Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
"Pain Is the Teacher"
On mixed results from self-appointed gurus.
Before I tell you about the ghost of a moneyed, self-appointed guru who paid me a late-night visit last week, a quick note about another moneyed, self-appointed guru (there are so many these days), this one alive and glowing in a flattering portrait in the paper of record, and my reaction to her that momentarily alleviated my depression:
I went fucken ballistic on Twitter after reading a puff piece in the New York Times about the heiress to the Koch brothers’ fortune, who only the week before shuttered Catapult’s magazine and school, a place where I regularly freelanced as a writer, editor, and teacher.
Literally a week after Elizabeth Koch unceremoniously put out of work of an entire staff of talented people, many of them my friends and colleagues, she thought it was a good time to announce her new pseudo-science cult in a profile that paints her as both a poor little rich girl and some kind of shaman, a profile that reads awfully like another one of her that ran in Quartz Magazine five years ago.
It was like a scene out of Succession. People on Twitter debated whether she was a Shiv or a Connor or a mashup of the two. I had a good laugh at that, but the whole thing brought up in me righteous indignation, not only at Koch and the Times and the “journalist” who seemed to have simply re-written a press release, but also Bryan Goldberg for last month killing Gawker 2.0 just as it hit its best stride (it was smart and funny and made me literally lol many times), and at Penske Media for folding Bookforum, and even more at the founder of a publication I left a few years ago, who pointlessly decimated the thing and laid off most of the staff just as it had hit its best stride, getting nominated for National Magazine Awards and more. (#iykyk)
As the kids say, I got triggered. And then I pulled the trigger on my anger, and boy did that feel good. There are places in my life where I have justifiable reasons to be angry but for various reasons can’t express it. As self-help gurus said in the ‘70s, “Depression is repressed anger.” What a nice change of pace to be able to unleash my rage, and with no real consequences. I briefly forgot I was so blue.
Okay, onto the next moneyed self-appointed guru…this one very dead.
In the wee hours between last Thursday and Friday, I was awoken by what I’m inclined to believe was a “visitation” from someone who passed away nine years ago this month—specifically Horst Rechelbacher, the founder of Aveda.
In the dark of my bedroom, in his heavy Austrian accent, I heard him calling out to me: “Pain is the teacher! Don’t push it away! Learn from it!” It was the kind of dream that feels so real, you have to get up out of bed and look around your house to make sure your waking reality is still the one you remember.
Horst was a ghostwriting client in the late 90s. We worked together on a book that was originally supposed to be a slightly service-y, self-help-y memoir, but turned into little more than a long-form product catalogue for the company after, half-way through the job, he sold Aveda to Estee Lauder for $350 million.
Horst was a real character, a complicated one. Today he’d understandably be seen as an out-of-touch entitled rich white guy, a rare dude in the GOOP space, although with the demeanor of a Bavarian cuckoo-clock maker. A false mystical guru who made a fortune off appropriating another culture’s medical system, Ayurveda.
When I worked with him at his home in Osceola, Wisconsin, I occasionally witnessed him being a jerk to people who worked for him, after which he’d deliver satire-worthy asides such as, “I must have blown up at Prakash because my pitta dosha is out of balance! I should make a note to get myself a massage this afternoon.” (It wouldn’t be a difficult service to procure, seeing as Horst’s house was next door to the Aveda Spa, where he employed a full retinue of massage therapists.)
Horst was always kind to me, though. And his passion—about natural healthcare, and the body’s ability to heal itself—was infectious. My time working with him coincided with the period just before I was re-diagnosed with celiac (I’d first been diagnosed as a two-year-old, but in the 60s they called it being “a celiac baby,” not realizing it was for life), when I kept getting sick in various ways, and was very interested in alternative medicine as a way to heal myself. (I’d also worked at an earthy-crunchy health food store in high school and on breaks from college, so I was primed for this.)
“Pain is the teacher! When we feel pain, it’s trying to teach us something. We must figure out what that is, and learn from it, rather than push it away!”
I was in a shitty relationship at the time with a not-so-nice guy, and I was often down because of it. Horst took notice and reached out to me. It didn’t feel intrusive, it felt kind. He’d make time at the beginning or end of a work session to ask me about it. He mostly just listened, but every now and then he’d try to advise me, always at some point interjecting, “Pain is the teacher! When we feel pain, it’s trying to teach us something. We must figure out what that is, and learn from it, rather than push it away!”
He’d talk about his time with his guru in the Himalayas; he’d go there on fasting, silent retreats for ten or fourteen days at a time, during which, he said, he was forced to confront and learn from all his pain and suffering, then come home and make big changes in his life based on what he’d learned. This made an impression on me.
Now, after so much time, here he was again with the same message. I’m equal parts seeker and skeptic, and I have no idea what I believe in. But I’ve definitely had a few “visitations” from dead people in my life, and I’m pretty sure this was one of those. Before this visitation, I hadn’t thought about Horst or those words in years. But lately, as I mentioned last week, I’ve been in a fair amount of psychic pain, and it sure does seem to me as if Horst, in what ever realm his energy now lingers, became aware of that pain and felt inclined to chime in. “Pain is the teacher!”
It bears mentioning that there appears to have been some sort of psychic connection between Horst and me from before we even met. Three years prior to my being offered the ghostwriting gig, a psychic had told me, “A man is coming into your life named Horace or Horst. It’s not a romantic partner—this is a work thing. You should try to get the job.”
Horst’s timing last week was fortuitous. The next morning, Friday, I had a virtual appointment with an an astrologer/healer named Nami, who, in addition to saying many other valuable things, very much echoed Horst.
Nami came recommended by an acupuncturist whom a dear friend referred me to, who has been treating me for depression. I had joked to her that having both __ _______ __________ and __ ____ __________ __________ at the exact same time (sorry, I still legally can’t write about these) made me wonder whether I was living under some sort of astrological hex. “You just might be,” the acupuncturist said. At the end of the session, she sent me a link to Nami’s website.
Astrology is one of those esoteric fields of study I alternately do and do not believe in. I don’t know a lot about it, so on the rare occasions I have an astrologer read my chart, I ask them to focus on the bigger themes rather than the planetary breakdown because that’s all (literal) Greek to me. Nami said many things, but above all, she invited me to accept and delve into the pain rather than pushing it away. To egolessly surrender to it, to stop fighting it. To make friends with it, and see what it has to teach me.
What’s a bit shocking to me is how much this instantly resonated. I’d been walking around feeling alternately like a raw nerve constantly on the verge of tears and a zombie in a funk, and assuming that if I just looked in the right place, I could find a quick, simple antidote. What Nami said made more sense. I mean, on some level I already knew that I needed to take a step back from the world and go inward.
Some people close to me would still like me to find a quick, simple antidote. A few don’t understand why I don’t just go and get some Lexapro already. Others, including some who read about my hesitation with regard to hormone replacement therapy, would like me to go get some goddamned estrogen. (No dice most likely; my gynecologist just cautioned me against it given my family history and my own particular hormonal imbalances. I have a call tomorrow with a cancer doc who offered to advise me about HRT after reading my piece about it. We’ll see what she has to say.)
While I haven’t fully ruled out meds, I have an inkling that what I’m going through is bigger than faulty brain chemistry and even a shitty time in the world. I think I’m bumping up against some kind of major shift, or a series of them. It feels as if so many of my ways of operating in the world aren’t working anymore, whether it’s because I’m older now, or I’ve done them for too long, or it’s a different world than it used to be. Or some of those old ways didn’t actually make sense to begin with, and that’s caught up with me.
It would be nice to find some sort of philosophical framework through which to figure this out. At the risk of being culturally appropriative myself, I tend to be drawn most to Eastern philosophy. I’m looking around at places locally where I might be able to learn more about that, and to meditate. Maybe I’m also looking for…a guru? A real one? Maybe a yoga teacher, or a Jew-Bu rabbi type who isn’t bigoted against Palestinians. So far in my area I’m coming up blank. I might need to look for this online instead.
Could I go about all this while also on an anti-depressant or HRT? Possibly! But I’m going to hold off on those for now. My acupuncturist recommended fish oil and vitamin D, which I used to take; I’ll give those a shot.
In any case, I suspect I’m at the beginning of a difficult but profound, er, journey. (Ugh, I hate that word.) For now, my spirits have been buoyed a bit by Horst’s message—granted, wisdom he’d culled from Indian gurus he’d studied with, then passed off as his own. Having it echoed by Nami a few hours later really validated it.
P.S. Thanks to everyone who responded to my last installment, either in the comments or via email. I really appreciate knowing I’m not the only going through this, and also hearing about all of the the things that are working for you.
In other news…
The Woodstock Bookfest is back, March 30th to April 2nd in Woodstock, NY. If you attend, don’t miss the personal essay panel on April 1st, featuring Alexander Chee, Gary Shteyngart, and Carolita Johnson, moderated by me, Sari Botton.