A modern master, Yasutani Roshi, used to tell his Western students not to do Zen the way they did everything else, not to make it so difficult. Not to aim so high (or low), want so much (or little), hurt so bad (or good), judge so quickly and then stop dead: I tried it but it doesn't work for me. Zen works precisely by not working for you in the old ego-aggrandizing ways.
Of course, it's difficult enough to sit still and be quiet but not half as difficult as we make it out to be. Nothing is as difficult as we make it out to be, but by our thinking we make it grievously so.
Comparing Myself to "The Other Me"
It seems I've lived as though there were two of me. Right where I stand is me as I am. Opposite me is another me, one I've never met. She is quite wonderful, charming, and accomplished. She eats much less. She says and does nothing she regrets. She went to the exercise class I skipped; she didn't even glance at the dessert menu. She has all the potential I have misspent: youth, for instance, time, patience, and kindness.
All the while that we have traveled side by side, she has taken a different road, one I've never seen. I am taunted by her perfection. The problem for me, you see, is not that I compare myself to you, but that I compare myself to some one who doesn't even exist: the other me. I will never know contentment until I confront her, disarm her, and lop off her leafy head. She creates way too much work for the grounds keeper beneath.
I always imagined this other me to be happier than the real me, which made me feel lacking and sad. I wonder: Do we grieve most for what we've lost or for what we never had?
Letting go of her, I find I've lost nothing. The entire world was all mine to begin with. She was just hitching a ride. I can't believe I put up with her nonsense for so long.
Living As You Really Are
Not all of it, but a good part of life's distress is conjured out of anxious expectation, cruel judgment, painful rumination, or maudlin self-indulgence. Try letting go of all that. If you don't do Zen the way you do everything else, how will it be? It will be real.
Get The Latest From InnerSelf
What a relief to accept that you will never get your act together. Then it is no longer an act. You can begin to live as you really are.
In the name of authenticity, I researched how many leaves are produced by a mature sycamore tree. (I wanted to give some heft to the hardship, not yet convinced that you feel my pain.) A healthy sycamore can hold two hundred thousand leaves each year. Cleaning up after three mature trees over the sixteen years I've been here means I have hauled more than twenty-eight hundred pounds of fallen leaves.
I could handle it. It wasn't too much. It didn't overwhelm me because I didn't lift all those tons at once. I picked them up the same way they fell: one by one. We can handle anything because we only have to handle it a moment at a time. That's how we live, and that's how we die.
Learning to Let Go
What helps us to let go is that appearances change so completely. Nature is kind in that way — we can't say we haven't been warned. Most leaves wither and fade before they fall, fulfilling every bit of their purpose.
My mother came to visit after she'd had two rounds of chemo for ovarian cancer. Her hair had grown back, only it didn't look like her hair. It was dense, dark, and curly like a crocheted cap. I couldn't get used to it.
She didn't look like my mom, but she was still my mom, cheerful and uncomplaining, even though her odds weren't any better after treatment. The only thing she wished for was to be free of the numbness in her feet. The doctors said this was a side effect of the chemo. She soaked her feet and I rubbed them. Nothing helped.
"I just want to feel like I did before." She let herself whine just a little, as if a pair of normal feet wasn't too much to ask for. Before is always too much to ask for. In the next few months she'd have more surgery and chemo, lose most of her colon, her appetite, and too much weight; the ability to chew and digest; the strength to resist the pain or refuse the painkillers, until at last she was released from the instinct to draw another breath.
When you've done all you can do, undo.
The Freedom to Fly Free
Life and death move by their own propulsion: straight on, straight on. We may not know how the road will turn but the direction is always clear. In her death, my mother showed me the dignity that arises from indignity, the grace we find in falling from grace. From the ground, it looks as if leaves die, but to the leaf, freed from a useless stem, it feels like flying.
Freedom can be a frightening prospect. It is frightening up until the moment you are actually free. That's when you realize it is the thought of freedom that terrifies you, because that's all that fear is: a thought.
Always Starting Back at the Beginning
There is a beginning meditation practice — which is profoundly advanced — called "counting the breath." Once you have positioned yourself to sit on a cushion, a bench, or a chair, you settle the mind in the hara, or the gut, and you start to count your inhalations and exhalations. The way I do this is to count an inhalation "one" and an exhalation "two" then an inhalation "three" and an exhalation "four." The instructions are to continue in this way until you reach ten. Sounds clear and simple enough.
The truth is that when you try to do it, you find that you can't get much beyond four or five before the mind darts across a meadow and over a fence, builds up speed, and takes off into the beyond. When you find that you are lost in thought, you start back at one and keep going.
In this beginning meditation, which becomes even more difficult with the frequency of your practice, you spend a considerable amount of time trying to get to ten. Come on, get to ten, you tell yourself, get to ten! Get somewhere, you slowpoke!
The thing is, should you ever get to ten, the instructions are to start back at one. The ten and the one have no merit or meaning, you see. But try believing that for yourself.
My teacher keeps tweaking my practice. He's holding my feet to the fire.
"Maezen," he tells me, "get to zero." Nothing to grasp, in free flight, without leaving the ground.
Resisting Nothing, Adding Nothing, Thinking Nothing
Under the umbrella of the mighty sycamores, the fragile Japanese maple is hardly noticeable until one week in November, when it turns itself on fire with flaming red leaves that shrivel into themselves and disappear.
The year after a girl turns thirteen is frightening. At least it is for her mother. Here you are, saying and doing the same clumsy things you've always said and done, only now there is someone sitting beside you in the car or on the sofa, nearly your size or taller, who turns her head and stares at you with a look you don't recognize. In that blankness you think you see what you never dreamed would shadow your baby's face: a complete stranger.
"I feel like we've lost a daughter," my husband said.
"They come back," say mothers far wiser than I. The evidence is plainly on their side. Not just for a hundred years, but for four hundred million years, leaves have left the trees for an entire gloomy winter, which was nonetheless no longer than a winter. Swept bare, their arms are not dead, just empty. A naked tree seems elegantly impervious, but perhaps it's just in shock to find itself alone again, naturally.
"Make the effort of no effort," Maezumi Roshi said. The effort of no effort is the hardest effort of all. This is the effort that you owe to everything and everyone in your world, which is, after all, a natural world, with natural intelligence, harmony, rhythm, and wisdom. Trust it. Be patient. We do not manufacture summer or winter, nor do we love by clinging to the way things used to be. You might as well try to tape a leaf back on a tree.
Entering the Fullness of Time
At some point, your children will no longer baby you. Your parents will no longer bother you. Good teachers hold your feet to the fire until you let go.
Empty-handed, the masters say, we attain the Way. This is samadhi in action, the healing power of your peaceful presence, resisting nothing, adding nothing, thinking nothing, enabling you to say good-bye to your mother and hello to your daughter, even though neither of them answers.
Sit quietly and enter the fullness of time, where the seasons advance in one viewing. Know that leaves bud and break. Flowers bloom and burst. Fruit softens and drops. Earth is our mother. She heals even the last fall.
The gardener is not afraid.
©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library, Novato, CA 94949. newworldlibrary.com.
Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden
by Karen Maezen Miller.
About the Author
Karen Maezen Miller is the author of Hand Wash Cold, Momma Zen, and most recently Paradise in Plain Sight. She’s also a Zen Buddhist priest at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles, a meditation teacher, wife, and mother. Karen and her family live in Sierra Madre, California, with a century-old Japanese garden in their backyard. She writes about spirituality in everyday life. Visit her online at www.karenmaezenmiller.com.
View a video: Lessons from a Zen Garden (with Karen Maezen Miller)