Psychologist Mary Pipher had both the talent and good fortune to write a number of bestselling books in the 1990s, including the acclaimed Reviving Ophelia, about teen-age girls. Yet her success ultimately brought about what she calls a “meltdown” in her newest book Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World (Riverhead). In the memoir, she explores her childhood and basic spiritual questions.
RBL: Does this book represent a “coming to terms” with your past? You recently turned 60.
Pipher: All of life is coming to terms with one’s past in a certain way. In pretty much all cultures 60 is the age at which people tend to begin serious reflections. Sixty is a very good time to reflect on your life. You’ve still got all your marbles, you have more time and more distance.
RBL: What does spirituality mean to you?
Pipher: I’m kind of scientific and evidence-based. I’m also very grounded in the real. I tend to think about birds and cooking. I’m not someone who does a lot of thinking about God. But writing this book helped me see I’m a much more spiritual person than I realized. That’s probably worth sharing because I think most people are. I was quite surprised by the outcome of the book.
RBL: Which Buddhist teachers have been particularly helpful to you?
Pipher: I love Pema Chödrön, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg—most of the women Buddhists.
I (also) love Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, but just as with mental health there’s a real gender difference in how to talk about matters of the heart. The women Buddhists, their observations and perceptions are closer to my experience.
RBL: How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
Pipher: Oddly for someone who’s written this disclosing a memoir, there’s no way I would share with the world the hardest day of my childhood. There are a lot of ellipses in this book. In all of my books I have never put anything that would hurt another human being. I just sent the galleys to my Ozark relatives.
I heard from my cousins that they all like it.
RBL: Given that your crisis was related to the demands of being on the road, has that affected what you will do to get out the word about this book?
Pipher: At the time I had the meltdown I had really been overworked for quite a long time and I was very fragile. I’m not that way. But I don’t do book tours any more. I do a lot from home and I still speak. But it’s not grueling and torrid. Life’s too short for grueling and torrid.
RBL: What’s next?
Pipher: I don’t know what I’ll write next. I’ve had a lot of time sitting by myself in my study. I’m kind of depleted. I’m doing a lot of good, old-fashioned community work and social activism, out serving soup and taking refugee kids to a library.