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.”