In this episode Mark Matousek explores the big question – ‘HOW DO YOU LIVE?’
For an extended audio version of Mark’s story go to our podcast page.
To find out more about Mark visit: markmatousek.com
“When I was 21 years old my older sister came to visit me one day. She was thirty and she had always been my role model when I was growing up. She is the person who really took care of us, my mother wasn’t the mothering type and Marsha was a very sweet, big hearted person but she suffered from depression and a few days before her coming to see me her husband had left her and she was suicidally depressed. She had been hospitalised but the hospital let her out early because insurance wouldn’t cover it and we were all very very worried about her and one day she show up at my house just looking terrible and I said: “what is it Marsha? What is it?”. She wouldn’t talk to me at first, she kept avoiding the question and finally she said: “how do you do it?” and I said: “do what?” and she said: “how do you live?”. I didn’t know what to say to her and I thought about it and I come up with some platitudes: you know… you have to put one foot in front of the other you just have to… what’s the choice, what’s the alternative and all kinds of things like that and nothing got through and she just sort of gave me a kiss and left my house and that was the last time that I saw her alive. Two weeks after that she killed herself…and so for me that became an emblematic experience, it became a life changing experience because I didn’t know what to tell her. And of course I couldn’t have saved her life but there is always the thought that had I had some words of inspiration for her, had I been able to give her some guidance, maybe that day she wouldn’t have done what she did. So the question “how do you live?” really became my mantra, really became my North Star in my life, the thing that guided me in my writing as well as in my personal life because when I was in my late 20s I received a what was believed to be a fatal diagnosis so the question “How do you live?” became very urgent for me and all of the sudden I couldn’t think about anything else.
I left my job, I went to India, I started meditating, I started seeking a spiritual path, because I realised until I answer that question – “how do you live?” – for myself I wasn’t going to be able to get through this very very scary time. For 10 years I was waiting to die and as anyone knows, who has been through a crisis, once the initial shock passes, you have to figure out how to get through the next day, you know, you have to figure out how you gonna make it until there is some resolution or some light. Even crisis, even terror has a shelf life and I had to figure out when that passed, how I was going to find my way through and so for me it was about spiritual seeking, it was about looking for meaning in life but the key insight that came out of all of that seeking wasn’t finding God – I’m an agnostic. It wasn’t about having any prominent, lasting enlightenment or illumination. The major insight that came to me through all of my study and all of my practice was that suffering has a purpose, that in fact the adversity and challenges that come to us in our lives are exactly what we need to wake up from the story of ourselves. Until we have this story, this fiction of self, this safe life myth cracked open by some kind of crisis or some kind of catastrophe, something it turns out around, we move through our lives believing that the story is us, that this fiction is real and that we are trapped inside it as this little I, this small personality that needs all of these things exactly to be as they are in order to survive. When in fact, what happens when your story cracks, is you realise that you’re not the story. That what you are and who you are is much much bigger than this myth that you’ve carried around of yourself and that there is actually… that it’s the crack in everything, that Leonard Cohen talks about, that lets the light in. So whatever it takes to crack your life open is exactly where grace enters your life. It’s exactly the open door into a new way of living and what I discovered is that when you realise that suffering has a purpose it turns around the depressive view of life as just being this thing that we have to bear and we realise that the darkness is there to wake us up. Otherwise we go through our lives in a trance of complacency or a trance of self ignorance but when this life cracks open and you begin to see the path of freedom out of this small self, your life takes on a whole different meaning… and what I would’ve said to Marsha that day – how do you live – how you live is by stopping looking backward and moving forward into the future. That the way we live is by not trying to replicate some idea of well-being from the past but discovering an entirely new self in one’s brokenness and one’s vulnerability, realising that’s actually where creativity comes from. It comes from extreme vulnerability, it comes from not knowing what’s going on, what’s coming in the future. That’s where creativity comes from and when you learn to live on that edge of not knowing, in what Zen Buddhists call beginner’s mind, it changes the quality of your life completely because you’re meeting each moment fresh. You’re not trapped by some old story of who you believe you are and you’re not deluded into thinking that you can control the future, and that’s the other big thing, is getting that there is no creativity when we try to control where our lives are going. We have to surrender to where we are being moved by desire and the creative force, the erratic force of our lives toward our own freedom and toward our own fruition. That only comes from releasing the past and being willing to move into the future. Tagore, the Indian poet said: “Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark”, and that’s the essence of what this is about. Is that the kind of faith that you learn when you go through a prolonged periods of darkness is the faith that feels the light even though the dawn is still dark. Ok? It’s holding open in the mind the possibility that something else is also true. That there will be life after this. That this difficulty, this pain, this suffering isn’t for nothing. That in fact it will deepen you as a human being and it will widen and enlarge what you believe you’re capable of. That’s really the main thing, as you get far more self-respect and self confidence when you lose everything and you’re broken, paradoxically, then you do when you’re toddling through a charmed life and you’re never really tested. It’s the tested strength that is the true strength and that’s really the key to a spiritual understanding of how to live and how to move through adversity. Understanding the nature of impermanence. And when you get that, you realise how extremely fragile this all is. How this moment will never ever come in all of eternity again. This very moment. And when you look at your life with that kind of freshness with that kind of willingness to be surprised with that kind of openness, it is very vitalising. It really transforms the day and then really every day is a good day because if great things happen, you get what you want, that’s terrific, yeah, of course, everyone likes to be satisfied. But if you don’t get what you want, you realise, that spiritually speaking that’s even more beneficial because it forces you to look at where you’re caught, what you’re holding onto, what you’re craving, were you identified that you believe your happiness depends on a particular thing. Just have that thing taken away and that is the good news, spiritually speaking, and when you’ve been doing this long enough, you come to welcome the discomfort that comes with disappointment, that comes with not getting what you want, because you know that that’s where freedom comes from. The freedom doesn’t come from getting what we want and being satisfied all the time.
I was having a conversation the other night with a friend who’s just turned 60 and he’s upset about his love handles and losing your hair and he said: “didn’t it bother you when you lost your hair?” I said no I was happy to be old enough to lose my hair. He said he couldn’t…he was dwelling on everything that he was losing and to me missing the most important thing which is that he’s alive… he’s alive… and if you have that fundamental gratitude – that transforms your experience. It opens your mind and it opens you to a new experience. You’re not going to be so afraid of trying new things, risking new things and that’s another paradox. People think: well, if I’m aware of impermanence than nothing matters, when exactly the opposite is true. Everything matters far more when you get that it’s transitory, when you get you’re transitory. So that’s what I would’ve said to my sister if I had that information at the time I would’ve encouraged her to embrace this enormous loss because it could be the beginning of a whole new life. If she allowed herself to be stripped down by the experience. But all she could see was the suffering. All she could see was the the pain. She was too caught in the pain and didn’t sit it out long enough to come out the other side. So that’s what I say to people who come to me as writing students or as friends is: “sit and wait for the miracle. Don’t leave before the miracle. Don’t throw it away or give up on yourself or other people before the what has yet to be revealed shows up because that can be the difference between a life that feels like a defeat and life that feels like it’s full of potential”.