Susan Piver is the New York Times bestselling author of six books, including The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say “I Do” and the award-winning How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life. Susan teaches on love, creativity, meditation, and spirituality for actual humans with relationships, jobs, deep yearnings, depressions, triumphs, bad hair days, and a multitude of ridiculously petty grievances. She teaches from personal experience. She has been a practicing Buddhist since 1995 and graduated from a Buddhist seminary in 2004. Her new book is The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: An Uncommon Guide to Healing, Insight, and Love, published by Simon and Schuster in January 2010. –adapted from Amazon.com
I was lucky enough to sit down with Susan recently to discuss life, heartbreak, fear, and meditation.
JH: Your books are about concepts – like heartbreak and fear – that are so common and yet so difficult. Why are these things so hard?
SP: I don’t know why they’re so hard. I just think we all carry around this incredible vulnerability. We are all so vulnerable! And we build these complicated structures within ourselves and around ourselves that we think can protect us; like ‘if I live in a certain neighborhood, in a certain kind of house, if I adopt a certain nutritional plan, if I fall in love with this kind of person and not that kind of person, I will be protected.’ Deep inside we know that we will never be protected, but we still try to employ all these strategies. It’s really hard to stop.
I think the attunement with your essential vulnerability is the same thing as attunement with your highest wisdom and your deepest creativity and your heart of hearts. It’s difficult to be human. It’s difficult to walk around with what we know is true, which is that we each have a raw and open heart that is without protection at any time.
JH: Your books are so compelling and easy to read. I always got the sense you were trying to write them for yourself, to figure things out for yourself.
SP: That’s absolutely right. I’m not an expert. I have been studying Buddhism for over 15 years; that is the wisdom that I turn to and it never seems to not have something incredibly smart to say about whatever is concerning me. But really, I wrote from personal experience, hoping that exploring the things that I find so difficult could be useful to others.
I also know that when I look for help, I find myself much more affected by people’s stories than their advice. For me it’s helpful to hear stories, so I hope that the other members of my tribe find stories to be helpful. [Reading stories] is so much more interesting and helpful than a theory of how I could avoid the problems that you learned to deal with; I appreciate [such advice] but it doesn’t touch me and to change you have to be touched. People are touched by other people, not pieces of advice.
JH: One of the reasons meditation was always on my radar was because it seemed like something that would allow me to be out in the world, aware of all the potential threats and vulnerabilities, but allow me to have a sense of safety.
SP: When you know the truth, you feel safest. The truth is there’s no safety. When you meditate, you get to see the truth about yourself and the world and one of those truths is that there’s no way to protect yourself from hurt. I think that’s what you mean by safety. So do you feel safer when you know that? Well, sort of. Because you change your expectations and you change your way of being. Not to avoid [hurt] because you know that’s impossible, but when you know the way things really work, your confidence rises even though the way things really work may not be to your liking.
JH: So much about life is expectation and the way you frame things.
SP: There are no guarantees.
JH: Why not?????
SP: I know, it sucks!
JH: Well is it guaranteed that you will hurt and you will have heartbreak and you will realize some of your fears, right?
SP: Yes, that’s guaranteed. Buddhism talks about two kinds of suffering. We’re big on suffering. We have as many names for suffering as Eskimos have for snow. First there’s regular suffering – things happen, people die or get sick, lose things that are valuable. Those things happen to all of us, although some way more than others. The second kind of suffering is called the suffering of suffering; this is the suffering we add on by how we think about it and the way we respond to it and the way we try to metabolize it. So the first kind you can’t avoid, but the second kind, which is actually the really painful kind, you can.
JH: I used to use alcohol to deal with the second kind of suffering. Eventually, I came to the point where I wanted to stop self-medicating that pain and see what I was so afraid of. That was one of the main reasons I finally got around to meditating – to dig a little deeper. How does meditating allow us to deal with that second type of suffering?
SP: When you sit and meditate, you watch your thoughts. Ninety percent are kind of inconsequential while the rest are really amazing, brilliant, and funny. Some are very, very painful – when you think these thoughts, it’s like sticking a knife in your own chest. But as you sit there, it sort of passes. Even if it’s just for a moment and then comes right back, it still passes.
So you start to see that this thing that is causing you so much pain is not solid. It doesn’t really exist. It’s not real. It just feels real. For whatever period of time it is – whether it’s moments or decades. But even if it’s decades, the feeling that’s causing you so much pain is only there for a little while and then it’s gone; it comes back and then it’s gone. So you start to get the sense that it’s just this thing that’s visiting again and yes, it feels bad, but you also know that it’s not going to be here after a certain point. You come to know that it’s just sort of transient and it doesn’t have any more weight than any other thoughts. You can just sort of watch it as opposed to thinking it’s the totality of who you are.
With that little bit of space meditation introduces between you and your thoughts, the whole situation changes. And it teaches you; it’s not a byproduct, it is the practice of sitting with those empty spaces. The more you practice, the more comfortable you become. And then you can do that when you’re not meditating. When someone says something crappy to you, or someone cuts you off in traffic, it still impacts you like it would anyone but you also have this sense that it’s just an arising that will also dissolve. That changes everything.
JH: It’s amazing how much thoughts and perception govern how you live.
SP: And who you think you are! And your actions! That’s the tricky part. When your thoughts govern your actions, then you don’t have much hope. When you have some choice about how to act, the thoughts might still be there and might be devastating, but you can choose your actions according to something more considered. You have everything you need. You can live a thoughtful life.
JH: I always thought that in meditation, you close your eyes and you disconnect and you’re in your own world. What are the unique benefits of Shamatha meditation, the open-eye practice you teach?
SP: When you meditate with your eyes closed, there is a quality of disconnecting and retreating. And sometimes that just what you need; sometimes that’s good. That’s a different kind of meditation.
When you practice with your eyes open – and the gaze is soft, you’re not staring – it is not so much a practice of withdrawal as it is a practice of engagement. It’s a practice of wakefulness; you are practicing being awake, right in the middle of your life. Right here, right in this room, with things exactly as they are, in this body.
Meditating with your eyes open also makes it less likely that you’re going to fall asleep. Most of us are just so tired, the second we close our eyes, we fall asleep.
It has the additional benefit that when you stop meditating and get off your chair or cushion to go into your regular life, it’s not like this big ‘oh I was somewhere else and now I have to come back.’ You’re always here; the practice is being here. There’s not a big jarring divide. It’s more seamless.
So your meditation practice and your life start to develop this kind of seamlessness that is good. This kind of meditation is more likely to have application to your normal everyday life – your job, your relationships, your house. Because you’re not retreating from anything; you’re going towards everything.
JH: This is so much in line with what I’m trying to explore right now!
SP: When you find a practice that’s right for you, it just makes sense. It’s almost like it’s telling you things you already knew but you didn’t quite know how to say them. It’s just touching your own wisdom and your own wisdom is touching this practice and there’s a reciprocity in which you recognize each other. It makes sense.