granddaughter. I answered simply, because I wasn’t here to remind him of anything. “She’s my daughter.”

“She looks very pretty today.”

He was quiet, then up from the vacancy came one last thing.

“I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve had many teachers,” he said, giving me another.

*******

Granted, he didn’t look like much—a scrawny fellow, no taller than me, wearing mended clothes. You might suppose it is some grand philosophy that draws us to the spirit — a theory of the cosmos — but it is the feet, the hands, the eyes, this miserable scrap of human life. Luckily for those of us with a wayward sense of direction, a Zen retreat consists largely of following in the footsteps of the person who stands in front of you. I was mesmerized by Maezumi’s sure, elegant footfall. He moved, when he moved, like Kilimanjaro. I would have followed him anywhere. I guess you could say I did, although it led no farther than my own home. Once you realize you are lost, everything you see is a sign pointing home. — Paradise in Plain Sight, May 2014

taizen maezumi roshi

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

the idea of help

October 13th, 2013    -    5 Comments

3659camel_blanketI’d just posted this list over on Facebook and here it was, playing out in real life. As I slowed at the light, I rolled down the window, knowing there was fresh green in my wallet.

In the car with me were three middle-schoolers and another mother. I passed the dollar out the window, and in that opening, he took the opportunity to look me in the face and explain himself. He wasn’t going to be here long, he said, but he’d lost his driver’s license and he when he got it back he was going to drive somewhere and work. It spilled out quickly, so long held, the awful jam he was in.

“Do you need a blanket?” the other mother offered from the passenger seat. We’d had fall’s first cold spell the night before.  I wasn’t sure why she had spoken. Was this her gift?

“Sure,” he answered. “Do you have one?”

There was no blanket, just the idea of a blanket, and that doesn’t cover it.

“Now we have to bring him a blanket,” her daughter commented from the back.

“If I bring you a blanket will you still be here?” The mother folded up what had gotten out of hand.

“I’ll wait,” the man said. And the light turned green.

 

when you meet a nun on the mountain

October 4th, 2013    -    5 Comments

wilson2There they were in full-length habit, an unlikely sight on a Sunday morning hiking Mt. Wilson. Out of the blue, three nuns rounded the switchback straight ahead of me. They were coming down; I was heading up. No matter how promising the skies at the start of the trip, the southern trail descends into a merciless sun. They had to be broiling by now.

These suburban mountains lure all sorts of pilgrims on weekends—mostly first-timers, families, and well-meaning health-seekers who are ill-equipped for the incline. One minute you’re strolling in the park and the next you’re crawling up an unforgiving peak. It’s a lot like life: the path is steep. That’s why I’d found refuge in my practice as a Zen Buddhist priest. Zen teaches you to take each moment, like each step, one at a time.

This morning my step was heavy. I’d taken to the hills after an angry talk with my teenager and a tiff with my husband. I was still steaming as I stopped and stood to the side of the narrow path, letting the first two sisters pass.

They were talking and barely took notice, but the third was falling behind and as she approached she said, “So much farther to go.”

“Always farther to go,” I said, and then, struck by the words, went a little further, asking where she was from.

“From the Motherhouse in Alhambra,” she said, taking a card from a rubber-banded batch in her hand and holding it out to me. A meeting on a mountain is not without purpose, and she had come prepared to save someone’s life. Despite our religious differences, maybe that someone was me. I ventured another step.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Sister Imelda, like Imelda Marcos. Except I don’t collect as many shoes, but more souls.”

We both laughed, and my burden lifted. Two souls meet on a mountain, and although they come from different sides, they close the distance one step at a time.

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unfolded, a gift

September 26th, 2013    -    11 Comments

Martin_Creed,_Work_No._340_A_Sheet_of_paper_folded“There is something in me maybe someday 
to be written; now it is folded, and folded, 
and folded, like a note in school.”
― Sharon Olds

Unfolded
by Jena Strong

Every line on my face is a place I unfolded,
no longer compressed, no longer needing
to contain mystery after mystery,
no longer a matryoshka doll holding itself
in and in and in, kaleidoscopically hidden.
No, life has unfolded my careful origami,
like a middle or third name
too beautiful for the world not to hear,
each deep crevice a hint of healing
and heartache and hero’s journey.
It’s old-school, to remain folded up
like that, or to collapse like a mountain
unto itself, or to get so lost
in the folds of what happened
that you can no longer make out
the writing on the wall of your life,
which is to say how blue the sky is
in September, how kindly she caresses
the deep grooves between your eyes,
folded notes to be passed to a friend
between classes, perhaps—or birds
or buildings or an architecture
defying smooth textures. Let me be
creased, then, unfolded as a piece
of paper you’ve tucked inside
the pages of a heavy hardcover for years,
stumbled upon, blank, and fluently speaking
in a language you didn’t even know you knew.
***
A gift on the first day of my fifty-eighth year.

Art by Martin Creed, “Work No. 340: A sheet of paper folded up and unfolded,” 2004.

that jerk saved my life

September 23rd, 2013    -    16 Comments

Zazen

I am concerned that in the process of making a business out of all this your sense of compassion is going out the window. I do not see a person in tune with others’ suffering. I see a lack of humility.

This is the kind of correction that can knock you back a bit when it appears in your inbox. I suppose I don’t get much criticism, all things considered.  I’m sure it can’t compare to the uninvited trouble foisted onto the rich and famous—but even a near-miss can level you, make you stagger and tumble onto the rocks where you scuff your knees and pick the scabs for a good while after.

He thinks this is a business?

That’s when you might see that the unwelcome blow was in fact an act of compassion. Why? Because it stops you. It interrupts your monologue. It commands your attention. And if you feel unjustly injured, you can take a good look at where that injury comes from, where it resides, and what sustains it.

Only the thoughts in my head.

Anything that interferes with the flow of thoughts in your head is compassionate. Why? Because what we think isn’t real. It is delusion. More than delusion, it is death. And that’s how we live most of the time—as if dead—arguing, defending, judging and debating with ourselves, by ourselves, and then projecting our upsets onto the real world. The internet seems to make this projection easier and even painless. It’s so easy to sound smart and clever, raw and biting, in a comment box. It’s so easy to argue, attack, and rebut. But it’s hard to stop.

All this digital carrying-on while we might not even pause to say hello to a single real, live person we pass on the street today.

Real compassion requires that you go out the window.

There is a part of the message that would have been laughable if I’d been of a mind to laugh: the “business” part. This isn’t a business. I don’t ask you for money. There is no enterprise here. I’ve dressed up the joint, but behind the curtain I’m just an old, poor, woman. By old I mean I turn 57 on Thursday. By poor I mean I don’t earn any money. The amount I’m paid to write a book every four years falls beneath the one-person poverty line. I write to myself and for myself, and if you encounter it, it is free or next-to-free for the taking. And by all means, be compassionate with yourself and discard whatever I say if it doesn’t make sense to you. Suffering is voluntary. You can opt out at anytime.

Compassion is a stick.

In the Zen tradition, there is something called a “waking stick.” It is a long, flat wooden stick used during meditation periods of long retreats. A monitor walks behind the backs of meditators, stick in hand, totally alert and watching for people who place their palms together and bow slightly, which is the gesture that means, “hit me.” Ask to be hit? Would anyone ever ask to be hit? If the business at hand is waking up, and you are cramped, sleepy, bored, or in pain, yes, you might ask for the stick. The monitor wields it swiftly, delivering a jolt of energy to the soft pad of muscles between the shoulders. It hurts! But you wake up, the pain dissipates, and then you realize, “That jerk saved my life.”

The stick is called the stick of compassion. It comes only when you ask for it.

The business of a buddha.

This is not a business, but there is a business here, and it is the only business worth pursuing. Compassion is the business of a buddha. A buddha’s work is to wake up. I’m here because I have more work to do. I always have more work to do. I offer this commentary as proof of how much work I’ve yet to do.

Good advice from a good friend.

That’s what I wrote back to the guy. And it’s true. But the real correction is what comes after.

Don’t make anything more out of it.

***

Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

 

4 rules for a mindful garden

September 7th, 2013    -    6 Comments

This is a simple set of instructions that I always give children when they visit my backyard garden. Beginning when she was three years old, we invited Georgia’s class to our garden for a field trip each year. She is now 14, and I am far older, and yet the instructions still apply. Children find them easier to do than adults.

Life is a garden and we are the gardeners. Here are the rules for a mindful garden:

1. Be kind. Every time we are kind to another, we are kind to ourselves, because we have left our stingy self-centeredness behind. It’s important: kindness is the supreme religion. It’s not hard: pure silence is the ultimate kindness. We already know how to do it.

2. Don’t throw rocks. The garden path is paved with stones. For children, it’s tempting to pick one up and loft it into the ponds. For adults, it’s tempting to pick one up and loft it at each other. Consider how very often we blame others, and the circumstances around us, for whatever displeases us. It’s not my fault, we say, it’s you, it’s my job, it’s my parents, it’s my kids, it’s my neighbor that’s causing all the trouble, tossing rocks with wild abandon. To maintain peace in your garden, don’t pick up a rock if you can’t set it down.

3. No running. There’s no hurry and no one chasing you. Running in my backyard is a sure way to fall headfirst into the murky mud beneath you. How much of life do we miss because we are racing headfirst toward some place else? A place we never reach? You have all the time in the world to savor the life you have.

4. Pay attention. Bring all your attention to what is at hand. You’ll wake up to the glorious view before you and realize you’re right at home where you are.

***

It’s Mindfulness Reminder Week on the blog. I’ve reprised some of my most popular posts on mindfulness at home and work. To learn how to put the preaching into practice, come to the Plunge Retreat in Boise on Saturday, Oct. 5.

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anything helps

June 30th, 2013    -    19 Comments

In much of the country today it is really hot, and anything helps.

I’m usually in the center lane when I stop at this light, ready to shoot straight through the intersection on green.

Most days there is someone or another on the corner with a sign. I don’t always turn my head, but today I knew I had a dollar in my purse.

He was old – probably not as old as he looked. It was sunny today, hot. He was sunburned and dirty. I rolled down the window and he came right over.

Thank you, bless you, he said, his face crumpled.

Thank you, sir, I answered, and rolled the window back up.

When the light turned he was back on the corner, waving at me. I waved back.

He blew a kiss and cupped his hand to his heart. I saw the sign then. It read, “Anything helps.”

Anything helps. How true, how kind, how wise. For a dollar.

how

June 26th, 2013    -    11 Comments

owners-manual-translation

How can we live fearlessly?

With more freedom, kindness, joy and compassion?

By living differently.

1. Blame no one.
2. Take no offense.
3. Forgive.
4. Do not compare.
5. Wash your face and leave it bare.
6. Forget about your hair.
7. Grow old.
8. Have no answers.
9. Seek nothing.
10. Go back to 1.

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