On What it Means to Grow

The night before Devotion was published, I was alone in a hotel room in New York, anticipating the next morning, when I’d be appearing on The Today Show to promote the book.  My mind was a see-saw, teetering back and forth between excitement and abject terror.  Who the hell was I? What did I know? What right did I have to be an authority on anything? I was pretty sure The Today Show had made a mistake and booked me in error. It was a classic case of imposter syndrome, sure, but it felt very real.

I couldn’t fall asleep.  I called my friend the great Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein at her home on the west coast, where it was three hours earlier and stuttered out my fears to her.  After a gentle pause on the other end of the phone, Sylvia delivered a sentence I’ve never forgotten.

“Sweetheart, you’ve written a book about what you know now.”

IMG_3122

I felt instantly liberated by Sylvia’s wisdom. After all, we can only know what we know now, right? Implicit in this is the idea that we can only work with what we have, and our truth is built on that limited understanding. I took this to heart, and have repeated it to students over the years. Recently a student asked me how to handle the fact that in the time that it takes to write a book, we change, we grow. The self who finishes a book is not the same self who started it. And so, how do we reconcile these selves? How do we continue to evolve when what we know also continues to evolve? If we are our own instrument – we are the viola, the cello, the paintbrush, the chisel – how do we continue to tune ourselves when life changes us?

In the past month, I have made a profound, seismic, traumatic discovery. I don’t say this to scare anyone. I’m not ill, thank god, nor is anyone I love. My little family is perfectly fine, healthy, intact.  But nonetheless I have learned something that has rocked me to the core, and has changed everything about what I have ever known to be true.  This may sound dramatic — because it is. At the same time that this discovery is shattering for me, it is also – I recognize, even in my shock and grief – a stunning and remarkable opportunity to learn and to grow.  Because all I have ever done, all I have ever been able to do with heartache is to make meaning from it.  I could fall apart, I suppose.  I could cave, collapse.  I could succumb to despair.  To cruelty and disregard.  But instead, I will attempt to do what I’ve always done.  In the quiet aftermath, using nothing but language – the only tool I have – I will write my way into it and through it, and discover how the pieces fit together anew.

Wallace Stegner, a grower if there ever was one, wrote this: “Largeness is a lifelong matter… You grow because you are not content not to. You are like a beaver that chews constantly because if it doesn’t, its teeth grow long and lock. You grow because you are a grower; you’re large because you can’t stand to be small.”

Here’s to growing, my friends. It’s all we can do.