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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Yoga has changed my life. More accurately, I feel like it gave me my life because it gave (and continues to give) me myself. Through the shifting sands of motherhood, it has remained a faithful anchor.

Since attending my first yoga class in 2001, yoga offered me something my that both my body and spirit craved. Though my practice remained on and off for ten or so years before I became serious about making it a daily habit, I attribute the principles and tools of yoga with healing and transforming my relationship with my body, giving me mastery over my mind I didn’t know was possible, drawing me deeper into relationship with myself and sparking in me a romance with meditation.

Now, fourteen years after my first yoga class, I am enrolled in a training course to become a certified yoga instructor. The more I study, the more awe struck I am at the never-ending-ness of the learning process. Suddenly I feel like I need multiple lifetimes (ha.)

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The word yoga means “to come together”, to unite mind and body. The breath is the most expedient and powerful way to draw into unison the wayward meanderings of our thoughts with the sensations of our physical bodies. Another interpretation of the word yoga is to “be one with the divine.” In yoga, we honor the divine nature that is already present within each one of us, that is higher than us and that connects us all. You can call it God or Shakti or Spirit or whatever you like. The postures of yoga are just one manifestation of the practice of yoga, which is truly a path of self-discovery. It is attentiveness to our actions and their effect on the world. Therefore anything we do with mindfulness can be yoga. When we practice non-violence in our speech and actions we practice yoga. When we practice truthfulness with ourselves and others, when we find contentment with what we have instead of looking at what others have, when we practice moderation and strive for balance in our lifestyle, in our effort, diet or relationships – this is yoga also.  Yoga is not something you only do on a mat or in a class or in downward facing dog.  Any time we release attachment and settle into what is this very moment is the essence of yoga. 

My daily practice looks different every day. Every day I strive to find time to sit in meditation and most days I find at least a few postures to help me begin or close the day, but there are days when neither of those two things happen. Luckily, the opportunities to practice yoga throughout my day are endless.

It is as simple as 1, 2, 3.

No matter who you are, you can make this your daily practice. It can be done anywhere, at any time.  Here it is: pause in whatever you are doing and take 3 deep mindful breaths.

The first breath is to remind yourself that you are here and now.

The second breath is to wake up every cell of your body. 

With the third breath, extend compassion toward yourself. 

Practicing self-compassion even for one moment is a powerful practice. Don’t wait until you think you’ve earned it. You can’t afford that kind of time.

Self-compassion credit

If you can breathe, you can practice yoga. If you can fully engage in life with all of your senses for just even one moment, you are practicing mindful awareness, you are really present, you are really alive. Sister Simone Campbell, laywer, lobbysist, author, poet and Zen practitioner says her most important prayer is , “Please God, wake me up.”

We wander through the world, leaving behind a footprint here, a whispered prayer, a fingerprint or an indentation there, an imprint where we sat with a friend for awhile, a reverberation, a note. Those relics of our presence, some dissolving instantaneously, others becoming fossilized in time –

it is not entirely our business what it is all for.

It is just for us to being paying attention.

So I too say, “Wake me up! Don’t let my mind get in the way of the holy work I have to do today. The work of living (wholly.)”

Amen. Namaste. Aho.

(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

Somehow I’ve shifted tracks. Like a train headed in one direction but that somewhere along the way began the subtle veer toward the right until on a different track completely. It’s so easy to do. And when I finally notice, it seems I’ve traveled so far off course that some drastic action is needed to catch up, to jump the tracks and get back on schedule and muscle back through to where I was, to make up for lost time. Like overcompensating with exercise after a weekend binge. Like everything else, the answer is always to do the opposite of trying to compensate or re-prove.

The action is non-action. It is still just to stop. Breathe. Notice where I am.

Sitting with myself gives me the chance to listen to hear out the story.

Much of my time is spent answering other people’s needs, listening to their stories and solving their problems. Sometimes my own gets stifled and it takes awhile to turn up the volume on those subtle messages. Sometimes our own story gets tangled up with the narrative of the people we brush up against or come head to head with. The web gets tangled. Sometimes it takes quite awhile to unknot the emotional threads of who is who.

But sitting with my story gives me the opportunity to observe the things I have been telling myself about what is, to see the course that I’ve been on and redirect if needed. I imagine sometimes that if my brain were an actual person I was having a conversation with I would think,“Woah, this person really needs some help. Yeeesh, this conversation is a real energy drain.”

I think of it as checking my vital signs, especially when I’ve been in overdrive. “Survival mode” is simply encoded into the parent experience. We all know what it feels like to running on fumes, to be hanging on to our wits by a thread for days at a time, being forced to waive our individual needs or comforts on behalf of the whole. Though the most primitive dangers have been eradicated from modern society, we have created some new ones in their place: isolation, impossible expectations, imbalanced workloads, incongruent messages about roles, identity and the value of family. I mean, really — a lot of the time managing myself feels like a full time job, much less anything or anyone else. But most parents are familiar with pressing the “mute” button on our own ongoing drama, needs, concerns for awhile in order for things to keep running. We might disconnect but the storyline, the inward drama, is still playing out while we’re attending everyone else’s.

Meanwhile, the inner child who is whining, what about ME??? is the one that gets shut in the closet for awhile in order for me to just think straight and attend to what taking priority at the moment.  What matters I guess is that I don’t shut her up in the dark and silence too often or for too long. And that I bring her dessert later and apologize and tell her I love her and listen to her tell her story. (Actually when I think about it in these terms, this totally would not fly with Child Protection Services so I wonder how we get away with doing it to ourselves??)

The most important thing is that we keep coming back to listen. And that we always try and hear out the inner storyline withholding judgement. Let her whine and tantrum, let her mope, let her be angry, let her be too tired to feel anything, let her feel empty. And then ask her what she needs.

Sitting gives me the chance to listen to my own story. To hear myself out. Be curious. Withhold judgement. Be compassionate with myself while I sit in my own skin, right where I am.

Quietly shift gears.

Remind myself of what I want.
And just be grateful to myself for remembering.

today

(True shit, man.)

xo

Fruit.

And this is how it happens.

I stand in the kitchen while my child violently shakes the bars of the safety gate 4 feet away, letting loose the death scream that would at the very least cause the neighbors question our parenting if not draw in a hungry mountain lion from hills.

It’s too early for the death scream. For the love of all that is sacred, its 5:15 am.

This has become routine, though. I scramble to put breakfast together, bleary-eyed and stiff in the joints, while listening to alternating outbursts of “EAT!!! Mama hold YOOOOOOOOUUU!!! EAT!! MAMA HOLD  YOOOOOOOOUUU!!!!” Looking for something quick to satiate him while the oatmeal pancakes brown in the skillet, my eyes alight upon the last of the beautiful organic peaches sitting on the counter. I glance in the fridge at the last remaining luscious strawberries in the carton we splurged on at the farmer’s market. I think about how much I was looking forward to enjoying a bowl of cut up peaches and strawberries for my own breakfast. I think about how my son will most likely refuse them as he does most everything except the four basic menu items he has narrowed down over the past four months. I cut them up anyway. He’s hungry and I am supposed to keep offering him different foods, right??

I set them on his tray along with a fork and see my opportunity to make a much-needed mad dash to the bathroom. Amidst a necessary uh,… multi-step process of changing and freshening and emptying I become aware of three things simultaneously:

1) there is no toilet paper

2) the smell of pancakes beginning to burn

3) the clunk of the fork as it hits the floor and the ensuing wail

Fooooooork!!!!! MAMA!! Fork! Fork! Foooooork!!!

Seriously, fork my life sometimes.

My pants around my ankles I shuffle to the closet where we keep the toilet paper and finish up my personal hygienic duties, “Just a minute!” I chirp hopelessly, the desperate and feeble attempt at cheerfulness in my voice sounds ridiculous. He can’t hear me. He doesn’t care. But it is too late. With the first unmistakable “plop, plop” sound I realize I’ve lost.

Plop. plop. plop…

(click to cue music)

By the time I emerge defeated, 10 seconds later, every last piece of that precious fruit has landed onto the dirty, pet-hair covered floor. The highchair tray is empty. The dog is furtively sniffing and licking each piece of dropped food, evaluating each morsel. There is the smell of smoke from breakfast now blackened on the stove. My son is shrieking that he wants a “SNACK” with increasing hysteria. But for a moment I just stand and stare at the floor unmoving. And I feel my throat tighten with a choking kind of cry.

And this is how it happens. This is all it takes. To break me.

Fruit.

It’s 5:25am.

~

I have tried to break down what exactly makes up this highly combustible mix of elements that lands me back in the place of feeling like the the joke is on me … again, and that the only reasonable solution is to stick my baby in front of some cartoons and light up a cigarette and maybe start morning drinking. The scenario always involves some version of 1) not enough sleep.  2) an overwrought toddler 3) unrelenting pain in my body 4) the need to take care of myself but not feeling that I have permission to do so and 5) a striving, even in the impossible moment, to do what I think the “good mother” would do: put her needs last, make breakfast from scratch, feed the kid organic fruit I know he doesn’t want (but that I actually want!), and on top of it all, mask my frustration with a kind of strained cheerfulness.

It’s a set up. Once I’ve pitted my needs against his,  I will always lose.

So I did what I should have done in the first place when I first felt the twinge of the battle lines being drawn:  Hold the homemade organic breakfast, give him a handful of cheerios. Turn on “Little Bear”,  pour myself a cup of coffee, walk outside and breathe.

Every day doing your best looks a little different. Compassion for others begins with compassion toward myself.