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Hand Wash Cold

Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller

Here are a few of my notes…

In the attic that last day, kneeling over a bag of stale and wrinkled recollections, I had a hint of what I had been missing. Laundry. And not just laundry, but what laundry gives us: an honest encounter with ourselves before we’re freshened and fluffed and sanitized. Before we have ourselves put together again.

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It’s not so easy to be done with your own sob story. We might set it down for a time, but we hardly ever get rid of it. Provoked, we haul out the old emotional wardrobe and put it on again. We’re so accustomed to familiar, wounded feelings and self-serving narratives — they caress us like the gentle fold of an old T-shirt, the nub of a well-worn weave — that we mistakenly think they’re who we are. We think we are our thoughts; we think we are our feelings; we think we are nothing more than a bulging basket of past experiences. Can we really find happiness by letting go of what we know of ourselves? It is the only way.

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Coasting is a largely underrated mode of transport. Yet it is fairly certain to require the least effort and, consequently, to effect the least harm. We should all take our foot off the pedal more often and see where the downhill glide takes us. We might be surprised at the view.

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I’d woken up to the task of taking care of myself. And here I clarify that it is not my intention with this testimonial to make light of depression or any kind of suffering. I intend only to point out the greater mass of it that is self-inflicted as a result of our habits of mind. These days it is hard for me to find any suffering that I do not inflict on myself, over and over, any problem that isn’t born of my own fear and brittle judgment, again and again, any impossibility that doesn’t arise from my own parsimonious view: the view that what I am and what I have is not enough. Never enough.

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That’s what we do in Zen meditation, or zazen. Breathe. Simply breathe, attending to our own breath as it rises and falls, fills and empties, counting it from one to ten and all over again just to give our brilliant brains something to do. We do this with our eyes open, looking at a wall or the floor in front of us. It’s easy to think we don’t know how to do it, and easy to think we’re not doing it right, but this is the way to see that thoughts like that are just — oh yeah, look at that — thoughts, and we start counting again.

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This is why the single instruction I remember most enduringly from my encounters with Maezumi Roshi is: “Your life is your practice.”

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Miraculously, it works. In the morning, I take the dirty dishes caked with dried food out of the machine and hand wash them. The miracle does not occur in the machine. The miracle does not occur in the second wash. The miracle occurs when I don’t say a word about it. It’s not only what I do or don’t do; without me knowing, he silently performs a million miracles himself. Truly, the miracle of marriage lies in what we don’t say, and deeper still in what we don’t know. Marriage takes one dishwasher and two miracle workers.

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I hear a lot about living in the moment. I hear about how and why and when, and how hard it is to live in the moment. The truth is, there is not a single person on this planet who is living anywhere but in the moment. It’s just not the moment we have in mind.

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I thought if I grew up, did my best, and made everyone proud of me, it would be enough. I thought if I got a good job, got a better job, made money, and then made even more money, it would be enough. I thought if I could lose ten pounds, get a better haircut, get the right jeans, then lose the same ten pounds, it would be enough. I thought if I could understand, explain, and express my feelings well enough, it would be enough. I thought if I wished, hoped, dared, or dreamed enough, then it would finally be enough. Then I thought: enough. I practice being enough. When I do that, everything is already enough, and this is the day I’ve been saving for.

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I mean life is a garden, and when you do not yet see that your life is a garden you may not see your life clearly at all. You are the garden, you are the gardener, and you reap what you sow. What will you make of the ground that you — only you — can tend? How will you share the place you never leave, the time you always have, and the peace you alone can spread?

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Although the consequences are extreme, the goal of my cousin’s program and others like it is small, very small indeed, because even a small behavioral change can produce the margin of redemption. She sits down with a family at the start of a case and tries to winnow the whole catastrophe down to one change they can all work on together. One change to save everyone’s life. What will it be?

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In truth, I struggle daily giving even one measly minute of undistracted company to my family, and I’m here all day! When do we actually have the children we say we have? When are we actually in the relationships we’re in? What portion of the years, the days, the hours of our lives do we spend being the people we define ourselves to be? Fulfilling the roles that we ourselves have chosen? Doing the only full-time work there is to do? How often do we do what Sam did, what the sun does, what everything everywhere does without a blink? When do we simply show up? Not very often, it seems to me now, even though I tell myself my family takes all my time.

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A thousand years ago, a Zen disciple complained to a master about having no time. “You are being used by the twenty-four hours every day, but I am using the twenty-four hours every day,” the teacher replied. Using it to stay present, that is.

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I went because the nights are numbered and I do not know the count.

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In the temple where I practice — and in monasteries, churches, and cathedrals everywhere — time is signaled with sound. Three bells to sit, two bells to stand, and a drumroll before meals. When your time gets out of hand, I suggest you sound an alarm. Take a kitchen timer and put it in your hand. Turn the dial, and when the bell rings, switch off your iPhone. Shut off the television. Power down the computer. Turn the dial and, before the bell rings, take a nap. Read a book. Meditate. Turn the dial, and spend one hour in undistracted company with your loved ones. If you tell me that you don’t have one hour a day to spend in undistracted company with your children or your partner, I’ll say it’s about time. It’s always about time.

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When I grow weary of what’s undone or anxious about what’s to come, I remind myself that I am not the maker or the order-taker in this life. I am this life, and it is unfinished. Even when it is finished it will be unfinished. And so I take my sweet time. Time is savored when you take it by the hand.

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There are a lot of new communities these days, although almost none of them are the communities where you already live. Disconnected and afraid, we’ve fashioned other communities that are more like clubs and compounds — virtual or gated, with passwords and private admission. We go there to find people of our like and kind. We call it our tribe. Our circle. Our net. I’m as guilty as you. Follow my tweets! It’s a wide world, to be sure, but where’s the one you’re living in? Where’s the one that commands your steady focus and your trusting hand? If you’re like we were, it’s probably not the one in your backyard. No, we’re not there yet.

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