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Zen Mommastery

           Shaven-headed monks in long black robes facing a white wall; perfectly-composed nuns drinking tea beside a vase of flowers arranged just so—these are the kinds of images we usually associate with “Zen”. But in Karen Maezen Miller’s MommaZen, these romanticized views are left behind, and we enter into the practice of Zen, lived in everyday family life. Gone are the teahouse, the monastery, the quaint handhewn temple in the woods—these are the images we associate with “Zen”. Instead, this retreat—an intensive period of mothering the child, and of mothering the true self—often takes place in the messy, chaotic, sleepless home, not for a weekend or a week, but for a good twenty years.

            Momma Zen practice is often the practice of feeling overwhelmed in the full catastrophe of cooking, washing dishes, and talking on the phone while the doorbell is ringing and at least one child is tugging on the apron—“Momma, Momma I need you, right now!” But really, this is no different than the Zen we practice in sesshin, letting go and coming back to this breath, this moment, over and over again. In the midst of chaos, Momma Zen comes back again and again to centeredness—to right now, with whatever is.

            Reading Momma Zen is like listening to an open, honest friend whose many years of Zen practice have given her wisdom. But in sharing the thoughts that many of us also have, Miller doesn’t come off as being “special.” Se is our ally who says, “You are looking for answers, insight, and wisdom that you already possess.”  She puts the infinite into child—rearing, offering an “invitation to enter eternity with your child, with everything, into the silence of intimate stillness.”  Here at last is what we mothers have been waiting for: momma-hood held in equal respect to monkhood.

            Miller has a handle on her subject. Before her daughter was born, she spent six years on the meditation cusion. She takes quotes from the old masters—teachers who lived as far back as the sixth century—gives them a good dusting-off, and brings them right into our beds, making them relevant where we aer nursing or attending to a sick child in the quiet darkness of the night.  For Miller, the ultimate koan practice is the moment-to-moment-ness of the mother-child relationship.

            This is the study and practice of not-knowing—the mind that is before thinking, comparing, opposites, and images. Miller demonstrates that there is fun in not-knowing, and writes in a lighthearted way about how “thinking mind” doesn’t help us.  She shows us that mothering includes discomfort, the first noble truth in Buddhism.  And reading story after story of Miller’s “crooked path,” seeing her off-balance, knowing that she is a zen teacher, we begin to get it—the Zen vision is not about being balanced all of the time Rather, this is about Zen practice coming back to balance over and over and over again.

            So while most of society is hiding behind the dream of GapKids and well-applianced dream kitchens, Miller shows us that pain and vulnerability are inherent in mothering and Zen, and readers thus have permission to take a peek at their own trials. In this way, Momma Zen helps to take the isolation out of motherhood. Miller’s situation is similar to our own, she understands, and her understanding shines forth as compassion. If she can do it, we can too.

            We may think that mothering is hard work, but Miller draws our attention to the true workhorse in the relationship, the child.  A child's physical transformation is amazing, and it's a lot of work.  we might say that the twos are terrible, but Miller encourages us to stop and look at the two-year-old's workload.  "Oh!" we say, and maybe we're a little humbler, a little more compassionate to our little one.  But we'll still lose our cool--Zen doesn't mean that we have to be perfect.  We lose our cool because we are human. So when--not if--we lose our cool, our Zen praccice is to let go of losing our cool and come back to center. In this way we become more present.

            Miller points out that in this mothering relationship, childre are the gurus--not because they tell us what to do, but because they teach through their doing.  The old zen saying goes: "When hungry eat, when tired sleep."  Observing our children closely, we see that's true. Of course, it's also true that often when they are hungry and tired, we are not ready for them to be so. so the "good" child is the child that is easy for us.  But does that make the child "good"? she asks.

            Miller compares marriage to a garden, a metaphor that brought tears to my eyes.  Children want a bright, rich, well composted garden.  They want their parents together both physically and mentally, they want their parents to be happy and present with them. Such a union is a nourishing ground in which a child can grow.

          Miller describes this Momma Zen way of parenting as our new spiritual practice: "preparing you to be unprepared."  We can take comfort in her openness and her off-centered mothering, as she meanders around with the intention of coming back towards center, always.  She doesn't end the book with her story, but points the way toward mindful parenting with a chapter on how to meditate.

            If I have one criticism, it's that Miller goes astray when she discusses children and emotions. But then Zen study often seems to miss the point when it comes to emotions: many Zen students see emotion as something to get away from.  but emotions are part of the human condition and they're not the problem--it's the fear around emotions that brings suffereing. So I have to disagree with Miller when she encourages adults to withdraw when children are feeling emotional, rather than giving the child attention. I would encourage Miller to allow her daughter to come into the safetly of her lap, to let emotions be emotions, to allow them to come and go with breath and posture.  Because once we make friends with our feelings, they come and go at a faster pace, bringing more happiness. Holding anger in one's lap is the same as holding anger on the Zen cushion. We see anger and let it go---Suzuki Roshi called this "rideing the wild tiger."  Similarly, thich Nhat Hanh teaches us to say, "Oh, my baby anger," while cradling it in our loving arms.

            Settling that minor criticism aside, Momma Zen is a book you can read again and again. It's both a light and serious read, a book that will offer different wisdom depending on which phase of motherhood you are in.  and if Miller is ahead of your current phase of parenting, you will have a guide to show you the way.  As you read these Zen Momma experiences, you will relax--and what a great gift that is. Because when mothers are more relaxed, children beome more relaxed. And as children are more relaxed, society becomes more relaxed. We an oly imagine how far that process could go.

            Above all else, a child wants her mother to be happy. So can we practice being happy? It's Miller's suggestion that we can--what a daring, simple, and profound suggestion. A mother's practice is to accept that this--the poopy diaper, the screaming child--is Zen.  And the teaching is to be happy--yes, happy right now--and whith what is! Poopy diaper is Zen? Yes!

            Zen brings our attention to the question What is this?--whether it is on the cusion, on the pot, or crammed into a little two-seater make-believe ship.  Mothering is not differentfrom Zen; in fact, it is zen000it is life. It is the manifestation of emptiness, the unknown. Momma zen demonstrates that Zen is not special.  Zen is wiping up doo-doo. Show me a Zen monk who can do that with a smile in his heart and I'll show you a mom who can sit still for hours facing a white wall.  She does both.

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