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Interview with ‘Momma Zen’ Karen Maezen Miller

April 15, 2010

I recently interviewed Zen priest and author Karen Maezen Miller for BellaOnline, and I liked how it came out so much that I decided to feature it here this week also. Karen wrote Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, which I featured quotes from in my Mother’s Day post last year. Her blog, Cheerio Road, has been on my blogroll for awhile, and I have often linked to posts of hers. She has a new book out, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, that I really loved (and also reviewed.)

In case you are wondering, no, I am not related to Karen, she’s not paying me, I don’t owe her money, and in fact, we have never met face to face. Sometimes it’s really just about sharing a good thing with others when you find it.

I spoke with Karen about many things, including writing, how this book came about, the nature of Zen, the importance of teachers, women in Buddhism, and marriage. I know it’s hard, in our busy lives, to sit and read a longish (for the web anyway) interview such as this, but I do think it’s worth the time and effort. To whet your appetite, here’s a few quotes from the interview:

“…a book about Zen in every day life is not going to appear to be a book about Zen. It’s going to be a book that appears to be about every day life.”

“I don’t write what I know, I write through what I don’t know.”

“The truth is that I have a very agile, busy, clever mind…I was very attached – and still am sometimes – to how elaborate my thinking is. This is what confuses most of us! We try and outsmart everything.”

“…there is one thing we are very, very good at – fooling ourselves. It’s the only thing we’re good at! We’re not good at fooling others. But we will try forever to deceive ourselves.”

“Your life crashing around you is actually a life-saving event. You have to pay attention.”

“Do I agree with patriarchy? Absolutely not all the time!”

“Buddhism is a practice…And not that many people practice it. Far more people debate it, discuss it, read about it, argue it, and preach it than practice it.”

“..if I couldn’t change one thing in the chapter on marriage for [my husband], I didn’t have a marriage.”

So I encourage you to make the effort, click on through and read the entire interview. Then come on back here and share your thoughts and comments. And be sure to check out her new book:

Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life

18 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2010 9:33 pm

    Hi Mom: Enjoying your blogs. Regarding Zen, I don’t think Zen says much different from the rest of the mystic traditions, including Chrisitanity. Ever read Chritian mystic Meister Eckhart? 14th century mystic who is read by many Zen Buddhists.

    Anyway, not sure this is appropriate, but I’m going to be on Karen Tate’s radio show April 21 at 8:55 pm Eastern (5:55 pacific). The address (including the archives if you can’t make the time) is:

    Voices of the Sacred Feminine Radio….Extended Edition

    Voices of the Sacred Feminine Radio Program Archives

    Hope you and some of your commrades listen. I’d be honored.


  2. April 15, 2010 9:40 pm

    : )

  3. April 15, 2010 10:28 pm

    Laura – back atya!

    Burl – I’ll let you pump your stuff, sounds interesting. I have read Eckhart, and Thomas Merton too, who of course translated a lot of Zen works and wrote Mystics and Zen Masters. I agree at some point all the messages are the same. At this point I’m more interested in the differences though – that’s where the fun is! At least in terms of practice and aesthetics – I have no interest in dogma. And each path does have different strengths and ‘flavors’. Perhaps we could say Zen allows for less distraction, keeps pointing us back to ourselves very directly, without many sidetracks.

  4. April 15, 2010 10:48 pm

    I have a hunch we’re talking of a different Eckhart. Eckhart is a 14th century Christian mystic who is sometimes quoted by quantum physists. Regarding differences, I’m with you. For me, differences are in unison. Walk in a forest and you see a wide variety. But its the variety that makes the forest healthy. E Pluribus Unim….In the diverse is unity. Not being practiced in this day and age of standardization. Thanks, Burl

  5. April 15, 2010 10:53 pm

    Burl, yes I know Meister Eckhart – he’s very trendy these days actually! But so is Eckhart Tolle, which is probably why you thought I was confused:-) I mentioned Thomas Merton because he was a Catholic writer and wrote about both Christian mystics and Zen masters, he was one of the first in the West to connect the two traditions.

  6. April 16, 2010 12:27 pm

    Hi Lisa (and Burl!),

    Oh, I am finally waking up from the social media dead! lol…need a Tibetan priest… know any? Anyway, Lisa, it seems to me that you two (you and Momma Zen) have a lot in common! How exciting! I will share your interview! Hope all is great in your world!


    PS – Burl, thanks for the show link! I will definitely check it out!

  7. April 16, 2010 10:48 pm

    First installment as I need to come back as there is a lot here.
    The ‘pay attention to life crashing around you part is brilliant wisdom. And it’s so true that when it happens, there’s the fodder for profound change for the better. It’s not to be run from but worked with I have discovered.
    That is something I have heard and paid attention to 🙂 ‘pay attention’. Look deeper at what is in front of you. The hidden agenda that is being run by people, places, things. pay attention, pay attention! Pay attention to how I respond to it all too. 🙂

  8. April 16, 2010 11:41 pm

    Oh Lisa you have me hooked to read the interview. This line alone inspires me to give you both a big hug; “there is one thing we are very, very good at – fooling ourselves. It’s the only thing we’re good at! We’re not good at fooling others. But we will try forever to deceive ourselves.”
    I am often sooo amazed how I can pull the wool over my own eyes, still and after all that I know. … and I so had to smile at how we cannot fool others . . . when and if those others pay enough attention to us though.
    Most of us don’t care and let us carry on fooling ourselves.
    Thanks Lisa for your generous sharing, xox Wilma

  9. April 17, 2010 2:26 pm

    You are a skilled interviewer, and you bring about many important points, and the one that stands out for me is that we are good at fooling ourselves. It’s quite humbling to realize that self-honesty is the realization that no matter how honest we think we are with ourselves, we may be still fooling ourselves. Every intention, even spiritual ones, especially spiritual ones, are suffused with the ego.

  10. April 18, 2010 1:58 am

    Amy – so good to hear from you again! Yes, as someone else recently tweeted, Momma Zen’s life could be my life.

    Ruth – yes the pay attention to life crashing I can certainly relate to also. It never feels that way at the time, but it is always an opening, an opportunity. As she says in the interview, normally we think we are comfortable, but actually we are STUCK.

    Wilma – Yes, isn’t this true about fooling ourselves but never others? And you are right that there are few people that tell us the truth, that call us on our delusions. To have a friend or teacher or whatever that will do this is a great gift, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

    Burl – sound interesting, I will check it out.

    Kaushik – good to see you back! You honed in on the same point as Wilma, so I’ll leave it at that…

  11. April 18, 2010 11:09 am

    I loved the interview! What especially jumped out for me is this idea of how we fool ourselves, and not others. How true! And a good message for me to hear.

    And it is great to get to know Karen and her works – what a beautiful soul….

  12. April 18, 2010 6:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing the interview here — I went over and read the whole thing. What a good conversation.


  13. April 18, 2010 7:10 pm

    Lisa, Really appreciating the interview. I really like the quote about ‘writing through what I don’t know.’ Often times this is what writing is for me. I am also left contemplating what is a spiritual practice? I have thought about this loads and have found your insight into this useful. Just enjoying contemplating how practice is about intention (I think) and how and what that might look like in life within the specific path of a spiritual tradition as well as within the more broad practice of mothering. I have so much to learn…..Peace, Nicki

  14. April 19, 2010 12:16 am

    Learning things as you write that you may not have learned otherwise – that’s been a major feature of writing for me too. It seems to go 1. inspiration from my non-writing world 2. sit down and write and have further momemts of inspiration at your writing table and write about those too, and 3. editorial/organizational.

  15. April 19, 2010 4:51 pm

    Lance – yes, thanks Lance, I also think you would like this new book of hers. I have my husband reading it now…

    Stacy, I’m glad you liked it! I know you are a fan already of Karen’s, so hopefully you have gotten your own copy of Hand Wash Cold

    Nicki – yes, this ‘writing through what i don’t know’ captured me too. I never really considered myself a writer before blogging, although I had to do alot of business writing in my former career. And this is what blogging helped me tap into – writing through what I don’t know.

    Paul – good to see you. Yes, you described the writing as learning very well…

  16. April 20, 2010 5:37 pm

    I loved when she talked about everything in our lives is useful. “Nothing is wasted. We just don’t know how or when each experience is going to be used.” What an important lesson for me!

    I also really related to the quote you pulled out at the beginning, “I don’t write what I know, I write through what I don’t know.” That somehow gave me permission to stay my course and keep writing in the way I feel led to write, rather than waiting until I think I have something expert to say. This was really freeing.

    I’ve read a few reviews of this book, but this interview is what moved me to eagerly want to read it. Thanks, Lisa, for another wonderful interview. You ask such insightful questions and draw out people’s humanity with your compassion. Though I’ve followed her blog, I felt I got to know Karen in a new way through this interview.


  17. April 20, 2010 10:15 pm

    No bullshit. That’s what strikes me most about her writing. She writes based on her own life, her own experience, and lives from the teachings. It takes a great sense of trust to live and write this way.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  18. April 21, 2010 5:07 pm

    Alexis – I do think you will like this book too, and as a writer get even more out of it. And it is memoir that also ‘teaches’ (with a light touch), so in that sense I think it may inspire your own work too…

    Mermaid – Yes, she really puts herself out there, and doesn’t pretend it’s all ‘perfect’. No BS indeed!

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