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How to Stay Human in a F*cked-Up World: Mindfulness Practices for Real Life

How to Stay Human in a F*cked-Up World: Mindfulness Practices for Real Life

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How to Stay Human in a F*cked-Up World: Mindfulness Practices for Real Life

3/5 (20 ratings)
170 pages
2 hours
Jun 25, 2019


How can we be more mindful when the world is this f*cked up?

How to Stay Human in a F*cked Up World is the fresh, engaging answer to this important question. If you’ve tried mindfulness before and failed, we get it. Likely you were told to sit on a pillow in a dark room, meditate, or count your breaths. But mindfulness isn’t about separating ourselves from the problems in the world. Instead, it is about re-learning how to get out there, connect with the suffering of every living being and in so doing, embrace your own personal suffering to heal, transform, grow, and finally find peace.

Tim Desmond—an esteemed Buddhist philosopher who has lectured on psychology at both Harvard and Yale and studied under Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh—has spent his life cultivating new ways to bridge the gap between the ancient tradition of mindfulness and modern life. With How to Stay Human in a F*cked Up World Desmond gets right to the heart of our collective pain with a life-changing mindfulness practice for surviving the sometimes-miserable world we live in, featuring strategies and guidance you can start using to feel more connected, joyful, and present today.

Jun 25, 2019

About the author

TIMOTHY AMBROSE DESMOND is a Distinguished Faculty Scholar at Antioch University, teaching professional psychology rooted in self-compassion. He's the founder of Peer Collective (https://peercollective.com) and co-founder of Morning Sun Mindfulness Center in Alstead, NH. After a troubled youth, Desmond was exposed to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and eventually studied at Plum Village. Desmond was also a co-organizer of Occupy Wall Street.

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How to Stay Human in a F*cked-Up World - Tim Desmond


This book is dedicated to every person who cares so deeply

about the world that it’s killing them.



Title Page



Chapter 1: Something Deeper Than Despair

Chapter 2: Finding Beauty in Life

Chapter 3: The Art of Unhappiness

Chapter 4: Know Yourself

Chapter 5: How to Stay Human When Other People Suck

Chapter 6: Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Chapter 7: The Art of Not Existing

Chapter 8: Healing Old Pain

Chapter 9: You’re Not Crazy

Chapter 10: Becoming Fearless

Chapter 11: Community as Refuge, Community as Weapon

Chapter 12: Your Ten Thousand Hours



About the Author


About the Publisher


I was sitting in jail in San Francisco with some friends. We were in a holding cell downtown nursing a few minor injuries, but no one was seriously hurt. We’d been arrested together at plenty of protests before, and we knew it’d be a couple of hours before we’d get released. At the time, I was in graduate school for psychology and feeling quite proud that I hadn’t outgrown my rebellious phase (and as of this writing, I still haven’t).

We were killing time by talking about whether we thought the world was getting better or worse. My friend Erik said he believed the world was getting better. He said that if you think about the world in 1850, with slavery, colonialism, the Native American genocide, and the subjugation of women, then the present has to be better. That made sense to me.

However, another friend, Stephen, said he thought the world was getting worse. He pointed out how more wealth and power are being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and asked how could things be getting better if there’s a good chance the planet won’t be habitable in a hundred years. Also a good point.

As they went back and forth, I mostly listened. I’d been around this same debate many times, and it always fascinated me. Both of these diametrically opposed views appealed to me, and I wondered whether both could be true. Could the world be getting better and worse at the same time?

I also wondered how my attitude might change if I finally picked a side. If I believed the world was getting worse, would I feel that all our efforts to create positive change were doomed to fail? On the other hand, if I believed it was getting better, would I feel apathetic, like all our work wasn’t really necessary?

Just a month earlier, I’d been on retreat, studying meditation with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. During one of his lectures, he’d talked about the Buddhist idea of skillful means—that sometimes what’s most important about a belief system is how it affects you. What kind of worldview would make me a better person? Which would help me stay committed to working for change?

After a lot of thought, I decided there would be a rationale for giving up and one for persisting, in any of these perspectives. Maybe human beings are evolving toward some kind of more enlightened consciousness, and maybe ever since we stopped being hunter-gatherers, we’ve been destroying everything we touch. Maybe both or neither. Ultimately, it wouldn’t change what I want to do with my life.

There is a tremendous amount of suffering in our world, and I can’t think of a better way to spend my life than by trying to leave things better than I found them. That motivation has been a driving force in my life, and it’s led me around the world studying meditation in Buddhist monasteries, organizing social movements, founding nonprofits, and most recently leading a mental health startup at Google. My hope in writing this book is to share with you what I’ve learned, so that it might be of some help to you in our beautiful and fucked-up world.

Chapter 1

Something Deeper Than Despair

I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.


On November 14, 2016, just six days after Donald Trump won the election, my wife, Annie, woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. A trip to the ER revealed that the cancer she’d been fighting for more than a year had spread into her abdomen and a tumor was blocking her left kidney. Several long hours later, she emerged from surgery with a plastic tube implanted in her side that drained urine into a bag. I was told that she’d likely have this tube for the rest of her life. When our three-year-old son visited, I had to teach him not to touch his mom’s tube.

That was a moment I could hear despair calling me—almost audibly. It said, Your life is shit. Everything is completely fucked. Your best option is to go cower in the corner.

In that intense moment, I thought of a story I’d heard the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh tell countless times over the twenty years I’ve studied with him. It’s a story about a banana tree and it goes like this:

One day, Thich Nhat Hanh was meditating in the jungle in Vietnam and he saw a young banana tree with just three leaves. The first leaf was fully grown, broad and flat and dark green. The second leaf was still partially curled beneath the first, and the third leaf was very light green and tender, just beginning to unfurl.

This was during the middle of the Vietnam War, and he was leading a huge organization of young people who’d help rebuild villages that’d been destroyed by bombs and napalm. He’d spent nearly every day with villagers whose lives had been ravaged by war, and he’d witnessed the deaths of several of his closest friends. The central question in his life at that moment was how to reconcile the intensity of his calling to help suffering people with his mindfulness practice. He knew that he needed his mindfulness practice to keep from being overwhelmed with despair, but how could he justify cultivating peace and joy in himself while so many other people were dying?

He was holding this question in mind and looking at the young banana tree when he had a deep insight. It occurred to him that the eldest banana leaf was fully enjoying her life as a leaf. She was absorbing the sun and rain, radiating beauty and peacefulness. However, she hadn’t abandoned the other leaves to pursue her own happiness. In fact, as she nourished herself, basking in the sunshine, she was also nourishing the younger leaves, the banana tree, and the entire jungle. He decided that human beings are just like this. As we nourish ourselves with peacefulness and joy, we’re also supporting the well-being of every other person in our lives.

In that hospital room, as I looked at my wife and son, I couldn’t avoid seeing how much they needed me. They didn’t need me to do anything in particular. They needed me to stay with them and help them to see that they weren’t alone—that life was still worth living. If I could somehow find a way not to lose touch with what’s beautiful and joyful in life—if I could tap into something in me deeper than despair—then I’d have something to offer the people I love most.


Looking around today, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our world is exquisitely fucked. Of course, there’s a lot of beauty in the world at the same time, but the sheer magnitude of violence, greed, hatred, and straight-up stupidity can be overwhelming if we let ourselves pay attention and care.

The terrifying part for me is what happens to good-hearted people when we get overwhelmed by all of it. We’re committed to paying attention and caring, and we refuse to escape into whatever privilege we can find. However, the intensity of suffering we experience poisons us, and we lose touch with our humanity. We either end up in despair on one side, or we fall into toxic righteousness on the other.

Toxic righteousness is a term created by writer and activist Starhawk to describe the anger-fueled self-certainty that pervades our political discourse. Toxic righteousness is what happens when we’re mere inches from despair but somehow summon enough strength to lash out instead of collapsing. In that state, we’re incapable of listening, and often don’t even see why we should, since our opponents are less than human. If anyone tries to say that our vitriol and indignation aren’t helping, we get violently defensive because we believe the only alternative is giving up entirely.

The challenge of staying human in a fucked-up world comes down to how we respond to the immensity of suffering that confronts us from every direction. Whether I’m suffering from things in my own life, things in the lives of people I love, or the pain I feel when I pay attention to the conditions in our world (and it’s usually all of those), I have to find a way to take care of the compassion in me so that I don’t end up overwhelmed. If I can’t, I’ll find myself in despair, possessed by toxic righteousness, or (worst of all) I’ll find whatever little bubble of privilege I can escape into and stop caring.

Once I understand that the suffering in the world can turn me into someone I don’t want to be, I become extremely motivated to find a way to stay human. I don’t want to stop caring, and I don’t want to drown in anger and bitterness. I want to stay present and be a force for good. I want to become Thich Nhat Hanh’s banana leaf with enough joy and peace that I’m able to benefit myself and others. I refuse to let everything that’s fucked up in the world strip me of my humanity.


How do I become that kind of person? How do I strengthen that capacity in me? What am I supposed to do if it’s not easy for me? What if I really struggle with anger, despair, and shutting down? Is it possible to change?

I can almost guarantee that when I was first exposed to mindfulness and compassion training as a nineteen-year-old college student, I was a much more fucked-up person than you are. I grew up poor in Boston with an alcoholic single mother. I was constantly bullied, homeless as a teenager, and I never knew my father. By the time I got to college, I was angry and lonely, and had few social skills.

When a political science professor of mine assigned Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, it changed everything. I immediately recognized that mindfulness and compassion were exactly what were missing from my life. Then—as nineteen-year-olds sometimes do when they find something that makes sense to them—I immersed myself in these practices, often spending several months on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh each year and following him wherever he went.

Through all that practice and study, I’ve learned to experience more joy and freedom than I would have thought possible. I’ve gone from being someone with an intense amount of suffering and self-destructiveness to someone with real intimacy and harmony in my life. If I can change, anybody can.


On the other hand, change isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen on its own. It requires that we find ideas and practices that make sense to us on a deep level. We have to engage with those ideas and allow them to change how we see the world. Then we have to put them into practice and see what effects they produce in our lives. Finally, when we find a teaching or training that feels truly helpful, we must commit ourselves to deliberate practice. The more time and effort we invest, the greater the change we can expect to see.

But then something magical happens. The practices and

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What people think about How to Stay Human in a F*cked-Up World

20 ratings / 6 Reviews
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  • (3/5)
    This book is written very informally, and presents a worldview derived from Vajrayana Buddhism (which is somewhat more ethereal than Theravada Buddhism, which I’m more familiar with) – specifically, how one can leverage same to retain one’s sanity when confronted with a world that seems to be falling apart, filled with people who project sh*theadedness, and so on.The author is somewhat notorious for being a hippie-dippie type; he was the co-organizer of the original “Occupy Wall Street” protest (unclear whether commercial publication qualifies as “selling out”). However, he has a compelling life story. Although he quotes his guru a lot – to the point that it becomes a distraction – I found the book to be useful for helping my mind grapple with some of the questions of why the world seems to be falling apart, and why people project sh*theadedness, and how I might perhaps be able to at least contend with such things.
  • (5/5)
    Zen for the Western mind! (I shed a few tears at the last chapter). Namaste Tim
  • (1/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Dross and garbage, more selfish world wisdom to try to deify ones self.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (1/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    If this book has anything to do with feeling peaceful, why shove a cuss word into my face every time i'm am forced to see it promoted?

    1 person found this helpful

  • (1/5)
    Why does this continue to get recommended to me? As a Christian, I find this title to be rude and the message behind it self-glorifying and worldly. Please, Scribd, fix your algorithm so I no longer have to see this vulgar book.
  • (1/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Horrible ! None sense title. For poor readers. Not good

    1 person found this helpful