3 Reasons You Should Keep a Diary

For me, a diary is many things: a therapist’s coach, a playground, a laboratory.  It’s— to borrow Virginia Woolf’s lovely phrase— a “blank-faced confidante,” a caring friend who will always listen and never judge.  Though the practice seemed pointless at first (after all, could there be anything more self-indulgent than documenting the mundane matters of your day?  who cares?), I’ve been keeping a diary now for nearly ten years.  Nothing has been more important to my formation as a person or as a writer.

Here are three reasons why I believe you— too— should keep a journal:

1. you’ll free yourself of your inner censor’s picky perfectionism

the diary of anais nin

For Anais Nin, who began her legendary diary at the age of eleven and devoted herself to the practice for over half a century until her death, a diary was a place to explore and experiment.  Unlike in “real” writing where we’re mercilessly tortured by self-criticism and silenced by self-doubt, in a diary, we can play like a carefree child in a sandbox.  Usually, writing is fraught with anxiety (“Was our point clear?”  “Was our topic interesting/relevant?”  Did we sound silly/stupid?”) but in the private pages of our diary, we don’t have to perform— we are free to frisk and frolic.  There’s no need to obsessively-compulsively write and rewrite sentences, to endlessly tweak and alter and adjust.  We don’t have to write anything original or sharp-witted— only what genuinely intrigues/interests us.  Nor do our ideas have to march to a neat and orderly logic: topic sentence, example, evidence.  They can wander down windy roads, get lost down dead-ends.

Too often, we bring our censor to the page in the early stages of the writing process: when we’re brainstorming, when we’re just playing with ideas.  The result?  We get blocked. “What does that have to do with anything?” our censor will snap when we start to follow an interesting— if unrelated— thought, “Stay on track…no detours!”  But just as we stumble upon Maine’s best blueberry pie when we decide to stop at a diner off the main road, we often discover our best ideas when we bypass the highway and take the scenic route.

In an illuminating 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, the ever-elegant Nin argued her diary helped her amass a wealth of material and write without restriction:

“… in the diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work.  Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, brought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.”

2. you might find diamonds in dust

virginia

Perhaps the most compelling reason to keep a diary comes from dedicated diarist, Virginia Woolf.  Though it’s hard to imagine that a genius like Woolf could doubt her own talent, for the titan of modernism behind such masterpieces as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, writing was often torment: she loathed what she wrote, she tossed entire drafts in the trash, she exasperatedly scratched sentences out.  There were days when she felt everything she wrote was obvious and trite, when she cruelly compared herself (“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!” she once wrote.) 

The fact is writing can be hell.  Some days we dread sitting at our keyboards.  We’d rather do almost anything— get a root canal, read dusty decades-old magazines in a three hour DMV line, visit our insufferable in-laws— than put one word against another.  On days like this, putting pen to paper feels as torturous as having dinner with your right-wing, Trump-supporting uncle.  Every word, every sentence is a struggle.  We freeze up rather than let words flow.  Because we long to write The Great American Novel— something history-making and monumental— we feel blocked.  Should we employ more evocative description?  Should we replace lethargic forms of “to be” with vigorous action words?  Is it okay to simply say “went” or should we use something more specific like “hurried” or “skipped” or “jumped”?

For Woolf, keeping a diary was a potent remedy for such crippling writer’s block.  In a April 20, 1919 entry from her own blank-faced confidante, she wrote the purpose of a diary was artistic— not historical.  More than just a mundane record of her day-to-day, the diary was a safe space where she could express what first came into her mind without fear of judgement or ridicule:

“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice.  It loosens the ligaments…What sort of diary should I like mine to be?  Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.  I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.” 

In a diary, we can write with an ease and effortlessness that often eludes us.  Ironically, our writing is worlds better when we stop trying so hard.  Think of a first date.  When we try to “make an impression” and dazzle our date with impressive accomplishments, riveting stories, and hilarious jokes, we repel rather than attract our potential paramour.  But when we relax, sip our wine, and be ourselves, our chances of a second date increase tenfold.

The same is true in writing.  If we write out of ego— to impress with our scholarly, sophisticated vocabulary or to astonish with our ability to quote Dante in the original Italian or to gain literary celebrity or to win awards— we’ll a) find it impossible to write at all or b) only write god awful dross.  But if we dash things off instead of compose, if we simply surrender and let go, we can write— and write well.

Will our diary be a masterpiece of prose?  Most likely not, much of it will be worthless junk, but— in Woolf’s charming words— other times we might uncover “diamonds in dust”:

“I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.  Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dust heap.”

3.  you’ll create yourself

susan sontag

Lastly, we should keep a diary because it’s a place where we can create ourselves.  As essayist, political activist, and public intellectual Susan Sontag wrote in her 1957 journal:

“Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate.  In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.  The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.  It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent.  Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.”

Writing— above all— is an act of making meaning.  Sadly, most of us don’t try to make our lives mean: we simply go to work, pay bills, go grocery shopping.  Rather than form a narrative that follows a conflict’s escalation from exposition to climax to resolution, we let our days pass without scrutiny.  A breakup of a long term relationship, a heated argument with our headstrong sister, an impossible roommate are a series of unrelated episodes.  Because we don’t examine our lives, we can’t identify the unifying theme, the recurring patterns.  We have no sense of how chapters contribute to the whole novel.

But when we take the time to reflect in a diary, we better understand our lives and ourselves.  By translating our thoughts into words, we make things comprehensible.  Our diary is the narrative of our lives, a novel we can analyze and dissect and pour over. 

Have we written the same tear-filled story about our husband day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year?  Maybe it’s time to get a divorce.

How many pages have we spent wondering why our on-again/off-again “boyfriend” hasn’t called?  Maybe— our diary suggests ever so gently— he’s not our boyfriend at all.  Maybe we should drop his ass because he treats us like a booty call. 

How many times have we written that we missed our regular ritual of Sunday brunch with the girlsMaybe it’s time to pick up the phone.

Are we always enviously admiring the accomplishments of our ambitious friends who volunteer for good causes and get their Master’s?  Maybe we should sign up to read to children at our local library or research grad schools.

Are we constantly complaining about how we despise our dull, dead-end jobs?  Maybe it’s time to change careers.

Or does page after page brim with a desire to explore and adventure?  Perhaps we should road trip across the country or trek to Timbuktu or abandon civilized society and live in a loincloth.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear,” Joan Didion once wrote.  Writing makes us aware of who we are and what we want.  Keeping a diary, we realize we’re the authors of our own lives: we can take control of our narratives, we can rewrite our stories, we can revise our plots.

Why You Should Go On Long, Meandering Walks

For most of us, life leaves little room for rest or renewal.  Most days, we’re racing from home to work to our daughter’s elementary school.  Rather than concentrate on completing one thing at a time, each hour of the day, until the day is over, we carelessly rush from one task to another— or worse— attempt to do two things at the same time.  In a pandemic that requires us to spend the majority of our waking hours in front of the hypnotic blue light of the computer, it has only become more difficult to be mindful.  How can we possibly focus on one thing when— with a single click— we can skim the headlines, take Buzzfeed’s “What Disney Princess Are You?” quiz, and watch another hilarious but ultimately pointless cat video?  The high-speed twenty first century is a circus of jugging clowns and acrobats in sparkly costumes.

If— as Rebecca Solnit so poetically phrased— “the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour,” the frantic pace of modern life is too fast for thought.  Hurried and haphazard, we can’t penetrate anything beyond the surface, let alone appreciate the glory and grandeur all around us.   Rarely do we marvel at the miracle that we even exist (the probability that any of us will be born, after all, is only 1 in 400 trillion), that despite car crashes and earthquakes and forest fires and meteors and stage three breast cancer and diabetes and heart disease and serial killers, we’re still here.  Too often, we neglect the “little joys”: the smell of french toast and coffee in the morning, the laugh of a child, the dappled autumn sunlight.

long, meandering walks

A daily walk, however, can help us slow down and notice what we usually overlook.  When we stroll, we soak up the scenery: the flower beds of red geraniums, the brick house covered in ivy, the old-fashioned Victorian home on the corner with a magical tree house in the backyard and a red 1967 Mustang in the driveway.  With nowhere to get to and nothing pressing to do, we pause for a moment to leaf through the local street library only to find a pack of Tarot cards and a rare first edition of Anais Nin’s first diary.

In our accelerated lives, things usually whiz by in a black-and-white blur, but on a solitary stroll, the world bursts into vivid technicolor.  At a slower pace, we can actually see the sky: clear or cloudy, robin’s egg or carefree Renoir blue.  The instruments of nature– the breeze blowing through bare branches, the patter of rain against the pavement, the foreboding sound of an approaching storm, the reposeful chirp of crickets at dusk, the drowsy buzz of bees in the sweltering summer sun– form the soundtrack to our saunter.  We may have walked these streets countless times, but today we see things we never noticed before: a corgi across the street, two bushy-tailed squirrels chasing each other.  We start to see the humanity of our neighbors.  There’s the liberal-minded lesbian couple with Black Lives Matter signs in their front yard, the beautiful German woman who wears impossibly chic sun hats and spends her Saturdays tending her garden.  “With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf,” observed Robert Walser.

Experts agree that something as simple as walking can do wonders for our mental and physical health.  Not only does walking daily support a healthy immune system, boost your metabolism, and help you burn calories and lose weight, it lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.  Walking increases self-esteem, improves overall sleep quality, and reduces stress and anxiety.  Studies have even found that a brisk 30 minute walk 3x a week is just as effective as anti-depressants.  So this year, swap another sedentary hour on the coach for a spirited saunter.

Why We Should Delight in the Little Things in Life

“Happiness, not in another place, but this place…not for another hour, but this hour,” Walt red poppies & daisiesWhitman assured us nearly two centuries ago.  Yet how few of us truly appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the ecstasy of a deep, dream-dazed sleep after a dozen miserable nights of insomnia or the glorious freedom of a Sunday morning with no one to see and nothing to do?  Do we rejoice at the sound of our lover’s key unlocking the door or the miracle of our lost dog finding his way home?  No, instead we moan about our mortgage, gossip about the inconsequential lives of imbeciles, gripe about having to go to yet another pointless meeting, and impatiently tap our feet and let out an exasperated sigh when an elderly coupon-clipping lady holds up the line at the grocery store.

Why do we become so joyless?  Is it because the glamorous lives of movie stars and social media influencers leave us perpetually unsatisfied and always wanting more?  because as we get older, we simply lose our capacity for wonder and become superficial social climbers obsessed with impressive job titles, designer handbags, and flashy cars?  Or is it because life almost never goes as planned and inevitably disappoints us?

According to Pema Chodron, the ordained Buddhist monk behind the much beloved Wisdom of No Escape, the great thief of joy is resentment.  When we forget what we have and only focus on what we lack and what we want, we conclude contentment is not in this place but another place, not in this hour but another hour.  We’ll be happy, we tell ourselves, when we get the hip mid-century living room or the stylish wardrobe befitting a Vogue cover.

But what does the attainment of our ambitions actually get us?  Do we feel less melancholic/despondent/angsty/anxiety-ridden when we fulfill our desires?  No, getting what we want only makes us want more: the vintage velvet coach doesn’t look quite as charming in real life as it did on our Pinterest board, the blouse and trousers don’t look as chic on us as they did on that perfectly-proportioned fashion model.  So we seek satisfaction in yet something else: a 1950s gold lamp, a Prada handbag hoping these things will finally satiate us.

For Chodron, the only way to escape this hedonic treadmill is to delight in what we usually neglect or ignore.  To be awake to the beauty of ordinary moments— the unparalleled pleasure of clean sheets fresh out the dryer or the delight of an impromptu picnic in a field of tulips or the delectable bliss of chocolate raspberry gelato— is to step beyond the smallness of our own experience, beyond our bottomless desires and endless “more, more, more,” and into a wider perspective that recognizes the preciousness of every fleeting instant of our finite time on Earth.  As Proust once reminded us, beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.  In a similar sentiment, Chodron urges us to marvel at the overlooked miracles all around us:

“That sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, every movement of our own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it.  The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.

Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are.  Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses on your morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under.  We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that somebody has put flowers on the table.”

For centuries, artists created “memento mori,” works meant to remind us of death’s inevitability.  Latin for “remember that you have to die,” a memento mori often featured a skull or an hourglass, unsettling symbols of mortality.  Though Jean Morin’s skull paintings or the elaborate crypts of friars’ bones beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church in Rome might seem morbid or disturbing, they communicate an important— perhaps the most important— fact of life: we will die“What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be,” reads a haunting inscription in the Santa Maria catacombs.  Whether you’re a pitiful peasant or a great king, in a hundred years, you— too— will be skull and bones, forgotten beneath the sands of time and reduced to a few insignificant words on a tombstone.

the skull jean morin

When we’ll perish, we cannot know.  We could die fifty years from now, an old woman who’s done everything she set out to do— won the Pulitzer Prize, beheld the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, seen Machu Picchu— or we could die unexpectedly on the way to work tomorrow.  The grim reaper rarely announces his arrival: we die suddenly of a heart attack and collapse over our morning coffee, we say “I love you” to our mother like we have hundreds of times, wave goodbye and never return.

Some say death is the domain of melancholy emo kids and brooding philosophers, but it’s actually something we should all ponder.  When we reckon with death— that we will most certainly die but we can never know how or when— we will finally live.  No longer will we overlook the loneliness-lessening comfort of recognizing ourselves in a character from a book, nor will we take for granted simple pleasures like a good laugh or hot chocolate on a chilly autumn afternoon.  We’ll no longer postpone visiting that quaint town in the English countryside or procrastinate on doing the things we’ve always wanted to.  Life with its clean sheets and tulip fields and chocolate raspberry gelato, we realize, is too precious to squander.

Pema Chodron on How to Break Our Habitual Patterns & Live More Mindfully

mindful Pema

What is a habit?  Oxford English Dictionary defines habit as a “settled or regular tendency or practice.”  Brewing a cup of coffee, stumbling into the bathroom and brushing our teeth, rising at six every morning: each is a habit, a task we ordinarily undertake.  Habits may make up the mundane material of our day-to-day, but they dictate our destiny (“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our our lives,” as Annie Dillard so exquisitely says.)  It’s simple: if we have good habits, we’ll lead good lives.  If, for example, we’re in the habit of exercising daily and eating only healthy, wholesome foods, we’ll be fit and full of vigor.  If, on the other hand, we’re in the habit of smoking half a pack of Marlboros and guzzling a gallon of Jameson every night, we’ll waste our days miserably hung over.

The beauty of habits is they’re automatic: they don’t require much— if any— effort.  When we leave for the office every morning, we don’t have to consciously think “turn the key in the ignition,” “shift from break to drive,” “press the accelerator.”  Nor do we have to consciously think to find our way there.  Because we drive to and from work twice a day, five times a week, we instinctively know where to get on and off the freeway, where to make a right or left turn.

Where would we be without such automated, unconscious processing?  Imagine how much energy we’d expend navigating streets!  Or deciding what to do when if we didn’t have daily rituals to divide our days!  Habits streamline our lives and sculpt the formless clay of existence into a beautiful, orderly shape.  Philosopher William James went so far as to advise we make as many useful actions habitual as possible.  “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work,” he believed.

Yet we don’t want to act from habit alone.  British philosopher Alain de Botton views habits more pessimistically, “Much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters,” he writes, “Habit dulls our senses and stops us from appreciating.”  After all, if we act out of habit, if we mechanically, mindlessly follow a routine, we’re by definition not thinking.  We’re reacting rather than responding.  It’s a habit to either sit and sulk or shoot back with a cutting comment when our mother makes a passive-aggressive comment about our dining room’s disarray.  It’s a habit to get defensive and retaliate when our boyfriend brings up something that bothers him, even when he does so in a constructive rather than critical way.

Rather than fall into familiar roles and act out the same habitual patterns, ordained Buddhist monk and master of mindfulness Pema Chodron suggests we pause and get fully present before we react in the same unhelpful ways.  In her life-changing Practicing Peace, she makes a radical, revolutionary assertion: war and peace begin with individuals, not with nations.  If we want to create a more loving world, if we want to build a society based on loving-kindness and mutual respect rather than hostility and hate, we must first look at ourselves: how do we behave with others day to day?  do we act with compassion and understanding or do we judge and discriminate?  if there’s conflict, do we seek to find a compromise or do we wage war against our enemies?  The key to peaceful relationships whether between nations and citizens or friends and family is thinking before we act and before we speak.  Maintaining our composure, of course, is difficult when we feel wronged or angry.  As Chodron writes:

“When we’re feeling aggressive— and I think this would go for any strong emotion— there’s a seductive quality that pulls us in the direction of wanting to get some resolution.  We feel restless, agitated, ill at ease.  It hurts so much to feel the aggression that we want it to be resolved.  Right then, we could change the way we look at this discomfort and practice patience.  But what do we usually do?  We do exactly what is going to escalate the aggression and the suffering.  We strike out, we hit back.  Someone insults us and, initially, there is some softness there— if you can practice patience, you can catch it— but usually you don’t even realize there was any softness.  You find yourself in the middle of a hot, noisy, pulsating, wanting-to-get-even state of mind.  It has a very unforgiving quality to it.  With your words or your actions, in order to escape the pain of aggression, you create more aggression and pain.”

What do we do when someone hurts or humiliates us?  When someone attacks us, our first impulse is to fight back.  Say our sister accuses us of being cheap.  Outraged, we want to defend ourselves and collect evidence to support our case.  Has she forgotten all the times we so generously picked up the tab?  or that we just covered her share of the security deposit at our new place?  How dare she call us cheap?  Blood boiling, we want to shout and scream: She was the money-grubbing miser.  She was wrong.  She owed us an apology.

But where does hurling accusations get us?  When two parties are in conflict, does criticizing or pointing fingers ever accomplish anything?  Even if someone wrongs us first— makes an unfair allegation, calls us names— do we reach an amicable compromise by launching our own crusade?  No, usually bombarding our enemies with bullets of belittlement only makes them fortify their walls and assault us more viciously.  For there to be any hope of resolution, we must not add fuel to the flames:

“If we want suffering to lessen, the first step is learning that keeping the cycle of aggression going doesn’t help.  It doesn’t bring the relief we seek, and it doesn’t bring happiness to anyone else either.  We may not be able to change the outer circumstances, but we can always shift our perspective and dissolve the hatred in our minds.”

It’s a common misconception that Eastern religions advocate pacifism that borders on passivity.  Buddhism recalls images of monks meditating serenely in monasteries or sitting cross-legged beneath bonsai trees, their tranquil faces radiating joy and peace.  To be spiritually enlightened, we imagine we have to be similarly all-loving and all-forgiving.  If a cashier is rude to us, if a hostess is discourteous after we’ve been waiting an interminable two hours to be seated, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be irritated/irate/angry.

Buddhism may advise us to pause and reflect before we rant and rave, but it never recommends we repress or deny our feelings.  We should validate how we feel: it is upsetting when the grocery store clerk barely raises his head to say hello, it is infuriating when the hostess doesn’t apologize for the long wait.  We can feel our feelings but choose how to express them.  The goal is to bring more alertness, awakeness, and aliveness to our interactions with our fellow human beings.  Or—to paraphrase the poetic Rebecca Solnit— we can feel ire without inflicting it.  No matter how strong the urge to exact revenge or unleash our rage, Chodron encourages us to simply stay with our difficult feelings:

“So when you’re like a keg of dynamite just about to go off, patience means slowing down at that point— just pausing— instead of immediately acting on your usual, habitual response.  You refrain from acting, you stop talking to yourself, and then you connect with the soft spot.  But at the same time you are completely and totally honest with yourself about what you are feeling.  You’re not suppressing anything; patience has nothing to do with suppression.  In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself.  If you wait and don’t fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can be very honest about the fact that you long for revenge; nevertheless you keep interrupting the torturous storyline and stay with the underlying vulnerability.  That frustration, that uneasiness and vulnerability, is nothing solid.  And yet it is painful to experience.  Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and discomfort…This means relaxing with that restless, hot energy— knowing that it’s the only way to find peace for ourselves or the world.”

No human ability is more powerful than the word.  “In the beginning was the word,” the Bible reminds us.  Words birth new nations, begin and end bloody world wars.  They can build bridges or erect walls, promote forgiveness or harden a grudge, resolve differences or incite rancor.  They can be stitches and slings or bullets and bombs.  They can bandage wounds or leave lifelong scars.

“For every time you regret that you did not say something, you will regret a hundred times that you did not keep your silence,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote.  Though it’s tempting to slight our sisters when they say something mean or strike back with a spiteful comment when our boyfriend hurts our feelings or otherwise insults our dignity, retaliating only perpetuates the cycle of suffering.  Yes, our boyfriend is a jackass for confessing he finds another woman attractive, but what do we accomplish by getting revenge?  We make him insecure and jealous?  Do we promote an atmosphere of trust by exaggeratedly checking out every remotely good-looking guy we pass on the street?  Do we strengthen our relationship by intentionally drooling over every six-packed movie star we see on TV?  No, no matter how much we want retribution for our lover’s insensitivity, our job in life is to keep our side of the street clean:

“At this point you’re getting to know anger and how it easily breeds violent words and actions, and this can be decidedly unnerving.  You can see where your anger will lead before you do anything.  You’re not repressing it, you’re just sitting there with the pulsating energy— going cold turkey with the aggression— and you get to know the naked energy of anger and the pain it can cause if you react.  You’ve followed the tug so many times, you already know.  It feels like an undertow, that desire to say something mean, to seek revenge or slander, that desire to complain, to just somehow spill out that aggression.  But you slowly realize that those actions don’t get rid of the aggression, they increase it.  Instead you’re patient— patient with yourself— and this requires the gentleness and courage of fearlessness.”

Every difficult conversation, every moment of doubt, fear, and insecurity offers an opportunity: will we reenact the same predictable patterns and believe our same habitual stories or will we behave in a new way?  Will we be courageous enough to be vulnerable and open up or will we defend ourselves against possible attack by hiding behind an impregnable stockade?

Often times, anger and aggression mask a deeper vulnerability.  Why, for instance, are we so outraged at discovering that our partner still stays in contact with his ex?  We feel indignation perhaps because we find such a relationship inappropriate, yes, but our swearing and screaming is really just a guise for our insecurity.  It’s easier to feel fury than realize just how utterly helpless we are at the hands of our beloved.  Those we love— more than anyone else— have the profound power to hurt us deeply: sure, they might love us now, but one day they might reunite with their ex or run off with their skanky, short-skirted secretary.  Rather than be vulnerable and reveal these anxieties to our partners (“I know you love me but it makes me feel insecure that you maintain a relationship with your ex.  I worry you still harbor feelings.”), we lash out.  We harden instead of soften, as Chodron might say: we call our husband a bunch of obscenities, we sulk and spoil our evening out to the movies, we reach out to our ex just to be petty.  We don’t dare articulate our actual feelings (“I love you/ I need you/ I’m scared you might leave me.”):

“Behind resistance— definitely behind aggression and jealousy— behind any kind of tension, there is always a soft spot that we’re trying to protect.  Someone’s actions hurt our feelings and before we even notice what we’re doing, we armor ourselves in a very old and familiar way.  So we can either let go of our solid storyline and connect with that soft spot or we can continue to stubbornly hold on, which means that suffering will continue.”

How can we break destructive, dysfunctional relationship patterns and express ourselves openly and honestly?  Chodron has a simple answer: live more mindfully.  If we return again and again to the present moment, we can observe our thoughts from a place of detached objectivity, label our thinking as “thinking,” and choose our actions accordingly: 

“Mediation teaches us how to open and relax with whatever arises, without picking and choosing.  It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows.  We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment.  We train in sitting with the itch…and with our craving to scratch.  We label our story lines ‘thinking’ and let them dissolve, and we come back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great.  This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”

Practicing Peace illuminates how we can bring more compassion to a world so often driven apart by conflict and cruelty.  With mindfulness, we can improve relationships individually and globally between men and women, between liberals and conservatives, between people of different religions, races and nationalities.  For more Chodron, read how to be courageous enough to grow up and how to let pain enlarge your heart.  If you want more Buddhist wisdom, learn how to live intentionally from Thich Nhat Hanh and how to entirely inhabit the present moment from Alan Watts.