- Illustration by Annie Internicola
Mark Matousek is familiar with the long, dark night of the soul; he spent years as a denizen there. In the early 1980s, Matousek was a successful editor in New York when he was diagnosed with HIV and led to believe that, while only in his late 20s, he had precious little time left to live. The news terrified him, but it also woke him up. “With the end in sight, the stakes are really high—there’s an urgency to finding out who you are and what you want, what life means to you,” says Matousek. “I had been so busy climbing the corporate ladder that I didn’t realize I wasn’t happy.” He quit his job and entered a decade-long “dharma bum” period of spiritual seeking, moving toward a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. “The same thing that scared me and took friends of mine from me, also gave me my life. When your back is up against a wall, the choice comes down to this—do I lay down and die, or do I figure out a way to get through this and make my life as good as it can be?” It turned out that he would be a survivor. Today, Matousek—a Manhattan-based author, teacher, speaker, and coach—works with other people who are confronting their own dusky crossroads and helps lead them toward the light. What emerges is a nonconventional, off-the-therapist’s-couch approach to trauma that’s based on practical experience, with tools and principles to use in everyday life.
Figuring out ways not just to survive, but thrive, amid trauma and adversity is a fashionable theme right now in wellness books. In just the past few months, two titles have come out on the subject—Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life: A Guide to Inner Peace (2013, Penguin Press) and The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections (2013, Tarcher) by Norman Rosenthal, MD. Matousek himself offers a preamble to the conversation with his own 2008 book, When You’re Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living (Bloomsbury USA), in which he gives voice to the stories of extraordinary people who have blossomed amid major hardship, from becoming paralyzed to losing a child. The overarching message: If these people can pass through the fire of personal crisis with such grace and power, so can you, whatever your own personal crisis might be. Common to all of these books is not a simplistic, silver-lining moral, but an honest look at the darkness of adversity as well as ways to harness its transformational power. Hardship and pain are the very things we are told to avoid at all costs, but these authors suggest that our timidity in this terrain may not serve us well. If we recognize instead that darkness can be a doorway into self-realization and can, as Matousek says, “galvanize and deepen the spirit,” new opportunities begin to unfold.
Your Wound Can Be Your Gift “Everyday life is traumatic; there’s uncertainty, loss, fear,” says Matousek, who leads workshops on thriving in adversity—including one at Old Stone Farm, a beautiful new retreat center near Rhinebeck, in early December. “It’s about dealing with the nuts and bolts of being human in an impermanent body, in a dangerous world. If you’re waiting for life to get peaceful and calm with everything hunky dory, you’re going to be waiting a long time.” Through writing exercises, lectures, one-on-one sessions, and group dialog, he leads people to see that when your story changes, your life changes. “You have to remember that no matter what happened to you, something else is also true,” he says. “When you’re in crisis, you can feel like you’re on a dead-end street. But there’s a flip side: Every experience has the potential to wake you up. When your story falls apart, you have the opportunity to reframe your life. People live in terror of things falling apart, but it’s when things fall apart that new creation happens.”
Matousek steers his students toward the concept of viriditas—a Latin word that medieval mystics used to describe the green creative force in the universe, or the life force pulsing through all of us. “What people who have gone through extreme situations realize is that their recovery, healing, and very life depend on being able to connect to that green force—the creative, evolving energy in themselves,” says Matousek. “The first thing that happens when people go through a catastrophe is that they’re in this kind of limbo place—they don’t feel like they’re alive but they’re not dead, they survive but they’re not really living. To the ability that you can connect to that green power, your spirit, creativity, and imagination will come back.” Other key principles that Matousek helps to cultivate are gratitude (“it cancels out self-pity, which is the enemy of thriving”) and curiosity (“if you can stay curious about your life, that’s going to keep you growing and looking forward, not back”).