Help!

As a lover of self-help, I’ve been on a lifetime improvement course. Body, mind and spirit have all been quieted, redirected and made new. Over and over again. And yet…I can’t give up my self-help habits. I don’t even want to, although I know that some efforts, especially those in the “body” have been fantastic fails. Like when I read Geneen Roth’s first book about stopping diets forever and just letting yourself eat what you want.

I gained thirty pounds on that one. This was many years ago but as I recall, her plan was that you had to ask yourself before you ate the ice cream “Do I really want this?” and as I shoveled cookies and chips into my mouth and poured wine down my throat, I was always sure I really, really wanted it.

I stopped going to Geneen for diet advice, but I kept reading her books because she was so engaging. She didn’t just write about food, but about her obese cat Blanche, and her husband, who she could not get in touch with when an earthquake (a very big one) hit San Francisco. I was riveted by her willingness to show herself in all her anxious glory, especially when she wrote about losing all her money to Bernie Madoff.

I expected more of the same from “This Messy Magnificant Life.” Another disaster story that ends when Geneen finally defeats that book’s particular demons. But she surprised me. Her latest is full of hope. It reminded me more of the Buddhist texts I like to read for spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is a tidy phrase. It doesn’t scare people as much as saying something like “Don’t believe your thoughts. The mind is crazy.”

I’ve been reading about and trying to grasp the idea that my monkey mind is not me. All those self-doubts, recriminations for past misdeeds, fears about the future. Who wouldn’t want a free pass to tell themselves “Hey these thoughts have nothing to do with me. Pay no attention. Don’t buy into them. You don’t need to feel guilty and sad.”

The first time I seriously tried to grasp this idea that we are not our thoughts, and that our thoughts often lead us down the path to suffering, was when Mark Epstein wrote “Thoughts Without a Thinker” in 1996. I remember how the title itself puzzled me and in fact was a little frightening. Who would I be without my thoughts? I needed them to get myself through life.

Right? Wrong. Most of our thoughts are better let go. I only finally really got this about twenty years after I read Epstein’s book. Buddhists have no time for ego. They don’t spend days and weeks in self-loathing mode. They start where they are and every day the mistakes of yesterday, or five minutes ago, get a clean slate.

This is not to say all thought should be ruthlessly abandoned. How would I write this post if I did that? What the Buddhists say, and what Geneen finally understands, is that most thoughts are unrelated to our present reality and many of our recursive thoughts will slow our progress toward understanding that, as the Dalai Lama says, our religion is love.

Love your thoughts, if you must, but in the end, you’ll be happier if you let most of them go. Try this. Try seeing how you feel when you give up the persistence idea that you should have protected your child more (I’ve been having that thought for 40 years) or you should never have tried cocaine (30 years) or that secretly you’re a failure because your career was a joke (20 years) or that your marriage just does not somehow make everything okay (10 years) or that your family members do not love you as much as they love other members (yesterday).

Yes, so I had that thought yesterday, and I had it every day for the past week or so and I’ve had it often in the past. I’ve had that thought longer than any other one. What’s great about having a thought like that now is it glides from my mind like a passing cloud in the sky. Silly thought, I think. Knowing 100% that it has nothing to do with me, with my family, with love, or with anything important at all.

Mental

Two of the profs I share an office with on Monday and Wednesday are also writers. One’s a young poet with a first book almost completed and the other’s maybe about my age. She’s writing a novel, too. We were talking the other day about why we would do such a thing as write when it’s so difficult to find the time, and almost impossible to be well published. We agreed it was a compulsion, not a choice.

I’ve always wondered if writing is a sign of a mental problem–for me specifically, not for other writers. I mean, really, why would I want to do something for which I am routinely rejected? And for so long? I’ve been writing for 40 years. Trying to publish a novel for 30 years. Well, off and on, between kids and marriages and degrees and teaching jobs, but still. Why haven’t I given up?

Any sane person would have let it go by now. At least that’s what I tend to believe in my bleaker moments. And then this morning I came across a passage in Thoughts Without a Thinker. Turns out that any kind of creative act helps us transcend mere ego. Channeling emotion into art helps us to “evoke a state of being in which self-consciousness is temporarily relinquished.”

Creative types, says Buddhist and M.D. Mark Epstein, routinely “dissolve into the act of creation.” Since Epstein is a psychiatrist, I think what he’s saying here is that I’m not crazy. When I’m writing, I’m actually doing something worthwhile. For my soul, if not my wallet.