Anais Nin on the Mystery of How Experience Becomes Fossilized in the Sediment of Memory

anais nin typewriterOscar Wilde once wrote “memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”  Much like a diary- or, as Virginia Woolf affectionately called, a “blank-faced confidante”- memory is a record of our many guises, a monument to the ever-shifting fluidity of self.  And like a diary, memory is manufactured: we concoct the stories of our lives, magnifying certain plots while downplaying others.  But how is it that certain experiences become fossilized in the sediment of memory while others vanish into oblivion forever?  

This question is what prolific diarist and courageous chronicler of the human spirit Anais Nin explores in The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939, the masterpiece of literary memoir Swiss newspaper Tagblatt called a “daring advance into the psychology of female being.”  An artist of remarkable sensitivity and perceptive intellect, Nin writes with lavish love of life, her prose as poetic as it is precise.  In this entry from August 1935, Nin wonders at the enigma of the subconscious mind: why is it that we retain some memories over others?  what permanently stores a memory in our mental hard drives?  and how is it possible to recall an experience with overwhelming intensity many years after it occurred- despite the fact that we were asleep to it at the time?  Though definitive answers to these questions will always elude her, Nin muses over mystery with exceptional grace:

“The mysterious theme of the flavor of events.  Some pale, weak, not lasting.  Others so vivid.  What causes the choice of memory?  What causes certain events to fade, others to gain luminousness and spice?  My posing for artists at sixteen was unreal, shadowy.  The writing about it sometimes brings it to life.  I taste it then.  My period as a debutante in Havana, no flavor.  Why does this flavor sometimes appear later, while living another episode, or while telling it to someone?  What revives it when it was not lived fully at the time?  During my talks with my father the full flavor of my childhood came to me.  The taste of everything came to me as we talked.  But not everything came back with the same vividness; many things which I described to my father I told without pleasure, without any taste in my mouth.  So it was not brought to life entirely by my desire to make it interesting for him.  Some portions of my life were lived as if under ether, and many others under a complete eclipse.  Some of them cleared up later, that is, the fog lifted, the events became clear, nearer, more intense, and remained as unearthed for good.  Why did some of them come to life, and others not?  Why did some remain flavorless, and others recover a new flavor or meaning?  Certain periods like the posing, which seemed very intense at the time, violent almost, have never had any taste since.  I know I wept, suffered, rebelled, was humiliated, and proud too.  Yet the story I presented to my father and to Henry about the posing was not devoid of color and incidents.  I myself did not feel it again as I told it.  It was as if it had happened to someone else, and the interest I took in its episodes was that of a writer who recognized good material.  It was not an unimportant phase of my life, it was my first contribution to the world.  It was the period I discovered I was not ugly, a very important discovery for a woman.  It was a dramatic period, beginning with the show put on for the painters, when I was dressed in a Watteau costume which suited me to perfection, and received applause and immediate engagements, ending with my becoming the star model of the Model’s Club, a subject for magazine covers, paintings, miniatures, statues, drawings, water colors.”  

“It cannot be said what is lived in a condition of unreality, in a dream, or a fog, disappears altogether from memory, because I remember a ride I took through Vallee de Chevreuse many years ago, when I was unhappy, ill, indifferent, in a dream.  A mood of blind remoteness and sadness and divorce from life.  This ride I took with my senses asleep, I repeated almost ten years later with my senses awakened, in good health, with clear eyes, and I was surprised to see that I had not only remembered the road, but every detail of this ride which I thought I had not seen or felt at all.  Even to the taste of the huge brioche we served at a famous inn.  It was as if I had been sleepwalking while another part of my body recorded and observed the presence of the sun, the whiteness of the road, the billows of heather fields, in spite of my inability to taste and feel at the time.”

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3 Things I Learned From Sarah Ban Breathnach

Life is not made up of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years, but of moments.  You must experience each one before you can appreciate it,” Sarah Ban Breathnach once wrote.  There is an old-fashioned charm— and lush, almost bewitching, lyricism— with which Breathnach sifts poetry from the sands of everyday moments, be it in her much-beloved daily devotional Simple Abundance, which illuminated the path to richer, more contented lives for millions of women, or Something More, her eloquent, erudite guidebook to excavating the buried longings and forgotten dreams of the authentic self.  In Romancing the Ordinary: A Year of Simple Splendor, her enticing serenade to the sensual, Breathnach redeems the flesh from fire-and-brimstone and invites us to instead delight in our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.  Though throughout the ages pleasure-seeking has been denounced as depraved and hedonistic, Breathnach contends there’s no surer route to the spiritual than through the flesh.  A feast for the splendor-starved soul, Romancing the Ordinary overflows with wisdom drawn from the arts, literature, history and film- not to mention delectable recipes that will enrapture your inner gastronome, ranging from “divine fettuccine” to “not meant to be shared chocolate mousse.”  The three central pillars of Breathnach’s wickedly indulgent philosophy are listed below:

1. life should be the grandest of love affairs 

posing with posies

Though as a culture we’ve mostly abandoned the image of women as helpless damsels in distress, many of us still secretly equate romance with a dashing prince.  Years after the women’s liberation movement, we remain spellbound by the enchanting fairytales of our youth, stories that suggested love of the non-platonic variety was the only possible route to adventure.  The charm of an idyllic French countryside, the smell of earth after a spring rain, the contentment of a winter night spent warm and toasty by a fire: such everyday pleasures, we thought, could only be enjoyed when shared.  

But Ms. Breathnach believes otherwise: women don’t need a significant other to be romanced- they can seduce themselves.  Rather than wait for a debonair lover to woo us with his wit or court us with extravagant bouquets of flowers, we can do small things each day to revive our love of life- or, as the French say, our joie de vivre.  

Sadly, instead of a lustful affair, our lives most often resemble a passionless marriage, stagnant after one too many neglectful years.  Our day-to-day is overrun not by “wants” but “should’s” and “have to’s.”  When was the last time we did something simply because we had a desire to?  At the cornerstone of Breathnach’s philosophy is the belief that life should be a high-spirited soiree, exuberant, filled with longing and laughter.  “What makes the blood rush to your head?  The fragrance wafting out the doorway of a chocolatier?…The silky squeak of a taffeta slip?  The buttery softness of a new pair of leather gloves?  Biting into a liquor-filled chocolate?  Your cat licking your face?  The first sight of forsythias in spring?  Discovering a new-to-you book by your favorite author?” Breathnach implores us to consider.  Ravish your senses, seduce yourself with the sweet, secret yearnings of your own soul, and transform your humdrum marriage with life into a red-hot love affair.

2. leisure isn’t decadent or self-indulgent- it’s an essential form of self-care

bubble bath

“There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know any,” poetess Sylvia Plath once quipped.  A soothing soak in a hot bath, a tattered book of beloved poems, a luscious cup of hot cocoa: these little acts of self-cherishing may be simple but they have the profound power to restore a frazzled soul.  Yet few women pause to pamper themselves.  Why?

One can blame the American work ethic, a legacy inherited from our rigorously disciplined Puritan grandparents.  Much like our forefathers, who believed hard work and strict self-denial brought glory to God, Americans worship at the altar of productivity and despise nothing more than idleness.  Product-oriented and accomplishment-obsessed, we prefer the gratification of checking another item off our to-do list to an unhurried afternoon with nothing “useful” to occupy us.  In fact, leisure and laziness are so inextricable in our society that most women are ridden with guilt when they so much as take a moment for themselves.  Workaholism is a pernicious pathology made all the more perilous because it’s supported and sanctioned by our culture: not only are we the only country in the industrialized world to not offer paid family leave, we’re a nation that shames those with enough self-respect to call-in sick when they’re ill.  Rarely, if ever, do we allow ourselves the “luxury” of missing work- even when we’re confined in bed with a 103 degree fever and a mountain of tissues.

But though our dystopic capitalist state assesses human worth by mechanical notions of input/output, leisure is essential to caring for ourselves.  A blissful reprieve from the day-to-day ennui of our twenty-first century hamster wheel, a few hours of leisure well-spent can help us once again delight in the world.  And here I must make a distinction: by leisure I don’t mean in the contemporary sense of the word but rather in the classical.  Though today leisure has come to signify an aimless frittering away of time in trivial pursuits, to the ancient Greeks, leisure, or scholé (interestingly the linguistic progenitor of the English word for school), was a time for learning and contemplation indispensable both to the advancement of civilization and the expansion of the human soul.  Whereas we in the modern era preach the gospel of work, the ancients viewed labor as a debasement of our higher selves.  Manual labor was seen as a necessary evil, required for survival but a hinderance to nobler intellectual pursuits.  It was only when man was free of the shackles of burdensome toil, they believed, that he could devise, dream, and discover truth.

Indeed, throughout time, leisure has been the fountainhead of all progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements- the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough- were conceived in leisure, in moments unburdened by duty or, as Bertrand Russell once said, in periods of “fruitful monotony,” be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  As Brenda Ueland observed in her timeless If You Want to Write, “The imagination needs moodling,- long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering” to cultivate ideas.

3. we can exalt our lives by being artists of the everyday

still life with bottle & basket

What constitutes “art” and what qualities confer the esteemed title of “artist” onto a mere aspirant are questions that have engrossed man for millennia.  Jacques-Louis David believed the artist was one who could execute his vision: To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this—and only this—is to be an artist,” he remarked.  Henry Miller argued the artist was the “unrecognized hero of our time – and of all time” whereas Georgia O’Keeffe held that the artist was simply someone who filled “space in a beautiful way.”  Sarah Ban Breathnach’s definition is perhaps most similar to Mark Getlein’s: the purpose of art, he asserted, is to “create extraordinary versions” of ordinary things.  

But unlike these writers and artists, Miss Breathnach contends art isn’t only confined to easels and paintbrushes– art can be made of the everyday.  As fellow poet of the prosaic Henry David Thoreau so elegantly phrased, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  Much as Cezanne could glimpse the miraculous in something as mundane as a bowl of fruit, we can exalt our lives by elevating the ordinary to the status of ritual.  Brewing coffee.  Reading the morning paper.  Setting the table.  Most of us hurry through these daily rounds, accustomed as we are to their trivialities and trifles.  But what are diapers and groceries and dry cleaning if not the material for the greatest masterpiece- life itself?  The artist can only discern the possibility for art if he scrutinizes his subject and carefully renders its details: the intensity of its colors, the outline of its shapes.  It is by pausing to take notice that he rediscovers his sense of wonder.  For Breathnach, the most ordinary things cry for consecration: being an artist of the everyday is to act with love, reverence and a sense of heartfelt attention.  Rather than carelessly throw on the first thing in our closet and barely brush our hair, why not take the time to establish a real beauty routine and transform the early morning bathroom rush into a glorious retreat of self-pampering and self-care?  why not do a face mask and paint our nails?  If we take a brief respite from our habitual ways of seeing, if we conduct ourselves with the attentive eyes and receptive minds of artists, life can be our magnum opus.

In Other Words: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Linguistic Love Affair

in other wordsIt’s hard to fathom spending your life honing your craft only to mid-career opt for an entirely new medium.  What if Monet had given up oil paints so he could experiment with sculpture?  Or Andy Warhol exchanged Marilyn and soup cans for a bowl of fruit?  But that’s exactly what Ms. Lahiri does when she takes on the bold project of moving to Rome and abandoning her native tongue, an undertaking she christens a “a trial by fire, a sort of baptism.”  After winning the Pulitzer Prize for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies at the ripe age of 33, Lahiri arrived at superstardom.  Universally acclaimed for her uncommon insight into the immigrant experience and the beauty of her spare, uncluttered prose, she embodied what it meant to be a successful writer.  Lahiri’s startling mastery of her own language- not to mention the extent of her literary renown- make it difficult to understand why she’d relinquish all that’s familiar to read- and write- solely in a foreign tongue.  

As she herself admits, there’s no practical reason for her to learn Italian: when she first embarks on her project, she doesn’t live in Italy, she doesn’t have Italian friends.  All she has is an inexhaustible desire, “an indiscreet absurd longing” to learn.  In Other Words, Lahiri’s exquisite autobiographical debut, written in Italian and translated into English by esteemed New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, is a linguistic love letter written with the ear of a poet, the sensibility of a minimalist, the heart of an inamorata.  Italian is the chosen beloved, but Lahiri’s true subject is creative renewal.  A chronicle of one writer’s quest for a new voice, In Other Words traces the near impossible metamorphosis from tongue-tied inarticulateness to full-fledged fluency, from dabbling dilettante to consummate master.  One has to commend Lahiri for her tirelessness: despite barely having a 6th grader’s vocabulary and only a rudimentary understanding of basic grammar, she resolves to write an entire book in her adopted language, struggling-just as she did when she first learned English- to find the words to express herself.  

In an illuminating metaphor recalling Andre Gide’s emboldening assertion that “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time,” Lahiri realizes she’s been learning Italian in the same way she’s been swimming- cowardly hugging the outside perimeter, never wandering too far from shore.  Though her 20 years of diligent study have enriched her mind and heart, she covets the mastery that has so far eluded her.  In much the same way she yearns to cast off the security of the shallows and swim dauntlessly in deep waters, she longs to toss her vocabulary flashcards and immerse herself in the language like never before.  This overwhelming desire acts as the impetus for her cross-continent move to Rome:

I want to cross a small lake.  It really is small, and yet the other shore seems too far away, beyond my abilities.  I’m aware the lake is very deep in the middle, and even though I know how to swim I’m afraid of being alone in the water, without any support.

The lake I’m talking about is in a secluded, isolated place.  To get there, you have to walk a short distance, through a silent wood.  On the other side you can see a cottage, the only house on the shore.  The lake was formed just after the last ice age, millennia ago.  The water is clear but dark, heavier than salt water, with no current.  Once you’re in, a few yards from shore, you can no longer see the bottom.  

In the morning I observe people coming to the lake, as I do.  I watch them cross in a confident, relaxed manner, stop for some minutes in front of the cottage, then return.  I count their arm strokes.  I envy them.  

For a month I swim around the lake, never going too far out.  This is a more significant distance- the circumference compared to the diameter.  It takes more than a half an hour to make this circle.  Yet I’m always close to the shore.  I can stop, I can stand up if I’m tired.  It’s good exercise but it’s not very exciting.  

Then one morning near the end of summer, I meet two friends at the lake.  I’ve decided to make the crossing with them, to finally get to the cottage on the other side.  I’m tired of just going along the edge.  

I count the strokes.  I know my companions are in the water with me, but I know that each of us is alone.  After about a hundred and fifty strokes I’m in the middle, the deepest part.  I keep going.  After a hundred more I see the bottom again.  

I arrive on the other side: I’ve made it with no trouble.  I see the cottage, until now distant, just steps from me.  I see the small, faraway silhouettes of my husband, my children.  They seem unreachable, but I know they’re not.  After a crossing, the known shore becomes the opposite side: here becomes there.  Charged with energy, I cross the lake again.  I’m elated.  

For twenty years I’ve studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake.  Always next to my dominant language, English.  Always hugging that shore.  It was good exercise.  Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting.  If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown.  The other language is always there to support you, to save you.  But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking.  To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore.  Without a life vest.  Without depending on solid ground.”  

lahiri

As she recalls her first trip to Italy in 1994, Lahiri equates her earliest encounters with the language with falling in love.  Indeed, Lahiri’s relationship with Italian is nothing short of a love affair: hearing the language- in cafes, on cobblestone streets-she’s seduced by more than its beauty; rather she feels an instant, inexplicable connection, as if learning the language were her destiny, Italian, her heavenly-ordained soul mate.  But despite her best efforts, for years, Lahiri’s love goes unrequited.  Though she savors the sensuous romance of a’s and o’s and studies doggedly, she understands next to nothing.  With the same poignancy that she describes being an immigrant in a foreign country, Lahiri details the heartbreaking irony of being a writer without words:

“I hear the excitement of the children wishing each other buon Natale– merry Christmas- on the street.  I hear the tenderness with which, one morning at the hotel, the woman who cleans the room asks me: Avete dormito bene?  Did you sleep well?  When a man besides me on the sidewalk wants to pass, I hear the slight impatience with which he asks, Permeesso?  May I?  

I can’t answer.  I’m not able to have a dialogue.  I listen.  What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction.  It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the time, completely external.  It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is.  It seems strangely familiar.  I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.  

What do I recognize?  It’s beautiful, certainly, but beauty doesn’t enter into it.  It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship.  It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond.  As if I had known it for years, even though there is still everything to discover.  I would be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I didn’t learn it.  I realize there is space inside me to welcome it.  

I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment.  A closeness and at the same time a distance.  What I feel is something physical, inexplicable.  It stirs an absurd, indiscreet longing.  An exquisite tension.  Love at first sight.”

After her first trip, Lahiri begins studying Italian with a zeal that verges on fanaticism.  When she finally relocates to the eternal city, she’s overcome by a mysterious impulse: to write in the native tongue.  Overwhelmed and disoriented by the foreignness of this strange city, Lahiri- a writer known for her eloquence with words- finds solace in the private pages of her diary, where she can transcribe the trials and tribulations of adjusting to her new home.  Much like the diarists who came before her-from Virginia Woolf, titan of modernism, to Anais Nin, poetic charter of the human soul- Lahiri finds a certain kind of freedom in writing for no one’s eyes but her own.  A refuge from the ceaseless self-censorship of “formal” writing, the diary- particularly because its composed in a distant tongue- liberates her from the inhibiting prison of perfectionism.  Beginning again in a whole other medium, Lahiri rediscovers the simple satisfaction of finding the exact words to express herself:

“A week after arriving…I do something strange, unexpected.  I write my diary in Italian.  I do it almost automatically, spontaneously.  I do it because when I put my pen in my hand, I no longer hear English in my brain.  During this period when everything confuses me, everything unsettles me, I change the language I write in.  I begin to relate, in the most exacting way, everything that is testing me.  

I write in terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes.  Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone.  I grope my way, like a child, like a semi-literate.  I am ashamed of writing like this.  I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere.  I can’t stop.  

It’s as if I were writing with my left hand, my weak hand, the one I’m not supposed to write with.    It seems a transgression, a rebellion, an act of stupidity.  

During the first months in Rome, my clandestine Italian diary is the only thing that consoles me, the gives me stability.  Often, awake and restless in the middle of the night, I go to the desk to compose some paragraphs in Italian.  It’s an absolutely secret project.  No one suspects, no one knows.  

I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new approximate language.  But I know that it’s the most genuine, vulnerable part of me.  

Before I moved to Rome I seldom wrote in Italian.  I tried to compose some letters to an Italian friend of mine who lives in Madrid, some emails to my teacher.  They were like formal, artificial exercises.  The voice didn’t seem to be mine.  In America it wasn’t.  

In Rome, however, writing in Italian is the only way to feel myself present here- maybe to have a connection, especially as a writer, with Italy.  The new diary, although imperfect, although riddled with mistakes, mirrors my disorientation clearly.  It reflects a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.  

In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing.  I wanted a new approach.  I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for years in America would, finally, give me the direction.

I use up one notebook, I start another.  A second metaphor comes to mind: it’s as if, poorly equipped, I were climbing a mountain.  It’s a sort of literary act of survival.  I don’t have many words to express myself- rather, the opposite.  I’m aware of a state of deprivation.  And yet, at the same time, I feel free, light.  I rediscover the reason I write, the joy as well as the need.  I find again the pleasure I’ve felt since I was a child: putting words in a notebook that no one will read.  

In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way.  I’m always uncertain.  My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself.”

geography of rome

Soon Lahiri is not only writing privately in Italian- she’s writing publicly as well.  Recounting the unexpected visit from the muses that leads to her first short story in her adopted language, she recaptures the bliss of being a beginner.  A writer of remarkable restraint and refinement, Lahiri is a virtuoso of her native English, but it’s this very expertise that keeps her constantly doubting herself.  Should she say “elated” or “ecstatic”?  write in short, declarative sentences or be more elaborate?  use a semi-colon or a comma?  “Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail,” Virginia Woolf once wrote, “how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in…and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”  To write- to create anything for that matter- is to perpetually second-guess yourself.  This doubt is compounded the more possibilities you have to choose from.  Coined the “paradox of choice,” this natural law states the more abundant your options, the more difficult it is to decide- in other words, there is liberation in limiting yourself.  This is certainly true for Lahiri, who discovers the most exhilarating freedom while bound in chains: in Italian, she doesn’t possess the vocabulary to endlessly debate between synonyms, she doesn’t have the critical capacity to judge whether what she writes is “good.”  But it’s her very lack of ability, her very lack of choices that rekindles her love for the written word:

“One day I find myself in a library where I never feel very comfortable, and where I don’t usually work well.  There, at an anonymous desk, an entire story in Italian comes to my mind.  It comes in a flash.  I hear the sentences in my brain.  I don’t know where they originate, I don’t know how I’m able to hear them.  I write rapidly in the notebook; I’m afraid it will all disappear before I can get it down.  Everything unfolds calmly.  I don’t use the dictionary.  It takes about two hours to write the first half of the story.  The next day I return to the same library for another couple of hours to finish it.  I am aware of a break, along with a birth.  I’m stunned by it.  

I’ve never written a story in this fashion.  In English I can consider what I write, I can stop after every sentence to look for the right words, to reorder them, to change my mind a thousand times.  My knowledge of English is both an advantage and a hinderance.  I rewrite everything like a lunatic until it satisfies me, while in Italian, like a solider in the desert, I have to simply keep going.”

“The moment when a book is best comes before you have written a word,” novelist Mark Childress once wittily observed.  Zadie Smith put it more bleakly: to be an artist, she declared, is to “resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”  No matter how much we edit, no matter how much we obsessively prettify and polish, what we write inevitably disappoints: writing is an everlasting exercise in disenchantment.  So why- when it’s already so heart-rending to compose in her own language- would Lahiri willingly endeavor to write exclusively in another, an aim that will almost certainly elude her?  The preposterousness of her project doesn’t escape the Pulitzer-Prize winner: “Why does this imperfect, spare new voice attract me?” she wonders, “Why does poverty satisfy me?  What does it mean to give up a palace to live practically on the street, in a shelter so fragile?”  Much like James Joyce, who asserted that “mistakes are portals of discovery,” Lahiri comes to realize that- despite our culture’s worshipful reverence of perfection- flaws are the birthplace of all novelty:

“Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new relationship with imperfection?  What does it offer me?  I would say a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness.  Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity.  It stimulates.  The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”

A remarkable writer and woman, Lahiri inspires her readers with her courage, her determination and, above all, her passion.  An amorous love letter that will seduce your soul, In Other Words is not just for self-proclaimed Italophiles or those already familiar with Lahiri’s work- it’s for anyone who delights being in the presence of a true aficionado.  

 

How Friendship Teaches Us to Be Merciful

Today- more than ever- we are experiencing a tolerance crisis.  Our political landscape has hallelujah anywaypolarized into warring ideological camps whose central occupation is defending their own belief’s fortress.  Division seems to capture the spirit of our age as the very fabric of society has begun to unravel along racial and cultural lines- lines we thought we transcended half a century ago.  Rather than build bridges of tolerance and understanding, we erect barriers of bias and bigotry until more and more we conceive of those different from us as unworthy of mercy- that miraculous human ability to forgive the unforgivable.  But why should we be merciful to those we deem loathsome?  Why pardon when we can punish?  Why forgive those who’ve done us wrong? 

For Anne Lamott, writer of soul-stretching wisdom and heart-warming honesty and author of Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, we can only learn to extend mercy to ourselves if we extend mercy to others.  No where is this more true than in friendship.  “Friendship is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness,” poet and philosopher David Whyte writes in his lovely redefinition of the not-often-pondered concept of camaraderie, “Friendship not only helps us to see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn…All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.  Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.”  Fearlessly honest about her own foibles and frailties, Lamott recognizes that humanity and inadequacy are one and the same.  To be a friend is to see another in their all too human defects and deficiencies- and accept them anyways.  More importantly, to be a friend is to bare our splintered souls in all their imperfection and realize we’re still worthy- of connection, of love, of belonging.  With her distinct blend of good humor and nurturing, motherly insight, Lamott argues there are two paths to living a more merciful life:

“There are many routes to living a merciful life in this mean and dangerous world; assorted ways to find and extend inclusion after lives of cheeky isolation; a number of walkways to awakening and gratitude.  And there are two goat paths to the peace of self-forgiveness.

The first is to get cancer.  All the people I’ve known who have recieved a terminal diagnosis have gotten serious about joy, forgiveness, simple pleasures- new green grass, massage, cherries, the summer’s first peaches- and have been able to find good-enough peace toward people who did unforgivable damage to them and their families.  They know they are going to die one of these days, but maybe not today, so they live, savor, rest, wake up kind of amazed.  

The second is to fall in step with a teacher, briefly or forever, a real teacher who makes it clear that even as he or she points to the moon, we have got to stop staring at the person’s fingers.  If we want freedom from grudge, we will at times need wise counsel- teachers, with flashlights.  Forgiving rat finks who have betrayed a beloved, let alone forgiving one’s own disappointing self, is grad school.  Without these studies, we live so small.  Every one of us sometimes needs a tour guide to remind us how big and deep life is meant to be.  

Mercy means that we no longer constantly judge everybody’s large and tiny failures, foolish hearts, dubious convictions, and inevitable bad behavior.  We will never do this perfectly, but how do we do it better?  How do we mostly hold people we’ve encountered with the understanding of a wise, caring mother who has seen it all, knows that we all struggle, knows that on the inside we’re as vulnerable as a colony of rabbits?  

Sometimes when we cannot take it one more day, like the renowned octopus who recently escaped his aquarium and headed toward the sea, a mentor appears, who knows things, and more important, knows that he or she does not know things.  We want what the person has, a gentler way of seeing, a less rigid way of thinking, less certainty, more play.”  

Battered and broken after years of alcoholism, Lamott confesses that when she finally trudged through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous, she despised herself.  How could she have so much- a loving, loyal family, good friends, several books- and still be so bent on destroying herself?  Though she’s horrified by her own sick, self-defeating behavior, the newly sober Lamott finds comfort in confiding in Loretta, a fellow alcoholic who offers a cup of coffee and a kind, nonjudgmental ear:

“Thirty years ago, one week after my last drink, on a hot July afternoon, a tall and rather plain woman came up to me in a room of sober people.  She extended her grimy hand to me.  She was a gardner.  I found out she had been a junkie, and had gotten clean ten years earlier at the alternative drug rehab in Synanon, famous for having had two of its members put a rattlesnake in the mailbox of an antagonistic lawyer.  She was funny but seemed to be in a bad mood.  I was, too: I had woken up days earlier, hungover and in deep animal confusion, as I was most mornings: Why couldn’t I stop drinking after six or seven friendly social drinks?  Finally the exhaustion of living this way had propelled me to a group of people who had somehow found a way out, a path with one another’s company and bad coffee, people who were laughing about their crazy thoughts and pasts.  Most of them were overly cheerful, but Loretta was cranky, and I like this in a girl.  

[…]

She got me a cup of coffee with four sugars and we sat in a corner.  She listened to the bones of my story: I was thirty-two, with several published books, and the local love of my family and lifelong friends.  I was loved out of all sense of proportion, yet I got drunk every day.  I was poor and bulimic, but adorable and cherished.  There was one problem: my insides…My mind and spirits and behavior were deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.”

anne lamott

In a moving moment recalling Seneca’s conviction that “one of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and be understood,” Loretta responds to Lamott’s story not with denouncement or disgust but with compassionate understanding- a kind of sympathetic “I’ve been there.”  Just as literature reminds us of our shared humanity by requiring we locate commonalities between ourselves and a character whom we deem strange and other, friendship- but a different kind of exchange of stories- confirms we are in this together:

“Then Loretta told me her story: She’d been put in an orphanage after her mother died, although her brothers lived with their father; her cousins gave her a shot of speed at fifteen, which is how she discovered what she wanted to do with her life, i.e. drugs, not knowing of course that this would come to involve turning tricks, alcoholism, and Synanon.  She was smart, with no formal education, a voracious reader, and she had what I wanted, a way of taking each day as it came, mostly with humor and even gratitude.  What she had could not quite be put into words, but the best way to capture it may be to say that she knew what wasn’t true.”

Friendship requires the barest vulnerability: to forge long-lasting bonds, we must be willing to divulge all of ourselves- both our assets and our shortcomings.  But it’s terrifying to share our selfishness, our small-spiritedness with another.  What if they can’t forgive us our trespasses?  what if they realize we’re shitty?  What friendship teaches Lamott is human beings are united in their fallibility.  Among A.A.’s congregation of prostitutes and drug addicts and cheating husbands and neglectful mothers, Lamott makes the ultimate confession and discloses herself at her most disgraceful: how she drinks everyday, how she throws up after every meal.  Like a repentant sinner, she seeks redemption but worries her misdeeds will forever bar her from the paradise of human belonging.  Instead what she finds is the women she encounters welcome her whole-heartedly.  They don’t criticize or condemn but rather offer a cookie and a cup of coffee.  But their greatest consolation is two simple words, “Me too.”  The fact that these women (who admit to also having done awful, unutterable things) still love her and themselves heartens Lamott’s soul.  When others so ungrudgingly grant us mercy, we realize we should be more merciful to ourselves.  A restorative cure for our society’s pathological perfectionism, Hallelujah Anyway maintains we’re still lovable- even though we’re only “mostly,” not completely, redeemable:

“We hung out with these other women, who had betrayed their families and deepest values, and who told me, ‘Guess what?  Me, too.  I have those secrets, that self-obsession.  It’s okay.  Let me get you some cookies.’  

[…]

We were so much the same, except for our histories.  We’d been such good girls, able to tell ourselves that our parents were okay, they loved and would protect us, even as we were scarred by their unhappiness.  Then the world got its mitts on us, no matter that we put our best shining faces forward, and we stayed alive however we could.  We grew into women with big hearts, scars and dark secrets, mostly gentle and kind, mostly generous, with areas of weakness and craving.  When I was a child, I knew a fabulous dog named Mostly, who was mostly beagle, mostly a love bug who every so often bit one of us, although not all that hard.  Loretta and I were mostly okay.”

How to Salvage Your Sanity in a Nutty World

stitchesWe live in a terrifying world of madness and uncertainty.  In the last century alone, we’ve witnessed the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the bloodiest wars in human history.  Today when we watch the morning news, we hear of events as heinous and as horrifying: another senseless act of terror, another school shooting.  Catastrophe is served regularly with our coffee.  

So how do we forge meaning when the world is so often incomprehensible, sustain hope when our lives are so routinely wrecked by loss and tragedy?  How do we find the strength of spirit to go on?

How we bear the unbearable is what Anne Lamott, cherished prophet of the human spirit, ponders in Stitches– her consoling sermon on salvaging hope from the wreckage of despair.  A comforting hearth where we can warm ourselves during the soul’s bitter winters, Stitches explores how we begin again after devastating personal loss, how we maintain our sanity in a world that so often seems senseless and cruel, and how we persevere when it seems the only thing to do is give up.  With astonishing humility and wisdom hard-won, Lamott admits she doesn’t have all the answers- but suggests there is solace to be found in each other:

“It is easy to sense and embrace meaning when life is on track.  When there is a feeling of fullness- having love, goodness, family, work, maybe God as parts of life- it’s easier to navigate around the sadness that you inevitably stumble across.  Life holds beauty, magic, and anguish.  Sometimes sorrow is unavoidable, even when your children are little, when the marvels of your children, and your parental amazement, are all the meaning you need to sustain you, or when you have landed the job and salary for which you’ve always longed or the mate.  And then the phone rings, the mail comes, or you turn on the TV.  

Where do you even begin in the presence of evil or catastrophe- dead or deeply lost children, a young wife’s melanoma, polar bears floating out to sea on scraps of ice?  What is the point of it all when we experience the vortex of interminable depression or, conversely, when we recognize that time is tearing past us like giddy grey-hounds?  It’s frightening and disorienting that time skates by so fast, and while it’s not as bad as being embedded in the quick sand of loss, we’re filled with dread each time we notice life hotfoot it out of town.

One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are.  

That would be fine, when where we find ourselves turns out to be bearable.  What about when it isn’t- after 9/11, for instance, or a suicide in the family?  

I really don’t have a clue.

I do know it somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin.”  

anne lamott

Meaning, Lamott contemplates, is easy to decipher when our lives are as comprehensible as books but how do we make out meaning amidst ISIS and Rwanda?  Hurricane Katrina and Sandy Hook?  In a lyrical moment of lustrous grace, Lamott plays with the possibility that meaning and solace are one and the same:

“If we’re pressed for an answer, most of us would say that most of the time we find plenty of significance in life as it unfurls in front of us like a carpet-runner- at least when it goes as expected, day by day, with our families and a few close friends.  We have our jobs and those we work or play or worship or recover with as we try to feel a deeper sense of immediacy or spirit or playfulness.  Most people in the world are simply striving to feed their kids and hang on.  We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses, illnesses and elections.  We work really hard at not being driven crazy by noise and speed and extremely annoying people, whose names we are too polite to mention.  We try not to be tripped up by the major global sadnesses, difficulties in our families or the death of old pets.

People like to say that it- significance, import- is all about the family.  But lots of people do not have rich networks of hilarious uncles and adorable cousins, who all live nearby, to help them.  Many people have truly awful families: insane, abusive, repressive.  So we work hard, we enjoy life as we can, we endure.  We try to help ourselves and one another.  We try to be more present and less petty.  Some days go better than others.  We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we’re lucky, the quiet satisfaction of our homes.

Is solace meaning?  I don’t know.  But it’s pretty close.”

What’s incredible about human beings is we survive the unsurvivable, endure what can’t be endured.  A husband’s diagnosis with a rare, incurable degenerative brain disorder.  The dissolution of a thirty year marriage.  The loss of a six-month old.  No matter how truly terrible life can be, we persist, we persevere.  Or, as Janet Fitch affirms, “The Romans were right.  One can bear anything.  Whatever pain we can’t bear will kill us outright.”  Much like Pema Chodron, who is of the opinion that pain broadens our hearts and stretches our capacity for kindness, Lamott believes suffering has the power to transform us- often for the better.  Marveling at the irrepressible resilience of the human spirit, she writes:

“My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering.  Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scarped up elbows.  But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed.”  

It is a paradox of the human condition that living can be both unbelievably beautiful and unimaginably cruel.  But what’s wonderful about life is that after death, there is rebirth; after damnation, deliverance; after brokenness, healing; after disrepair, renewal.  Day follows night.  Or, as the Mamas & the Papas reassure us, the darkest hour comes just before dawn:

“Yet no matter what happens to us- to our children, to our town, to our world- we feel it is still a gift to be human and to have a human life, as long as….we understand that we and our children are going to get knocked around, sometimes so cruelly that it will take our breath away.  Life can be wild, hard, and sweet, but it can also be wild, hard and cruel.  

The bad news is that after suffering, we wait at the empty tomb for a while, the body of our beloved gone, grieving an unsurvivable loss.  

It’s a terrible system.  

But the good news is that then there is new life.  

Wildflowers bloom again.  

That’s it? you ask.  That’s all you got?  

No.  I’ve also got bulbs.  Well.  They’re both such surprises.  Wildflowers stop you in your hiking tracks.  You want to savor the colors and scents, let them breathe you in, let yourself be amazed.  And bulbs that grow in the cold rocky dirt remind us that no one is lost.”

Lamott’s philosophy on life bears a startling resemblance to her philosophy on writing.  In much the same way we surmount writer’s block by breaking up daunting tasks into short assignments, we recover after loss by focusing on the next right stitch instead of the whole tapestry: 

“…most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it.  We clean up beaches after oil spills.  We rebuild whole towns after hurricanes and tornadoes.  We return calls and library books.  We get people water.  Some of us pray.  Every time we choose a good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice.  The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope.  The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbor, organize an overseas clothing drive, do your laundry.  You can also offer to do other people’s laundry, if they recently had any random babies or surgeries.  

We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky.  If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching.  And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we’d pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch.  This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears.  

In the aftermath of loss, we do what we’ve always done, although we’re changed, maybe more afraid.  We do what we can, as well as we can.  My pastor, Veronica, one Sunday told the story of a sparrow lying in the street with its legs straight up in the air, sweating a little under its feathery arms.  A warhorse walks up to the bird and asks, ‘What on earth are you doing?’  The sparrow replies, ‘I heard the sky was falling, and I wanted to help.’  The horse laughs a big, loud, sneering horse laugh, and says, ‘Do you really think you’re going to hold back the sky, with those scrawny little legs?’  

And the sparrow says, ‘One does what one can.’

So what can I do?  Not much.  Mother Teresa said that none of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love…So I showed up to teach Sunday school two days after the Newtown shootings.”  

Recalling Cheryl Strayed’s soul-affirming assertion that our “useless days will add up to something,” Lamott argues loss is an integral part of our becoming:

“Periods in the desert or wilderness were not lost time.  You might find life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.” 

But what do we do before we reach the other side of loss?  how are we to live for the days, the months, we’re stranded alone in the desert?  When a scorching sun seems to stretch across the forsaken landscape forever, all we can do is hope to find water.  For Lamott, the little things offer consolation and comfort: good friends, a regular schedule, a daily walk.  Such simple rituals are an oasis amidst the desolation of the desert:

“Sometimes after a disaster or great loss, when we are hanging on for dear life, we struggle to understand how we will ever be able to experience safety and cohesion again.  The aspects of life that we treasure and have gathered over time, because they are lovely and go together, are gone. We may feel as if we’ve been handed ugly patches for our quilt that clash with one another- brown Hawaiian print, say, along with orange Rob Roy tartan and three squares of vomitous sea-foam upholstery.  

At this point, a reasonable person can’t help thinking how grotesque life is.  It can so suck, to use the theological term.  It can be healthy to hate what life has given you, and to insist on being a big mess for awhile.  This takes great courage.  But then, at some point, the better of two choices is to get back up on your feet and live again.  

There is the tired-and-true method of ‘Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.’  Or you can become a fundamentalist, perhaps Opus Dei, or Ana-baptist.  Or you can start to sew around the quilt squares with the same color embroidery thread.  This unifies your incompatible patters, textures and colors.  It’s grace as an unexpected bond, grace as surprise.  

Stitching with the same color thread might mean regular contact with a few trusted friends, the three people you can currently bear who don’t make your skin crawl.  Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.”

Thich Nhat Hanh on the Art of Stopping

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy-” Danish philosopher Søren the heart of the buddha's teachingKierkegaard once reproached with contempt for his culture’s rampant obsession with productivity.  Half a century later, German novelist and poet Herman Hesse likewise condemned the modern industrialized West’s preoccupation with factory-like efficiency: “the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry hurry as the most important objective of living,” he said, “is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”  Today this notion reverberates with particular poignancy as the driven and ambitious resolve to “get things done” and devour self-help books that promise to “optimize” their “productivity.”  Ours is a culture of haste, one that prioritizes product over process, the mechanical over the mindful, quantity over quality.  Most of us squander our lives dutifully crossing tasks off a to do list- starving, instead of nourishing, our desire for exuberant spontaneity.

In our era of mindless rushing, we’ve lost the art of mindful presence, of pausing.  The art of stopping has no more poetic a proponent than Buddhist monk and prolific peace activist Thich Naht Hanh, the gentle voice behind such mindfulness manifestos as Peace is Every Step, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and How to Eat.  In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation– the most approachable beginner’s guide to Buddhism I’ve ever come across– Hanh examines the hazards of hurrying through life too haphazardly.  A sage shepherd leading us along the windy path to enlightenment, Hanh relays an old Zen parable of a man and his horse to illustrate the ways we default to habit rather than live attentively:

“There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse.  The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important.  Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know!  Ask the horse!”  This is also our story.  We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop.  The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless.  We are always running, and it has become a habit.  We struggle all the time, even during our sleep.  We are at war within ourselves, and we can easily start a war with others.”

What Hanh calls “habit energy” is our compulsive tendency to act without thought.  Though habits can take the form of elevating, life-affirming rituals (the first cup of coffee in the morning, saying “I love you” to your significant other the last thing at night), they can also- by their numbing repetitiveness- deaden our senses and desensitize our spirits.  When we too strictly abide by our routines, we’re simply not present.  And what happens?  We relinquish our better judgement.  It’s so much easier to lose patience at people’s pettiness, to lash out at an assault, to retaliate at a slight (real or imagined) when we’re acting routinely.  An emotion overcomes us and-rather than realize all emotions, like waves, rise but eventually crest and fall-we allow ourselves to be governed by their momentary intensity and permit bitter feelings like fear and anger to dictate our behavior, which only adds to the store house of human suffering.  

So how do we break the cycle of unintentional living and, thus, halt the unconscious perpetuation of suffering?  Hanh prescribes a simple remedy: be mindful.  Being present is a super vitamin for the soul.  When we pause to ponder instead of instantly react, we act from our noblest, most magnanimous selves.  Such presence, Hanh believes, can heal a hostile world:

thich nhat hanh

“We have to learn the art of stopping-stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us.  When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace.  We turn on the TV and then turn it off.  We pick up a book and then we put it down.  How can we stop this state of agitation?  How can we stop our fear, despair, anger and craving?  We can stop by practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, and deep looking in order to understand.  When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.

But our habit energies are often stronger than our volition.  We say and do things we don’t want to and afterwards we regret it.  We make ourselves and others suffer, and we bring about a lot of damage.  We may vow not to do it again, but we do it again.  Why?  Because our habit energies (vashana) push us.

We need the energy of mindfulness to recognize and be present with our habit energy in order to stop this course of destruction.  With mindfulness, we have the capacity to recognize the habit energy every time it manifests.  “Hello, my habit energy!  I know you are there!”  If we just smile to it, it will lose much of its strength.  Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us.”

Pema Chodron on Learning to Stay

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion; only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life,” Henry David Thoreau once mused.  Who hasn’t had the unsettling experience- in the hush of an ordinary morning, on the unremarkable commute home from work, amongst friends and the convivial chatter of dinner- of being physically present yet somehow not there?  As the wonderfully erudite Maria Popova articulates, the tragedy of our times is that we routinely show up for life but are rarely present.  In our restless age of instant communication, we’re bombarded by a ceaseless onslaught of distraction, not living but simply existing in a sort of half-conscious stupor.  Like pinballs, we mindlessly ricochet from one meaningless diversion to the next, compulsively checking the ding of every text message until we lose what little sanity we have left.  

At no other juncture in human history has it been more vital to carve out periods of stillness.  For many, meditation offers this much-needed repose from modern life’s madhouse.  Once sanctified as the path to enlightenment in Eastern spiritual traditions, today meditation has metamorphosed into something far more secular-not an impossibly serene Buddha sitting under a lotus tree, but a practical exercise whose avid proponents include everyone from top-performing athletes to Oprah.  So why has this ancient religious practice seen a resurgence in popularity in our decidedly non-religious culture?  Perhaps it has to do with the abundance of scientific evidence demonstrating its wide-ranging physical and psychological benefits: not only has meditation been shown to improve self-control, lessen anxiety and depression, and decrease stress, it’s been proven to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and actually boost the immune system.  Meditating as little as twenty five minutes a day can literally restructure the brain, increasing gray matter in the hippocampus, the hub of human memory and learning, and forever transforming its architecture. 

Why we meditate is the question at the heart of The Places That Scare You, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron’s endlessly wise but endearingly accessible guide to cultivating courage in difficult times.  Of all meditation’s far-reaching benefits, Chodron asserts the greatest is its capacity to teach us a kind of spiritual grit.  Though many imagine the goal of meditation is to achieve a blissful state of trance-like tranquility, its chief aim is not to silence thoughts but to learn to sit still amidst the noise:

Why do we meditate?  This is a question we’d be wise to ask.  Why would we even bother to spend time alone with our selves?

First of all, it is helpful to understand that meditation is not just about feeling good.  To think that’s why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure.  We’ll assume we’re doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences physical and psychological pain.  Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and sanity.”

pema meditation

Just as running instructs us in the invaluable art of perseverance, meditation teaches us to persist- even when we think we can’t go on.  To meditate is to observe the disarray of the mind from the watch tower of detachment- without getting swept up by the tumult of every tempest.  We look upon our mental landscape as a spectator would a play: interested but not involved in the drama unfolding before us.  Worries, anxieties, obsessions: all are but stars on the stage of a never-ending saga.  Rather than shriek in terror at the sight of our countless neuroses (or too brutally, unmercifully judge them), we learn to courageously confront our demons:

When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves.  No matter what comes up- aching bones, boredom, falling asleep, or the wildest thoughts and emotions- we develop a loyalty to our experience.  Although plenty of meditators consider it, we don’t run screaming out of the room.  Instead we acknowledge that impulse as thinking, without labeling it right or wrong.  This is no small task.  Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we hurt.” 

 A portal to grasping the mysterious workings of our own minds, meditation also sheds light on the universal human psyche- particularly our shared tendency to retreat into the reassuring realms of imagination and fantasy so as to elude the present in all its dismaying insecurity.  Though the present has the profound power to transport us to transcendent heights of rapture, to exist completely in the here and now- or, as patron saint of presence Thoreau once said, to realize there is “no other land but this”- is to come face to face with life’s startling uncertainty.  Unadulterated life is both torture and bliss, torment and rhapsody:

In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness.  Sometimes we get up and leave.  Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds are far away.  This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay.  Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it means to be human.  All of us derive imaginary security and comfort from the imaginary world of memory and fantasy and plans.  We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of present experience.  It goes against the grain to stay present.”  

While the idea of sitting cross-legged atop a mountain sounds wonderfully replenishing to many a weary spiritual seeker, meditation practice is just that- practice, in other words, hard work.  Instead of a few stolen moments of calm restorative bliss, meditating is most often a terrifying submergence into the storm-tossed seas of our subconscious.  “God, how much longer do I have left?”  “I’m hungry…what am I going to eat for lunch?”  “Crap…I still have to walk the dog!”  This chronic mental chatter brings about a startling- if distressing- revelation: we very rarely are where we are.  But rather than castigate ourselves for our hopeless inability to stay present, Chodron pleads with us to be compassionate toward our shortcomings as self-love is the most priceless lesson meditation can impart.  Only when we develop an attitude of loving-kindness, can we learn to “stay” with both our selves and the world at large:

The pith instruction is, stay…stay…just stay.  Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog.  If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible but rather terrified dog.  The dog may obey when we say “Stay!” “Come!” “Roll over!” and “Sit up!” but he will also be neurotic and confused.  By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.

So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to stay and settle down.  Are we experiencing restlessness?  Stay!  Discursive mind?  Stay!  Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay!  Aching knees and throbbing back?  Stay!  What’s for lunch?  Stay!  What am I doing here? Stay!  I can’t stand this another minute!  Stay!  This is how we cultivate steadfastness.”