the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Zen 101

Yesterday, I went to a full day zen meditation retreat for beginners.  It was fascinating, and I will write more about it later in the week.  But today (this was written on Monday), I want to get this specific thought out of my head, putting it into words because I completely forget what I wanted to say, or even more likely, embarrassed to bring it up tomorrow.  I enjoy this type of “fleeting moment” writing, although it can also be scary, because people tend to see your writing as written in stone, as if each post was a manifesto, and not a mere daydream.  If I decide tomorrow morning to say that my life dream is to run with the bulls in Pamplona, please don’t run out and buy me airplane tickets just yet.   By the afternoon, I might have done a little research, or watched the utter chaos on a YouTube video, and completely changed my mind, and decided to go to Hawaii instead.  So, be aware that I spent most of the Sunday staring at a blank wall in silence, so this post reflects that unique (or crazed) state of being.  Today I might be all zen.  That doesn’t mean that tomorrow, I won’t go back to writing sex jokes.

Over the last few years, I have introduced you to my mind.  To my heart.  You have even met my talkative, and overly friendly, penis, who has written some blog posts himself.  But I usually keep my soul locked in the basement, like a crazy, dangerous, uncle.  I pride myself on my rationality and adherence to a scientific approach, and dismiss anything that smacks of the supernatural.  Even when I write about Jewish issues, it tends to be about cultural issues, more bagels than morning prayer.

Every once in a blue moon, I hear my uncle screaming in the basement, and I try to listen to his gibberish.  As much as I try to ignore the rantings of a madman, I do hear him, and his voice intrigues me.  How many wondrous stories have I read in the past where it is the madman who is the one with the most knowledge and awareness?

I was IM-ing with Schmutzie this morning, telling her about the retreat.  She said she was surprised that I would go to a zen meditation retreat.

“It doesn’t sound like you AT ALL.  What made you go to it?”

I was taken aback because I had no coherent story.  I didn’t have a real reason for going other than curiosity.  It just fell into my lap.  Sure, I read Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” when I was in ninth grade, but I have never had an overwhelming desire to meditate.  I don’t read books about zen meditation.  I’m not even that attracted to Buddhism as a way of life.  I find the concept of karma a little creepy.  My “path,” if there is one, that brought me there  was completely random, rather mundane, and involves the most un-zen-like of all modern tools — Twitter.

One evening, several weeks ago, Sophia and I were arguing about the dishes.  I’m not embarrassed to mention this, because I assume that this is a common in every modern married household throughout the world.   Sadly, in my home, I am the one usually stuck with the chore.

After cleaning the kitchen, I took my angst out on whoever happened to be sitting on Twitter at 8PM on a Tuesday.

“I hate doing the dishes,” I wrote to whoever was there.  “Is there anyone who really LIKES doing the dishes?”

Another blogger chimed in and replied that I should read a book by Karen Maezen Miller.   She  wrote a book about viewing the mundane household chores from a Buddhist perspective.   I didn’t think much of this, but I noticed that Karen Maezen Miller also happened to be on Twitter.   So, I followed her, mostly as a lark.  I like talking with a weird assortment of folk.

I followed her and soon  I was “chatting” with her on Twitter, mostly making fun of her mellow spirit, as if I was playfully interacting with The Redneck Mommy rather than a zen priest.   And I was surprised that she always had a funny response.  Zen priests are not supposed to be clever, or even “get” movie references to the Karate Kid!

Curious who this woman was, I looked at her website, and discovered that she teaches at an LA zen center, and — just that weekend — was offering an infrequently-held beginner’s retreat!   So, I signed up.

Let me make it clear.  This is not a plug for her book, which I have not read.  This is an actual story of how an argument with Sophia over the dishes brought me to a place where I was facing the wall all day!

Without getting all LOST on you, I think you see where this is going.  The mystery.

At the end of the retreat, Karen Maezen Miller thanked the students, and said some “Mister Miyagi” type statements that you would expect from a zen priest.  She said that  she learned as much from us and we did from her.

What made my ears perk up was this — our meeting was not as random as it seemed.  We were brought together.

It was fairly odd that I was sitting there.  A random tweet.  A random comment.  A random encounter.  A random geographical commonality.

I wanted to fight what was bubbling in my head with every fiber of my being.   It seems so wrong for so many reasons.  Is it possible that everyone we encounter is part of a learning experience that is presented to us on purpose?  I’ve written about THE SECRET before, and HOW MUCH I HATE WHAT IT REPRESENTS.  How do you explain all the bad shit that happens to people?   Karma?  I hate that crap.  I even have a broken friendship over that stupid book.

But why we meet certain people and not others?   Of the millions of people who use the internet, why do I interact with YOU?  Is it all just random, or do we really get what we need, even if we don’t realize it?

OK, sorry.  I will try to be normal again tomorrow.

More later.


  1. daysgoby

    Hee! I am (trying to) reading the Secret. My husband HATES it, HATES it with a fiery passion, mostly because I keep clonking him on the arm in bed and saying furiously ‘But this is SUCH GARBAGE!’ and then I make him read the page I’m talking about. Ah, true love…

    (The person that gave it to me was ZEALOUS in her love for it. A ZEALOT. So I read it, and WISH I was meditating. Or reading something else interesting.

  2. daysgoby

    And that was W-A-A-Y off topic, and I’m sorry.

  3. sizzle

    This sounds pretty normal to me.

    But then again, I’ve read the Secret.


    I want to go a retreat!

  4. Neil

    The Secret bugs the shit out of me, because it argues that people call the bus to hit them as they cross the street.

  5. Kim

    Blind luck? Or fate, or whatever ? However it happened, I’m glad it did!

  6. Neil

    I really don’t think traditional meditation is about The Secret. The Secret seems to be more about using the universe to gain things, not to be at one with it.

  7. better safe than sorry

    haven’t read the book but i believe in karma.

  8. Mamie

    The secret is something I have never read but the idea behind this post is center in how I live my life. I mean, why else would I be here now reading this unfolding in your life? That craz uncle of yours is just that. Yours. You can share him if you would like but I always knew he was there….other wise I would have never kept coming back here.

    Karen came into my life when the boys were quite small and I was still in the PPD I fucking hate being a mom phase. Her first book is called momma zen and I followed her blog for some time and it helped redefine my center (along with a lot of other things). I love that you found her and was somehow not at all surprised you were going. I tend to think all the people I follow in blog land know each other (weird, I know).

    What I would do for a blank wall today. Do you know if you will do more with this yet?

  9. Kim @ Beautiful Wreck

    Have you ever read The Celestine Prophecy? It is an interesting read. This post reminds me of the book.

    I am one of those people who believes in fate, karma, whatever you may call it. I don’t think it applies to just the good in our life either. I believe that everything happens for a reason, I also believe that everything that happens to us is to teach us something or in some way will benefit others. Even the horrible, tragic things that happen in our lives. I’ve never read The Secret – but I do believe there is a reason we make the connections that we do and I live my life with that always in mind.

  10. Mamie

    I knew there was a reason I never read the secret… There is a huge difference between letting the world unfold and being aware of it and the idea of ‘asking’ for terrible or beauitful things to happen. I knew that book was crap. Or more like a bastardized version of karma.

  11. Finn

    I’ve always said that everything happens for a reason but we don’t get to know what the reason is until the time is right.

    I have a friend who was trying to have a baby and getting nowhere, even with medical intervention. In the middle of this process, she and her husband sold their online business to CNet, which is based in San Francisco. Part of the agreement was that they would work for CNet for three years or something. They didn’t want to leave, but they did. My friend’s doctor recommended an excellent fertility doctor in SF. As it turned out, that doctor’s office was two floors up from CNet’s offices.

    P.S. – The kids will be 10 in July.

    This stuff? Is for real.

  12. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    “I will try to be normal again tomorrow.”

    That should be the title of your blog–and your book.

  13. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    P.S. I don’t know what I believe anymore or what I think is true. What I do know is that I’m not buying any books, attending seminars or retreats, or in any way paying someone to tell me what they believe.

    You have a divine message to share with the world? Start a blog! And pay your own way.

  14. iamthediva

    i’m with Kim, this post was very “Celestine Prophecy” – you followed where you were supposed to go and gained from the process.

  15. Knadele

    It is all random.

    We find the connections and think there is reason. But there are equal if not more times there are no connections. It’s all in our need to explain and to make sense of.

    I like randomness. It means anything is possible.

  16. tony

    if you’re like me you’re facing the wall when you do the dishes.

  17. Karen Maezen Miller

    just checking in to see how a zen priest should respond.

  18. flutter

    you know how I feel about all of this

  19. Juli Ryan

    I used to believe in karma, however, now that I am older, I’m not able to any more. Believing in karma or reincarnation is like believing in Santa Claus or heaven. It’s just another way of distorting a terrible world into something that is bearable.

    I do like to practice yoga with meditation–concentrating on my breath, and trying to be really present in the now. Also, I like the Tao te Ching.

  20. Redneck Mommy

    Ya, I can see how you and me mocking one another is a totally zen experience. heh.

    I like to think that everyone we cross paths with online and in real life brings something (enlightenment, entertainment, wisdom etc) to our lives whether we realize it or not.

    Then again, I also think chin whiskers on women are sexy so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

  21. Tracy (Tiny Mantras)

    I’m jealous that you got to retreat with Karen! I will meet her one day, though, I know.

    I think that we Westerners too often interpret karma as though it’s supposed to be some divine hand of justice. We’re so into the whole almighty God man with a master plan thing, it’s hard to understand it outside of that framework. Buddha’s not a God, he’s a teacher meant to help you find your way to your higher self. The universe has no bus driver.

    The Secret has absolutely nothing to do with karma as I understand it.

    The resident Lama at my Tibetan Buddhist temple says we don’t, and shouldn’t, look at every big bad event as karma – actually, we should never try to measure anyone’s karma but our own. After all, plenty of things that seem or feel terrible as they are happening turn out to be blessings.

    Also… Buddhists know that shit happens. When the earthquakes hit Haiti, karma didn’t have anything to do with it. As she put it, “sometimes holes just open up in the Earth.” Chaos happens, and it would be anathema to judge that as the karma of those individuals. The opportunity to sow good karma through compassion for the disaster victims exists, though, and that’s a measure of karma it’s a-ok to worry about.

    P.S. Not all Buddhists take themselves as seriously as Richard Gere. Probably not even Richard Gere.

  22. Karl

    I want to look into meditation more. I’ve tried some of the guided stuff on podcasts and it’s very calming. I have yet to find one that makes me want to do the dishes, though.

  23. Loukia

    Deep thoughts… honestly… something to think about.

  24. wench

    The Secret is the world’s attempt to control karma. not. karma assumes a balance of consequences through time, much like the idea of yin & yang. Who says everything is dichotimous?
    zen like other schools of buddhism says all is one. I want it all.

  25. 180|360

    I haven’t read “The Secret” either and my meditation attempts are mostly in the form of yoga right now – but I’m really glad you went to this retreat!

    I like to think that people do come into our lives for a reason. Whether random or not, it doesn’t really matter. Live in the moment. Go with the flow. Breathe deeply and just BE without thinking. You never know where it will take you.

    My latest meditation is: Everything you need is already within you.

  26. MDTaz

    I think you should reconsider running with the bulls.

  27. martian

    I’m a committed empiricist, so I don’t believe in religion, fate, or mysticism. That being said, I meditate regularly, and it just so turns out that my field of work has something of an answer to your question: “is it all just random?”

    There’s random, and then there’s Random. What you’re experiencing is what scientists would call “stochastic” — randomness that follows laws. There are laws to social interaction and laws to personalities; laws to the way economies work and laws to the waxing and waning of populations. By which I mean that there are ways that they proceed, and ways that they can’t. You don’t make friends by punching people in the face, for example, but you do make them by interacting kindly, by having a connection, and by sharing interests.

    In this case, you made a blog post that resonated with a reader, who pointed you down a path that you followed. There’s a law there, or a series of laws: bloggers gain readers, readers interact, and we all adapt and respond.

    So no, I wouldn’t call it random in the sense of unexpected or unusual: it’s stochastic. You randomly had a reader who pointed you down a path that appealed to you, and you followed it.

    Interestingly, this is what Buddhists would point to when they talk about karma. There is a widespread belief, it seems, that karma is like the christian heaven or hell — that if you do something good or bad, you are rewarded or punished. Christians just add the explicit actor (God). But that’s not what karma is, at all. Karma is just cause and effect, and in that sense it is really very reasonable. If you punch someone in the face, then “it’s karma” that you get punched or sent to jail, yourself. (Yes, I know that the religious Buddhists believe in rebirth and karma that transcends life, but that’s not what I’m talking about here — there are plenty of secular Buddhists, too, and they also believe in karma without believing that they’re going to be reborn as a worm for being a Bad Person.)

    So in this case, a secular Buddhist might say that it was your (good) karma that led you down this path. You opened your heart and suspended your skepticism of the meditation practice, and in the course of doing so, made new friendships. Cause and effect.

    And as others have mentioned, it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is now. That’s the key to meditation, anyway, right?

  28. leah

    promise never to be normal, or at the very least TRY not to. too many normal sheeps already in the fields out there.

    what a neat post, i enjoy your logical take but i always wonder if those that have such a strong need for the logical are really afraid of believing in magic of any kind.

    like you would get your hopes up too high knowing they would eventually be dashed b/c that’s just the way life is.

    or the eternal bachelors like george clooney, are really quite romantic but deathly afraid of getting hurt so he avoids real relationships all together. (forgive me for sounding as if i know george, i do not but i use him as an example for simplicity.)

    i firmly believe that it’s all as it should be and the people that we cross paths with are those that either we have something to share or vice versa and many both it goes both ways.

    i believe in things i don’t fully understand, b/c you never know what road, person, or event will lead you. i’ve learned that it’s a better path than choosing safety.

    i wrote this down, it was from a recent tara episode: “the pitfall of choosing someone for safety is that we come to resent them over time.”

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