An interview with Vanessa Veselka

Profession: Novelist
Age: 42
Location: Portland, Oregon

How did you get into Buddhism? I first heard of the Four Noble Truths in my early 20s from a boyfriend who used them to rationalize suffering. I thought it was a lousy philosophy aimed at keeping an economic caste system in place—Here, peon! Your misery is a natural state. Get used to it! Around that time, though, I got a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and tried to meditate. I hated the feeling of watching the drama slip away. After a few days, worried that I might be struck by enlightenment—obviously not a real danger for me—I stopped. I avoided Buddhism for years.

Why didn’t you want to be enlightened? It’s boring. Just kidding…sort of. Early on I was afraid of losing my personality. Pretty typical. Now I think I’m less attached to the charms of personality than to other people. I think I fear that I will lose them in detachment. I still don’t want that. I love and hate this world, and I can’t imagine giving that up.

Even as a poor candidate for inner peace, my relationship with Buddhism has changed my life. I can recognize story lines several thoughts away. But mostly I don’t get off the wheel of suffering. I just get prepared. Like the instruction on breath meditation, I just keep coming back. I would say I’m pretty firmly lashed to the wheel.

Do you have a practice now? I listen to dharma talks and meditate. Meditation leads me back to the present, and then almost nothing is unbearable. I used to feel guilty because I had the privilege of meditating in peace. I felt like feeling okay was a betrayal of other people’s trauma. How can I be okay when someone is getting hurt somewhere else? But I’m starting to see it differently. It’s just as delusional to deny joy as it is to deny suffering. The more I live with an awakened mind, the better for everyone.

What do you eat? I go back and forth about eating meat. Right now I am mostly vegetarian, but not by today’s standards. I eat eggs and cheese and sometimes fish. When I stopped eating meat it was very important for me to stay out of dogma around it. If I’m somewhere where someone lovingly offers me meat and it would hurt them for me to turn it away, I eat it. That’s my guide around it. I was at a family member’s house in Texas. I hadn’t seen them for 15 years. They asked what I ate, and I said I was vegetarian, so they made me a beautiful grilled salmon and presented it to me the first night I was there. I ate it, and I’m glad I did.

You recently published your first novel, Zazen. Do you consider yourself a Buddhist fiction writer? My characters have Buddhist concerns, whether they know it or not. My aesthetic sensibilities have been deeply marked by the Pali canon and the story of Siddhartha. The story of Siddhartha is the earliest, most developed example of a narrative arc that I can think of. It’s a classic three-act structure: Gautama is born a prince and grows up in splendor, he leaves the castle gates to find meaning and meets strangers offering him various pathways that lead to death and disconnection, and then he takes his sovereign seat in his own spiritual adulthood and reaches his full potential. Practically Hollywood. So I think of Buddhism as a lens rather than a dogma, as a language to describe what we all know.

Can stories play a role in awakening? All great novels lead to compassion for the human experience. That said, fiction is tricky. As a novelist, I spend three to four years immersed in a world that does not exist, with people I made up. There always comes a point when that world is more enchanting than my own, because I am using extremes as a medium to paint life more brightly. That is a very seductive process. And yet my most profound experiences as a writer come when characters and meanings I did not consciously create surprise me by showing up on the page. It happens all the time. I am always deeply moved by the impersonal nature of that moment. In a way, it is how I experience “no-self” most profoundly.

How do you come back to your own life when the world you make up is more enchanting? How do you deal with boredom? I’m still figuring out how to come back to my own life. But then I have always been trying to figure that out. The question of boredom is interesting, though. I’m never bored in the larger sense, as in my life is boring. On a day-to-day level, I think I experience boredom as a nagging dissatisfaction. Yet when I sit down and let it come, it feels more like sadness. I don’t know what that feeling actually is.

If I had to guess, I’d say you were a pessimist. Oh, you’re breaking my heart! I’m a brokenhearted optimist. No. I’m just a coward and it looks like pessimism sometimes. I once had the insight, deep in a profound depression, that it was the beauty I shielded myself from, not the trauma. I was afraid of how it would feel to be filled with hope—so naked, so fragile. Terrifying. “Hope” is a strange word for it, actually. Hope is more related to fantasy than what I mean. I mean vast hope, something unattached to specifics.

Sometimes heartache can help make a person whole. Is it possible to get there without the heartache? I think there is very little incentive to practice without a need to change. People who do so are either saints or driven by ambition. Sitting when you don’t want to is kind of like living in the last house on the block. But maybe you only need a little heartache? Like tolerance for alcohol, a high tolerance for pain isn’t always a benefit.

—Sam Mowe

Image: Photograph by Sam Mowe

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