Between-States: Conversations About Bardo and Life
In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” is a between-state. The passage from death to rebirth is a bardo, as well as the journey from birth to death. The conversations in “Between-States” explore bardo concepts like acceptance, interconnectedness, and impermanence in relation to children and parents, marriage and friendship, and work and creativity, illuminating the possibilities for discovering new ways of seeing and finding lasting happiness as we travel through life.
“Existence is traumatic and female existence is traumatic in its own ways,” says author Melissa Febos. “To acknowledge rather than dismiss the gravity of experience that also happens to be ordinary and shared by many people has been transformative, a doorway to authentic living.” In memoirs and essay collections, Febos looks at what it means to break free from the scripts of family and society, to live a life that is true to who we are rather than try to please others.
Born and raised in Falmouth, Massachusetts, Febos has written two memoirs, Whip Smart (2010), the story of her work as a professional dominatrix to support her heroin habit, and Abandon Me (2017), an investigation of family legacy, erotic obsession, and identity. Girlhood (2021), Febos’s first essay collection, explores growing up female in America and her quest to let go of the false selves she began constructing as a girl, when she became adept at “performing the mental acrobatics necessary to discredit her own instincts.” Her latest book, Body Work (2022), is a collection of essays on the power of personal narrative.
Febos’s awards include the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism for Girlhood, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and the Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Award from LAMBDA Literary. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Paris Review, Granta, Tin House, and Vogue, among many others. An associate professor of English at the University of Iowa, Febos spoke with me early one evening from her home in Iowa City about her search for authenticity.
You’re on sabbatical from your teaching position at the University of Iowa, so you’re experiencing a suspension of your ordinary reality, a kind of bardo. In bardo, we encounter obstacles but also have the opportunity for insights. How has your sabbatical been so far? Obstacles and insights is an accurate description. I’m a fantasizer and I also identify as an addict. I’ve been in recovery for almost twenty years but I have a strong inclination toward fantasy and expectation, and I tend to be resistant to past experience. When I anticipated my sabbatical, I thought, “This is going to be an ecstatic disappearance from the stresses of my daily life that will allow me to focus on writing.” But instead, it has created a space to encounter things I don’t make time for when the frenetic, absorbing everyday is swirling around.
Part of what I’m reckoning with is that being in thrall to the linear progression of my existence—goal-oriented creative ambition, the life of a tenure-track academic—has been a way of avoiding suffering and processing. As I’ve stepped out of my usual routine, I’ve felt emotionally untethered. Or maybe it’s the opposite. Emotions are coming up and they’re like, “Yoo-hoo, still here! It looks like you’ve got some time.” This period is making space for grief over the pandemic, when I had intense health problems, and I’m also processing stuff in my marriage and with my family. I had this moment recently where I was lying awake and feeling self-pity and anger, like, “This is not what I had hoped for my sabbatical.” But I also feel a sense of satisfaction because I know all this has been waiting for me and now I’m dealing with it.
Have you been able to focus on your writing? Yes, I’m working on a book about a year I spent intentionally celibate and spiritually seeking. It’s a memoir but with the spirit of an essay in that it’s driven by the desire to think through an experience and a set of questions.
Is the creative process with this book different because you’re in a different space? In relationship to writing, I’m in a real in-between place. I’ve gotten most of the things I was hungry for: I’ve published books and I have a job I might stay in for the rest of my life. What does this mean for my writing practice, which is for milling what’s hard and has been motored by my ambition?
I was talking at breakfast this morning with my wife about how different it is to be writing a book where the conflicts and tensions are more subtle. My earlier books were about heroin addiction and an abusive relationship, experiences that were both exciting and excruciating. What I’m writing about now isn’t acute suffering and the stakes aren’t life or death. This book is about what was the best year of my life up to that point, and peace and joy are hard to make interesting to a stranger. Giving urgency, or momentum, to a very interior process requires different craft methods than I’ve used in the past, so I have to teach myself how to write in a new way. I’m used to measuring my writing progress by daily word count and that isn’t working. Although sometimes I go into spasm because I’m just staring out the window, it feels right. When I was younger I would have doubted this instinct, but experience tells me it’s a reliable compass.
I love that instead of struggling to make your usual writing practice work, you’re seeing where your current process leads. There’s so much uncertainty but I get to listen to a part of myself that I otherwise don’t. There’s something miraculous about following instincts that are operating at a much deeper level than the level where I’m worrying about things like word count, and the process always turns out to know where it’s going.
It’s like having a block of marble in front of you and knowing that somewhere in there is a beautiful sculpture, even if you don’t know how long it will take to find it and what it will look like. Exactly. There’s a quote attributed to Michelangelo that’s stuck with me for decades: “I saw the angel in the stone, and I carved to set him free.” For me, writing is more about finding than conjuring.
That can be said for the journey through the bardo not only of writing but also of life, where our authentic selves are there for the finding. You’ve written about how you lost sight of your true self by trying to please people and ignoring your instincts. Pleasing others requires overriding parts of myself—feelings, responses, curiosities, interests—and forcibly manipulating and exiling the shape of my body. When I do that for an extended period, those parts revolt and express themselves in addiction, in depression, in all sorts of compulsive behaviors. The consequences can be harmful and even life-threatening. If I don’t make space for an authentic way of living, I’ll go sideways so quickly that I will self-destruct.
I want to escape. I want everyone to like me. I want to succeed. I want to be a good employee. I want to be a good capitalist. I have these inclinations, so I’ve had to develop a holistic way of living where I go to 12-step meetings, I have a meditation practice, I do movement that puts me back inside my body, I go to therapy, I have meaningful connection with trusted people. It requires constant maintenance for me to stay authentic. That’s why I’m a nonfiction writer: nonfiction writing is the place that will least suffer falsity or performance. It’s a space where I have to be present and honest. I try not to give myself a lot of credit, because I’ve had to do it to survive. People are like, “Oh, you’re so rigorous, and you’re healing, and you’re self-examining, and you must really like therapy.” And I’m like, “No, I hate therapy.” When I think about feeling my feelings, I’m like, “Eeeww, no!” I’ve had to organize my whole life around therapy because otherwise, I won’t do it.
In Girlhood, you write that you were happy until around age 10, when you experienced a “violent turn.” What happened? I enjoyed an enormous amount of privilege growing up. We were solidly middle class. I was well-loved, raised by parents who tried to shield me from the damaging prescriptions of American culture for girls. I had a cheerful, vigorous, excited response to life. But with the transformation of my body at puberty, I reached a crucible where the freedoms of childhood came to an end. It was impossible to avoid what it meant to be a girl and a woman in our society. The revelation was especially devastating because in the early nineties when I was growing up, there was no internet where I could find connection outside my small town. For me, adolescence was a reckoning with external forces in the culture and my first reckoning with the internal consequences of suppressing true parts of myself. I was a good student and a good daughter, and then I exploded.
You exploded but you were still trapped between your true self and the self you presented to society. You say in Girlhood that you “burned with self-hatred, as if I’d ingested a poison that was slowly blackening my insides.” When were you able to break free? That initial combustion lasted for a few years. I suffered from an eating disorder while I was an adolescent, segued straight into substance abuse and was a high-functioning addict, and then became a non-high-functioning addict. I began to break free when I got sober in my early to mid-twenties. I was still smoking cigarettes and eating a lot of gummy candy, but I was becoming more honest with myself. It was at that point that I pivoted toward the person I am now. People-pleasing and eating disorders and drugs had felt like a shortcut, but they had created work on the back end. I started doing that work—spiritual work, community work, self-work—and things got easier.
“There’s so much unlearning that needs to be done before we can live authentically.”
It seems like it should be the simplest thing in the world to just be ourselves, yet it’s often so hard. It’s tricky because children are powerless. We don’t come into our agency until we’re older and by then we’ve already figured out a way of living that’s contingent on powers greater than ourselves, on other people. There’s so much unlearning that needs to be done before we can live authentically.
You found it was possible to train your mind and undo the indoctrination you underwent as a girl. How did you accomplish this? My mother is a Buddhist and, although I didn’t pay much attention growing up, Buddhism was ambiently around and I started meditating when I was about 14. That early introduction to Buddhist concepts and meditation was the beginning of my mind training.
Also, getting sober gave me a profound understanding of how possible it is to change the way you see things, because addiction is a disease of the mind. When I got sober, I started to do the micro-work of looking at how I interacted with people and with myself. I examined how I understood the boundaries of my body and who had a right to cross them. When someone tried to hug me, I hugged them back, whether I wanted to or not. And there were lots of other things like that—from casual touch to sex acts. When I started to look at how I navigated physical interactions, I realized that a micro-overriding of my own desires was happening all the time that I wasn’t even aware of. If I continued to let that happen, I’d end up in a life that was inauthentic and empty, that had shame all around in weird places. A life that was a weird Frankenstein of what people wanted from me.
Because I’d grown up as a girl in the United States of America, I felt for a long time that it was important not to make other people uncomfortable by asserting my physical boundaries. When I finally stopped to interrogate this, I realized I had to slow down my reactions until the moment where I could make a choice became visible. When someone said, “Let’s hug.” I had to step back and wait a few beats—very awkward—for the moment when I could discern whether I wanted to. Oftentimes, the answer was no. I had to let the awkward moment stand and, as it turned out, time kept moving, people kept talking, nobody died. The important part is that moment of pause where, instead of looking outward to assess what the other person wants, I listen inward to what I want. But it’s a challenge because it can be very comfortable to be estranged from yourself.
And meditation helped you come to this realization? Meditation is an important part of my practice, the place where I learn to be present, to let go of narrative and see what is. But a lot of the work with my mind happens in interaction. The work is a combination of meditation, writing—where I do my best thinking—and being in relationship, where I practice. Marriage is the perfect laboratory. The work is theoretical if I can’t do it in relationship, if it’s not affecting the way I’m treating other people—including as a teacher. I often think about how I’m modeling what it means to be an artist and a human being to my students, and that’s a great motivator for me.
You used to keep a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet pinned over your desk: “The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.” Are you still doing this heart-work? Yes, it’s all that we’ve been talking about: turning towards a more authentic self, a more authentic life. Maintaining the courage to always be engaged in that, to not hide in what’s familiar and comfortable.
At the time, I understood the quote as related to writing my second book, Abandon Me. That was a long time ago, and today I understand how the quote applies to every part of my life. My life isn’t divided cellularly; it’s one thing that’s expressed in different ways. Now I have a more capacious understanding of what the heart-work is and hopefully I’ll say that again in ten years.
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