Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles, California. As such, she is skilfully and warmly engaged with spirituality in everyday life. She’s also the compelling of two compelling, inspiring books, Momma Zen and, as of last month, Hand Wash Cold. Of this recent title, Mandala magazine writes: “Read how she copes with the suds and stains of living and you’ll never look at an overflowing laundry basket in the same way again.”
In this first of a special two-part interview, she talks about happiness and a feminine perspective, housework, mindfulness,
Research says the modern woman is increasingly unhappy. Why do you think that is so?
I’m not so sure that unhappiness is increasing regardless of what the research says. I know that research is increasing, and that may be the key to the findings. Research like this shows us how thoughts trigger feelings. If someone asks me how happy I am, I’m likely to give it more thought than I would otherwise give it. I might not be thinking about happiness at all, but if you ask me to evaluate it, I could judge my happiness to be lacking, especially compared to how happy I think I’m supposed to be. The truth is we’re all afflicted by the sense of insufficiency. We wear it like a permanent stain.
Happiness is simple. Everything we do to find it is complicated. We try to find more time, more help, more leisure and more reward. We seek ever greater sources of external gratification – a newer job, a newer partner, more stuff, greater status, and a sense of security – and even if we acquire them they rarely fulfill our expectations. Living this way is a recipe for unhappiness. I know; I tried it and it left me hungry for more.
Some would say your advice in praise of homemaking sets the cause of gender equality back 50 years. How would you defend your view?
Household work is a timeless fact of life. No one needs to defend it and no one needs to praise it, but someone needs to do it! No matter how sophisticated and complicated life seems to be, it still boils down to breakfast, lunch and dinner. We still spend a good bit of our time in the laundry room, the kitchen or the yard. Household chores give us the chance to intimately engage with our lives. They give us the ingredients for genuine fulfillment, because in caring for our homes we are caring for ourselves. Since laundry literally saved my life, I like to take first dibs on it. My husband can change the light bulbs and fix the sprinklers, and I call it even.
You use household chores as opportunities for spiritual practice, but no one likes to do housework. What other activities can bring mindfulness into our everyday lives?
Anything and everything is an opportunity to be mindful: to pay complete attention. So while you’re working, just work; driving, just drive; talking, just talk; exercising, just exercise; eating, just eat. When you’re with your family, give them your undistracted and nonjudgmental attention (for at least one hour a day). Attention is the most concrete expression of love. Whatever you pay attention to thrives; whatever you don’t pay attention to withers and dies. This is true of every aspect of your life and your relationships. It’s especially useful to bring your nonjudgmental attention to doing what you don’t particularly like. Do it without commentary or resentment and it becomes a pivot point for changing the way you view your whole life. Wisdom subtly guides us in the direction we’d least like to go.
You trace the onset of your spiritual journey to the day that you stopped taking antidepressants. Where do you stand on the debate about meditation versus antidepressants?
Debates don’t serve anyone and so I never take a stand. It can be useful, however, to realize how much power we have in our own lives – the power to step forward and take responsibility, and the power to make choices and change. There is no greater power than your own. When we realize our own sufficiency, we see that we always have the help we need when we need it. At different times, the help may come in the form of a pill, or in my case, a meditation pillow.
You had an encounter with a spiritual teacher that changed your life. Is there hope for people who haven’t yet had the occasion to meet a charismatic teacher?
Yes, there’s more than hope; there’s certainty. Wherever you are when you open your eyes, there will be something or someone to instruct and motivate you. It may be a pile of laundry, a sink full of dishes or the weeds in the yard, but they are teachers just the same.
You left your career to devote yourself to your family and your spiritual practice, but not everybody has the chance to be a stay-at-home mother or a full-time homemaker. What advice do you offer working women who have to balance competing priorities?
The most important advice I can give is to not judge yourself. Our lives feel out of balance when we think we should be doing something other than what we are doing. Thinking that way makes us feel guilty, overwhelmed and inadequate. So I encourage women to trust where they are and to take care of what is directly in front of them. At work, what matters is work, and not the guilty thoughts or worries about what is going on at home. At home, what matters is what is at home, and not what is back at work. This is difficult since the boundaries between home and work have been blurred by 24-hour technologies, but life is too precious to confuse our priorities. When we trust our lives enough to invest ourselves totally in what is at hand, our work life benefits and our home life benefits. In a sense, our only job is to pay complete attention to where we are.
We must be careful not to live suspended between the what-ifs and the how-comes: devoted to the life we don’t have. When we do that, we cheat ourselves and all those we love, and we live in a permanent state of imbalance.
.:.` Stay tuned to Patheos.com for Part Two.
For more information about Karen Maezen Miller: http://www.mommazen.com.