I had the incredible good fortune to meet Susan Piver last year while I was visiting the States, and in the short time we had together I completely fell in love with her — she was warm, gracious and just lovely. At the time I didn’t realise I was sitting with a New York Times bestselling author who’d appeared on the Oprah show, so while i babbled on excitedly about meeting my agent and editor the next day, Susan listened and asked questions and shared my excitement. Beautifully humble and full of smiles, it’s so clear that the wisdom she shares in her books is the way she lives her life. Such an inspiration.
So without further ado, please welcome Susan Piver to the stand!
SC: Did you always know you’d write and teach? How did this path begin for you?
SP: No, I never had any idea I’d write and teach although as a child, all I wanted to do was read and write. I wrote stories about outer space and created reports on self-assigned topics. I would open the photography book “The Family of Man” and write a story about whatever photo caught my eye. I used to open the Encyclopedia and condense long articles into shorter pieces. When I was 10 years old, I began reading my parents’ child psychology books. I thought they were useless (ah, the arrogance of youth) and took it upon myself to write one from a child’s perspective. At the time, this made complete sense. So rather than paying attention in class, I observed my classmates covertly and made notes about their behaviour and the motivation that may have inspired it. I am not even kidding.
I held writers in such high esteem that by the time I got around to considering career options, it never occurred to me that I or anyone I would ever know could aspire to something this great. So I forgot about my love of words and became a bartender. I forgot about the joy of reaching into space for the means to describe a particular emotional state. I forgot that when I was 14, I begged my parents to let me take a year away from school to write. I literally forgot this; my mother reminded me about it a few years ago.
At some point, I made a career in the music business and lived in New York CIty. When I was thinking of getting married (over 10 years ago now), I went to the bookstore to find something that could explain how this could possibly make any sense. Get married?! Why would I do this to someone I liked? All the books I found were about dresses, so I went home and started writing down questions like, “Will we keep our money in the same bank account?” and “What will your kid call me?” Basic stuff. Someone said that it would make a good book and because I lived in NYC and worked in the entertainment biz, I knew an agent. I asked him what he thought. “Maybe,” he said. Long story short, it became a book and by complete accident I got on the Oprah show, it became a NY Times best seller and, lo, I was a writer.
How did you find your way to Buddhism?
Since my child psychology reading days, I continued to read widely, searching for anything that could explain what the hell was going on. One day I was reading a book called “The Heart of the Buddha” by Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa who said that the only possible spiritual path was your personal experience. Each of us had to have faith in our own minds, hearts, and wisdom–and nothing outside of ourselves. Holy crap, I thought. This is how I already think. I must be a Buddhist! I didn’t know that’s what it was called.
From that moment on, auspicious coincidence after coincidence arose to guide me to the path I’m still on as part of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage.
Could you describe a typical day?
I get up quite early–5 or 5:30am. I spend from 6-8am doing my practice, which involves meditation, journaling, and some study, i.e. reading from a dharma book. These hours are precious to me. Then I try to go to the gym, which is only 2 minutes from my house, so I have no excuses. However, I find many. In any case. My ideal is to write until 12 or 1 and then spend the rest of the day doing administrative stuff around the business of being a writer. Then my husband comes home and we have dinner around 8 or 9pm and hang out.
Or not. Some days, I just can’t make any kind of schedule stick. I spend a fair amount of time in a state of semi-collapse: uncertain, confused, unable to figure out how what I thought was a good idea yesterday could have any possible meaning today. So I don’t want to make it sound like I’ve got it all figured out or anything. I do NOT.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a meditation practice?
To learn it from a qualified teacher, meaning someone who is connected to a lineage that is older than, say, two thousand five hundred years. No new age nonsense. Go for time-tested wisdom.
The second piece of advice is to set up something really, really doable: like, I’m going to meditate for 10 minutes a day, M-F, for a month. Then I’ll reassess. We get into trouble when we say things like I’m going to meditate every day forever and ever.
The third piece of advice is to recognize that no one can figure this out but you. Don’t take anyone’s word for anything. Bring what you have learned into your experience and whatever is corroborated by it, keep, What isn’t, discard. I didn’t say this first, by the way. Shakyamuni Buddha did. About his own teachings. You’ve got to love that.
How do you personally define happiness?
My favourite book of yours is How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life – how did you learn not to be afraid of yours, Susan?
I’m so glad you liked it. I have not learned how not to be afraid, unfortunately. But I have learned how not to be afraid of fear. I learned this through the sitting practice of meditation and watching emotion after emotion arise, abide, and then dissolve. So now, off the cushion so to speak, I can have faith that whatever is terrifying me on any given day is just as lacking in substance as any other thought and so I can open myself to actually experiencing it, rather than running from it.
When we’re feeling scared or lonely, what one thing could we do to support ourselves?
Give your love away. Find someone or something to love, whether by expressing your feelings to a friend, donating money or time to something that inspires you, or even by simply thinking kind thoughts about a person or situation. Giving from your heart is the secret, money-back guarantee for healing from fear or loneliness.
What and who inspires you – could you share some links with us?
Gesar of Ling
These guys (my husband and stepson)
What are you working on next?
I’m going to begin sending out a daily (M-F) email, beginning on Tibetan Buddhist New Year, March 5. I’m writing and writing so I’ll have enough 500-1000 word blog posts (on life, love, leadership, and creativity from a Buddhist point of view) to make sure I can meet that commitment. If anyone wants to sign up, they can!
You’re having a dinner party and can invite six famous people from the past or present – who would you choose and why?
Gesar of Ling: to explain the pith instructions for becoming a spiritual warrior
Sakyong Mipham: my teacher, so he could explain what Gesar just said
Bruce Springsteen: because I think he is completely excellent and brilliant
My girlfriends Emily and Lila Kate: cause girl power is always appropriate
Duncan, my husband: so we can pillow talk this thing for the rest of our lives
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Thank you so much for sharing your words with us today, Susan! Your description of your working day is one i’m going to carry with me – I can relate to the semi-collapse! :)