My mind is a bad neighborhood I try not to go into alone


Anne Lamott
March 13, 1997 11:10PM (UTC)

i have been reading books on meditation with great enthusiasm since
1975, but have not quite gotten around to becoming a person who meditates.
The only times I remember practicing with any regularity were during my
drug days when I'd find myself awake at 4 or 5 a.m., which are the hours of
the black dogs even under the best of circumstances. I remember lying in
bed many nights after all the cocaine was gone, feeling and maybe looking
like Bobcat Goldthwait, grinding away at my teeth like a horse,
lock-jawed, weepy, considering the wooden bedpost as a possible teething
device, idly wondering what it would feel like to stick a fork through the
sleeping boyfriend's forehead. But all of a sudden I would start saying
Hail Marys or a mantra, thousands of times in a row, to quiet my feral
mind. It always worked, maybe not as effectively as a little something
from the Schedule III column, but usually, at some point, I would be able
to sleep.

Perhaps a purist would not consider this true meditation.

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At any rate, right around the time I got sober, I discovered the
books of Jack Kornfield, who writes about meditation and compassion. And
they were so wonderfully written and wise that I became utterly committed
to meditating. To the idea of meditating. Now, while my commitment
remains firm, I cannot actually report any real -- what is the
word? -- progress. I still don't meditate. I still just pray like a mother,
in the mo-fo sense of the word. My mind remains a bad neighborhood that I
try not to go into alone.

But the last few times I've gone out on a book tour, Jack Kornfield
has been waiting for me in various cities when I arrived. Maybe not
exactly in the flesh, maybe a little bit more like the face of Jesus in a
tortilla, but any port in a storm, right? And he's been a reliable birth
coach who keeps showing up even when I am at my most narcissistic and
mentally ill.

In a month or so, Sam and I will travel around from city to city by
plane, and I will try to get people to like me and buy my books. I'll do
readings and Sam will lie on his stomach in bookstores and draw. I'll talk
about writing and Jesus and the new book, and discuss my personal problems
at length, secretly trying to con my audience into having some sort of
awakening -- spiritual, creative -- so that we can all save the world together,
and Sam can grow up and have children and provide me with grandchildren.
(Or Sam can grow up and be as gay as a box of birds and provide me with
someone who laughs at all my jokes and makes me nice snacks.) It sounds
like fun, right?

But the problem, the reason I rely so on Jack, is that I do not travel
well.

Sam does; he thrives. He loves bookstores and hotels, which all have
nice floors for drawing, and he loves Spectra-vision, and snacks from the
mini-bar. He even likes flying. I, on the other hand, do not believe in
flying, or at any rate, am deeply unclear on the concept. I believe that
every plane I get on is doomed, and this is why I like to travel with
Sam -- so that if and when the plane goes down, we will at least be together,
and almost certainly get adjoining seats in heaven -- ideally, near the
desserts.

Then when we do arrive safely at a bookstore, there are either hardly
any people in the audience, at which point my thoughts naturally turn to
suicide, or there are so many people, so expectant and so full of love,
that it fills me with self-loathing, makes me just anxious as a cat. I
start to see myself as a performer or a product, or a performer pitching a
product, as if I'm up there at the podium trying to get people to buy a
Veg-O-Matic. It's like the Martin Buber line from "I and Thou": "This is the
exalted melancholy of our age, that every Thou in our world must become an
it." I become an it, with really, really bad nerves. I seek refuge in
shutting down, in trying to hide behind my false self like it's some
psychic Guard-All shield.

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So this is where Jack has helped me more times than he can possibly be
aware. When I first show up at each bookstore, I've usually either
stopped breathing or am wheezing away like a dying asthmatic pug. But a
number of times, something has nudged me over toward a copy or stash of
Jack's books, and they whisper this subversive message to me: Breathe.
Pay attention. Be kind. Stop grabbing. And I always end up feeling like
I've somehow gotten a grip, or a little grippage, as the French say.

I was in St. Louis three years ago in a bookstore where only 10
people had shown up, and of course I was just a little bit tense and
disappointed. I peeked around a stack of books at those 10 people and
imagined mowing them down with an AK-47. I know that makes me sound a
little angry, but it's true. I had jet-lag, the self-esteem of a prawn,
and on top of it all, I had stopped breathing. I sounded just like the
English Patient. But it turned out I was standing in front of a shelf
full of Jack's books. I opened one at random and read one sentence, words
to the effect that life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind. It
was as if God had reached down with God's magic wand, because I looked out
at the crowd, which by then had swelled to 12 people -- a third of them
guilty, beaming employees of the bookstore -- and I gave one of the most
joyful talks of my life.

I have walked into tables while trying to hide from crowds and rows of
empty seats, and knocked over stacks of his books. I was once handed one
of his books to use as a tiny desk while autographing something for someone
in Seattle. He keeps showing up when I need the message most, when I feel
most like Mr. Magoo at the top of an unfinished high-rise, about to step
into empty space but finding instead a girder rising up beneath my feet.
I show up in crowded bookstores so stoned on myself and adrenaline that I
could chase down an airplane, and I read about quietness, peace. I show
up to a sea of empty metal chairs, and I read about the fullness of an open
heart, and I'm suddenly a sea anemone unfurling her tendrils again, after
the danger has passed.

Maybe what I like best about Jack's message is that it's so
subversive. The usual message is that there are all kinds of ways for you
to fill up, so you'll be strong and nourished and no one can get you; but
when you're fortified, fortification by its very nature is braced, and can
break. So you're still vulnerable, but now you're anxious and shamed too.
You're going to be vulnerable anyway, because you're a small soft little
human animal -- so the only choice is whether you are most going to resemble
Richard Nixon, with his neck jammed down into his shoulders, trying to
figure out who to blame, or the sea anemone, tentative and brave, trying to
connect, the formless fleshy blob out of which grows the frills, the
petals.

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It's pretty obvious stuff. And it's wonderful chutzpah not to be
afraid of the obvious, to know it instead as a great teacher, to know that
right behind the clichi is the original message. So many other people
trick it out with draperies and garments and piercing glances; while Jack,
in his simplicity and kindness, returns you to yourself; and maybe that's
all we have. To know that the simple truth, of love, and the moment, is
here to be passed around and around, like a polished stone from the sea,
only because it is of itself, and for no other reason. You don't hang
words onto it, and you don't need to, because it's got the great beauty and
smoothness of having been whacked around for eons. It's beautiful in a
muted way, beautiful through feeling, the way it's been smoothed and roughed
up and relaxed on the shore, and you pick it up and feel the stasis, the
beauty of something lifted out of its ordinary flow, that's gotten its beauty by being tossed about.

I got to meet him finally, just last month, introduce him at one of
his readings. He had actually asked the bookstore if it could get me to
introduce him, because he cares for me. I couldn't believe it. My heart
soared like an eagle. But I showed up feeling self-conscious and anxious
anyway. There was a huge crowd. Sam immediately lay on the floor in the
back of the bookstore and began to draw. He's a simple people. But I went
up to the front of the bookstore and in this sort of gritchy, obsequious
mood, introduced myself to Jack. He looked at me with such affection that
I might have been a child of his, one he hadn't seen in a while. And this
amazing thing happened: I felt lovely all of a sudden, in a goofy sort of
way, exuberant and shy, and I moved from Richard Nixon to a sea anemone,
which is something I love. They're so funny and clownish, absurd and
lovely, like a roomful of very young girls learning to ballet dance, all
those long legs in white tights, or a boy lying on his stomach, drawing on
the floor.

You'd have to use the word luminous to describe him. One has the
impression also of sandalwood, so smooth and brown, giving off a light,
delicious spicy ancient smell. I thought about all those times in other
bookstores, when I was out there trying to get people to buy my book, and out
of all that tension and lumpiness, all that self-consciousness and
grasping, something graceful and baroque appeared. Clingy scared old me
made beautiful, made much more elegant than what's going on, which is after all a
kind of fishing. But there are many kinds of food.

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Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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