“Many people,” says psychologist Mary Pipher, “wish they could be as unlucky as I was.” Andrea Miller interviews this bestselling author.
Mary Pipher is the author of eight books, including the New York Times bestseller Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, and she has lectured at conferences across the globe. But as a homebody from a sleepy town in the Midwest, she was worn down by whirlwind success and in 2002 she experienced a meltdown. Her latest book, Seeking Peace, is her story of unraveling, and, finally, coming back together again. Mary Pipher and I talked about crisis, mindfulness, and good-looking birds.
Why do you call yourself “the worst Buddhist in the world?”
It came from a remark my husband made to me. One day, after meditating for forty-five minutes, I started listening to NPR. I was also dialing United Airlines to make some changes to an itinerary and stir-frying some onions for a stew and, at the same time, while I was on hold, I asked my husband if he’d done the two or three things I’d asked him to do that day. He was reading the paper, trying to relax, and he said, “You’re the world’s worst Buddhist.”
It hurt my feelings and I was like, How dare you say that? You don’t know anything about Buddhism. But then I realized he was right. I’d jumped up from meditation and immediately become a whirling dervish. I also realized that we’re all the worst Buddhists in the world. People come up to me wherever I go and say, “You can’t be the worst Buddhist in the world. I’m the worst.” It’s common for people to think that somehow all the rest of the meditators out there are good Buddhists, and that they alone aren’t doing things properly or don’t have the right kind of mind.
You say that you don’t want Seeking Peace to get spun as an oh-success-is-so-terrible story?
I’ve been very lucky, so talking about my success being related to despair is a delicate issue. It has to be handled properly or it seems like I’m bragging or complaining, neither of which is my intent. What I want to stress is that I wrote this book not because I thought anybody would be particularly interested in my story but because I realized that my story is like everybody’s story. We all have times when we don’t have the resources to cope with the external stresses in our lives, and I had that experience because of being on the road too much and having too many demands on me.
By being honest about what a nut job I am, I wanted to say that it’s okay to be a nut job. Your life is okay as it is. It’s okay to be neurotic and impatient. These are things we humans are. If I can tell the truth about my life and accept myself, maybe you can do the same. With this book, I wanted to say, “I’m a human being and this is what a human being looks like when they’re being honest.”
Why, for you personally, was success so difficult?
I was inadequate for life in the fast lane. I’d always lived in small towns, surrounded by a big family. That made me feel safe and loved, and because of my childhood and some time when I was separated from my mother, feeling safe and loved is very important to me. The other thing is, life on the road is difficult and anybody who has done it for long knows. It’s disorienting to move back and forth across time zones and eat airport food and not get enough sleep and face large crowds. Every time you have a cold and need a cup of tea you’ve got to find somebody who’ll sell you one for four dollars.
Also, I had so much guilt over the fact that I couldn’t meet the needs of all the people who wanted something from me, whether it was to read their manuscript or blurb their book or talk to their daughter who had threatened suicide that semester. I was constantly saying no to people who in my ordinary life I’d never say no to. I’m very much someone who likes to help people and I suffer a great deal when I can’t. So in terms of my personality, it was a perfect storm: the external situation, the number of requests, the number of no’s, and my distance from a good-looking bird.
I like to be around birds—to be outdoors—and I missed that. My husband was really good about it. If there was a body of water around that was any bigger than a swimming pool, he’d find it and we’d go look for waterfowl. That helped me more than anything else when I was on the road.
How did Buddhism help you cope?
Buddhism is a religion of kindness and compassion. I needed that kindness to myself. I’ve always been someone who never thought about my own needs. I was raised that way. Women weren’t supposed to think about their own needs in the world I was raised in, and children were supposed to do what they were told. It was late in life that I finally realized it was okay to be as flawed and have as many needs as anyone else on Earth. It was a tremendous relief to figure that out.
How do you try to manifest mindfulness in your life?
When I’m in the grocery store and there’s a person sacking my groceries, I want to give that person the sense that I care about them and that I hope their day is a good day. Or before I walk into a room, I think about how I want to enter respectfully. I think about it when I’m gardening, too. I have a tendency to tear into the weeds and not notice the flowers. Mindfulness is stepping out of automatic. It’s saying, this is how you’re rushing through your life. Go to a different level and handle it with more awareness.
I have times when I’m a space cadet or I’m totally not in the moment or conscious of being compassionate. But what I’m seeking is a life that becomes more mindful and with that goal I can feel good. With mindfulness the barrier between self and other falls away a little bit. When you’re mindful of another person and you see them clearly, you feel a connection that takes away self-doubt and loneliness.
Do you have a Buddhist teacher?
I don’t, but I’m starting to realize I need one. My own efforts to direct my education are probably going to be flawed—let’s just put it mildly. If I were in the Bay Area or Boston or Tucson, finding a teacher would be no big deal, but I can’t tell you how few teachers come through Lincoln, Nebraska. Teachers are hard to find. Maybe not if you live in certain parts of the country, but most people don’t live in certain parts of the country. They live in Kansas and Nebraska and Indianapolis.
How are reading and writing related to Buddhism for you?
Writing is a bit like meditation. You get up on a ledge above the drama and look at it and see that what you’re experiencing is very common. Reading opens people’s hearts and inspires them to act on behalf of the common good. It allows us to be connected with people all over the world and back in time. When I was growing up, my aunt Margaret said that if you live seventy years and aren’t a reader, you’ll know maybe three thousand people over your lifetime. You’ll hear their stories and you’ll see a certain part of the world. But if you read books, you’ll go all over the world and know all these wonderful people you could never have met in one lifetime.