what keeps me going

March 21st, 2016


Yesterday I spent six hours sitting still and quiet with 20 strangers in the converted attic of a century-old house in a tricky neighborhood near downtown LA. It was a beginner’s Zen meditation retreat. These days, that’s probably considered obsolete. But that’s how we used to do it and some of us still do: in real life in a real place with real people in real time. When I got home, I had a message from my best friend who said she wasn’t calling for any particular reason. That’s what friends used to do too. Just be friends for no reason.

Today, these two events are so rare, so nearly impossible to believe, that it makes me want to write them down. I don’t write many things down anymore. Someone asked me about that recently. He said, “You don’t write on your blog much anymore.” And it’s true, I don’t. I tried to give him an answer why. There’s the matter of privacy, and the wrenching realization that I have exploited much of my life and family for the sake of . . . I don’t know what to call it other than me. Just for the sake of me. There wasn’t ever much money involved, because not only is my blog free, but the sum total of my earnings for writing three books over ten years is too embarrassingly small to even add up. And then there’s the sad situation that not as many people read anymore. They say they do, but they don’t read blogs, don’t read books, and don’t even search the internet as much as they did last year, let alone last month. I didn’t want to say that because the guy, who is around my age, obviously still reads, and he’s probably reading this right now. But it’s true. It’s even true of me. I read a whole helluva lot all the time but I don’t buy books very often anymore. I borrow them for free from my library’s digital database. And you might argue that kind of reading still counts but I know it doesn’t count for the author or the library.

Last year my hometown library canceled my library card because I hadn’t been to the library for two years. I called up, confused and upset. I told them I read about three e-books a week from them, and they said, but you haven’t been to the library. And you might say that doesn’t count, but I know it does count when it comes to keeping the library open. Every year they have to fight the good fight at City Hall—where the not-so-hard choice is between keeping the library open or providing water and sanitation services—and so they keep cutting the library hours into fractions of fractions of fractions. They renewed my card because I asked. Librarians will do that for you.

Two weeks ago I heard from a writer at a magazine who was working on a story about “the evolution of iPhone Buddhism and someone said I should talk to you.” I told him I didn’t know what iPhone Buddhism was (although I could make a cynical guess) and he confirmed that my guess was right. Someone is seriously suggesting how important the phone is for the dissemination of Buddhist teachings and practice today, and I admitted that I don’t use a smartphone so I couldn’t comment, but I could suggest a revolutionary new mindfulness app: put the phone down. The advanced version would be: turn the phone off. He said that was the most profound thing he’d heard anyone say on the topic.

As the digital editor of a magazine he said he has to be on Twitter all the time and that he considered me to be one of the most important people to follow on Twitter. I told him that I hardly ever Tweet. I don’t see any point to it. Who exactly am I talking to? No one is listening to anyone else. I know I’m not. I tweet even less than I blog. And I think that disinterest was more or less what qualified me as worth following in his eyes.

Now we have a candidate for president—the frontrunner of a national political party—whose legitimacy as a leader seems to have been established by his narcissistic, bombastic, outrageous, ignorant, ugly and incurable addiction to Twitter, or in other words, addiction to himself.

Years ago when my first book came out I gave a luncheon talk at a conference on motherhood held up at UC Berkeley. It was a small conference, but it was a big deal to me. They gave me a table where I could sell and sign copies of my book. There were several authors participating and we were set up behind a row of tables in an otherwise empty corridor (the first of many such awkward embarrassments I would inflict on myself in the years to come). I had a slow stream of folks approach my table to talk and the author next to me attracted less interest and she finally asked me why I thought people were coming up to me. Was it because I was more approachable, being a priest and all? And I told her that they were mostly asking for advice on how to get a book published.

Some of the folks who started out as my most ardent social media friends really wanted a writing mentor, a manuscript editor or a blurb. I understand that. It makes good sense for an aspiring writer. I read a book about “how to have a literary life” before I ever started writing. One of the tips was to write fan letters to authors you admire; strike up a flattering correspondence and then capitalize on it later on when you needed a blurb. Now that I think about it, I did try to do that but I felt like such a slimeball that I stopped.

Not long ago I heard from someone who asked if I would read some of their writing, saying by way of introduction, “I’ve been guided in my writing by your work.” I asked what they’d read. “I haven’t yet gotten my hands on your books but I love your Facebook posts.”

On the flip side, plenty of writers sell into this market as well, writing books about writing and teaching writing seminars. You start to wonder if the only people who are reading are the people who would rather be writing.

Facebook feels different too. Less like friends connecting with friends but more like friends selling to friends. “Sign up for this digital course and get recorded phone calls, email reminders, monthly newsletters, live online chats and access to a private Facebook page. My mission is to help you live the life you want.” I draw the line at doing that, because it doesn’t feel okay. It’s not what I do. I can’t help anyone live their life unless they can put down their phone and look me in the face.

Yesterday I was reminded why 20 people would leave their homes, turn off their phones, take off their shoes, come up two flights of stairs and sit with strangers in silence all day. And I was reminded why a friend would call out of the blue just to say hello.

The reason why is that something is missing from our screens. There’s no social in our social; no life in our life. There has to be something more than this phony, self-centered, self-promotion and exploitation. I’ve ranted incoherently about all kinds of things in this post, but this much makes sense. There has to be something more, something that can’t be digitized, monetized, and sold. And there is. It’s what keeps me going.


  1. Dear Karen
    I really enjoy your writing, you are very wise and I wish I could come to your meditation sessions. I am not on Facebook or Twitter because it doesn’t appeal to me. I find these things to be impersonal and even texting as people don’t actually ring you and they are very easily misunderstood. I used to read constantly and am trying to get back to it as I have enjoyed it so much all my life.
    Please don’t give up your writing on your blog, I am sure it means as much to many other people as it does to me.
    Kindest wishes

    Comment by Wendy — March 21, 2016 @ 7:53 pm

  2. Writing is my way of giving up. Thank you for the encouragement.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:43 pm

  3. I know, right? I’ve been reading more than I’ve been writing these days. I think that’s probably okay, but your thoughts on social media are resonating with me. I’ve been quite laid up for extended periods now and it’s a comforting diversion/boredom antidote. Can it be a way to be social when actually being social is impractical? Or does it just make everything worse in the long run? I don’t know.

    As for the presidential candidate, it looks very bizarre from up here in Canada where our leaders are obsessed with equality, diversity, and positivity. I wish the same for America.

    Comment by Bobbi — March 21, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

  4. Bobbi! How nice to hear from you. As for Canada, I know better than to take my eye off a Trudeau. I’m old enough to remember that they keep things interesting.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 21, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

  5. What a fine post, Maezen.
    Once when I was studying with Zen Master Seung Sahn, he was taking questions, between sittings, and, all of a sudden he said: “Okay, you are not understanding anything. Stop sitting. Put down your questions and opinions. I’m leaving to go to my study. All of you must go follow the Zendo cat—yes walk very quietly or crawl on the floor and study her. She knows when to lie down, when to eat, when to shit. If she likes someone, she comes closer. If not, she moves away. See: Simple. That’s enlightened. No problem. But you are all full of problems and are getting nowhere. So I’m leaving and you will follow her until you understand.”
    And he walked out. The meditation leader said: You heard the Master: we all follow the cat and pay very close attention. Empty your minds and just observe and maybe you learn something!!!
    A great lesson.
    So there is an ancient way you describe to have the teaching given and it’s right there in front of you. Listen. See. Put it all down and the true self will come.

    Comment by daniel boylan — March 21, 2016 @ 8:35 pm

  6. I love that story. Following is so simple to do it is hard to believe. But eventually, it all comes naturally.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

  7. Maezen, I’m just sitting here sipping my coffee and starting my day with your writing. I can’t think of anything more perfect! Thank you for thinking out loud and sharing your thoughts (and I love the picture of the shoes, makes me feel close to home). Love, always,
    Ben Ming

    Comment by Ben Ming — March 21, 2016 @ 11:47 pm

  8. Love always, Maezen

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:39 pm

  9. Thank you Maezen. I always appreciate your One True Word.

    Comment by Amy — March 22, 2016 @ 2:08 am

  10. The one is everyone. I appreciate you, too.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:39 pm

  11. Maezen,
    “…hope for a deeper acquaintance;
    each of them, though it stands
    in a crowd of many, like a separate universe.”
    Mary Oliver ~The Sunflowers

    Thank you for shaking up my world.

    Comment by Mary Sherman — March 22, 2016 @ 4:51 am

  12. Good friend; deep acquaintance. In gassho, Maezen

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

  13. I love your blog, Karen, and just the other day I wondered to myself where you were. I’ve missed you. That is scary, sad about libraries, I didn’t know. I text, I like it; I’ve stopped the FB addiction (ok, I’m working on it); I’ve never tweeted; I’ve never read an electronic book; the current political scene terrifies me. I love to blog; I especially love it when someone reads it. By far the most readers of any of my posts, was the one you tweeted a line from. You helped me that day; and I hope my post helped a lot of family caregivers. I hope people find your blog from my blog when I quote you, because the world needs you. I greatly admire you and have learned from you; and I never would have known you if not for your blog (and your book, which I got from the library). It’s all such a mixed bag. Love to you, Gretchen

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — March 22, 2016 @ 5:08 am

  14. You are a gift, Gretchen. Your writing is an anthem. When your book is published, I will come find you at a table in the hallway and have you sign my copy. Of this I am completely certain.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

  15. I think we all want real connections and meaning in our lives. We have had a small business for 27 years—we make pottery and have a gallery. We don’t advertise and don’t market. We don’t sell, people buy. It is, for us, an organic thing. Connections. Relationships. And keeping the faith that art is alive and well on the planet.

    Comment by Debra Bures — March 22, 2016 @ 5:12 am

  16. Yes, Debra. Life and art and pottery: all require great faith.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

  17. Just the other day I received my umpteenth “I wish you were on Facebook” from a distant friend “so we could share these moments” (meaning news/photos of an exotic weekend trip). I long ago stopped trying to explain my reason for being a Facebook non-adopter. I just keep on sharing my own moments directly, the message just for that one person.

    As for iBuddhism . . . that is even worse than the NYT’s Sunday op/ed that addressed the commodification of mindfulness and the “mindfulness industry” without ever referencing Buddha at all.

    Comment by Laura — March 22, 2016 @ 5:45 am

  18. Because people are afraid to see or say Buddha, except when they quote him on Twitter!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:35 pm

  19. Your blog entries arrive in my email and I love them. However, I enjoy reading them in the blog format, so I go there.

    This time you gave me a nudge and I called a dear friend I have been thinking about for 2 or 3 months. We had a wonderful catch up session and I was so glad I had called.

    So, thanks, as always for prompting me to connect with either my daughters or old friends.

    I’d rather do that any day than scroll down Facebook pages. (Not on Facebook anyway!)

    And I do know that others will shout, BUT Facebook is connecting with friends, but for me, hearing their voice beats it any time!

    Thank you for your words.

    Comment by Jude Smith — March 22, 2016 @ 6:42 am

  20. I am always happy to hear your voice.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:34 pm

  21. i love this so much. I am not alone. THANK YOU. xx

    Comment by Pauline Leger — March 22, 2016 @ 6:42 am

  22. Never alone.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

  23. I read these words and thought of you, Karen. Thank you for shining a light into the dark corners of my mind.

    It Is My Nature

    It is the nature of this world to share
    its burden with you.

    And it is my nature to remove it from
    your back.

    ~ Hafiz

    Comment by Kim Piper Hiatt — March 22, 2016 @ 6:43 am

  24. Once shared, it’s no burden.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

  25. I am so looking forward to leaving my home, turning my phone off and being able to see you face to face.

    Comment by Marcea — March 22, 2016 @ 6:59 am

  26. All feelings are mutual!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:31 pm

  27. Dear Karen – Thank you for this. I DO READ what you write – on a screen and off. Momma Zen has been a bible to me and now to many of my friends and the mothers I work with. And your blogs have not only given me great cause for reflection and inspiration, they have also supported me through the illness and death of my mother. In fact, the last piece of writing she posted on Facebook was a piece of yours that she dedicated to my sister and I: “ON LOVING A DAUGHTER “. We shared much of your (and others’) wise words through Facebook and it did make the distance feel smaller somehow. So you see, dear Karen, as long as we keep these devices and screens working for us (versus us dominated by them) and are able to turn them on and off consciously they can bring us closer. In the end, when summer holidays permitted, I went to BE with her, to sit in my mothers room, to care for her heart, body and soul…but until then it had to be voices or typed words that brought us together. And you were part of that. There isn’t much wisdom on these platforms, I agree, but your contributions are wise and helpful; I am grateful to come across them every once in a while. With gratitude and love, Alexandra

    Comment by Alexandra Hughes — March 22, 2016 @ 8:40 am

  28. I am grateful for your mother. Thank you.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:31 pm

  29. Thanks for voicing some feelings that keep coming up for me. I really enjoy your writing. I try to stay positive about technology but feel more and more that it is overtaking our lives including mine. I hate voicing “what is the world coming too” because it feels so old and hopeless.
    I love to read but struggle with its voyeuristic aspect, sometimes too. Sometime think I should be out living life rather than reading it!

    Comment by Suzan Olson — March 22, 2016 @ 9:51 am

  30. Sounding old and hopeless is our only hope!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

  31. I read. I read you in particular and I return to your books over and over again. Dipping in here and there, looking up quotes I’ve copied into my journals and taking Paradise in Plain Sight along on a personal retreat last winter. That said, things do seem to have shifted on Facebook and in the blogging world but despite that, whenever you post, I read.

    Comment by Cathy — March 22, 2016 @ 11:53 am

  32. And whenever you speak, I listen. Thank you.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

  33. I read your books. Again and again, year after year.
    Thank you giving me this gift.

    Comment by Ellen — March 22, 2016 @ 12:40 pm

  34. You’re welcome, Ellen.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

  35. People read what you tweet. I read this and learned a lot. There are so many guided meditations and dharma talks online, Diana Winston, JKZ, Danny Ford, Thay, Joseph Goldstein, Mark Williams , Jack Kornfield, Sharon, Pema. I found mindfulness on the net and wouldn’t have found it otherwise. The quality of voice, skill and practice of these and other legends isn’t found in every sangha, and most people have a better shot at learning a skillful practice and waking up by listening to these meditations than by reading a book about it, even books by the same people. You can hear and see them on the phone. Lots of people are geographically distant from any group and the net is their only way of practicing. But yes, it’s also killing us. Maybe there could be phones that can’t be used for anything but mindfulness- 🙂

    Comment by Charles joseph — March 22, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

  36. I understand your point of view. And yet, nothing is required to be mindful. The wind, the birds, the trees, every voice and body is skillfully expressing the Dharma. It cannot be avoided or escaped. “When you see, just see,” Buddha taught.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

  37. I have reached the age where I can honestly say “Back in my time, we did it this way…”: one nice thing about getting “old”. (75 so far) I’ve never touched Facebook, although I do Twitter occasionally. i’ve never had a smart phone and don’t even want one, although I don’t know how long I’ll be able to avoid it. What I mostly do is READ..mostly ebooks, because no way can I afford to buy as many books as I read. I still love the feel and smell of “real books” though. I do occasionally buy books, I’ve read Paradise in Plain Sight so many times, it’s falling apart and I’m going to have to buy it again. I’m grateful for anything I can get of your wonderful words and great sense. Thanks for all the good things you give me.

    Comment by buddhasteps — March 22, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

  38. Funny, paradise is falling apart over here too! That’s the way.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:26 pm

  39. Dear Karen – I love this so much. Though it’s especially funny that I read your book Momma Zen, but I rarely see a FB post from you. So glad that I caught this one, and yes, I had to “share” it. Thank you for articulating how so many us feel in this “crazy” new world. Much love.

    Comment by Karin — March 22, 2016 @ 2:51 pm

  40. Love to you, too. Do you know what your name means? “Purity.”

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:24 pm

  41. i am spinning with confusion because i want to tweet and post and share this in all caps and bolded as i enthusiastically agree but am not sure quite how to take my next step! so i will simply breathe this in and acknowledge you. lovely evolutionary growing pains. thank you for your wise words!

    Comment by debra — March 22, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

  42. With humility, Maezen

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 22, 2016 @ 7:25 pm

  43. You are so dear. Thank you.

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — March 22, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

  44. Oh, I wish I could put a photo on here. I spent the weekend with my grandson in Seattle. He can now reach to spin the prayer wheels at the monastery next door to their home. Perhaps I will post a photo on my blog tomorrow. ?

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — March 22, 2016 @ 7:45 pm

  45. I am always so happy to read your words whenever/however they appear. Your silence speaks volumes as well. This post reminded me of Phoebe Snow’s refrain and wish for Something Real. Thank you Maezen. For reals!

    Comment by Jane — March 22, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

  46. Your (physical) books are my touchstones, literally and figuratively. Your spoken words are my anchors. Your cyber presence is comforting each day. Thank you, Maezen. See you in July.

    Comment by Meg — March 22, 2016 @ 8:32 pm

  47. Hand Wash Cold and Paradise in Plain Sight are my go-to books when I’m sad, happy, lonely,cold, hot, tired, buzzing – alive.I always carry one of them when I leave home for any length of time.

    I’m not on social media at all but I have some blogs that I go to when I need to unplug from all the stuff you catch sight of on the net that creates inner turbulence – yours is at the top of the list.

    Thank you for what you give to so many.

    Comment by Debbie — March 22, 2016 @ 11:18 pm

  48. Truly, nothing is hidden or away from you. Everything transmits. Words never hide the truth.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 23, 2016 @ 5:29 am

  49. Dear Maezen,
    I read and liked your book, “Hand Wash Cold:” thank you.
    I love the Dharma Seed app on my phone and find it does help me practice.
    Also, it can make me feel less like the loneliest person in the world, this is an absurd notion.
    Nevertheless, it is real.
    Following a cat is good advice. I don’t have a kitty right now but I might do that when I do.
    Great post.

    Comment by regina kelly — March 24, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

  50. Streams and birds
    Trees and woods
    All recite
    The name of the Buddha

    –The Amitabha Sutra

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 24, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

  51. Beautifully written thoughts and insights that do ring true with our modern day communication challenges. I long for the personal interaction of days past. I believe that we are quickly losing the “common sense” skill of empathy in understanding others because of the lack of personal face to face interaction. To be able to enjoy a conversation that is engaging with someone who truly listens to understand not just to be understood. If only…

    Comment by Derrick — March 24, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

  52. I love your writing. I own all three of your books and have devoured their messages. I also follow your blog regularly all the way from the other side of the world in Australia. I can’t even remember how I first stumbled upon it. . And whilst I don’t frequent my local library, I do still buy books. All the time. I love the way they force me to slow down and fully immerse in the experience. There is nothing like the weight of a book in your hands and the smell of the new pages. And I’m still relatively young…35 and resisting the e-reader movement!

    Comment by Ange — March 24, 2016 @ 2:04 pm

  53. Dear Maezen, all three of your books I´ve bought, read and re-read. And every week I check your blog for new posts. Please do keep writing, there´s many of us who need you to do that!

    Comment by Bernardita — March 26, 2016 @ 11:37 am

  54. Dear Maezen,
    I have been listening to “Zen Momma” while taking my baby on long walks, after being a long-time reader of your blog. This, THIS is why we desperately need you to keep writing! I am an avid Facebooker, and lately I’ve taken stock of the sheer amount of time social media takes from my kids and myself. Time when I myself could be writing. I talk an awful lot about how I “need time for my writing” but how much time in my day is eaten up by my phone? After my second child passed away, I became exquisitely aware of time slipping past us, and how we believe we have an abundance of it, when we really don’t. Thank you for the reminder! Sorry for the ramble….I need some coffee. ?
    Kate Yuki Spindler

    Comment by Kate — March 27, 2016 @ 7:35 am

  55. Dear Maezen.

    I have not written to you much, but I have been following and reading. I love your writing. Or maybe it’s your voice, or maybe it’s just you. I know what you are saying about social media, I think I have even ranted about it here in much the same way that you are now. I am not on Facebook because every time I check out my husband’s feed, (which he started for business but hardly checks himself) it fills me with the weirdest mix of not-so-good feelings. Much of it having to do with the fact that I see loved ones who have plenty of time for posting often, but yet can’t take one minute to send their doting and elderly grandmother even the occasional email. A real note or phone call seems completely out of the question.

    I did join Instagram not too long ago to support a Makers Movement event. Not sure why I am still there because it often gives me the same sort of negative feelings. Kind of reminds me of junior high, and cliques and feeling like I just don’t fit in. Anyway, here I am rambling, yet again. Long story short, I love and appreciate what you write and hope you will continue. I would greatly miss it were you to stop. And I apologize for not telling you this more often. You deserve the feedback. XOXC

    Comment by Clare — March 27, 2016 @ 3:02 pm

  56. Dear Maezen, I love coming here, it is like a breath of fresh air. Soft, kind, gentle. A bit like a Chinese watertorture method. Slowly (yes I am that thick) the awareness seeps in. Spent yesterday looking for a “Blurb” for a condolence card (yes yes) ended up rereading big chunks of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. Insight shifts.
    I realised that mostly when people want to read a book like that it takes pain to pick it up. It takes pain to want to think about the words to let yhem come in. It takes pain to want to sit with a Zen teacher. We often need to be hit hard by life before we want to kneel down. It’s like what Marianne Williamson says: “Next time you get down on your knees to pray why don’t you just stay there?”
    All that Facebook stuff, it’s just a way of avoiding that pain of not wanting to look the beast inside in the eye. But like Gibran says it is just the winter season and spring will soon follow.
    Like you this is a meandering collection of thoughts. Anyway, it would be a sad day for me if you stopped writing here. Thank you for all that you give us.

    Comment by Simone — March 30, 2016 @ 2:53 pm

  57. Exactly my sentiment. I’m a photographer and I hate all this electronic “branding.”The message is that this medium is the only way to promote your work. But I hate it. So I do little of it.

    Comment by mary — April 2, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

archives by month

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.