that jerk saved my life

September 23rd, 2013


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.



  1. Oh my, Karen. Just fresh off the Reiki table where much of the conversation/healing revolved around this whole “business” of writing. Wow. I’m blown away by this post (and the timing!). Thank you, thank you for sharing this and the all wisdom that comes with it. And most of all, thank you for your willingness to speak your truth.

    Comment by kasey — September 23, 2013 @ 9:16 am

  2. 🙂

    Comment by Angela — September 23, 2013 @ 9:35 am

  3. So, so true. I love this post and I love the work that you do. Thanks for taking the hit this time. 🙂

    Comment by kelly — September 23, 2013 @ 10:21 am

  4. Yes, Kasey, we “professional” writers work ourselves to the nub, our reward being the scent of fresh pencil filings.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — September 23, 2013 @ 10:27 am

  5. Wow…just wow. This post is a stick of sorts. I bow my head to you. And, thank you.

    Comment by Clare — September 23, 2013 @ 10:37 am

  6. Frankly, I am confused, but if your life is saved, if a stick does the job, or a jerk, then I join you in happiness.

    Comment by MJ — September 23, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

  7. “anything that interferes with the flow of thoughts in your head is compassionate”
    Maezen, this is wonderful teaching

    In my early period of learning zen, the teachers were very obscure (to me) and I didn’t see the way–your clear finger pointing at the moon makes it so direct as you share your practice

    thank you so much

    Comment by daniel — September 23, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

  8. Thank you Daniel. I love to know that the moon is visible in a cloudy sky.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — September 23, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

  9. Blessings on all you are and all you do! Even more blessed am I to have access to your “window”. Thank you for sharing…… It isn’t completely necessary to be a jerk to be good at the business of saving lives……..

    Comment by Daisy Marshall — September 23, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

  10. Isn’t it interesting that working on ones self is so often criticised. I’m not sure if you are a hug type person, but hugs (or high fives) to you and everyone trying to find their own best way.

    Comment by Aruna — September 23, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

  11. Karen, if I’ve commented before this, it was too long, ago. Shame on me. I LOVE what you have to say, and the amount of time, and thought that goes into your posts. Just the sight of that darling blue bowl shifts my mood, if I’m down.

    Unfortunately, we live in a world of “cheap shot” expertise, much exacerbated by the safety of a virtual reality. The need to judge, and comment on your compassion, and humility from such a cowardly perspective, is tragic, and maddening. I’m so grateful, that you’ve demonstrated how to take the highest path, by treating this unwarranted, and inaccurate critique, by seizing, and explaining the underlying, albeit unintentional gift of this criticism: interruption of the internal monologue, because, as you so wisely said, it’s delusion, and death. Unfortunately, this “gift” stings, which made your stick analogy, so perfect.

    A “business”? Really? If only big business followed your “model,” this world would be quite a different place to inhabit. I’ve had to deal with a great deal of projection by others, recently, so, I needed to read this tonight. Just sorry, you had to experience the discomfort, for me to do so.

    Bless you, and thank you for all that you give on a regular basis.

    Comment by Rosalie — September 23, 2013 @ 9:36 pm

  12. Oh, Karen, I got a letter from my father yesterday, I am soooooo reluctant to open it. The few writings (or phonecalls) I got from him over the years are so full of rancour (spelling?) and anger. It is as if he is unaware that I am an adult, no longer a child with an obligation to conform to his worldview (as if a child ever should do that). No love or kindness or interest whatsoever. I shudder when I think of opening the letter and having to deal with what he has to say. I guess that it is a bit like what you write here. Still don’t like it though. Like Aruna, hugs from me.

    P.S. I don’t understand how somebody could arrive at the mentioned conclusions about you. But we are each others mirror I guess.

    Comment by Simone — September 24, 2013 @ 1:43 am

  13. The very fact that you can write about this with so much compassion, is why I smile every time I find one of your posts in my inbox. You may not even be aware of it, but you teachings, no, your honest sharing of your everyday life, touches my heart across the globe, time and time again, and leads me to more awareness, and yes, compassion.

    Comment by santie — September 24, 2013 @ 9:22 am

  14. Karen – Awesome article, loaded with compassion. You so nicely deflected this person’s unloading of issues upon you while acknowledging them. I do believe the online trolls are here to teach us lessons about ourselves.

    (By the way, I also turn 57 on Thursday. I burst out laughing when I read that. Let’s hear it for 9/26/56!!)

    Comment by Sue Jorgenson — September 24, 2013 @ 10:08 am

  15. Brilliant post Karen. Thanks for being my teacher today.

    Comment by Elliot Tanager — September 25, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

  16. On your magnificent birthday, on your tender writing, and on your unhappy reader:

    Yes! With Love!

    Comment by Nye Joell Hardy — October 6, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

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