The Zen of Milking


“My idea of prayer is to milk my goat and just be there with every bit of myself engaged for fifteen to twenty minutes of squeezing her teats and listening to the sound of streams of raw milk squirted rhythmically into a stainless steel bucket; and then to give as much mindfulness to chilling down the milk, cleaning the milking room, filling the hay baskets, and mucking stalls. I know the Spirit is surely with me as I  climb up the hill carrying a gallon of milk and prepare to transform it into feta cheese and ricotta cheese—a farmer’s kitchen alchemy.”

I wrote that in the first paper I did for Spiritual Direction training at the Haden Institute. After reading it, Bob Haden, Director of the Institute, wrote, “I already picture you milking your goats as your spiritual practice.” Yes, I thought, my practice is the Zen of milking–so daily, so rhythmic, so demanding of my full attention.

That was my first year of milking a goat. I discovered in the second year that Bob’s words were prophetic. Heidi, my gentle cooperative milking doe, started kicking. The meditative rhythm of “squirt-splash, squirt-splash, squirt-splash” was consistently interrupted with kicks that sent the milk bucket tumbling or deposited goat feces from her hooves into the milk. I was no less fully in the present, but the present was not as pleasant as I had previously experienced it.

I was reminded of the story of a priest who was in charge of a small Zen temple that was famous because of its garden. The priest had been given the temple because he liked nothing better than tending gardens.  A very old Zen master lived next to the temple in another smaller temple.

The priest was going to have guests, and he had been busy all morning perfecting his garden.  He had raked all the fallen leaves together, and thrown them away.  He had sprinkled water on the moss, he had even combed the moss here and there, he had put down some leaves again, in the right places; and when finally, he stood on his veranda and contemplated his garden, he was pleased that his garden was, in every respect, as it should be.  The old Zen master had been watching the priest’s work with interest while he leant on the fence which separated the two temples.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” the priest asked the master. “My guests will be coming in a little while and I want them to find the garden as the monks who originally designed it meant it to be.”

The master nodded. “Yes,” he said, “your garden is beautiful; but there is something missing, and if you’ll lift me over the fence and put me down in the garden for a moment I’ll put it right for you.”

When he had lowered the master carefully into his garden the old gentleman walked slowly to a tree growing in the centre of a harmonious rock and moss combination.  It was autumn and the leaves were dying.  All the master had to do was shake the tree a little and the garden was full of leaves again, spread out in haphazard patterns.  “That’s what it needed,” the master said. “You can put me back again.”*

A kicky goat became my Zen Master. The Zen of milking was no longer in the meditative rhythm of milking, but rather in disruption.  With one hand crippled by arthritis, I became acutely aware of both pain and pleasure in my fingers; I was a one-handed milker, so I was learning patience. Heidi developed edema in one of her udders shortly after kidding, and the vet informed us that she had too much milk. My hands cramped up and I developed tendonitis in one arm, as I dealt with the increased volume. I kept milking, though, and making several kinds of cheese. Heidi won first prize at a goat show for her phenomenal production. I was proud. My spiritual practice, however, presented me with the shadow side of doing what I loved. The incredible volume of milk had me up early mornings milking and up late evenings making cheese. At one point Heidi developed a severe case of explosive diarrhea, and my spiritual practice included an hour of cleaning liquid excrement from the walls and surfaces of the milking room.

Then, for several days while treating her with antibiotics, I had to throw away the milk. It was freeing….and I realized that I had allowed milk to run my life. I was too proud of my cheese, too attached to my results, and even too attached to how much I was learning.

It had taken three years, but I was also attached to Heidi, so it was not easy to let her go. Last summer she went on to Oak Moon Farm and Creamery, where her amazing production is more appreciated. Meanwhile, we bought a milking machine; it took some of the Zen out of milking, but enabled us to manage better.

My husband, Chuck, and I do this farm thing together. We have two does now in milk and three more due to kid this spring. One doe refused her babies, so we have to milk her twice a day and feed the babies. The Zen of milking is a discipline of rising before dawn seven days a week; of turning down dinner invitations in order to feed and milk in the evenings, of passing up weekend outings with friends. But it is a chore of choice. It isn’t just about having the milk, even though there is nothing quite as good or healthy as fresh, cold goat milk; it isn’t just about making the cheese, even though my feta is better than anything I can buy. It certainly isn’t about making money; we are pleased if we can sell a few goats and break even. It is mostly about loving goats, and loving the earth, and being deeply grateful for the daily gifts these animals offer into my daily life.

*I think this story of the zen priest is from The Empty Mirror by Janwillem van de Wetering

One Comment on “The Zen of Milking

  1. Reading this blog brought tears to my eyes, because I feel SO MUCH the same way. It’s really wonderful to know that there is someone else out there who understands what my devotion to my goats is all about. Now I know that if I AM crazy, at least I’m crazy with company! Thank you. I’ve gone through the tendonitis (still have it right now) since I’m doing my dairying alone, but I can’t even imagine living without my herd. They entertain and sustain me every day, and I would be an empty shell without them. I’m glad to see that you seem to be in the same boat.

    I will keep your blog bookmarked and check back occasionally, in case I can come up with the funds to buy one of your goats. I need to improve on my does, and you’ve certainly got the bloodlines to do that. I live in Oxford, NC, so it would be a long trip to come get one of your babies, but I think it would be worth it. BTW, what are you asking for Peregrine or Gyrfalcon?

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