If you don't see it, you don't see it even as you walk on it
You stumble along thinking you don't know the way, and then one day you realize you're in the middle of it.
The three of us walked under an arbor of fruit trees. Hundreds of ripe oranges bobbed overhead like ornaments. I was the guest, but with every step I felt more at home.
This mind is an amazing thing. It can conjure love from the scent of orange blossoms, peace from a dry breeze, and joy from a patch of grass on a summer day. Until I was twelve years old, I'd spent nearly every weekend at my grandparents' house in the middle of the Ventura County orange groves about an hour north of Los Angeles. There, I felt adored. I didn't question whether or not I deserved it. Every memory of those days is infused with the smell of sandy dirt and orange essence. It was all coming back to me.
Why are childhood memories so vivid? So real and lasting? Perhaps because as kids we pay attention to what's in front of us, undistracted by things we haven't done and places we've yet to go.
The Path is Not The Means to An End, It Is The Way to Live
I'd always thought that a path was a means to an end. A course of study, a tour of duty. The distance from A to B. The anguished span between wanting and having. The truth is, I expected this second marriage to deliver me to something better — a happy ending. Zen too I'd seen as a necessary pit stop on the way to a higher realm. But as long as we're only passing through, we never arrive. The path isn't the way to get something; the path is the way to live.
It's a path we never leave but rarely even see. We don't notice where we 're standing. We don't notice where we're walking. We don't notice the sights, smells, or sounds around us. We don't notice our traveling companions or the people we pass by. When we are absentminded, the world is a wilderness.
But all the while, we are on the way. That's what I knew for sure as I shuffled along, suddenly alert to every sensation. I knew that all my late starts, wrong turns, and missed signals were part of my path. Every lapse in judgment, miscalculation, and hesitation had been perfectly timed.
Everyone I'd ever known, everything that had ever happened, had landed me here. Nothing I'd ever done had been a mistake. Not even the mistakes had been mistakes. It was like setting down a suitcase. No, more like crawling out of a shipping container that is packed solid with pain, guilt, blame, and regret. You don't want to get trapped in one of those. You'll never get out alive.
Wanting to Get "There" and Then Wanting to Leave
When I was growing up we used to snicker about my dad and his hankering for road trips. He would plan for days or weeks, map alternate routes, fill the tires, top the tank, load the car, and wake us in the dark to start the drive so we could get there — wherever there was — ahead of schedule. And then he would be perfectly miserable in the place and with the people we had come to see. These trips always ended the way they began: uncomfortably early.
When he quit working, he retired to a trailer in the woods, then to a house by a lake. His last try was a cabin in the mountains. Near the end of his life, he started one last road trip across the country to visit me. He never made it. He stopped at a hotel an hour from my home and called, asking me to come up and meet him for lunch. After a hamburger and a side of fries, he hugged me in the parking lot, turned around, and drove back the twelve hundred miles he'd come. His affliction was no longer a quirk; it had overtaken him. There was no place on earth he could rest.
Recalling it now, I don't think less of him. I don't think he was so different from anyone else. His curse is mine and yours too. The road is merciless when the company you can neither keep nor avoid is your own. And yet, by degrees of habit, this is how we live, until we learn how to make ourselves at home wherever we are.
Whatever You Practice, You'll Get Good At
What do you practice? Whatever you practice, you'll get very good at. Some people become more fearful or cynical; some more arrogant or vain; some greedier; some needier; some more combative or close-minded. That's what they practice.
And then there are a few who grow as solid as a mountain and as wide-open as the sky. They are strong and yet tender. Steady yet yielding. Powerful yet gentle. You will recognize them because they resemble the earth you can touch and the sky you cannot contain. It's not that they are superhuman; they are more completely human than most of us ever allow ourselves to be.
Losing My Mind in a Zen temple
The people who knew me probably thought I had lost my mind the first time I walked into a Zen temple. And it felt like I had. That's okay, because you do not come to Zen unless you are lost. You do not find the Way unless you've lost the way — and I mean utterly lost, without hope of finding the route on your own, because only then do you have the momentary good sense to stop and ask for directions.
Formal Zen practice consists of sitting, standing, and walking around. Beginners expect to learn a high and holy way to perform these rites, and so they ask questions. The instruction goes like this:
How do I sit? Sit.
How do I breathe? Breathe.
How do I stand? Upright.
How do I walk? On your own two feet.
You cannot imagine the freedom and personal empowerment that arises just from resolving these issues.
You Don't Have to Find Your Path, You're Already On It
Everyone has a path in life — including the spiritual aspect of life — and the good thing is, you don't have to find it. You are already on it, fully equipped for the trip. The path you are on always leads you farther on, in the same way you were led here today. To walk the path, you just keep going, asking, seeking, finding, and this is the most important thing: trying.
If you haven't yet recognized your path it's because you haven't gone far enough to see clearly. We have to use our feet to get close enough for anything to come into focus.
"How did you choose Zen?" people ask me, assuming I made a deliberate choice to take the most outlandish path toward spiritual liberation. One answer is that I didn't choose. I simply followed the path straight ahead, and the way was made clear.
The first step makes the next step simple. The second step makes the third unavoidable. By that point you begin to realize something profound about your life: there is no other way but the one you walk on. So you keep walking, trusting your own two feet, amazed at the way the scenery changes.
The other answer may sound weird. I really liked the way Maezumi Roshi walked: his bare feet padding across a polished wooden floor. Granted, he didn't look like much -- he was a scrawny fellow, no taller than me, wearing mended clothes. You might suppose it is some grand philosophy that draws us to the spirit — a theory of the cosmos — but it is the feet, the hands, the eyes: this measly scrap of human life.
Luckily for those of us with a wayward sense of direction, a Zen retreat consists largely of following in the footsteps of the person who stands in front of you. I was mesmerized by Maezumi's sure, elegant footfall, silent beneath the swoosh of his black robe. He moved, when he moved, like Kilimanjaro. I would have followed him anywhere. I guess you could say I did, although it led no farther than my own home. Once you admit you are lost, everything you see is a sign pointing home.
"Have faith in yourself as the Way," he said to me, and so I'll prop his words here, like a sign.
Here Is The Place; Here The Way Unfolds
Each of us walks along a path with no sign of where we've been and no knowledge of where we'll end up. The earth rises to meet the soles of our feet, and out of nowhere comes a gift to support and sustain our awareness, which is our life. Some days the gift is a bite, and some days it's a banquet. Either way, it's enough.
Can you give yourself totally to the reality of your life and its unknowable outcome? When you do, the questions of where, when, how, and if will no longer trouble you. You might feel instead the ecstatic certainty of having arrived.
Here is the place; here the Way unfolds.
©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. All Rights Reserved.
Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden
About the Author
Karen Maezen Miller is the author of Hand Wash Cold, Momma Zen, and most recently Paradise in Plain Sight. She’s also a Zen Buddhist priest at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles, a meditation teacher, wife, and mother. Karen and her family live in Sierra Madre, California, with a century-old Japanese garden in their backyard. She writes about spirituality in everyday life. Visit her online at www.karenmaezenmiller.com.
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