Saturday, February 13, 2010
On Buddhist Mindfulness and Ambition
Recently, I’ve been stuck and frustrated with a book project—a nonfiction account of the months my husband and I lived in Vietnam with our two small children. A full draft of the book, Viet*Mom, is already written, but after getting comments from my agent and another trusted reader, I’ve come to agree that much of the book needs to be rewritten with a lighter tone and a more irreverent spirit. In its present version, it’s too fact-heavy, sequential, and (it hurts to say this) plodding. What I came to realize was that even an “exotic” locale such as Vietnam could become dull when presented in expository prose. As my agent (who is a terrific editor) put it, “The problem with travel memoirs is that they can be a little bit like looking at someone else’s vacation photos: pretty but unessential. In order to make this work, I think you have to show readers that they will be in for a good ride.”
Indeed. She was right and I knew it.
For weeks I sat with the 300-page manuscript hovering nearby, causing me no end of anxiety, self-loathing, panic, and eventually, dread. Since I’ve spent most of my adult life writing something or other, and having never before experienced this kind of artistic black hole, I knew this was unhealthy—for both me and the book—so I decided to take a “vacation” from it. For two weeks I would not think about it, work on it, touch it, tinker with it, read it, or mess with it in any way. Viet*Mom was off the table. I even announced it to my husband and a few friends to make it official.
Here’s where the Buddhism comes in. Around this same time I was talking to a writer friend of mine who’s recently experienced a very painful divorce she didn’t see coming after 30+ years of marriage. She began telling me about a Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, she’d been listening to who had helped her tremendously. “She’s a real person,” my friend said. “She’s from New Jersey, and laughs, and is a grandma. She doesn’t take herself too seriously.” At first, I could feel myself disregarding it all. Anything spiritual or religious always got my guard up, but something, thankfully, made me truly listen. “The fact is,” my friend said, “she saved my life.”
Hmm, I thought. That’s pretty dramatic. We paid for our lunches, parted ways, but I found myself later that day searching out Pema Chodron on youtube.com. She used simple words like “stay” and try not to get “hooked” and I went so far out on a limb that I actually ordered one of her CDs from Amazon.
Fast-forward to the present. My decision to take a vacation from my difficult book project has been one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done for myself. Simultaneously, it seems I’ve become calmer, less worried, more centered. I’ve been trying, however slowly, to live my life in the moment and realize that this is it; this is my life. I've found myself taking long walks, listening more attentively to my daughter who comes home from school full of stories and chatter, enjoying a quiet stretch of a random afternoon without the constant pushing, pulsing pressure to be or do something great and worthy and ambitious. I am learning to “stay.”
But something else has happened: nothing.
Workwise, except for my teaching duties, nothing gets done. I am so “in the moment” that I've extended my Viet*Mom vacation—happily—beyond the two weeks. Of course it’s more pleasant not to work hard at something difficult! Of course it’s more pleasant to drink tea and nap and look out the window. Of course it’s more pleasant to ignore the big brooding difficult book project.
And so I'm left with a question: how do the wonderful, peaceful teachings of Buddhism and living in the present moment and practicing mindfulness and learning to “stay” accommodate ambition? Or, as is my fear, do they kill it?