The education of a lifetime: Karen Maezen Miller on Motherhood, Meditation and Anger

Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen priest and author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, Hand Wash Cold and Paradise in Plain Sight. I have written before about her profound book, Momma Zen, and how it inspired me more than any other parenting text I have ever come across. momma zen

And this interview by Shawn Fink of the Abundant Mama project is no different. Brimming with deep wisdom, humor and humility, Karen Maezen Miller penetrates to the heart of parenting as a spiritual path and delivers in a way that is both digestible and wholly compassionate. Listen to the full episode: AMPlify Your Life, Episode 7: Karen Maezen Miller on Meditation, Motherhood and Anger

There is just so much in this interview, I note some highlights here.

Karen speaks about raising her now teen daughter, how much has changed since writing “Momma Zen” and the essential process of staying with what is. She compares her work in Momma Zen as “premature self-congratulation”.

I am in trouble if I start to think that I know what the heck I’m doing or where I am going. We are consistently set adrift, washed up shore and we need one another.

Karen and Shawn chat a bit about how in this digital age we are more connected in some ways and much more disconnected in other ways which speaks to me in a big way. While on the one hand, many moms find community in online forums, groups and on Facebook which are great ways to find and share information they can never be a replacement for real human contact. In some ways, not living as close to family or having good friends nearby can make finding your “tribe”, your support system as a new mother can be challenging. Often online images of motherhood or fear of judgement makes it harder to ask, reach out and receive help.

Karen Maezen Miller on the biggest surprise in parenthood: “The real shake up for me has been the degree to which I encumber my daughter with the job of feeding my ego or emotional needs… [realizing how] “emotionally dependent upon my daughter being happy, doing things that I liked, liking the things that I do”.

Aaaahh, this one was a zinger. As a mother to an outspoken three year old, who feels at least as entitled as any teen to delivering every opinion and performance review uncensored according to his changing mood, whim and unspoken preschooler expectations. Still, I with no other rubric to go by, I sometimes find myself relying heavily on the irrational grading system of a little person still learning how to manage his emotional weather patterns and express his needs in healthy ways. After getting frustrated with him for not wanting to put on his clothes, I walk away to take a break. He finds me a few moments later, the storm between us has passed. He climbs into my lap and I see that he has put on his shirt and socks.

“Mama, are you happy now? Do I make you happy?” he asks earnestly, his face searching mine for signs that my earlier frown has faded. I am aware of his constant gauging of me, of this dance we do of reacting to one another, pulling away and drawing together – and what I may or may not unconsciously make him responsible for.

He falls and bumps his elbow. I hold him while he cries. I offer ice, kisses, a drink of water. What would make you feel better? What do you need?  I ask, wanting to find the solution, the cure, the fix to end the discomfort. It catches me off-guard every time he answers me, annoyed with my well-meant but impertinent offerings , “No, I am cry-ing!” he says, as if it were obvious. He is already doing exactly what he needs to do. And I, in my discomfort with his discomfort, really seek to reassure my tender ego that I am the competent mother, the one who can comfort her child and ensure that moments of unhappiness are brief and remediable.

The common parental desire to control and make things easy for our kids, to keep them from struggle is something (even) Zen priest Karen Maezen Miller is not immune to. And as her daughter, at 16, begins pointing out often with alarming clarity: “It’s not always going to be easy for me, Mom.” Karen grapples with the implications of stumbling along indeed the crooked path of mothering a child-turning-adult, who without mincing words, continues to hold up a mirror for us to see even more places we have yet to let go. “If the only thing [your children] can share with you is the good news, the good times or the happy… well, that’s dishonest.”

KMM on dealing with anger as a parent:

Own your feelings. Approaching our immediate response with compassion instead of suppression (which perpetuates the feeling) or judgment is the way to extend first compassion to ourselves and all compassion begins with compassion toward ourselves. Identifying and stating our feelings out loud gives others a warning about our emotional state and gives us the chance to address what is happening in our physical/emotional body before we escalate to a place of reacting in self-defensive or aggressive ways. Taking the internal temperature without judgment, as if processing data, is how we take responsibility for our feelings without blame and recrimination for whatever we feel is the particular trigger. It gives us the chance to take space, acknowledge our unmet needs or expectations in tenderness and without attachment to a story around a particular emotional response (“If I was a more better mother, I would not feel so impatient/annoyed/angry.”)

Take what you need first in order to be able to respond in kindness. Take a breath, take time, take space. I often tell my son but less often myself: “You are allowed to have your feelings. You are not allowed to be mean or hurt yourself or other people.”

As much of motherhood goes, we don’t get accolades for those tiny moments of triumph when we chose to take three deep breaths instead of lose our temper. As KMM points out “no own is keeping score of the times I didn’t have an outburst.” Or in the words of Biz Ellis host of one of my favorite podcasts about parenting,  One Bad Mother“Parenting is hard and no one gives a shit.” Mostly, that’s true. Thankfully it also the most rewarding thing we ever do. Especially when we get to see our own growth alongside our child’s.

KMM’s offers a refreshing reminder to parents of tantruming toddlers: you’re in it too. Most parenting advice I read offers an imagine of the calm and unruffled parent patiently holding space for the outrageous emotional displays of a possibly foaming at the mouth, destructive and aggressive small child hell bent on getting you to react (my son went through a period of purposefully soiling himself in a desperate act of retaliation) but does not often acknowledge the very intense internal storm raging inside yourself. It would be great if tantrums happened only when we (the parents) were well-fed, showered, had recently slept 8 hours, didn’t have any pressing tasks or places to be or outside responsibilities, were not distracted by any other sort of physical discomfort or pain, had recently had great sex, a good workout or a fantastic date with a good friend or a good book — basically, if we felt our emotional tanks were always “full”. But we all know that toddlers and preschoolers are first are predatory creatures with a recently developed capacity for premeditated action. They have an uncanny sense of knowing when to flip their shit, bless them.

Another thing I love about Karen Maezen Miller is her lack of apology about needing space and alone time from her family. As someone who desperately needs alone time to recalibrate, I  relate to this so much. I am such a better mom when I get the chance to fill up, to take care of myself, to feed my soul and care for my spirit, body honor yourselfand mind. I’m a better mom when I get the chance to miss my kid.  KMM talks about getting away and finding retreat as a way of taking full responsibility for her own life and her own ongoing process of refinement. We simply cannot skip the part of parenting where we parent ourselves.

KMM on meditation practice as a parent:

Karen Maezen Miller’s work was one of my great catalysts to my recommitment to a daily sitting meditation after becoming a mom. KMM says, “If you say you don’t have time to meditate then the truth is you don’t.”

Here is her realistic advice on developing a meditation practice: “Don’t make it hard,” she says. “Don’t make it another thing that you can’t do, you don’t have time to do or you aren’t good at. Because that is the way you [probably] talk to yourself about a lot of things and it is self-fulfilling.”

“You have 5 minutes at the beginning of the day and you have 5 minutes at the end of the day to practice being present and aware. If you can’t sit for 5 minutes, sit for 4, if you can’t sit for 4, sit for 3.

 …You can’t be attached to somehow doing it the “right” way, or getting the maximum benefit or being “good” at it or trying to turn yourself into a saint or even a better mom. Do it because you have to do it for own wellbeing and so that you will hurt people less.”

self care

(For more about self-care practice, watch: 5 Steps for Better Self Care for Moms). You can learn more about Karen Maezen Miller’s work, online teachings and upcoming retreats and events at karenmaezenmiller.comAlso check out all the podcast episodes from AMPlify Your Life: Podcast for Busy Moms.

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The power of befriending the mind (and occasionally, chocolate.)

It was just one of those mornings when nothing could fix it. Whiny and tearful over every little thing, the little Acorn Scout had been moping and pouting since he woke up. It became clear that no matter how much I tried to help, whatever process was taking place in his two and a half year old world was going to take it’s own time to work out. I pulled him into my lap.

“You sound so sad today, buddy. What’s going on? What’s making you so sad?”

“My buh-wain, Mama!” Pressing his face into my shirt. “My buh-wain is making me be sad.” (Buh-wain = brain, in toddler-speak)

“Your brain?” I asked, charmed and bemused.

“Yeah.” He sniffed into my chest. 

“What do you think you need to help your brain not be sad?” I asked.

“Anudder one! I need anudder (another) one BUH-WAIN!” His voice started up and his anguish was palpable.

Oh, my son. How many times in my life have I felt betrayed, encaged, even tyrannized by my own mind? Few of us have escaped the tormented idea at some point: There is simply something wrong with my brain. This one is defective. I am broken and I need fixing. 

Om nama shivaya. I honor the teacher within. 

“Well, there are ways that we can help our brain to feel better. First, we can take some deep breaths, right?”

We did some deep breaths. Spontaneously, he added a big “OOoooooooomMMM” at the end which us made us both smile and we chanted OOooooooommmmm together a few times.

“Now let’s try and think of all the things you love the most.” I said. “Let’s fill up your brain with all the things that make you feel happy! If we fill up your brain with all the happy things there won’t be any more room left for the sad. What are some things you love?”

He thought.

“Do you love… Papa?”

“YEAH!”

“Do you love….Dixie and Kitty?”

“YEAH! I love Dixie and Kitty!”

“Do you love….going to the beach?”

“YEAH!”

“What else?”

“I wuuuuv…….bunnies!”

Pirates. Bananas. His friends at school. Going on adventures. Going camping. His cousin. Doing art projects. Helping Mama cook. Trumpets. Popsicles. His train set. Birthday parties. Grandma and grandpa. Picking tomatoes. Tigers.

The list kept going. And it worked. His mood lightened. Whew. I thought, I think I really might have aced that one. 

And for a moment I glimpsed how far I had come in my own journey of mind. I have a history of depression and anxiety dating back to my teens.  There were moments in my twenties I felt so tormented by my own thoughts and that if life meant fighting that kind of oppression then I did not wish to continue. The path to peace with myself and my mind began with being still. Turning to face the shadows instead of running from them.

I began meditating in 2009. It did not solve all of my problems but it opened something. Even with an irregular practice, the universe saw it’s opportunity. That opening is what allowed healing to take place and transformation process to begin. It brought teachers into my life: people and books and experiences and ….miracles. I wasn’t afraid anymore. It didn’t happen overnight it happened through incremental shifts, big leaps and foolish ones, breaking through, backpedaling, testing the limits of grace (there are none), friendship and dignity (there are some),  and stepping in some dog shit along the way. And some days are still a struggle. But goddamn  it, if I can’t stand here today and say,
“Wow. I am so glad I didn’t give up back there.”

It occurred to me then and I have wondered since, “Is befriending our mind the whole purpose of our lives?”

Suddenly in that moment with my son, I was aware that the most valuable gift to come from those years of darkness and suffering is the ability for me now to teach my son at so early an age the power he can have over his own mind and with reverence and profound gratitude my heart beats out, Thank you.

A long winding road stretches ahead and there will be many more moments. I will not ace them all. But we have made a good beginning.

“Mama?”

“Hmmm?”

“I thiiiink…. if I can have a wittle tw-eat (little treat) and my bwain will feel SO HAPPY!!”

And then, of course, there are always chocolate chips.

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Check this great article: How to Teach a Child Emotional Intelligence.

“…I showed her that it is okay to experience emotions. Sadness and frustration are normal emotions to feel. By not offering her any tactics to stuff them down or any distraction, she was able to fully experience the emotion and feel what it is like to move completely through it. This is strengthening her ability to navigate strong feelings on her own…” (Read more)

The Siren Song.

I have been trying to formulate a post for awhile now about what it feels to be in the throes of early parenthood, where any and all free time seems to go to maintenance of the body, mind, general household or inadvertently catching up on sleep (ie; every time I pick up one of the eight books I have been inching my way through in the last 6 months) and yet the creative mind yearning for hours of interrupted space, to allow finally, the muse to emerge from her dusty hiding place. It makes my bones ache how she calls to me with her siren song.

I whisper, “I know, I know.”

A good friend and I reflect upon the irony that here we are – well into our thirties – having had all of this time while we were younger, so much more freedom to explore – and only now as we become mothers have discovered through the alchemical fire more than ever who and what we are called to do, to create, to birth creatively into the larger world. And now when it feels like we have less time than ever to explore these avenues that call to us…

Another friend and I just yesterday lamented yet again the pervasive feeling that aside from motherhood we should be doing something. Contributing. Living up to our professional or creative potential. And even if we know that the job we are doing is the “most important job in the whole world” and even though we would not choose to be doing anything else, somehow … that idea, reflecting the greater societal ideals, sort of starts seeping in to our thinking anyway. “I used to be so good at (fill in the blank)…I have a really great resume!.. Remember when I had that idea to do that amazing project? Whatever happened to that?” 

Though I have been working 25-35 hours a week since my son was 12 weeks old I still feel like I have been in a sense “checked out” of larger society for the last 2 1/2 years.  I count myself incredibly fortunate that my circumstances have allowed me to have worked from home much of this time while my son is young. I would not have traded it. And yet…I think maybe the isolation of being out of the traditional workplace and having to compartmentalize my time and energy into distinct categories 1) family/home and 2) work (what I need to do to keep my family and home functioning) makes me feel out of touch, like I am just not living up to my fullest potential.  

My social world has gotten a lot smaller. I’ve been on sabbatical from local volunteer/community work. I struggle even to keep up generally what is going on nationwide, globally. When friends (without kids) ask, “So what have you been up to lately?” I suddenly feel like I should come up with something different than, “Um, well  – working, and you know, raising a kid.” As if that was just not enough, or at least interesting enough.

Despite the little daydreams I have throughout the day about what I am going to do at nap time or after 8pm when the little Acorn Scout is finally in bed, when the time arrives there are always other things. The inspiration gives way to the more pressing activities, the family/home and leftover work responsibilities or just plain exhaustion.  And then…halfway through the night, I am lying awake with my heart beating fast and a head spinning full of all the creative projects I am not doing because instead I am doing the mundane, daunting, boring, incredibly profound and sacred work of raising a toddler. And these dreams and visions of my creative contributions to the world dissolve with the morning light as I say yes again instead to the alchemical process unfolding unseen between potty training and bug-hunting, answering emails, detailed spreadsheets, snacks, tantrums, flagging patience, clean up and long evening hours before bed when finally, I can grab a few moments of stillness for myself, breathing into the place of faith that all things come to fruition in their own time and the day closes again.

I am wholly enjoying parenthood right now. Two and a half is the best ever, so far. I am loving it and it’s wearing me out. Often, there is very little left over at the end of the day. But I know that somehow, on levels I cannot even determine, this work too is indispensable to whatever comes next for me. Whether or not I receive world-wide accolades for it (and I won’t) this day in and day out stuff is the seed bed of the soul’s work, the essential part of the creative process and my own growth and development as a creative being. I have changed indescribably in the last two and half years; in some ways I do not even recognize myself. It’s awesome. And irreplaceable.

Yesterday, I came across this article in Lenka Clayton: An artist in residence in motherhood: “…Some of the work she produced as part of An Artist Residency in Motherhood was just her working by herself as an artist and focusing on her materials, what she calls the “ephemeral stuff of parenthood,” and part of it was a collective endeavor examining what it is to be a parent and work as an artist at the same time.” One of her projects is called, “Another project was “63 Objects Taken from my Son’s Mouth.” Seriously, so fucking inspirational!

Then, this morning I opened my inbox this morning and saw one of my favorite blog authors, Laura Kelly Fanucci: the essay I never wrote. She has a way – needless to say, a gift – of speaking the crux of things that I haven’t yet found the right words for and when I see them typed out my heart cries silently “YES! Yes, That’s exactly it!”  Like a string of pearls she’s dropped into my hand, like precious gemstones I roll over in my palm to carry with me for strength, are Laura’s words.

All of that stuff swirling around in you, in me — it will be there when it’s time has come to be shared with the world. This is what I am telling myself while I pull over on the side of the road on the way home from the grocery store to scribble down a thought I want to write more about later – will I remember what that scribble meant when I look at it a week later? I don’t know. But I keep scribbling. I don’t give up.

From A Room of One’s One, Virginia Woolf:

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister… She died young – alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite Elephant and Castle. Now it is my belief that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity , I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so … and have each of us rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves… then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.”

My sisters, keep listening to that siren song with me. When you hear her, smile. Amidst the laundry piles, the grocery list, the bills and the snotty noses, maybe you’ll even start to hum along.

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We can do hard things.

Today,

Grant me the courage to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer saves me over and over. It reminds me of the power of acceptance and the power of choice I always have within any circumstance. Sometimes it does not feel like much choice at all but the most tremendous influence begins in the small dark corners of the mind. Out of those recesses come out to play the best and worst versions of ourselves when faced with limited options. Here I can practice the same positive behavior reinforcement tactics I employ with say, the defiant toddler.

We give room to the whining, we hear out the victim’s case: “It’s not fair!”

No, it’s not.

We give space for anger, for fear, for disappointment. We commiserate with the frustration of coming up against yet another roadblock despite our best efforts.

“It’s too hard!”, we say.

It is hard. And you can do hard things.

In an interview with The Sun in March 2014, the author and amazing human being Barbara Kingsolver recounts this lesson as the most valuable she ever gave her children. To teach them that they can do the hard things. Indeed it is one of the most important ways in which I parent myself. I have leaned on the words of Ms. Kingsolver more times than I can count this year alone.

My son and I, we learn this together side by side. And I am constantly grateful that there are no fewer chances for me to try again than there are for him. The same patience and guidance I extend to my son is what I strive to remember to offer my own thirty-three-year-young tender ego. I don’t always succeed but such is the art of parenting.

Small changes yield big results. The point where to begin may seem insignificant. But no deliberate action is.

What does my heart want?

What does my heart need?

What is the next right action?

Nine times out of ten, the answer is clear. Nine times out of ten the answer is a very, very tiny thing:

Feed yourself.

Make the phone call you’ve been putting off.

Have a dance party with your kid.

GO OUTSIDE.

Take 3 deep mindful breaths.

Say “I’m sorry.”

The impact of tiny intentional acts can move mountains. Cosmic shifts start with the most minute particles in the universe. We start by asking the right questions.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Now what?

You can do it.

where are you going