when all else fails*

April 29th, 2015


This week we had the horrific earthquake in Nepal and the riots in Baltimore and so all at once I heard from people I haven’t heard from in a while. Something was in the air. I love hearing from people, just not quite as much as I love meeting face-to-face with those same people. What brings us together is always the same thing.

Terror, sheer terror.

People contact someone like me because they are afraid. To one degree or another, we are all afraid. We are afraid because we thought life would be different. We thought that we would be happy, for instance, or at least be able to handle things. That our work would satisfy, the money would be enough and the marriage would last. That our kids would be okay. And that their kids would be okay. That we would be one of the lucky ones, safe and in control. We wouldn’t get old. We wouldn’t get sick. And no one would die.

Spring is sweet and summer is easy, but one day you’ll find yourself in the middle of a hard winter.

I try to keep things sunny around here but then I remember what line of business I’m in. I’m in the getting old, getting sick, and dying business.

Life is suffering. Everything falls apart. It’s overwhelming and irreversible. There’s no place to hide. What the hell are you supposed to do now?

A couple of weeks ago I sat a beginner’s retreat on the East Coast and this time nearly everyone who came was a beginner. Oops. In the dining hall before the retreat started I looked around at the mostly middle-aged and older group of total strangers and was afraid. They would never be able to handle the sitting, I told myself. I’d oversold the whole Zen thing again. Whatever they thought they were in for, none of them was ready to face the reality of Zen, even so-called beginning Zen, which is no different from advanced Zen, which is no different from life as it is. They were probably as terrified as I was. I made silly jokes and hardly ate a thing.

But then we began sitting, and sitting some more, and every time the bell rang to sit again everyone showed up in their little spot, day in and day out, in silence, sleepy and sore, emptied of bright ideas and escape routes. It seemed like forever but a minute later the last bell rang on the last day. They had survived.

Before the end, everyone spoke for the first time. An old fellow said his wife had died last year and he was restarting his life. This was his first step.

One woman had returned after the first night without a wig to cover her head, and she was bald from chemo. She didn’t say one word about it and neither did anyone else.

Another woman said she’d woken up a year ago and realized that although her job was to heal children and families, “I was the one who was sick.”

The woman next to her said she had three children and she loved them but sometimes she had to get far, far away from them.

A man said he had bought one of my books for his wife but she wasn’t much of a reader so he read it and then he went on my website and now they were both here together. He smiled a lot, and she did too.

“It was a hard winter,” the next man said before tears overcame him and he thanked everyone just for sitting with him all weekend. “It made a difference.”

Nearly everyone cried. And everyone laughed. Hearts were light and minds, clear.

They’d done the only thing you can do when all else fails: sit down for a while, and then get up and go on back home.

*and it will.



  1. Thank you, as always. I love that we were a little bit on the same impermanence road in our blogs today.

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — April 29, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

  2. Where we’re bound to meet because it’s the only road there is.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 29, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

  3. I will never forget this retreat.
    So much love!
    Thank you.

    Comment by marcea — April 30, 2015 @ 2:48 am

  4. Maezen
    For various reasons I am unable to attend any Zen retreats. When I read your posts it is as though I am there, listening to you, taking in the words. Those words bring me to tears, and laughter, and remind me of the path.
    Thank you


    Comment by Jude Smith — April 30, 2015 @ 3:47 am

  5. And gosh, did I look for those escape routes. And prayed for that bell to ring. Until the last sitting when I realized I hadn’t been planning my escape, or anticipating the bell ringing. What a hard weekend. What an amazing weekend.

    Comment by Diamond Cambareri — April 30, 2015 @ 3:53 am

  6. Thank you for your voice. I know in my heart how vast, subtle, and important taking my place on the cushion is.
    in gassho

    I wrote about the recent events as well.
    I never do this, but, in case you’d like to read, my address is above

    Comment by Mary — April 30, 2015 @ 4:07 am

  7. […] http://karenmaezenmiller.com/when-all-else-fails-2/ […]

    Pingback by dreaming of Nepal. | The Salted Banana — April 30, 2015 @ 4:36 am

  8. Thank you. Your words touch my heart on a morning that began, again, hours before dawn, being awakened by the anxiety of which you write. I feel rest in your words and imagining myself at that retreat.

    Comment by Katharine — April 30, 2015 @ 6:55 am

  9. Just be where you are and you’ll be on retreat. In gassho.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 30, 2015 @ 6:59 am

  10. “But then we began sitting, and sitting some more, and every time the bell rang to sit again everyone showed up in their little spot, day in and day out, in silence, sleepy and sore, emptied of bright ideas and escape routes. It seemed like forever but a minute later the last bell rang on the last day. They had survived.” as I read this, the burn in my belly rose up thru my heart and the mist of my tears awakened my smile. Thank you Namaste, Rosa

    Comment by Rosa — April 30, 2015 @ 7:35 am

  11. Thank you. Just, thank you.

    Comment by Katia — April 30, 2015 @ 7:46 am

  12. I was thinking, that since I did’t make it to this last retreat, and after all it was in my neck of the woods, that the practice would slip away from me. Thanks for the reminder. For all the reminders.

    Comment by Tina Cornell — May 1, 2015 @ 9:16 am

  13. For the last six weeks I have been a full time caregiver to my very sick mother. It has been intense. I have spent a fair amount of time, angry, tired, resentful, and worried. She is improving, and now we are both heavy-hearted with the sad news from Nepal. I was just in Kathmandu last Fall. My mind is on the people and the place that is still so fresh in my memory. What they are enduring makes my few weeks of caregiving seem like a luxurious blessing.

    Comment by Clare — May 2, 2015 @ 6:53 am

  14. […] when all else fails* from Karen Maezen […]

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  15. […] Karen Maezen Miller: Cheerio Road […]

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