Tuesday, October 30

Interview with Karen Maezen Miller, and giveaway winner!

Thanks to all who have  stopped by and commented on my blog post reviewing The Mindful Way Through Pregnancy. The giveaway winner is Ranya! Congratulations! An email is on its way to you. But I feel that everyone's a winner today, because I have a wonderful treat to share with you on this All Hallow's Eve's Eve: an interview with Karen Maezen Miller!

My love of Maezen is well documented on this site. I have lost count of the number of times and circumstances in which she totally saved my sanity. Momma Zen has been my bible since Silas was born. Her wisdom speaks to me so deeply, I find it a struggle sometimes not to quote her in every single post I write! She has been kind and generous enough to answer a few questions for you guys. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

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I heard you say in a workshop once that, when it comes to spiritual practice, "parents go to the head of the class." Can you tell us what you mean by that?

Forgive me for that self-centered boast. What I mean is that any spiritual practice is grounded in self-discipline, the practice of doing what you don't really want to, over and over again. Much of parenthood consists of the daily tasks, reminders, and devotions that are definitely not what we would rather be doing! So in that way, parenthood is like spiritual boot camp. We have to get over ourselves in a hurry. In spiritual language that "getting over yourself" is called "transcendence."

In your essay in The Mindful Way Through Pregnancy, you address how fear is a prevalent emotion for the expecting mother. Can you say a few word about the relationship between fear and the breath?

In a way, fear is the opposite of breath. Fear strangles breath. But let's make it simple. Fear only exists as a thought in your mind. You cannot identify it outside of your anxious, fretful, panicked thought stream. But breath is not a thought. Breath is the function of life itself. Fear is in the mind; breath is in the body. Fear is in the dark; breath is in the light. Fear preaches death; breath preaches life. Fear is occupied with the future; the breath is always present. That should distinguish the two!

Why focus on the breath? Because your own focus is what amplifies your experience. If you focus on your fearful ruminations, your what-ifs and what-abouts and how-comes, you will scare yourself to death! If you focus on the breath, you will stay completely engaged in the present moment, and handle it beautifully. It's quite a magic carpet ride, that breath. It takes you places you never dreamed you could go, and they are real.

From what I can glean of your life story from your writings, you didn't set out to be either a writer or a Zen priest. Has writing always been a secret passion? How has writing about spiritual practice and motherhood evolve into an occupation for you?

Even as a young girl, I loved words. It was a bit of a secret passion, to tell you the truth. I literally loved the way words sounded and felt, but I never connected that with any ambition. For me, it was more like a song in my heart. Although I studied journalism and worked in business marketing, I never had any desire to write for a living. Even now, I'm not writing for a living. My writing is not an occupation or career. For some, it might be, but not for me. Writing, motherhood, gardening, cooking, cleaning: these are just the way my life presents itself to me. Surrendering to whatever presents itself is my vow as a priest. Thank heaven I'm not trying to be a success at any of it; I would miss the point. I would probably miss a lot of the fun, beauty, and tenderness.

Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold have been a lifesaving source of inspiration for me--and for many. What have been some of the voices and resources that have guided you in your life as a mother and householder?

That's a very good question. I never really think about it. Literally everything guides me in my life. It might be a poem that appears in front of me, a chat with a neighbor, a question like this! For that reason I am an avid listener. I believe that everything is the truth trying to get my attention. I am deeply awed by poets and writers (and not by advice-peddlers). I find the greatest solace in the most unlikely places, like the signs held up by the homeless folks on the corner that remind me to give even when I feel I've reached my limits. "Anything Helps" the sign might say. It's so true. As I have matured, I have taken comfort in my fading memories of my mother and grandmothers. I finally understand what it takes to care for a family and make a home. It takes your entire life! And it means making your entire life a gift to everyone else. Nothing is more fulfilling.

Would you walk us through a typical day in the life of Karen Maezen Miller?

Oh dear! It's just like yours, literally. I'm the first up and into the kitchen. (I love a quiet house at dawn.) I feed the dog, make a breakfast that my daughter is likely to ignore. I check e-mail, and begin the daylong practice of responding to whatever appears. I quickly make the bed, get dressed, drive my daughter to school, take an exercise class and then I'm home again for the dog walk. I have a grand scheme of what I'd like to do each day, but am usually overtaken by small practicalities and urgencies. Sometimes the big thing on my list is something as little as pruning the azaleas! I do a little bit of writing here and there, sometimes for the blog, an article or something longer. Words sing to me all day long, and every now and then I catch one or two! My daughter is out of school at 2:30, the afternoon falls, I cook dinner, run the vacuum, finish a load of laundry, take my daughter to gymnastics. Before bed I sit on my cushion, and this is how I keep company with all the ancestors who have come before me. Then I let the day be done. I never regret what I haven't done. Even as I write this I am overwhelmed with gratitude that this right here is my life. Who could want more?

Do you have any projects on deck right now that you're excited about? What new offerings from you can we look forward to?

I always have one of those major on-deck projects lurking about and sometimes they don't amount to very much. So yes, I do, I'm letting the song come to me, to rise up into a resounding and unforgettable chorus. Things take time, and I'm not in a hurry. That must mean I've got more time to let it come. We all do. We have all the time we need when we quit chasing it, and let it come to us, like a song on the breeze, a song we already know the words to.

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Thanks so much for sharing, Maezen! Sending safe, warm & bright thoughts to all those affected by Hurricane Sandy. I hope you are well.

Friday, October 26


My blogging soul sister Amanda over at The Habit of Being is launching a new magazine, Kindred, and along with it, a set of prompts to play along with. I've had fun this week exploring and sharing my mornings over on Instagram.

I've cleared some space in my studio, and it feels really lovely to go hang out in there in the mornings. I've set Silas' bead maze down near my cushion for him to play with while I'm in here. I've been lighting a lovely-smelling candle.

This morning we woke to a chilly gray world. I'm wearing handknits and I'm happy.

I'm in the middle of a 5-day vinyasa teacher training with the lovely Sadie Nardini. It's amazing and exhausting.

Wishing you tea and apple pie and cozy wool hugs.

Tuesday, October 23

book review & giveaway!: the mindful way through pregnancy

The main message I try to pass on to my prenatal yoga students is that mindfulness practices, such as conscious breathing, yoga and meditation, are invaluable in supporting and serving their unique needs as they grow into motherhood. So I was very excited to find out last month that one of my favorite writers and teachers, Susan Piver, has edited a new book, The Mindful Way Through Pregnancy: Meditation, Yoga and Journaling for Expectant Mothers, which includes an essay by yet another favorite, Karen Maezen Miller. I  immediately ordered a copy, eager to see if this could be a resource I would want to recommend to my students.

The Mindful Way Through Pregnancy contains six essays, with topics ranging from Nurturing Your Body With Yoga, to Bonding With Your Baby, to Calming Fear. Coupled with each essay is a specific mindfulness practice, among them Basic Breath Awareness, Journaling, and two different meditation practices. Accompanying the book is a CD of four practices, beautifully led by Susan Piver (whom I love for the wonderful guided meditations she offers through her Open Heart Project.)

In her introduction, Piver writes that "mindfulness doesn't necessarily mean peacefulness. It refers instead to the willingness to be with ourselves as we are from moment to moment, whether that self is the picture of blissful maternity or of something a bit more, say, cranky or fearful. The material in this book is about embracing the experience of pregnancy--and as with all embraces, it begins with an opening, which is a synonym for mindfulness."

This theme of opening up to the experience of pregnancy, whether happy or fearful or just plain miserable, is one that runs through the whole book, and is a message I would have benefited from greatly when I was pregnant with my son. My experience of being pregnant was so far from what I had hoped or expected it would be: I didn't feel blissful or happy, but mostly cranky and achy and struggling deeply to make or feel a connection to the little bean growing in my belly. I wish I had had this book to walk me through my first pregnancy. When I despaired that my experience was far from the deep spiritual one I'd envisioned, I would have loved to read Anne Cushman's words: "What makes pregnancy a spiritual practice is not the kind of pregnancy we have. It's how we open to it, moment by moment, breath by breath."  When I couldn't imagine what our baby would be like and didn't feel a loving connection to our child, it would've been a balm to read that "if we can stop second-guessing ourselves and forcing ourselves to feel whatever we're conditioned to believe we ought to feel, bonding will simply happen," as Celia Strauss expresses. I've underlined several passages from Karen Maezen Miller's essay, Preparing for Childbirth--which is in itself worth the price of the book--and have already been reading them out loud to my students in class. The following excerpt sums up nearly everything I've learned about mindfulness and motherhood:

There is an unexpected end to every pregnancy. The end is birth itself, and whether early or late, easy or difficult, every birth is unpredictable and astonishing. Pregnancy prepares us as all of life prepares us. It prepares us to let go of how we thought it would be, and to focus on how it is. It prepares us to dwell solely on what appears in front of us, instead of on the anxious, fearful ruminations in our head. No matter how you think or feel, you can literally see how prepared you are, and you can trust it.

 I was initially a little disappointed that the book itself was so slim, but I soon realized that its small size is in fact one of its greatest strengths. Being pregnant, especially with your first baby, is an overwhelming experience of learning, researching, and swimming in a veritable sea of new information. Between figuring out how to live in and support the new reality of your shifting and expanding body, to weighing options for the birth of your baby, to trying to decide on which strollers, car seats, and diapers will suit your lifestyle, there you might seem to be little space available to learn how to meditate, especially if it means reading thick volumes on the subject. This is the genius of The Mindful Way Through Pregnancy: with its short essays, and CD of guided practices, it will fit nicely into the whirlwind, and provide a safe place to land, find some grounding, and begin to develop those mindfulness practices that will serve you as birth draws nearer, and once your babe is in your arms.

Holding this book in your hand, you will have all the foundation and guidance needed to get you started with several different mindfulness practices, specifically geared towards expectant mothers, which will serve and nurture you through your pregnancy and beyond. I am so grateful that this book is out there, and I highly recommend it.

:: :: ::

I am so thrilled to have a copy of the book to give to one lucky reader! Please leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing! I will leave the comments and the contest open until 11:59pm, Central Time on  Monday, October 29th . I will reveal the winner on Tuesday, October 30th, when I'll share a very special treat with you: an interview with Karen Maezen Miller!

Disclaimer: Shambhala Books is providing the giveaway copy, at my request. I purchased my own copy of the book. My opinion is, now and always, entirely mine.

Friday, October 19

five senses friday

:: seeing ::  the pumpkin patch freshly set up at my son's daycare

:: tasting :: fried egg, pickle, tomato and bacon sandwich, with peach iced tea

:: feeling :: cold nights, cool mornings, grass under my feet

:: smelling :: bubblegum toothpaste on my son's goodnight kisses

 ~inspired by abby 

Tuesday, October 16

from the archives: teeny tiny practice

:: Friends, this is the truth: I have few words these days. As I was sifting through the archives of an old blog while working on a new project I'm very excited about, I found this post, written in April of 2009. It feels as fresh and true as if I'd written it last week. Thought you might enjoy it, as I enjoyed re-reading it just now. ::

In my relatively short tenure as a yoga teacher, I have already discovered that people will respond to hearing about what I do in fairly predictable ways.  One of the responses I often hear is, “Oh, I’d love to do yoga, but I just don’t have an hour a day to do it.”  There are many misconceptions about yoga among the general population (and it is beyond the scope of this post to give even a passing glance at all of them), but this seems to me to be one of the most common and unfortunate ones.

I can see how it would be logical for someone who doesn’t know too much about the practice to think that you need that much time for a single session, since public yoga classes typically last between 60 and 90 minutes. But this is by no means prescriptive. True, in a perfect world, we would all be able to get in an hour’s worth of practice before facing whatever our day holds, but I believe that this is a case where quality is more important than quantity. Some yoga is definitely better than no yoga.

Earlier this week, I had to leave the house at 7am to fight traffic and be in East Austin by 8:30am. I did not get up at 5am to get in a full practice; but instead of giving up on practice altogether, I went into my yoga room and sat on my zafu.  I connected with my breath; I chanted. I did two simple but potent asanas: chakravakasana and vajrasana.  All told, I spent no more than five minutes on my yoga practice this morning, but it was enough to center and ground myself before beginning my day, and it made a difference.

Even more important than quality or quantity is consistency. Doing five minutes of yoga on most days will allow you to reap infinitely more benefits from the practice than doing one hour-long session weekly.  Although it is possible to enjoy the benefits of a yoga practice from the very first moment you step on the mat, you only really begin to experience its transformational powers when you practice regularly.  This can mean doing as little as I did earlier this week; I”ll even go further than that and say that, for a beginner, simply sitting on one’s mat for five minutes a day would be enough to reap some of the benefits of practice. This is by no means the only practice you should ever aspire to, but it’s a damn fine place to start.

I am reading Wild Mind, a book on writing by Natalie Goldberg. She draws a lot from her Zen practice to flesh out her vision of what writing is all about, and this story she relates about her late Zen teacher speaks directly to the matter at hand:

When someone complained about getting up at 5am for sitting meditation, Katagiri Roshi said, “Make positive effort for good.”

This is what we do when we step onto the mat, even if just for five minutes: we make a positive effort for the good–our own, and the good of people and things around us. This is why a week-long of daily five minute stints on the mat adds up to more than a single hour-long session: sure, you’ll have done less asana, and probably won’t have gone as deep in five minutes as you could have in a whole hour, but you’ll have stored up many days’ worth of making a positive effort for good. You will begin to create a a new rhythm, a healthy habit, and it is these seeds, tenderly and regularly tended to, that will bloom into a fully beneficial and transformative practice.

Try it: find quiet spot. Sit down comfortably, and close your eyes. Notice your breath. Notice your body. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Don’t try to change a thing. Settle into the moment. Spent five minutes doing nothing. Now slowly get up, and mindfully go about your day. You may wonder, Is this really yoga? You bet it is. Lather, rinse, repeat, every day like brushing your teeth.  Go ahead. Let me know how it goes.  See if it doesn’t begin to change your life a little

Wednesday, October 10

finally fall

While I've enviously been reading about fall on blogs for weeks now, here in Texas, we had to wait until last weekend to finally get a taste. A cold front blew through, the temperatures dipped, and there was much rejoicing. I feel like the heat really dragged on this year, with temperatures in the 90s lingering into early October, and so this feels like a well-earned reward. So over the weekend, we greeted our Texas fall season by:

:: leaving the house wearing three different handknit items (they weren't all strictly necessary, but this Canadian girl gets excited when it's time to pull out the woolens.)

:: watching football (duh.)

:: putting the flannel sheets on the bed, and cozying up to a cup of tea and great book (still loving this oh so much.)

:: making soup. there are no yellow split peas to be bought in this town , so I couldn't make our all-time favorite soup, and had to settle for our second all-time favorite: tuscan white bean and kale. which we still ate with fresh naan bread. fusion, yo.

:: straightening out the tea cupboard, and making a cup each for the hubby and me in the evenings.

:: making silas sad and confused by dressing him in a puffy vest and pixie hat.

:: making pumpkin spice muffins (cannot keep up production of these. the toddler is a muffin monster. i swapped the zucchini for some canned pumpkin.)

:: spending time outside in our freshly mowed, newly greened-over yard (there is no grass in Texas in the summer. none.)

:: listening to the Ray LaMontagne/Josh Ritter station on Pandora--perfect fall soundtrack.

:: falling in love with the slanted light that graces our home every afternoon.

:: knitting socks and watching Mad Men (okay, this isn't season-specific, but it felt extra cozy and appropriate this weekend.)

Oh, and looking forward to so much more of the same!

PS: October link love is up! 

Tuesday, October 2

mama mantras

Remembering what we already know is, I think, a unique challenge of motherhood, and also the key to finding grace and ease in the midst of our difficult, ordinary, blessed days. Too often in my tenure as mama the wisdom I possess, my own strength and intelligence, were obscured, buried under a landslide of sleeplessness, confusion, anger. But just as the sun doesn't shine any less brightly for being covered by clouds, so, too, our deep inner wisdom is always available to us, even when it appears to be hidden and, therefore, non-existent. One tool I have consistently relied on, and found relief in, are mama mantras.

I didn't come up with this concept: in fact, there is a whole book dedicated to it, a book which I own, and is excellent. And working with slogans, or lojong, is a well-established Buddhist practice. But over the months I have come up with my own string of pith sayings and comforting utterances, gleaned from the writings of those teachers who keep me afloat--the usual suspects of Karen Maezen Miller, Pema Chodron, Mary Oliver. They do not necessarily speak exclusively to the life of a mama, but boy, they've pulled me out of the muck on many an occasion.

Here is a random sampling of favorites:

This moment is the perfect teacher  This one currently graces the chalkboard in my kitchen. It serves to remind me that if I slow down, pause, and take notice, each moment I find myself in contains the exact teachings I need in order to wake up to my life. It's just a matter of allowing said moment to be exactly as it is, and of allowing myself to be exactly as I am in that moment.

Lower your standards, and relax as it is  This is a favorite, from Pema Chodron, which I wrote about before. If motherhood had a theme song, this would be it for me. To expect less of myself, of others, of circumstances, and to allow things to be just as they are--that is the secret to fully inhabiting the moments of my life, and to look around with the eyes of love.

Remember to pause  I will never find the peace I am looking for in the moment if I do not slow down to realize it is already there. But the frenetic pace of our busyness is so seductive! There is an almost irresistible urge to hurl ourselves headlong into whatever difficulty lies ahead, as if by speeding up, we can hurry through the tough parts, as though we were fast-forwarding the scary parts of the movie. But this moment it all we ever have, and if we can let it, it has a lot to teach us. (See above.) Also, by remembering to pause, we give ourselves a chance to breathe, to relax, and to start over.

This is it   This one from Jon Kabat-Zinn. "When we let go of wanting something else to happen in this moment, we take a profound step towards being able to encounter what is here now." I have no other life than this one. Furthermore, I don't want another life--I love my family, my home, my friends, my work. Too often though, I find myself wishing for another moment, for another reality. This mantra reminds me that I am right where I need to be, and that there is nowhere to escape to. Better to abide deeply in what already is.

I can stand this  This one comes our of Mommy Mantras, and has helped me on more than one occasion. How often have I found myself saying or thinking, "I can't stand this", or "I can't do this"? Recalling this mantra, changing my self-talk from negative to positive, has reminded me again and again that I have the wisdom and strength I need to rise to the challenge of the moment. As it turns out, almost every time, I can stand it, and I'm already doing it.

The main way I like to use these mantras is to write them down, over and over and over, in my regular journal or small Moleskine, or somewhere I can see them, like on my kitchen blackboard. Writing is the best way I know to commit something to memory, to learn it by heart, and therefore to have it available and ready when I need it to be.

Certain favorite poems serve a similar purpose--this is why I rarely go more than a few days without re-reading some favorite lines by Mary Oliver, whose words "to pay attention, that is our endless and proper work" is my life's mission statement and main anthem. And a whole separate post could be devoted to songs that have that same effect: to pull me out of my misery, recall me to myself, and point me to something brighter.

But wherever they might come from, this remains true: words are magic, words bring comfort, and words remind me of what I already know, so that I can carry on. And on, and on, and on.

Do you have mantras, cherished sayings, worn lines of poetry that serve a similar purpose for you? What is the theme song of your life? I'd love for you to share in the comments.