In the year before I became a mother, I discovered mindfulness meditation. The beauty and simplicity of practice greatly appealed to me. I spent a lot of time on silent Buddhist meditation retreats in beautiful remote settings, attending meditation classes and workshops, and hanging out in dharma circles. I learned to sit and focus on the sensations of the breath in my body; I practiced being in the present moment. The benefits of meditation practice were immediate and dramatic: they included a greater sense of well-being and mental freedom. I had found a spiritual path that felt just right for me.
Then I found out I was pregnant. I knew that with the birth of my child, I would not be attending any long retreats in the near future. While I looked forward to becoming a mother, I also entered into a process of mourning the life I had been living. This fear and sadness reached a peak during a two-week mindfulness retreat I sat while six months pregnant. About halfway into the retreat, I had an epiphany: I would have to stop viewing motherhood as a potential hindrance to my spiritual development, and learn to embrace it as my primary spiritual path — an 18-year-long retreat, if you will. But putting that epiphany into practice in my daily life has proved to be a great challenge.
Momma Zen provides a wealth of practical advice on how to integrate spirituality and life as a mother. Karen Maezen Miller (“What to Tell the Children”) has written a powerful synthesis of the insights she has attained, both through the experience of motherhood and as a Zen Buddhist priest. “Your life is your practice” is the phrase that Miller remembers best from her spiritual teacher, the late Maezumi Roshi. Miller shows us how she has tried to make motherhood her practice, and she encourages her readers to do the same. “If you allow it,” writes Miller, “being a mother is one of the most amazing, miraculous, mysterious, dignifying, and illuminating things you will ever do. However the experience unfolds for you, my aim is to help you cut through the nub of it and appreciate things as they are.” In this half-memoir, half-Zen parenting manual, Miller succeeds at doing just that.
In 30 short essays, Miller addresses the major and minor concerns of mothers: everything from pregnancy to birth, sleep to feeding, potty training to TV-watching, marriage to postpartum identity issues. The book’s format of short essays is well suited to her time-challenged audience of mothers. Despite the incredible range of subjects covered in Momma Zen, Miller steadily maintains a tone of humility throughout the book. She never projects herself as enlightened or above the fray. “I lose it all the time,” she admits. “We all lose it all the time. The point is not how quickly we lose our cool, the point is how quickly we find it again.”
With humor and heart, Miller tells the story of the ups and downs of her own motherhood journey: becoming pregnant in mid-life, the sudden onset of pre-eclampsia late in her pregnancy, the premature birth of her daughter, and nursing struggles. She also eloquently gives voice to the persistent and pervasive feeling of falling short that seems to be an unavoidable adjunct to motherhood for many women. “A lifetime supply of insufficiency arrives with the stretch marks,” she writes. “Moments of self-assurance in motherhood do occur — joyful, satisfying and complete — but they are just moments. In between are long, lonely spells where you feel lost and clueless.” Many others have already written about the inadequacy that mothers feel, but one of the fresh ideas in the book is that that these “gulfs of incomprehension” can be seen as an “opportunity for spiritual growth and self-acceptance.” Miller encourages us to recognize these opportunities as gifts.
In one chapter called “Small Failures: There Are No Mistakes, Even the Unforgivable Ones,” Miller documents her “breast-feeding failure.” I could particularly relate to this chapter, given my own Herculean struggles with nursing my son. At one point, my guilt and shame over not being able to exclusively breast-feed my son became all-pervasive. How I wish I had had this book while I was going through my darkest period of self-deprecation. In this chapter, Miller admits her own struggle with breast-feeding guilt. “Long after quitting breast-feeding, I am still nursing my starving ego. But I must stop.” Miller shares the Zen parable of life as “one continuous mistake” and reminds us that “there are no failures. Forgive and forget yourself.” In this light, our “failures” are opportunities to awaken self-compassion.
In “Too Tired: No Returns or Exchanges: Fatigue Is the Gift of the Maternal,” Miller addresses maternal sleep deprivation in a unique way. She advises mothers to view fatigue as a spiritual companion. As the mother of a frequent night-waking nine month old, I was intrigued by, but also slightly pissed off by, Miller’s idea of fatigue as a “gift”: “It is not something you would choose, like a spa vacation, but is something you can use, like a humidifier,” she writes. “It is a cure and a balm. Fatigue helps you forget. When you are tired, you let go. You drop what you no longer need and you do not pick it up again. You slow down. You grow quiet. You take comfort. You appreciate the smallest things. You stop fighting.” I am not sure I will ever overcome my dread of the 3:00 a.m. wakings, but I can see the potential to view my exhaustion as a state of mind and body that may have some intrinsic value of its own. Reading that chapter reminded me that early motherhood actually has something in common with the rigorous meditation retreats I attended before becoming a mother: the bell would ring at dawn, and I would be so tired that my eyeballs would hurt because I was not used to being up before the sun. But I must admit that there was, and is, something almost holy about those early-morning hours, and the blessed exhaustion that accompanies them.
Miller also weaves into the memoir the poignant story of her own mother’s illness and eventual passing from ovarian cancer. These portions of the book were especially meaningful to me, as I started reading this book a few days after the death of my father. She writes of her mother’s death: “My mother died before the next dawn. I looked around — dazed, awake — taking stock. I had two feet, two hands, two eyes, and an untethered flight ahead of me. Of course I grieved; of course I cried. Looking up, there was life, the full laundry basket of life, going on.” There is nothing like being a mother to remind you of how life persists, even in the face of death. Miller’s eloquent musings on coping with loss in the midst of mothering add a level of depth to the memoir and were a source of comfort to me in the early days of my own grief.
Just as the memoir spoke to me personally, so too did the parenting advice. In a chapter called “Be Yourself: You’re Not Who You Think You Are,” Miller encourages us to learn about presence from our children, who “are exemplars in the art of being.” One of the most important insights in Momma Zen is that of non-separation between parents and children. In a chapter entitled “Self-Discipline: Don’t Deceive Yourself,” Miller posits that parents get into power struggles with their children because they begin to view them as separate from themselves, and fall into judging their children and their behavior as “bad” or “good.” “We cannot separate discipline from self-discipline. We cannot separate. We deceive ourselves by even perceiving someone as separate, and we deceive ourselves with our delusions.” She encourages us to be models of the behavior we want to see in our kids, since our behavior and theirs is so deeply intertwined. Miller reminds us that “no matter what the situation, how perplexing or intolerable, you always have a starting point when you start with yourself.” This perspective is so refreshing — especially in a world of parenting manuals that are all about using this or that technique to control children’s behavior, without looking much at our own.
For those who are new to the practice of Zen Buddhism, Miller provides some of the basics: “Thinking is not required to sustain life,” writes Miller. “Breathing is.” She encourages us to develop awareness of the breath, starting with the simple practice of counting out ten breaths at a time. While Momma Zen is not a meditation manual, Miller does provide some basic sitting meditation instructions. She asks the reader to start with just five minutes of practice a day. This is a practical suggestion that any mother can follow, no matter how harried her life is.
Miller’s writing style is direct, conversational, and spare but haunting, like a Zen poem. She directly addresses the reader throughout the book, setting a tone of intimacy and authenticity. The writing stays grounded at all times, never veering into sentimentality or romanticism, even when discussing a subject like parental love. She also doesn’t fall into using New Age mumbo-jumbo — the discussions are always specific and rooted in her own experience. Sometimes the parenting advice at the end of the some of the essays can seem a bit flip or harsh at first read: “Want your child to be good? Then be good,” for example. But the advice is characteristic of the bare-bones simplicity of Zen Buddhism. There are no cutesy acronyms or how-to formulas in this book, no bullshit: Miller tells it like it is, holding nothing back.
Momma Zen is a book that I will turn to often, in order to remind myself that mothering is a powerful spiritual path to wisdom and presence. With every page, I felt the tense parts of me relax a little, the choking grip of mothering-induced inadequacy and fear lose its hold slightly. Despite, or rather, in spite of, all our worrying, planning, and hand-wringing, we will be okay and our children will be okay. Over and over, Miller assures us that in all its raging imperfection, messiness, and chaos, the moment is perfect just as it is. I highly recommend this wise and compassionate guide to awakening the Mama Buddha within.