Wednesday, July 7, 2010


It happens. It's happening right now. It’s not quite the Slough of Despond, but I have been watching myself sinking, in recent days, into a mood that matches the particularly gloomy marine layer we are experiencing this June in normally sunny Southern California: low clouds, mist, patches of fog, poor visibility…

No point in denying it. Denial only makes things worse. It’s a constant struggle to keep it down, and the resulting battle fatigue just adds to the pervasive sense of discouragement. After the big initial push to get the word out about Persist, I have found myself running out of steam. The familiar, bothersome questions begin to raise their unwelcome heads: Is it really worth the effort? How many readers have I actually reached? In more basic terms, how many copies have I sold? (I was tickled, by the way, to find a copy yesterday on E-Bay! A steal at $10.95!) And then there are the deeper, more perplexing questions: Who do I really think I am? What do I think I’m doing with my life? What about that contribution that I feel I need to make, the mark I tell myself I need to leave?

When these questions rush in, they’re usually accompanied by the kind of funk that leaves me glowering under that thick marine layer of gloom. I don’t have good answers for them. Or rather, more truthfully, I have only bad ones.

So what to do? I’m guessing there are vast numbers of people like myself, who experience this sinking feeling now and then—some, surely, more frequently than I do, and some less. But knowing that I’m not alone is scant comfort when the mood begins to strike. And feeling sorry for myself is not a viable response. It helps nothing. On the contrary, it has the opposite effect. It drags me down still further. Besides, it’s undignified! I flatter myself to think that I have achieved enough self-awareness at this stage of my life to recognize it when it happens, and it’s not a pretty sight.

And I do know very well what to do about it when this mood hits. The problem is—as I like to say about my meditation practice—it’s easy and it’s hard. I have learned about the wisdom of equanimity. I know how to set about finding that state of mind where I can observe the mood happening without attaching to it. It’s a matter of finding a place of refuge where I can sit quietly for a while and bring my attention to the breath; a matter of bringing it back to the breath whenever it wanders—particularly into the bleak territory that seems to attract it at such moments; and, when the mind settles, a matter of allowing it to observe the presence of despair without attaching to it. It’s a peculiarly dark cloud, but like all clouds it will drift away in its own time.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of perspective. When I manage—and meditation is a useful way to do this—when I manage to distance myself from my self, I’m able to arrive at a longer view of this self in time and space; seen in the perspective of the centuries and of the immeasurable vastness of the surrounding universe, my self and its self-important worries will seem petty indeed. When seen like this, they recede perceptibly and soon begin to dissipate with each outgoing breath.

So, yes, I do know how it can be done. As with most things of this kind, however, the art of equanimity is a lot easier to preach than it is to practice. The practice is the hard part; it requires patience and vigilance, and constant, effortful repetition. The mind is perfectly capable of wallowing indulgently in its soothing bath of welcoming self-pity, which can come to feel so justified, as fitting as a comfortable old sweat suit. It’s frankly easier to nod off and let it be than to wake up and catch it in the act.

It’s at these moments, too, when that wonderfully serviceable mantra comes in handy: This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am. In this light, I recognize this “Peter Clothier, writer,” to be no more nor less than an identity I have chosen to adopt, along with the other identities I allow to define me. The trick is to remember that the mantra has the same validity in good times as it has in bad: it applies not only to the Peter who goes into a funk when he doesn’t get the return he somehow imagines his work deserves, but also to the Peter who likes to bask in the glow of his successes. That’s where the equanimity really comes in. If I want to enjoy its benefits when I’m down on myself, I have to pay it equal respect when I’m up. If “down” is no more than an illusion I indulge, the same is true for “up.”

So there it is: breathe. It’s easy—and hard. It can be annoying to be reminded, in a funk, that there is a way out. The funk itself has its own rewards. How this, for one: If I’m a failure, I have the perfect excuse not to work? The human mind has its own sneaky ways, and needs to be kept a careful eye on. Otherwise, it’s perfectly capable of seducing us with the delusions and outright lies it can so readily create.

(Oh, and let me add, having written these words: a little bit of "getting back to work" does wonders! I recommend it.)


MandT said...

I have finally figured out who I am at the age of old man in funk or joy, who rises at dawn and walks the county trail in all weather, observing all growth---coming and going, and say good morning to all passers by and give dog treats to the fur'd ones....sometimes laugh and always think of poetry between the still places.

Jean said...

Often, when I feel sick and weary and cynical in my soul, I'm actually mostly tired in my body. It occurs to me that 'selling' yourself and your work, however much you enjoy it, is particularly hard work for a sensitive, creative person and must take a huge amount out of you. So take good care of yourself!

PeterAtLarge said...


I agree with Jean and had the same thought when I first read this. All artists, including writers, depend on an audience and some form of remuneration from them. That feels like we have had our power taken away for we are not in charge of that. Letting go of what others will do about what we do requires some kind of diligence, if letting go can be paired with effort, a seeming contradiction of ideas. But it is hard not to forget our many successes that came before, and you have many. The surgeon has a good day if he saves a life and he goes forward. Writing, even for non-writers, is one of the best aids to lift a down mood or conflicted state of mind. In your case, it's like 2 cures: work and write both. One of the hardest things to do when we are down is remember to be kind to ourselves.