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.