So I finally got around to reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive. I follow him on Twitter, and a friend sent me a couple of quotes from him at important moments. I like that he continues to speak out about depression, and I definitely want to read his book The Humans.
Like any book about a very complex and personal illness, it was hit and miss for me. Some things were so true that I felt I’d read them before, though that could have just been that I’d thought them before, myself, many times. The chapters are short, and sometimes they felt too short; I wanted more description, to be shown where he went, perhaps so I could compare it to where I have been. I really liked, however, that it is a book that’s part memoir, part exploration of the topic of depression, and part self-help. He wants to tell us his experiences, but also give us a context and some tips. It’s a generous-hearted book, which didn’t surprise me at all.
What did surprise me were the places I marked. I didn’t start marking up the book until the last third, and here’s what struck me (page numbers are from the paperback version):
—The list of books Haig read during his depression. What a wonderfully diverse list! I especially loved what he said about The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. “I had been through no war and yet I related to that feeling of pain contained in every new day, as ‘Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.’ It fascinated me how depression and anxiety overlap with posttraumatic stress disorder. Had we been through some trauma we didn’t know about? Was the noise and speed of modern life the trauma for our caveman brains? Was I that soft? Or was life a kind of war most people didn’t see?” (p. 137) I loved this mention of the evolutionary psychology theory of depression, which comes up again (p. 173, 181, 218) and is one of the books he lists under Further Reading at the end. (p. 247) And the question format was poignant and resonant for me, because I think we often ask these questions of ourselves and the world; and questions open up possibilities and new ways of thinking, inviting the reader to collaborate.
—His suggestion that we actually force ourselves to do what we fear. “When you are depressed and anxious your comfort zone tends to shrink from the size of a world to the size of a bed. Or right down to nothing at all.” (p. 141) I personally get into bouts of self-pity during my depression, and that makes me think I should be treated with kid gloves, and treat myself that way. But there’s a difference between negative self-talk and pushing yourself, and I like that Haig shows how pushing himself actually helped beat back the depression at times. I felt inspired to take action by this suggestion, and that surprised me. It didn’t say, “Stop pitying yourself,” it just said, “Push yourself and it may help.” So now my own task is to figure out the precise ways I make my world feel smaller, and push out against those boundaries.
—The Rumi quotes on p. 148. “Rumi wrote in the twelfth century, ‘The wound is the place where the light enters you.’ (He also wrote: ‘Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.’)” I knew the Leonard Cohen quote, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I didn’t know he’d taken the basic idea from Rumi. I like that this thought echoes through the centuries. And I like the admonition to a fearless life, from someone who lived so long ago.
—Haig’s idea that sometimes depression makes us who we are in good ways. He writes, “For instance, I write because of depression. I was not a writer before. The intensity needed—to explore things with relentless curiosity and energy—simply wasn’t there. Fear makes us curious. Sadness makes us philosophize.” (p. 170) More, he talks about Abraham Lincoln and quotes an article about him: “’Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.’” (p. 170) Every self-help book in the world seems to shout that if you fix all your problems, you will be a great success. But some problems are not “fixable,” and really, we’re not broken. Some problems are complex and pernicious and recurrent, perhaps even essential parts of who we are. To turn our backs on our experience is to discount any wisdom we’ve gained from it. I was so very heartened to read this idea, because I can too easily list the things I didn’t do because of depression. I never thought to list the things I did, and can, because of it.
—His honest assessment of outside factors that contribute to depression for us all, including capitalism. “The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an antiaging moisturizer? You make someone worry about aging…How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own nonupgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.” (p. 181)
—The quick trip into mindfulness. “Understand, for instance, that having a sad thought, even having a continual succession of sad thoughts, is not the same as being a sad person. You can walk through a storm and feel the wind but you know you are not the wind. That is how we must be with our minds. We must allow ourselves to feel their gales and downpours, but all the time knowing this is just necessary weather.” (p. 235) He says in the book that he’s not a Buddhist because it’s too restrictive for him, but of course I personally think that must have been just one of the Buddhist sects. There are others that aren’t restrictive, and the basic philosophy of Buddhism is very much one of mindfulness. I guess I feel like it’s possible to agree with the philosophy without considering Buddhism a religion that must be officially joined and all the “rules” followed.
—Three of the 40 pieces of advice. Not that the others weren’t smart, but three struck me as fresh or especially resonant. “6. Kurt Vonnegut was right. ‘Reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found.’” (p. 238) Oh, yes, every reader and writer loves to hear this. And thinking of them as forms of meditation is really fascinating. I have to sit with that for a while.
“8. Don’t feel guilty about being idle. More harm is probably done to the world through work than idleness. But perfect your idleness. Make it mindful.” (p. 238) That is definitely balm for the depressed soul, to mute one of the inner critic’s most seemingly justified criticisms. Sit on the couch, ok, but actually be there. Watch the tv show, think about it, instead of letting that inner critic just go on and on until you’re not even really resting or watching anything.
And then “28. If someone loves you, let them. Believe in that love. Live for them, even when you feel there is no point.” (p. 241) Yes. My incredibly sweet husband embodies this every. single. day. He’s a saint. I don’t tell him that there have been times I mainly stayed alive for him, but he has persuaded me—through repetition—to believe in his love.
I think it is useful to read about depression when you struggle with it yourself not only to see that others have survived, but to give your endlessly thinking mind new routes. Your old routes, good or bad, become so familiar that, like the drive home from the grocery store, you hardly notice them anymore. New routes—alternate ways to the same place, new stops, unfamiliar landscapes, even just new signs—wake you up. I want to be awake, be aware, no matter what else is happening in my life or in my mind.
I’ve been concerned about suffering since I was eight, and I went to a friend’s Baptist church with her. They had fun games about remembering things from the Bible, and—always the showoff when it came to learning—I enjoyed those games. But though I had a good time, I declined to go with her again. And soon, I declined to go to the Sunday school classes at our own Episcopal church. When my mother asked me why, I said, “I don’t know about a God who is supposed to be all-powerful but still lets animals and little kids get hurt.” I was lucky: my mother let me out of the classes, only if I sat quietly in church during the grown-up part of the service, next to her.
I never did know about that God. I loved the language of the King James Bible, and many of the verses, particularly the Psalms. I liked singing hymns, especially at Christmas. But I could not find faith, when logic would not reconcile the things this religion told me. The closest I came was when I taught a survey literature course in Southern Illinois and the Old Testament was part of the curriculum. I had to teach the Book of Job.
The suffering of Job
One aspect of Job is the awful bet that begins the book, where God brags about Job’s extreme faith and goodness, and Satan says (and feel free to imagine this in a needling, snide voice), “Yeah, that’s only because you’ve given him all good things.” God then says, “Oh yeah? Well, do whatever you want to him. He’ll still be a good guy.” And that’s how Job’s suffering begins. Because of this bet—precisely because he remains good, you might say—he loses everything, including, eventually, his friends, his reputation, and his health. And reading it is truly horrifying, particularly if you think about people you know who are good, kind, generous, and thoughtful, and how those people have suffered and are suffering. The book seems to make my childhood point for me: it shows an all-powerful, all-knowing God who not only allows suffering, but seems to incite it. And all during his suffering, Job’s “friends” come and tell him to stop complaining; they won’t listen to his understandable anger and confusion over this unfairness. Poor Job! Poor us, humans left in the hands of a cruel and capricious god.
For some people, the answer comes directly from God, close to the end of the book of Job, when God gets tired of Job’s complaining and (perhaps to prevent him from doing what God told Satan he would never do, and cursing God’s name), God comes down to give him a direct talking-to. What does God say? Basically that Job wasn’t there when God created everything, set up the world and chilled out with monsters and angels—that God’s understanding is so complex, subtle, and deep that there is no way Job could understand all of God’s ways. It’s just not possible. It would be like trying to explain economic theory to your dog.
Ok. Ok. So if you can block out your prior literary knowledge here—that Job’s suffering is the result of a bet between God and Satan—that actually makes sense. The likelihood that a being powerful enough to create the world would be beyond our understanding is pretty high. In the context of suffering, it is the only thing that makes sense; certainly we can look around us and see numerous people whose goodness should make them prime candidates for receiving good, and numerous people whose evil should make them prime candidates for receiving evil, and observe that this is not what happens.
Buddhism’s take on suffering
What I like about the basic idea of Buddhism is that there’s no pretense that good behavior will get you good things in life. The Buddha just says, “Yeah, human existence cannot be separated from suffering. Life is suffering. So I’m going to give you some tools for making that suffering less.”
All right. Yes, I said all right. Because this no bullshit approach sounds absolutely true to me. I’m a very sensitive person who has suffered from depression since my teens. I not only sob when I witness suffering, like a squirrel hit by a car, but also when I hear about suffering. And then I spiral down into the dark, wondering what the point of all this is, feeling my insignificance in the universe, deciding that I actually cannot stand the suffering, and the unfairness. If I put the additional pressure on myself of believing that, if I were only better in some (or numerous) ways, I wouldn’t suffer, then I can’t move. The weight is too much. Suffering is down to me? It’s my fault? I can’t live with that.
What I can live with is a world largely indifferent to my suffering and the suffering of others. A universe with its own systems, and a body and brain set up to be particularly attentive to the passing of time. Hey, we evolved to be like this—ruminating on the past, to see what we learned, and worrying about the future, so we know what to avoid. This all happened so we could stay alive.
But now, we suffer when we spend all our time in the past or the future. A bill from the doctor’s office doesn’t hurt us in the present; it is our regrets about the past (Should I have not gone to the doctor? Not spent that money in that way last month?) and our fears about the future (If I pay the bill now, will I have enough for rent?) that make us suffer.
Life’s going to suck sometimes
Which is where meditation comes in. I want to be clear: meditation doesn’t take away the bill. I don’t subscribe to the “meditate and you’ll draw good things to you, including money and success” set of beliefs. Basic Buddhist ideas work best for me: life is going to suck sometimes, and you’re going to suffer. Most of that stuff will be out of your control. So what can you do? Try to modify your reactions to what happens.
So when you get that doctor’s bill, you’re going to have a reaction. That’s a feeling, and you can’t control it. It’ll be a sinking feeling, or a feeling of sadness or even anger. Notice the feeling, have the feeling, but separate the feeling from all the thoughts that will come afterwards. Meditation helps you do this, and it helps you practice nonjudging. Because if you refuse to judge yourself, then the thought, “I shouldn’t have spent that money last month” can be just a thought, noticed and watched as it floats past on your river of thoughts. You can, in fact, significantly lessen your own suffering by not judging yourself based on that thought. Instead of chasing after that thought, telling yourself, “I should have known; I should have saved,” you remember that you not only couldn’t know about the future doctor visit, you couldn’t control yourself getting sick. Translation: this is not your fault. This is just one of those sucky things that happens because the universe sometimes gives you sucky things.
Freeing yourself from the blame and self-judgment amounts to a real lightening of the load of your own suffering. It’s like magic! Only it isn’t magic. Human nature, capitalist culture, modern technology, and more make it particularly difficult to separate yourself from judgment and from the illusion of control. It’s hard to give yourself even a few moments of quiet time to think, to remind yourself to notice your thoughts and feelings without judging them, or yourself for having them. That’s why people have meditation practices, because a practice is something you try to do on a regular basis. It helps us actually take the steps that will make us better at doing something we know we want to get good at.
Perhaps the Buddhist approach to suffering is, in fact, a bit like that answer towards the end of Job, where God says that we simply cannot understand God’s ways. In both cases, we must accept our limitations—we are not all-knowing nor all-powerful—and devise ways to meet the uncertain with equanimity. People with religious faith and those who don’t claim a particular faith can all benefit from a new way of seeing, and responding to, suffering.
Depression and suffering
And for those of us who struggle with depression, it is even more essential to come to different terms with suffering. Without some handle on it, the specter of ending our suffering in a permanent way rises regularly, even daily. But we can endure, I believe. I have endured, and you will, as well. Your suffering is not your own fault. Remember that, however you can. And try to practice meditation, if only for the hope of a few moments relief. It has worked for me. It is not a cure, but it is a tool I would not have survived this long without. Both this perspective on suffering and the practice of meditation have also—you can trust me on this, because I absolutely admit to the inevitability of the dark times and the sucky events you cannot control—brought me times of joy. I promise you, joy is possible, even given the inevitability of suffering. You can feel the whole range of human emotions, including joy. That’s where I hope to take you, in my writings: on this slow, fitful journey with me, where we recognize, together, that our lives have worth.
I gave this talk as part of a panel with Casey Clague at the Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers conference a couple of weeks ago, so forgive the speech-like feel. (And if you’re anywhere near Fairhope, Alabama, and a writer, consider coming to that conference next year—I’ve taken over as president, and it’s always a great time of community and connection. Not just for teachers, and not just for literary writers or writers within academia.)
I wanted to start my little talk with a joke, something to loosen people up and connect us to the here-and-now, something that might establish me as at least good-natured, a little bit clever, knowledgeable about the strategies of successful panels and conferences (as I should be at this point, having done this kind of thing for 25 years). I even thought about opening with my opening at the Other Words conference, my other favorite Southern writing conference, where all I had to say was, “I’m not funny. I’m from the Midwest,” and the audience burst into laughter.
But. That conference was back in early November. That conference was before the election. We are living in a different world now, and I am even less funny now than I was then. I am, in fact, stricken. I try to write, to think, about anything other than the suffering that will be a consequence of the current administration—that is already happening—and, mostly, I can’t.
Except for meditation. I can think and write about meditation, because I first came to it due to suffering, and it is one of the few things that helps me deal with suffering, mine or others’.
So one of the things I’m writing about meditation is a short book, tentatively entitled, There’s No Wrong Way: 44 Meditations, in which I list a variety of ways you might meditate. Some are standard parts of Buddhist or mindfulness meditation practices, and some are a little weird, like stoplight meditation, cursing meditation, fabric store meditation, and time travel meditation.
I bring this up for two reasons.
- As both writers and readers, you know that how someone explains something is often as important—or more important—than what they are saying. Which means that some books and speakers on the topic of meditation and mindfulness will turn you off. Tone, word choice, metaphor, and all the other tools we work with daily will affect you. (Personally, the words of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, don’t work for me. Her tone reads to me like “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” when I need something more like “everything’s going to be ok,” or really, “everything’s going to be as it is, and you freaking out about it won’t make it better, so give yourself a break and chill out.”) There are tons of books and videos on meditation—in fact, I thought about calling my book Who needs another book on meditation?—so if one doesn’t resonate for you, try another one. Meditation itself may still work for you—I believe it works for nearly all of us—but you need to find the right perspective and wording.
- If you think you’ve tried meditating and you can’t do it, I’m here to say that I don’t believe you. Because if you’re a writer, you’ve meditated. What do you think that “zone” is, that “flow,” where you’re writing the first draft and your hands can’t move quickly enough to get down your thoughts? Where do you think your crazy ideas come from, when your characters say things you didn’t plan for them to say or your poem loops back around to that image from the first stanza and you suddenly have an ending? I would argue that this state—which we all know is not all there is to writing—at the very least has a lot in common with meditation. It is a state of concentration without striving, a state of openness and receptivity that nevertheless excludes our usual worries about the future or regrets about the past. Success and failure are not part of it; when you’re in that state, you simply are.
Now, do you get to that state of being every time you sit down to write? No, of course not. Similarly, you don’t get to that state of being every time you sit down to meditate. But the more you practice meditation, the more likely you are to enter that state. I suspect there are writers here who would attest to a similar effect when writing, who know that it is the sitting down regularly that makes it possible for that “zone” to occur.
So, in this ultra-busy world, I can hear some of you thinking, if the writing “zone” is so much like meditation, why would you want to do both? Don’t they accomplish the same thing?
Ah…no. For us, writing is inevitably, inextricably tied to both the past and the future. It is connected to judgment at its very core: our writing is judged by teachers, mentors, and editors, as well as by our own inner critics. The zone may be free of all that, but as soon as we leave it, we’re back to the world in which we are writers, people whose careers depend on being published, people who want to be read. We suffer from our rejections, fall into self-doubt, spend months hoping for good news and dread having to publicize ourselves when the time comes. Yes, the writing zone is a beautiful state to be in, and it’s a vital mental practice, and it’s a high; but we’re always going to come back to the other parts of writing, the revision and submission, publication and reviews.
Meditation is not connected to all that. There’s no editorial board for meditation. No one will tell you whether you’re worthy as a meditator or not. Your income doesn’t depend on it, nor your public reputation. When you’re done meditating, you don’t then have to pick apart the results of that half hour, applying your overlay of craft knowledge to the raw materials of the imagination. The point of meditation is not to produce anything. For the time you’re meditating, you are out of the loop of work and judgment. In fact, two basic ideas of meditation are nonstriving and nonjudging.
But it is still a mental practice. Studies abound on the specific effects of meditation. Meditation improves creativity, flexible thinking, concentration, and decision-making. It improves resilience and lowers stress, which is measurable in lowered blood pressure and heart rates. Meditation will feed your writing, making it easier for you to access the writing zone, manage your time so you can write, and bounce back from the inevitable negative events of life so you can spend more time being productive and less time down the YouTube rabbit hole. Maybe you’ll find the courage to get really weird in your writing, break some rules, experiment. Practicing the shutting down of those inevitable inner voices of judgment and discouragement may make innovation more possible. Not to mention the ability to access quiet, stillness, and concentration in a world of constant, instant connection, stimulation, and information overload.
One last thing: when I was younger, I worried that if I ever found a way to silence my inner demons, heal lifelong emotional wounds, that I’d lose the urge to write. I worried that I’d lose the inner itch, that urge to create, to try to understand the world through words. Meditation may seem like that kind of bandage, soothing your inner turmoil and simultaneously smothering the crazy, effed-up part of you that needs to write. Of course I can’t promise you won’t become a bodhisattva, an enlightened one, and levitate into the next world—but I suspect that, like the rest of us, you’ve got plenty of crazy for this lifetime. After all, you’re a writer.
My former student and beautiful writer, Taryn, on meditation in her life. Enjoy! –Katie When and why did you start meditating? – I didn’t start meditating earnestly until I was p…
Another in our Meditation Monday series! Writers, you might be particularly interested in this. I’m especially glad to have so many people willing to talk about their meditation practices, in part because I think it’s so important for folks to recognize how varied they are.
When and why did you start meditating?
It came about as a part of my yoga practice. It kind of happened on its own, or thanks to my pranayama teachers.
How did you learn about meditation? (From a group, book, video, other practitioner?)
From various classes in Buddhist meditation, both before and during and after I’d already learned pranayama. I believe that my first meditation class was in NYC when I was about 12 or 13. It’s always been a sort of part of the air I breathe given my upbringing.
What type of meditation works best for you?
Observing my thoughts and gently nudging them, I suppose that’s somewhat vipassana influenced. Sometimes it helps me to do guided meditations. I was using the headspace app until quite recently when it came to feel obvious or redundant or just distracting.
Is your meditation connected to a spiritual, religious, or philosophic tradition?
Buddhism but also yoga practice.
What would you say to someone who expresses interest in meditation, but claims to be “unable” to do it?
There’s no such thing as “successful” meditation. It’s about the process not the goal. Trying is the same as doing.
What does your meditation practice do for you? That is, what are some of the specific benefits or consequences you experience, long or short-term?
It enriches my creative process in terms of conditioning my mind to be more pliable and responsive to stray ideas and also confident in chasing weird ideas. It lessens the self-shut-down criticism that can make the creative process stagnate. It helps me deal with conflict and anger. Long term I’d say it’s kind of self fulfilling. It’s always there for me as I’ve conditioned my mind to know how to do this kind of “exercise.”
Elizabeth Kadetsky is author of a memoir, First There Is a Mountain (Little, Brown), a story collection, The Poison that Purifies You (C&R Press), and a novella, On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (Nouvella). Her short fiction and personal essays have been published widely–recently in Glimmer Train, Antioch Review, and New England Review. She is assistant professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State, and her words can be found at elizabethkadetsky.com.