One of my closest friends from Buddhist seminary school was telling me about being on retreat recently. In the group discussion that followed the end of the retreat she mentioned that she had been depressed. But she almost didn’t mention it because as a long-term meditator she was so embarrassed to admit to being susceptible to depression. “We’re all supposed to be past all that; all ‘fixed’ up; but that’s not how I feel,” she said. “And somehow this makes me feel like I’ve failed.”
The teacher thanked her for her bravery in speaking up.
He admitted that he had also struggled with depression and that he’d found it extremely difficult to find dharma folks to talk to about it; because depression is one of the biggest taboos in dharma circles.
I was in the magazine store in Ottawa yesterday when this tiny article from the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma Magazine jumped out at me. A short beautiful piece by Hozan Alan Senauke, called “In the Darkest Moments”. Alan is a priest and vice-abbot at the Berkeley Zen Center, and he writes with naked honesty about depression and its antidotes: what works and what doesn’t. Alan concludes that meditation works, but if meditation can’t help, then friendship works best.
A slightly longer version of his piece appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Inquiring Mind.
“Tangled Up In Blue” by Hozan Alan Senauke
As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation I have come to no great enlightenment. I haven’t seen the cosmic light shows or transcendental visions of reality. This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free and joyful at times. But freedom is momentary. I appreciate it for what it is. I just don’t stay there, and that is okay with me. That’s a loaded word—”stay.” In terms of the law of anicca or impermanence, one does not stay anywhere. But I digress.
What I mean to say is that I have come to think that given my propensity toward depression—biochemical, hereditary, or karmic—the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in just sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me. There is a phrase I love from Eihei Dogen, in our Zen tradition: “When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” That is, the very incompleteness of our being, actions, aspirations, is a manifestation of Buddhanature itself. Everything is broken. No regrets.
Over the years I have tried to ‘deal with’ (that means get rid of) depression in various ways. I have done talk therapy and acupuncture. I’ve sampled organic remedies like St John’s wort, SAME-e, homeopathy, and most recently, Vitamin D. I have been on and off a modest amount of fluoxetine (Prozac). Actually, Prozac seemed to work for a while. When I began to take it—twenty years ago, on the advice of my therapist and in consultation with a psychiatrist—it was as if a dark cloud that had always circled my head just disappeared. It was a great and joyous relief. But the relief seemed to be only temporary.
So I return to what I trust, meditation—and to that other reliable remedy: friendship. Actually, the two are not unrelated. Meditation is not a cure, but if I can sit down in a quiet space and follow my breath, the weight of depression usually lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I will take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly toward myself.
The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I keep in mind E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howards End: “Only connect.” In the darkest moments, when I feel least able to do so, I know this is necessary and true. So I leave my room and seek a friend. In depression, friendship is an alkahest—the alchemist’s universal solvent that brings forth light and energy. It’s the best remedy.
Thank you Alan.
Joan Tollifson has been writing recently on her facebook page about depression and dharma.
Wonderful posts and reflections.
She apparently stumbled onto Alan’s piece too. Here’s part of what she says…
“I found (Alan’s) article deeply enlightening. Enlightening because it offers no big, splashy promises of a life filled with continuous bliss and flashing blue lights, but instead, something so simple and real. I loved Alan’s honesty, his humility, and his settledness in the ordinary (which is truly the extraordinary). The Zen practice he embodies is about being right here with life as it is.”
“It makes me very happy to see that more and more teachers seem willing to openly acknowledge and reveal their own humanness and brokenness—their on-going struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction, jealousy, anger, or whatever it might be. We tend to idolize and idealize spiritual teachers, wanting to believe that they are perfect and that maybe someday we will be perfect. Disillusionment is often a hard lesson, but it can be the greatest lesson of all, when we discover the teacher’s imperfections and understand that no one else can save us. […]”
“I wish we could all get beyond the Final Enlightenment Mythology and the Awakened Person Mythology in which we imagine that we (or others) have crossed some finish line and arrived at some final place where all problems have been permanently solved. …”
And one more story….
Several years ago, I went down to Berea, Kentucky to a small Christian College, to meet Ivan Illich. Illich gave a public talk to maybe 200 students and activists from the area. Illich had abandoned the podium and climbed down from the stage. He said he refused to use the microphone because it privileged one voice above the many and thus this technology was inherently anti-democratic. Preferring instead to speak with his unamplified voice, he stood and spoke to us from the first row of seats in the auditorium. We all moved in closer to hear him.
After the hour-long talk, he said there was a time for a few questions…
An African-American woman in the third row stood up, “Given the difficulty of improving things in society, and given how often there is frustration and failure, how do we keep from despair? How do we keep going?” she asked.
Illich didn’t have a pat answer.
There was a long pause while he considered her question. Time passed.
We all waited quietly.
Then Illich motioned to Lee Hoinecki, his best friend, who was sitting in the front row.
Lee got up and went to stand beside Ivan.
Ivan gently leaned into Lee and put an arm around his shoulders.
He smiled at the woman who had asked the question.
Then he said one word: