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Awaken Interviews Zen Buddhist Priest Karen Maezen Miller Pt 3

Donna Quesada:  how do we take responsibility and acknowledge that interconnectedness that you were just speaking of…


There is no wall. We are all a part of it. And part of taking responsibility is acknowledging my role. How do you reconcile that in getting past the victim consciousness?

Karen Maezen Miller: That’s a complex question. In part, because we only understand it through kind of a Western psycho-analytic tradition. And that’s not really what it refers to. Those three admonition were given by Maezumi Roshi. And they are really about how to get out of your own way. How to get out of your own way. Nobody takes away your memories. We never deny the past. In fact, that is the admonition. First, don’t deceive yourself. Don’t tell stories. In this moment, right here, nowHow is it, who are you? And very often you’ll see, Oh…where is that retreat that we take? The step back that we take from how things are right now to a story that we tell about something else.

You know, we have these stories and these narratives. We all have them. We have to be careful that we don’t use them as shackles to keep us from seeing clearly. The now and what’s here, now. So don’t deceive yourself is the first admonition. And the second one is to stop making excuses for yourself. Ultimately, you see, what we have to recognize is that we are the only one living our life. Nobody else is living your life. You have potential and possibility. Anything can happen, but as long as we hold on to a very narrow, well-rehearsed script and we identify so closely with something that happened so long ago…we can well be said to not even be alive. And then the part about taking responsibility means we, you yourself, have a choice at every moment. You can face forward…go straight forward…take a step into the next moment…or, you can not do that. The fact is, that we have institutions and systems in place that really value and esteem, enhance, prolong and promote victimhood. We all suffer. We all suffer! So do we want to continue to suffer? Or would we like to settle? Would we like to move ahead?

There is a Zen Koan…we call out about this very thing…and it’s Bodhidharma—who actually brought Zen from India to China in the third century—and so, he came to share this teaching. And he was in China. And he arrived and he sat, they say, for nine years…waiting for his first student to appear. So finally, a very eager and desperate student appears. And like all students when they first appear, whether they can articulate it or not…I’m desperate. And this particular fellow says, “Please help me, my mind is not at rest. Put my mind to rest.”

And here, what he is talking about is this sort of non stop, hamster wheel, or what has happened to us that is so egregious or disagreeable. This past that we all carry around. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter the scale of the offense. None the less, the impact is still shattering. And he says, “I can’t put my mind to rest…help me!” And so, the teacher says, “bring me your mind and I’ll put it to rest.” And because the student is so eager, he says, “I’m going to find that…I’m going to find what is troubling me.” But he can’t. You can’t find what no longer exists, you know? You have no proof of it. There is no trace of it except in your own mind. So, he comes back to the teacher and he says, “I’ve searched and searched and searched, but I can’t find my own mind.” And the teacher says, “there, I’ve put your mind to rest.” Some may think that is hard medicine. That’s a stiff shot. That says, “right here, right now, show me your grievance…show me your pain…show me your suffering.”

Of course, you’ve suffered. We all suffer. We are all in pain. That’s what brings us to this point that you brought up earlier. Where is that point where you are really willing to set it down? Because you have exhausted yourself. No one else will listen to the story. But now you have spent half of your life, maybe three quarters of your life, carrying this around—this carcass! And you are close to the end and you say, “I just want to be able to breathe. I just want to be able to walk. I just want to be able to appreciate my life.” That’s a very important point to get to. Of course, when we go back in…do I have resentment? Absolutely. Do I get angry? Absolutely. Do I regret that? Absolutely. But, I recognize what I do and I know that I can set things down and start over. Moment after moment after moment after moment. Will that be better? Absolutely!

DONNA: You know…that reminds me of the whole psycho-analysis issue. I think that’s something else you mention in one of your books. I think I’ve gotten in trouble for saying something that wasn’t entirely positive about it in the past—this business of rehashing or retelling the story. And that happens in many therapeutic settings. Where psycho-analysis is employed week after week in telling your story. And the old joke in the Woody Allen movies is, you go on for twenty years and you are still in counseling and you are still neurotic. And whether or not I got in trouble for saying what I thought to be the truth….is that the problem with psycho-analysis? Is it enough? Or is it just not enough? Is it because you are just rehearsing the stories you tell yourself? All of what we have been talking about…the victim stories…the suffering stories…or, it’s just keeping you stuck in your head?

KAREN: You know, I don’t know, but probably yes to all those things. But, just to clarify it…there is a role for counseling. And there is a role for therapy. I certainly have benefited. I’ll tell you, It’s always helped me at a point in my life where I am having trouble functioning. Like, having trouble getting dressed…having trouble eating…or, having trouble…just sort of a baseline level of being so depressed or so overwhelmed…and it’s really useful. I mean, talking to people can be useful. And sharing your torment can be useful. But for myself, I’m no therapist and I have no training. As myself, as a user of those services, I knew, myself, when I had reached a point where I simply didn’t need anymore. I was making stuff up or felt like I had to bring something into the room.

My teacher now says…who also trained in all of that and had a career in social services…if you are unable…which in our practice, is sitting meditation, often facing a wall…it can seem rather…quite…radical. At least, it’s not entertaining. If you have trouble doing that, you’re not able to sit down. See…a therapist, until such time as you are able to have a command…to have enough strength and presence of mind and awareness to be able to sit…and then after that, sit. You’ll have the very kind of experience in that, when you sit, you’ll bring all of your stories and you will run through them. You know, all your fantasies…and you will run through them. You’ll dial them up again until you simply get tired of them. And you no longer carry them with you. So that’s the process of clearing the mind. It really is that process of getting clear. Which means, just letting those things pass. And not clutching at them or resurrecting them. Letting everything go and flow. And then there is the gap between one mind storm and the next mind storm and the gap will grow.

DONNA: We are running out of time, but can I ask one more question about the Buddhist buzz word, Mindfulness? It’s just become so popularized. And even in the circles involving psycho-analysis, the word mindfulness is infiltrating these practices. It’s become a self-help…almost to the point of cliché. What is mindfulness? And the second part of the question is, it comes packaged up with this emphasis on being mindful of what you are feeling. Is it ever useful to be distracted? What if you don’t like what’s going on? And you don’t want to be mindful about what is going on? For example, when you are at the dentist or something. So, those are my two kind of piggy back closing questions.

KAREN: Oh, ok! Well, once again, we sow contradiction and there really is no opposition. Mindfulness is exactly…it’s exactly what the Buddha taught…if you’ve ever heard of the eight fold path. Sometimes, when I reflect on the few foundational Buddhist teachings…there are the four noble truths…and there are the ten great precepts…and there is the eight fold path. Sometimes, I think that his students or his so called fans were saying “How…how…how?” So he’s like, “here’s a list.” It is what the Buddha taught and it fits within a scheme of things that says, “What is the way?” Or, “How do you walk the path?” Well, you have the right intentions and you have the right thoughts and you have the right speech and the right action. All of that right is not right from wrong. It simply means from a selfless point of view. From a selfless point of view. And so, one of those steps on the path is right mindfulness. It’s mindfulness. It’s not the kind of mindfulness that dwells on self. After all, this is your mind! One of the contents of your mind. The contents of your mind are your whole life. Everything is here. So pay attention to where you are. That’s what mindfulness is. Not…pay attention to what you think. You see, only in the Western view, corrupted by the religion that we have fashioned out of our thoughts and feelings…religion, the altar of human emotion…we think that our thoughts and feelings, which are totally temporal like everything else…very transitory…have no meaning and certainly no permanence. Where they are our Gods. So in a way, that is backwards and upside-down.

To be mindful means to be…right now…I’m totally mindful of you. This is the only thing I’m doing. I’m talking to you, now. This isn’t rehearsed. It’s completely spontaneous. You are hearing it for the first time. I’m hearing if for the first time, too. This is an act of mindfulness. Is it special? No, it’s ordinary. However, we have made distraction and distortion and diversion our ordinary life. When in fact, it is a very extraordinary distortion of our lives. So, I try not to get too disturbed any more by what I see as mindfulness being sold as a treatment modality. I know that my teachers—who are more open minded than I am—would say, “It doesn’t hurt.” Really, it doesn’t hurt. And those who get a little peek into a practice…if they want to deepen their participation, will have to refine the dharma.

DONNA: Let’s play distraction. Let me elaborate just for a moment. For example, there are some teachers who would say things like, “reach for the better feeling thought.” Because we can choose to feel good. And making a choice to think about pleasant things is a healthy thing to do. But, it seems that mindfulness compels us to be with whatever it is…without manipulating our thoughts in any way.

KAREN: Yeah…I can’t speak to what might be the misapprehension or the distortions or delusions that other people share. Reaching for a better thought is a very superficial first step. Affirmations are useful too. But only in that what you are doing is retraining the habits of the mind. If I’m habitually dwelling in negative, dangerous or destructive thoughts, I have to retrain the way I think. And so, that is helpful, but only to a certain point. It’s kind of like, I’ve got a grip on things and first we lift the pinkie, then we lift this finger and this finger. But ultimately, the spiritual practice…we’re not trading one thing for another. Essentially, what we are trading, if you want to call it that, is, we are trading despair and depression and delusion for freedom. Be free of all things! That’s ultimately what we have to be in order to let go completely. We have to allow ourselves to let go. And so we do it right here…we do it right now.

DONNA: Right here, right now. I think that’s a good place to stop, unless there is anything else you’d like to say to and to our listeners?…who have undoubtedly read all three of your books, Mama Zen, Hand Wash Cold and Paradise in Plain Sight.

KAREN: Sometimes I say too much!

DONNA: No, you said just the right amount. And it was a pleasure to spend this time with you.

KAREN: Oh, It’s my honor. A real delight.

Read Part I Here: Awaken Interviews Zen Buddhist Priest Karen Maezen Miller Pt 1

Read Part II Here: Awaken Interviews Zen Buddhist Priest Karen Maezen Miller Pt 2


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