Neal Pollack II (BSS #360)

Neal Pollack is most recently the author of Stretch. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #96.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stretching for owls.

Author: Neal Pollack

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: This book isn’t, to me, just about your own personal experience with yoga. I got the sense in reading this of a man who, quite frankly, is really terrified of getting older. I mean, it starts with that review you got in The New York Times Book Review, which was, I think now, completely ridiculous. We joked about it before. Of a man who is terrified of being pegged as “another doughy guy in his thirties.” As a guy who is just looking for some replacement or affirmation of his identity. But that sense of terror is there in your personal quest. Why do you feel that is? And how aware were you of this?

Pollack: Well, the more I got into it, the more aware I was. And I think what it came down to is not necessarily a fear of getting older, but, in the end, the main fear that all of us have. Which is a fear of death. Or, as the Buddhists say, a fear of impermanence. And it’s that fear of impermanence that drives so much pain and suffering in the world. And I had that in large quantities. I had been doing all of this crazy stuff. And my ego was out of control. And a lot of that, I think, was just because I was trying to find a substitute for acceptance of impermanence. I mean, that’s what you say in Buddhism. Not like I’m a Buddhist. But it was very important to me to realize it. Not just think, “Oh, I”m going to die.” But to actually feel it in my bones that, you know, everything around me is impermanent. And that actually made my life a lot easier to live. I’m not nearly as afraid of getting old and dying as I used to be.

Correspondent: But that anger did come out during that New York yoga class. When you saw the woman spouting forth political messages.

Pollack: Yeah, I mean, there was definitely — as part of the journey — I had these eruptions of anger and envy and just reactive behavior. And it was not a smooth transition. And I think the transition is ongoing. But I definitely think I’m calmer and less angry and less envious than I was. And I’m happier because of it. I don’t know if my writing is necessarily better, although I think it is. But it certainly has — it’s made it much easier for me to move through the world.

Correspondent: But the problem here is that if you are still erupting into anger, this is very much still a part of who you are.

Pollack: Well…

Correspondent: You have to accept yourself for who you are.

Pollack: Yeah.

Correspondent: In some capacity. A large capacity, actually.

Pollack: Yeah. I would say that yoga smooths over the rough edges. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to behave exemplary — exemporarily — is that how you say it? — in all circumstances. But it will make you much more aware of how you behave in most circumstances. And so, of course, you’re still going to feel angry or be envious or say something stupid. Or eat too much or drink too much from time to time. But I don’t know. It’s nice to be a little more thoughtful and a little more mindful of the world around me. And of my body and my mind.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I mean, for example, in Thailand, you complained about the cookies they gave you, writing, “Jesus fucking Christ. We paid them enough money. They could at least give us a proper cookie.” I mean, this seems to conflict with the idea of ahimsa, where you’re supposed to be nonviolent and not dislike the world. You’re supposed to embrace it.

Pollack: I bitch to myself and maybe to a couple of friends. I didn’t throw a fit and make them bring me another cookie. It’s not like you lose all discrimination and judgment when you start practicing yoga. I mean, there still is food that tastes good. The food that doesn’t taste good. There are still good movies and bad movies. Good books and bad books. People you like and people you don’t like. That doesn’t go away, but you don’t take it all so personally maybe. And the fact that I wrote down a grouchy reaction to a bad dessert, I just did that to illustrate, “Well, yeah, so I’m still grouchy.”

Correspondent: Yeah.

Pollack: But the difference is that in the past, that grouchiness or irritability may have been destructive. Whereas now, I just like to think of it as a character trait.

Correspondent: So you say things roll off you more now than they did before?

Pollack: Everything rolls off me more easily. Some things more easily than others. But, yeah, because of practicing yoga and meditation, I’m able to take things that happen to me more in stride. It’s never 100% perfect. But even publishing a book has been easier. There are a lot of stressful things going when you publish a book. You’re dealing with editors and you’re trying to figure out how to promote it. And then you’re traveling around. And then you’re wondering if people are going to like it and are going to buy it. And you have good reviews. You have bad reviews. And…

Correspondent: Vicious reviews in this case. Paul Constant. I thought that was far more vicious than David Kamp.

Pollack: By comparison, sure. That was a horrible review. It was really mean. But, you know, I stewed about it for a couple of hours. And in the past I might have really stewed about it and written some kind of screed in response and sent him an email and maybe even call them up. I might have made things worse. And in this case, I just complained to my wife about it for a couple of hours. And then let it go.

Correspondent: Well, wait a minute here. Because with the David Kamp review, I remember this because I read your site for many years. You had to joke about it. And then, when I read this book, I was surprised to see it come back like a zombie out of the blue. I mean, this had been torturing you for a number of years.

Pollack: Well, it wasn’t torturing me anymore. But it was a key turning point in my life to perceive that review. It was like, I don’t think the review was entirely fair. But really, in retrospect, it wasn’t that unfair. It was just like somebody had dumped a bucket of cold water on my head.

Correspondent: Or a bucket of crap.

Pollack: A bucket of crap. And the Establishment said, “No, no, no. We’re not letting you in.” You know? “Sorry, you’re a schmuck.” And to some extent, he was right. And to some extent, he wasn’t. And to a large extent, it doesn’t matter. But it was a key turning point. And I am actually very grateful to that guy for writing that piece. Because it sent me on the path that really helped — it changed my life forever and helped me enormously.

Correspondent: So if I got you and Paul Constant together for a beer.

Pollack: I would prefer not to meet him for a beer. Just because…

Correspondent: He’s actually a nice guy. He probably didn’t mean it.

Pollack: I know people who work at The Stranger. And I didn’t meet him. And if I met him, I would joke with him about it. Because, you know, I’m…I’m not a bad guy. And at the end of the day, I’m sure he’s not either. There was something in the book he obviously didn’t like and he went to the wall against it. And that’s why we have the First Amendment.

(Image: Katie Spence)

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