Shambhala Sun | September 2010 You'll find this article on page 48 of the magazine.
Q&A WITH MARY PIPHER
Is This the World's Worst Buddhist?
“Many people,” says
psychologist Mary Pipher, “wish they could be as unlucky as I was.”
Pipher is the author of eight books, including the New York Times
bestsellerReviving 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.—ANDREA MILLER
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
From the September 2010 issue of the Shambhala Sun.