It may seem paradoxical that reading about panic attacks due to overwhelming professional success and an abundance of work is calming to a person who’s been unemployed for months and battered by the recession, but that was my experience reading Mary Pipher’s new book Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World. It may seem counterintuitive that reading about a big, warm circle of supportive family could make a person whose family is mostly dead feel hugged, but, again, that is the case with this simultaneously comforting and entertaining book about a bestselling writer’s meltdown and recovery.
In 1994 after the publication of her book, Reviving Ophelia, author and psychologist Mary Pipher was catapulted out of her Nebraskan nest into a whirlwind speaking tour including appearances on Oprah and Charlie Rose. She managed to behave normally, but inside she was freaking out. She could never meet her own expectations of unconditional compassion, and she felt assaulted by the pace and the environments and sometimes the people she expected herself to love. By 2002 she was in a full-fledged depression and/or case of PTSD (my own amateur diagnosis). She’d been a person who gloried in people, and now she felt alone in the company of adoring strangers. “I did not feel real to myself,” she writes. “My career was going well, I had good and useful work — and I was absolutely miserable. There was a widening divide between how others viewed me and how I viewed myself.”
Why is this so comforting to a person who’s unemployed? Coming right up:
The chapter that follows the breakdown is called “Recovery (2002–2003).” For a whole year Mary Pipher lived in silence when she needed it and she dispensed with self-improvement efforts: “I spent hours patting my old Siamese cat, Woody. I bought myself fresh flowers and herbal teas. I made pozole and chicken curry. To cool down my agitated brain, I played solitaire and listened to classical music. Dressed in sweat pants, T-shirts and thick warm socks, I watched the snowfall and the winter birds.”
Essentially Mary Pipher describes how she began to not only allow, but watch and learn with immense curiosity who she was and how she was — a basic Buddhist practice of unattached witnessing. And inherent in this is expansion. As she witnessed, she became larger to contain what she was experiencing, finally realizing that “Darkness and loss signal us more clearly than anything else that it is time to expand our point of view.”
For me, this (more than the lists of things you can do to recover — which are also helpful) is the great gift of Seeking Peace.
In the beginning of the book, Pipher writes with some trepidation, worrying that people without her blessings may be offended by her problems. Quite the contrary! As I read of her panic attacks, I made mental notes to self: "Self, should you ever be obscenely successful, for goodness sake, stay grounded." And I realized the great blessing of my endless hours of unemployed quiet time with my dog in my beautiful little apartment. Rather than jealous of her success, I was overcome with gratitude for my present time of quiet change. I began to savor it like a delicious food. I know it will not last, so why not enjoy it while I have it? (How’s that for flipping your perspective on the recession?)
The only constant is change. As Mary Pipher chronicles hers, she makes me so grateful for whatever is going on for me right now, regardless of my ability to understand it.