Beliefnet

Writer Mark Matousek has come through more than his share of tough stuff--from family tragedy and turmoil to illness to the highs and lows of a glam-seeming past-life as an editor for Andy Warhol at Interview magazine. When he was diagnosed with HIV in the late-1980s, he launched on a path of spiritual seeking.

Now the author of several memoirs and a contributing editor at O: The Oprah magazine and Tricycle, his latest book, "When You're Falling, Dive," is about using pain to grow. He merges interviews with luminaries like Joan Didion and Stanley Kunitz with his own story and tales of ordinary folk—from a mother who lost her child but remains open-hearted to a photographer who started creating his best work after going blind.

Matousek talks to Beliefnet about how trauma, crisis, and loss are spiritual opportunities for us to evolve into richer humans, permanently altering how we see—and treat—the world.

 

 

What inspired you to write a book like this?

Two weeks before my sister committed suicide, she came to me—I was 20 and she was 30—and asked, "How do you live?" And it came out of nowhere. She was really struggling to find her way back to the surface. I had no idea what to tell her. I mean, I was a kid myself and fighting to figure out my own life. And so, I didn’t answer her. I feel like I’ve been trying to figure out all of these years what I would have said. 

 

And then when mortality paid me a visit in my late 20s, I went on a long journey looking for answers to that question, "How do you live?" Not only survive to save your skin, but how do you survive as a soul? How do you reinvent yourself after catastrophe? How do you handle the really extreme things that life deals you and come through intact—and with curiosity and interest and enthusiasm in your life? 

 

When I was 28, I was working for Andy Warhol at Interview magazine. Everyone thought I was so lucky, and I was miserable inside. The fear of mortality got me to ask, "Why am I so unhappy?" And then, when the reprieve came in 1996 and the drugs for HIV appeared and all of a sudden you weren’t going to die, it doubled the effort. I was really determined not to lose what I had learned in extremis. Many survivors say that you feel it’s your duty. It feels like an affront to God or life not to bring everything you’ve learned when you thought you were losing it to the rest of your precious life.

 

Can you talk about the "blue flower moment"—how you refer to sudden spiritual awakening that be born from crisis?

You have these moments when you snap awake, and you’re in the present. And it happens so rarely that when it does, it feels like almost like an altered state. And you think, "What’s different now?" And what’s different is that my eyes are open and I’m seeing. I’m actually here. These sacred moments are happening all of the time. But we’re in a kind of trance. We’re in a workaday, mundane hallucination of ordinariness. And what you realize is when you touch mortality, where life and death meet, that’s where epiphanies happen. Nothing is ordinary. What could be less ordinary than being alive? On this mysterious planet? It’s extraordinary. 

 

And when you have that experience, it changes how you see. Not permanently, in every minute. You're still screwed up, struggling you, but you have a reference point for something that’s beyond mundane. 

 

What’s the difference between people who transform in crisis and people who melt?

One of the most important things is being able to imagine yourself in a new way. If you can’t, it’s very hard to come through fire. When mystics talk about ego-deathit’s a very literal experience. It doesn’t feel good. It’s not easy. But you realize you are so much bigger than you thought you were.

Most of us have to be forced, kicking and screaming, to give up our ordinary life, even if we’re not happy. That’s what’s amazing. A lot of people would rather hold on to the hell they know. And those are the people who melt. One guy I spoke to, he was in the hospital for eight months and said he could tell within a couple of minutes whether somebody was going to survive or notand it had to do with whether they were willing to see themselves in a new way. If they couldn’t, they were doomed. 

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