How 12 Years of Zen Practice Changed My Life


Priest Ordination at Upaya Zen Center (photo: Mitsue Nagase)

Vast is the robe of liberation
A formless field of benefaction…

Every morning, this is what we chant at the end of a 40-minute period of zazen (sitting meditation). Every day, liberation is woven into my heart.

My Zen practice is especially present for me right now. For the past 10 days, I watched and supported as three cohorts of students in Upaya Zen Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Program made their way through various stages of this two-year training. One cohort presented their final projects and graduated. Another came for their second year and took vows to uphold Buddhist precepts, and a third group came to start the program and enter this stream of practice and service. In the midst of all this, three friends received ordination as novice Zen priests.

As I watched these powerful rites of passage, I thought about my own path and realized that this is my twelfth year of Zen practice.

In the spring of 2001, I moved to San Francisco Zen Center for eight months, marking the start of my journey in this particular tradition. Since then, I’ve had the good karma to live next door to Zen centers in San Francisco and here in Santa Fe for a number of years. I am deeply grateful to my teachers along this path.

Throughout those years I’ve learned a few pretty important things:

  • Be wholehearted in everything.
  • Don’t cut corners.
  • Treat nothing like an object.
  • Fluff your own cushion, clean up your own dishes. Don’t leave your mess for someone else.
  • Stay with the pack! Nothing is more important than relationships and practicing to remember our interconnection with all beings.
  • Heart and mind is one… there is no separation.

From the outside, Zen might look like a heady, isolated sort of practice. My experience has been completely the opposite. It’s helped me to become more embodied and to learn what intimacy truly is.

These 12 years have taught me the value of committing to a practice that has served as a vehicle for my own waking-up and liberation. (I’m very much still on the way there, this is by no means a done deal!)

I don’t think you have to be a Zen practitioner to do this – there are many pathways to self-insight. But I do know it helps to make a commitment, to dive deep into one thing and let it teach you about the nature of your mind and heart, and to remind you how connected we all are. It really can change your life.

If you’ve got an awareness practice, how has it changed your life? What gifts has it given to you? Please share in the comments below.


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11 Responses to “How 12 Years of Zen Practice Changed My Life”
  1. Thank you for this message. It’s not just a blog entry, it’s a gift and I needed to hear it today.

  2. What a wonderful list, Maia. I particularly like “Don’t cut corners,” “Do everything wholeheartedly” and “Don’t leave your mess for others.”

    I do writing practice as an awareness practice: sometimes it is only my discursive thoughts for days on end, especially when I am rushed. I also sit regular retreats, which I refer to as my “tune-uos” — they tune my heart to more compassionate behavior. Practice of all sorts has gained me a measure of patience and non-defensiveness that I did not use to have, although there is room for more patience and less defensiveness!

    • Maia Duerr says:

      Sharyn, I love what you write here because it reminds us that a practice is just that — not something that makes us ‘perfect,’ but something that brings us more in line with our authentic self, which is perfectly, beautifully flawed.

  3. Joy says:

    I love this affirmation “the value of committing to a practice that has served as a vehicle for my own waking-up and liberation”!

    I practice presence to unfolding within natural growth, with love and gratitude. My original purpose for vesting in this practice was to give my children a different feel of life than that which I had–I wanted them to be raised knowing infinite possibility and trust in flow and celebration of Source as their reality. That journey began almost 15 years ago, and has changed my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined possible for me–for as I learned for them, I began to experience it for me. All that they reflect to me reminds me of the reality of the concepts I read and study–inner peace, freedom, joy of creative expression, and enlivening, transparent connections. It is a practice, a conscious choice to vest presence, this moment, as I am, as it is.

    • Maia Duerr says:

      Joy, having met your two wonderful kids for a brief time, I can attest to the fact that they are a living testimony to the power of your practice of presence! How wonderful to have them as mirrors to reflect back to you how that practice has transformed your own life.

  4. David Ashton says:

    Great list, Maia – thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  5. This is so moving. Sometimes I forget why I’m cooking in this cauldron and your wisdom has reminded me yet again that it is about relationship – with self, other and the world.

    “Fluff up your cushion…don’t leave your mess for someone else” – reminds me of Jisen telling us why we clean off the mat and fluff up the cushion even if we’re just going off on a walking meditation round. Leave everything ready for the next person who arrives because there’s no certainty that you will return to this spot.

    It’s been 12 years of Zen for me too but it feels like I’m just starting. Nice to have a Big Sister to share this path.

  6. Carole Folsom-Hill says:

    Thank you Maia and others. I began moving down the Zen path back in the ’90s. I didn’t stick! In the recent past few years I returned to the path. What a joyful experience it is for me, even in those moments I become painfully aware of shame, regret, or misdeeds I have caused myself or others. Joy abounds in the awareness.


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About Maia

All my life, I’ve loved the idea of liberation and looking deeply into the question: What does it really mean to be free?

That's what the Liberated Life Project is all about.

You can find my work on two other places on the web -- click on the badges to the right to visit "The Jizo Chronicles" (my blog on socially engaged Buddhism) and Five Directions (my consulting business).

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