Mark Matousek on The Gift of Adversity

Interview with Mark Matousek by Phil Bolsta

Watch Mark Matousek’s interview:


Wlecome, Mark. Thank you for joining us today.

Thank you. It's so good to be with you here today.


Allow me to introduce you. Mark Matousek is a bestselling author, teacher, and speaker whose work focuses on personal awakening and creative excellence through self-inquiry and life writing. I thoroughly enjoyed Mark's book, When You're Falling, Dive, which asks the question, "How do we live with uncertainty and adversity and prevail in times of change and challenge?" Mark, William Arthur Ward wrote, "Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records." What separates people who use adversity to their benefit and those who are defeated by it?

That's such a good question. The first thing is the willingness to change. I spoke to survivors from many different walks of life who had gone through a wide variety of traumas and cataclysms and catastrophes and losses in their lives, and the one consistent message that came through was that unless you're willing to be changed by loss, to be changed by adversity, one will tend to be crushed by it. Until we accept the fact that we are never going to be the same person that we were before, we can't possibly move forward.

The willingness to change, to be flexible, to adapt, to reimagine our lives is key to being able to prevail, to thrive, and to actually discover things about ourselves that we didn't even know were there, through adversity, that come to enrich our existence. The opposite of the ability to adapt and have imagination and reinvent ourselves, of course, is our fear and control. If we're trying to hold onto what was, we are going to be dragged down by it. As one great survivor said to me, "It's like a fire. We come out gold on the other side or we don't come out at all." Our attitude toward transformation, toward mystery, toward surprise, toward considering new possibilities and solutions is essential to resiliency. The capacity for rising beyond the crushing losses of our lives and fears of our lives and moving into a new kind of existence that's less fearful and more curious and more engaged. Once you lose everything it gives you a paradoxical kind of courage.

The Japanese poet Basho said, "With the walls of my house burnt down, I have a better view of the moon." When you recognize what comes with annihilation, it's a great compensation. It's a great reality check that we're always losing, we're always discovering, and if we allow ourselves to be part of that current, part of that natural organic movement of rising, falling, expanding, contracting, then we're not at odds with our circumstances or ourselves. When fear comes up, we're not surprised. Fear, big surprise, and we move forward anyway.

How did you learn this lesson in your own life?

I learned this lesson the hard way. I learned this lesson kicking and screaming. When I was in my late 20s my life hit the wall, I was diagnosed with what was believed to be a terminal illness. I was at that time living the high life. I had a great job in New York. I was working for a magazine and climbing the ladder, and I just thought that everything was just swell. Then I hit the wall. Friends started dying, I got a mortal diagnosis, and it completely terrified me. The house I thought I lived in felt like it was suddenly condemned.

I radically changed my life. I realized that if I was going to die, I didn't want to die ignorant. I didn't want to die afraid. I didn't want to die worried about taking risks or humiliating myself. I left my job, I became a seeker. I spent the next 10 years of my life as a dharma bum. During that time I realized that this thing that I would've avoided if I had had any power at all, had actually been a great gift to me. It was fueling a transformation that I had been ripe for before the diagnosis but wasn't aware of.

It was through the loss of my narrative that I discovered a different way of living, but I needed to go through a very, very dark time for that to happen and that's often the case for folks who face catastrophe. A catastrophe comes from the root word, “to turn around.” We are turned around by our losses and what we do with them depends on where we find ourselves looking. If we're looking at the past, we're going to be diminished. We're going to be holding onto what can't be regained and our lives are going to become more fearful and more brittle. If we look toward the future from the present moment, then there's possibility and then there's the ability to reimagine our lives.

That's the beauty of having your story fall apart. It doesn't feel good in the moment, but it teaches you that you're not this narrative. You're not this set of beliefs. You're not who you tell yourself you are and that's the great liberation. That's the great quantum leap forward in self-realization is separating the truth of who we are, which is this quantum being that's capable of enormous change, that can be very courageous and flexible. Instead of that small fear-bound insecure self that's trying to hold onto what it believes is its identity.

When everything is falling apart, you're saying it might really be falling into place?

It can be falling into place provided we surrender to the changes that are happening. That's key. If we're fighting the changes that are happening then we can be defeated by our circumstances. When we stay interested in what has yet to be revealed and we hold open the possibility that what's happening to us that may feel terrible can be the beginning of a very different, more expanded, and richer way of living that inspires us to get through the dark times.

It's about holding open this chink of possibility and this chink of interest and curiosity as to what the experience is teaching you. The difference between folks who are defeated by adversity and those who manage to thrive through it very often is the ability to find meaning in the pain, meaning in the loss, meaning in the change. If we can't find meaning then suffering becomes despair.

As Viktor Frankl, the great godfather of the search for meaning said, "Despair equals suffering minus meaning." If we can find meaning in our circumstances, almost any circumstances, we can prevail. As he did, Viktor Frankl, in the concentration camp. The thought that his wife might be alive is what gave him meaning and enabled him to survive that horrible experience. Looking at what gives us meaning is the way to move through these places of change and loss without losing the essential gratitude for being here and our essential sense of self.

Are there any other keys, besides what you've just mentioned, that can help somebody train themselves to look at stumbling blocks as stepping stones as it's happening, not just looking back?

Absolutely. I mean, I always talk about thinking like an artist and every artist knows... regardless of the path of life you're in, we can all think like artists… Every artist knows that the work, whatever it is, requires a lot of failure. Artists become very familiar with the feeling of failure and understanding that many failures lead to wisdom. That's a very important piece there... is accepting and blessing our own failures. Where the places where we feel like we're falling short can actually be the openings to a whole new kind of awareness.

It's also learning to emphasize what really matters for us. The great thing about catastrophe is also that it brings your values into a different kind of focus. When you emphasize meaning over money, for example, when you emphasize purpose over compensation, when you kind of take the price off your own head for what you think the world has to give you for your life to matter, then you're much, much freer to meet what comes your way. Learning to think like an artist always involves a return to meaning and a return to what matters to us most as opposed to the compensation that we get from outside of ourselves.

Finally, it's that ability to think outside the box. All creators have to be willing to apply imagination to their work, to their lives. When we learn to think like artists we are imaginative in how we approach the shifts, the inevitable losses and changes and transitions that come with our lives. If you can look at that imaginatively and look for new solutions and imagine different sorts of approaches. It changes everything, it changes everything. You realize that there's always choice. Your choice is an essential part of meaning as Viktor Frankl said, that in any given set of circumstances the last of the human dignities is the ability to choose our way, to choose our response to circumstances.

When we recognize that choice is our ace in the hole and that choice is actually a doorway to freedom, as opposed to control, which is a doorway to control and to disappointment and fear, then it's enormously empowering. To be able to bring that sense to our lives regardless of our circumstances is an imaginative act. It's an act of creativity — we can live our lives as artists creatively regardless of what we do for work. We all have that sense of artistry in us if we get out of the way and allow it to show itself.

Is there someone in particular who personifies these principles in ways that you personally found inspiring?

Yes, I spoke to a wonderful man named John Dugdale, who had lost his sight due to a brain infection called cytomegalovirus. John was a quite well-known photographer, and for a photographer to lose 95 percent of his sight, you can imagine the devastation of that. He came very close to ending his life. He decided finally that instead of just checking out, instead of giving up, he was going to become the world's first blind photographer. He figured out how, with a large-format camera and using an assistant, he could still continue to do his work and that saved his life.

What he said to me that I've never forgotten is that vision and sight are not the same thing. When we realize that sight, which represents the things of the senses, but also the things that we have that we think make our lives possible, when we understand that vision is deeper than those things and vision can't be taken away from us. Then it gives us access to a whole different set of powers. John Dugdale is the person I've been most inspired by, I think, in that regard.

He lost everything. He was in the worst possible situation and he not only kept taking pictures, but his career blossomed. Before this happened he was sort of a mid-level photographer, a good commercial photographer, but not an artist. Now he is a world-renowned, first-class artist. He discovered, using the limited vision that he had, images, and work that was much more profound than what he had done before. To me he's a living example of what happens when we surrender to the changes that are happening, when we allow the losses to be what they are, and we keep moving forward rather than trying to stay who we are before.

People don't often associate humor with adversity but what is the role of humor on the path of awakening through adversity?

It's huge. It's huge. My grandmother used to have a saying in Yiddish, "Der mentsh trakht un got lakht." Man thinks and God laughs. The first thing you see when your life falls apart when the unimaginable happens is how ridiculous you've been in believing that you were invulnerable, in believing that you were immortal, that it would never happen to you. When you really see that, the proper response is a big laugh.

When you see how out of control we really are in the sense that we used to think we were, we see the absurdity of our own ways. We come to see how we bargain with God. We come to see how we put ourselves at the center of the universe and how absurd that is. We see that our best-made plans are very often not applicable to what life has in store for us. You see that gap between this little ego that's trying so desperately to drive, and the greater forces that are actually moving us. The only thing to do in that moment is to chuckle because the mind continues trying to do that, that control routine, and it doesn't work. As it doesn't work, and as we are confronted again and again with our own limitations, it's very humbling. Humility and humor are connected. They're connected etymologically and they're connected in life. It brings us down to our true proportion and and from that position we can have some levity, we can have some buoyancy even in the midst of the darkest times.

You already spoke of the importance of living as an artist, but along those lines, how can the ability to think creatively in the midst of transition transform how you live post-catastrophe?

Well, as I was saying before, creativity breeds transformation. Choice breeds evolution. Control leads us to fear, it leads us to shutting down, it leads us to bitterness, it leads us to anger, it leads us to despair. Creativity is the antidote, you could say, to despair. When we're able to find meaning through creative thinking, when we're able to imagine new outcomes as I was just saying, when we recognize that we are co-creators of this experience and that so much of our suffering comes from trying to be bigger than we are, then it gives us a different relationship to our circumstances and to what we believe is happening to us and what that inevitably predicts for us.

If you're going through a very dark time and you can't find any way forward, try to think creatively. Try to imagine if all of the information isn't in, if what appears to be the bad news could turn out to be something different. That's the lift that we need. That's the inspiration, the permission, you could say, that we need to move through these hard times. Anyone who's gone through a difficult period knows that those things that we sometimes think are bad luck can end up being the most promising, the most vitalizing things in our lives. The things that we would not have given up for the world can lead us to our own authenticity.

Recognizing in that moment that we don't know everything is very important to resilience, and that's also, of course, the source of creativity. Creativity comes from not knowing. We tend to think of creativity as depending on mastery and authority. In fact, without being willing to move beyond the known, there is no creativity. Nothing fresh is discovered, there are no surprises, there's no growth. Creativity, growth, imagination, the willingness to be surprised, and to recognize that what appears to be negative, hopeless, without any kind of value, may turn out to be enormously meaningful to us brings equilibrium in those times when we feel like we're truly being tossed off our feet.

When people go through loss and transformation they may experience a change in personal values, and find that their perspective on meaning and purpose has been altered irrevocably. Can you speak to that?

Sure, absolutely. This is one of the great blessings of catastrophe, of crisis, is that it reshuffles our values. What ends up coming up on top is never about competition, it's never about status, it's never about making it or outward shows of success, it's always about love. It's always about love in some form or other. That's the beauty of going through crisis — it strips off the unnecessary, it strips off the superficial, and it puts us in touch with our deeper core values.

If you talk to anybody who has been through a situation like that, they'll tell you afterward you have less tolerance for the BS in your life. You're not willing to put up with the same level of aggravation. You focus on reducing the stress in your life rather than holding onto old tense difficult situations. In terms of relationships, you may find yourself unwilling to tolerate the conflict of certain relationships in your life that don't really feed you nor are you good for the other person in, but you weren't willing to give up before the crisis itself happened.

It gives you a courage to tell the truth and say to yourself, "If my life is finite and if my choices matter, what are those choices going to be?” If I'm not going to be propelled by the same idea of strength and power and being in control and the false expectations that tend to haunt us until we are kind of shaken into reality, if we're not going to be controlled by those things, then who are we? That gives us enormous creativity once again, and values are part of our creative lives.

Remember that meaning is a story. It's the story that we give to our lives, and meaning changes. As we lose, as we grow, as we mature, as we become disillusioned in the positive sense, the meaning of our lives necessarily changes. Staying in step with that meaning is what helps us as spiritual beings, as psychological beings, is to stay open to what life is bringing us rather than trying to play by the old rules.

How important is it to mindfully respond instead of emotionally react to adversity?

It's enormously important. Having said that, it's also very crucial that we make space for our emotions. While we don't want to be reacting all over the place or acting out all over the place, we also don't want to disqualify our emotions in favor of reason. That's the kiss of death in terms of resiliency. There needs to be space for our feelings, but if we practice awareness, mindfulness, in some form or other, it gives us a bit of distance from those feelings and those thoughts. We make space for them, we allow for them, we honor them, we even bless them, but we don't let them determine our choices or our behavior. It's a dual process.

We don't want to go too much into our heads and think our feelings or think our evolution. Evolution has to be a holistic process and the feelings are part of that. We want to let our feelings be what they are, allow them to come up, and recognize that they are not who we are, right? There's that distance that the witness awareness gives us to respond more mindfully and more reasonably. It really is a middle path, it's not an either/or, it's a both/and because the emotions also bring enormous wisdom. Without emotions we don't love, so obviously we don't want to do away with the emotional life. We simply want to have some perspective so that it's not running us, so that the story isn't running us.

We come to see that we're the storytellers, not the story. That goes for our emotional lives as well. They're valuable emotions and they can also be limitations when we lose perspective on how they cloud our minds and how they distort things. That's, of course, what the God-given faculty of reason is for. It's a beautiful thing but we don't want to use reason to disassociate or to become disembodied. We want to move through our lives and into our creative futures as whole human beings, not as people who are trying to control our feelings to the degree that we lose touch with our own hearts. It's not to be afraid of the feelings but also not to allow them to dominate us.

Do you agree with Myla Kabat-Zinn who wrote, "Each difficult moment has the potential to open my eyes and open my heart"?

Absolutely. I absolutely do, and that takes humility. It takes humility. It takes the willingness to not know. It also takes the willingness to feel, speaking of emotions. Nothing is going to open, the heart least of all, if we don't let ourselves feel what's going on. When we understand who we are, which is not this small narrative “me,” the self-concept, the self-image, but the awareness, the intelligence that's animating us through our lives, then we can allow our messy emotions to be there without being trumped by them.

I do agree that every difficult moment has the potential to open our eyes and our hearts if we let it. So often we hold onto what we think we deserve or what we couldn't possibly lose; we associate happiness and wellbeing with what we have or how we're seen. Until we move through those immature levels of grasping and clinging, then we can't be made wise or be made more open and loving through adversity, we're too self-concerned.

You mentioned humility. How important is humility to thriving through adversity?

It's enormously important. Humility comes from the root word for earth. Humility grounds us in our proper proportion to the universe. So much of our suffering comes from thinking that we're bigger and more in control than we are. This grandiose ego that overcompensates for its own insecurity by pretending to be the master of the universe. Until we get through that, we don't touch into our actual strength.

I'm not talking about bravado, I'm talking about actual strength. That strength definitely is founded on humility. Humility connects us to other people. Without humility there's no gratitude. Without humility there is no love. Without humility there is no genuine connection. Without humility there is certainly no resiliency because we'd be too attached to that old version of things to be willing to entertain new possibilities. Until we turn it over, until we are willing to surrender in the spiritual sense, then we are cutting ourselves off from the generative power of our lives.

That deep eros that animates us throughout our lives only comes when we are grounded in humility, when we're rooted in this earth and we're willing to see ourselves for what we are, which is magnificent and powerless. We are both. We're part of the spiritual search and certainly part of surviving, thriving through adversity, is understanding the paradoxical nature of life. We can't do that if we're not humble. In other words, you're scared and you're brave at the same time. You're selfish and greedy and generous at the same time. Life is a hyphenate experience to paradoxical experience. When we realize that, it's extremely humbling because we see that it's never either/or, that our false dualities are just that, they're illusions. That grounds us in the imperfection of the world which is paradoxically exactly where we're meant to be.

Speaking of the spiritual search, what is metanoia and how does it relate to spiritual immaturity?

Metanoia is a concept that was used by the ancient Greeks, and it means, again, a turning around. A willingness to look at both sides of life, not only the hopeful, optimistic, dynamic part of existence, but also the enemy in life, the demon in life, the shadow in life, and to recognize that this enemy is also within us. Until we experience metanoia, which Joni Mitchell sang about as Both Sides Now, we are arrogant. We also tend to project our own fears onto other people. When we go through metanoia we take all of that back.

The Roman philosopher Terence said, "Nothing human is foreign to me." Until we get to that point then we're not mature spiritual beings. Until we recognize that we have within us the possibility of all crimes, of all fears, of all destruction, then we separate ourselves from this perceived enemy out there. Metanoia dissolves the “us versus them” conflict. It's extremely humbling and it's also transformative because we realize that this very slender, limited, one-dimensional image of ourselves was so disempowered because it was cut off from the truth. The closer we come to the truth in all of its complexity, the more alive we become.

The more risk we take in looking at our own darkness and recognizing all of these evils that we project onto the world within ourselves, the less conflict we are in paradoxically. The less we're fighting an imaginary enemy that's always out to get us. It puts us at ease in the world and we recognize that we, under certain circumstances, could do almost anything. That's a very enlightening insight to have.

C.S. Lewis wrote, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world." Do you believe that adversity is a way for God to get your attention?

Whether or not one believes in God, absolutely. Adversity is how life gets our attention. It's what shows us what needs to be healed. It shows us where we're separated from the truth, where we're suffering. And we do need to be shouted at by life to rouse us from this trance of denial. We move through so much of our lives in a self-protected cocoon of half-truths and delusions and denials that sometimes life has to have an earthquake to show us that this is not solid ground we're on and that we are here by the grace of God and that there is always room for growth, there's always room for healing.

We tend to become complacent when things go too well for too long. It's unfortunate but true that as human beings we need to be awakened very often by pain, otherwise the arrogant ego will take over and that imagination of immortality, of being in control, of fearlessness will get the better of us again and we won't learn anything. It is true that we need to be roused sometimes.

We need to be shaken and stirred sometimes for that to shift in us, and that's exactly what happened with me and it's also why mortality in general, in spiritual practices, is the great awakener. It's understood to be the thing that shakes us out of the trance of the ego. Nothing short of impermanence would be powerful enough to wake us up. Yes, pain in all of its forms can be a teacher if we understand that it has meaning and if we use it in that way to gain insight and to see where we block ourselves from the truth and from actual wisdom, which is much more complex and paradoxical and humble than we generally see it for.

Thank you for sharing your insights and wisdom with us today, Mark. As I mentioned, I really enjoyed your book, I actually listened to your audio book and loved the way you brought it to life, and I hope others make a point to read it as well. So thank you so much.

Thank you, Phil, it's great to talk to you.


Mark Matousek is a bestselling author, teacher, and speaker whose work focuses on personal awakening and creative excellence through self-inquiry and life writing. He’s an award-winning author of five books, including When You're Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living, and Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation & Self-Discovery.

Mark’s first book, Sex Death Enlightenment: A True Story, became an international bestseller that was published in 10 countries and nominated for two Books for a Better Life awards.

He has also worked on The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and collaborated with Andrew Harvey on Dialogues with a Modern Mystic.

A featured blogger for Psychology Today, Purple Clover, and Huffington Post, he’s contributed to numerous anthologies and publications, including The New Yorker, O: The Oprah Magazine (contributing editor), The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Yoga Journal, Details, The Saturday Evening Post, AARP, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and many others.

Mark, who’s on the faculty of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies and the New York Open Center, teaches transformational writing workshops around the U.S. and in Europe, and is the Creative Director of V-Men (with Eve Ensler), an organization devoted to ending violence against women and girls.

He brings three decades of experience as a memoirist, editor, interviewer, survivor, activist, and spiritual seeker to his penetrating and thought-provoking work with students. His workshops, classes, and mentoring have inspired thousands of people around the world to reach their artistic and personal goals and transform their lives.

Click here to visit Mark’s website.

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This article appears in: 2018 Catalyst, Issue 5: Plant Medicine