Tangled Up in Blue: Zen Practice and Depression (edited version)

Right now I can’t read too good

Don’t send me no more letters, no

Not unless you mail them from

Desolation Row

— from “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan

 It starts with dread.  In a distant city, on top of the covers in a two-star hotel, ceiling fan humming and circling slowly, mosquito net shrouding the bed.  Or driving alone on the late night interstate, rolling by strip malls and chain stores.  Or walking down an everyday street, feeling empty inside. Dread has a physical quality — a dead weight on my chest and shoulders, a gnawing sensation in my stomach. Nausea.  A wish to jump out of my skin.

Within these sensation there is loneliness, despair, and the certainty of ceaseless separation.  The dread is that my life will be like this from now on, and that it always has been like this and I have been so disconnected that I didn’t even notice.  If I am far from home, I fear I might die there, alone. I imagine myself home in bed, watching television, as if that would provide the absent intimacy. I think through the necessary steps that would have me on a homebound flight within hours. I have a plan, and that provides me with the illusion of a way out. The dread can last for three or four days, or months. And even though there is nothing objectively “wrong” with the circumstances of my life — things can actually be going well — I feel as if a curtain had been pulled back on the ugly workings of my life, and it is not worth living another day.  It feels like the end of the line, and the line continues.

Millions of us suffer in this way. We yearn for wholeness and accomplishment.  I have had plenty of that in my life: two wonderful children, a happy marriage, many old friends, respect in the Buddhist world, writing published, music recorded, and so on. Despite repeated admonitions about “gaining mind,” the suffering of depression simultaneously suggests the dream of self-fulfillment and the impossibility of that dream.

I don’t usually talk about my depression.  Nor do most people who suffer this way, whether or not they are Buddhists.  For Buddhist practitioners all those hours and weeks and years of meditation are supposed to lead to happiness and equanimity. Depression feels like a kind of failure.  To admit depression is to suggest that Buddhist practice doesn’t always “work.”  Recently someone in my community said: “You’re the last person I’d think of as depressed.”  I have become skilled at keeping it hidden.

***

 Consider a bright young man in his late twenties, well-educated and physically healthy.  His mother died when he was an infant. For most of his life he had not left his family’s house.  He had all the advantages of a privileged background — good clothes, delicious food, doting servants.  He married a beautiful young woman from a similar background, and became the father of a son.  But all of this seemed empty to him.  He found no happiness. So he left his comfortable home, his wife and son and friends, without any particular goal beyond relieving himself of the fatalistic gloom that settled over him like a cloud. For six years he tried every meditation technology and trendy diet available. At last he sat down under a tree, determined to wake.  There he encountered great sensual temptations. But he gave up, let go, and everything turned out right.

This is the early life of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is an inspiring story, but one can hear it as the description of someone suffering from chronic depression. I am not a prince, there are some parallels with my own life, growing up with privilege in a prosperous suburb.  By all accounts, the Buddha’s suffering fell away when he awakened under the bodhi tree.  Did he really arrive at a place where he was always happy, never anxious?  That is what we are asked to believe, but I wonder?

***

 As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation, I haven’t seen cosmic light shows or transcendental visions of reality. I don’t claim enlightenment. This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free at times.  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 given my propensity towards depression — biochemical, hereditary, or karmic — the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in simply sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me.  There is a phrase I love from the 13th century Zen Master Dogen: “When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” 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 various ways to “deal with” (that means get rid of) depression.  I have done talk therapy and acupuncture.  I’ve sampled organic remedies like St. John’s Wort, SAM-e, homeopathy, and Vitamin D.  I have been on and off a modest dose of Prozac.  Actually Prozac seemed to work for a while.  When I began to take it, twenty years ago — on the advice of my therapist — it was as if a dark cloud that had always circled my head just disappeared.  It was a great 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 lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly towards myself.

The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I recall E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howard’s 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.

Depression has its own gift: the ability to identify with people in pain. Their suffering is something I understand. In my life as a Zen priest I talk to people all the time. I can’t count the number of people who have told me about depression and the pain of isolation and loneliness. I am moved by their honesty and their predicament. They suffer as I have suffered; I am like them.

***

 I was about thirteen when I became aware of depression. Fifty years ago. My parents were in the midst of a difficult divorce.  I had just completed my bar mitzvah, a ritual that had been drained of all meaning by five dreadful years of compulsory Hebrew school. Then my mother kept the all the cash from my bar mitzvah gifts to pay for the reception.  Times could be hard even in the suburbs.

I was finishing eight grade at a WASPish private day school where I had no friends. For nearly a year I got out of school early every Friday to attend Hebrew school.  After the bar mitzvah I didn’t tell the private school, and kept leaving early each week.  For some months I didn’t mention this to my mother either.  The school bus dropped me in the center of town, by myself.  I would go to the movies alone, eat well-done French fries, and walk home.  Now it sounds like a teenage adventure, but with each passing week I felt more desolate.  I couldn’t stand the private school, I couldn’t go home, and I dreaded being alone.  So finally I confessed. In a rare moment of mother-son intimacy (at least rare in my experience), my mother calmly explained that I was depressed, and that this was only natural after all the anxiety of divorce, the buildup and letdown of my bar mitzvah, and new vistas of puberty.  She spoke to me gently, conveying a sense that she knew what she was talking about from her own experience.  I am sure she did.

Now I had a name for what I was feeling, even though I had no idea what to do about it.  It would be another thirteen years before I saw my first psychotherapist, and even then depression was framed as a psychological matter — a symptom of unconscious issues, mostly centering on my parents — rather than a condition as much physical or biochemical as psychological.

All these years later I continue to live with this condition and its close companion — anxiety. One of the Buddha’s unique discoveries is the Wheel of Life, or Dependent Origination. The wheel rolls, from birth through death and on to successive lives. Anxiety is its fuel.  But we can also consider rebirth from moment to moment, and do our best to end the ceaseless spinning. Anxiety is linked to the fear (and certainty) of future non-existence, real doubt about my present existence/non-existence, fear of pain, sickness, debility.  Such anxiety leads to a kind of self-fulfilling depression.  How can I break the chain?

 ***

 I have to live with depression as a condition of my particular being.  Current medical research suggests that depression is hardwired in our brains.  In evolutionary terms the sleeplessness and hyper-vigilance of depression may have some survival benefit. So maybe depression is a good thing.  I might consider myself genetically selected to be a survivor…at least if I lived in the jungle.

But Buddhist practice is not directed toward a particular goal, not even survival. It is simply about being awake.   The path of practice leads right through our immediate life circumstances. The pangs of depression, or any pains — physical or mental — are vividly part of that life.  I’m not able to avoid unpleasant circumstances, but the question is: can I turn depression, or will I allow it to turn me? Long ago the Buddha showed us how to do this.  Each event of his awakened life — including illness, injury, temptation, betrayal, loss — was occasion for him to learn, then to share his understanding.  He didn’t try to change or avoid external conditions, and he wasn’t pushed around by circumstances.  He lived in community with his friends and he turned towards suffering.

There is a message in depression. Things in life are roiling. Change is afoot. After years of practice I know this is true even in the hard times. If I can bear it and see through it, depression becomes the harbinger of transformation.  Things are always in a state of change.  Only connect. With that kind of understanding all of life seems to be a fortunate accident. I am alive, so change is always possible, however unlikely it seems… What am I doing here on the planet?  Oh, I remember. I’m setting up shop in the saha realm, the world that must be endured, the land of samsara, which literally means wandering on.

The heart of Buddhist practice may be a matter of faith, in a dark night when faith is hard to find. My friends help me through the night. Night and day, depression and joy — there is really one whole, true life.  Practice gets me to what is true.  That’s where I want to live.

***

 POSTSCRIPT

Early in 2013 I flew to India to visit and teach among Dalit Buddhist friends there.  Since our children have left home for work and college, my wife Laurie and I were able to travel together for the first time in more than twenty years.

As I wrote above, when traveling I usually have to endure several days of depression at the start of a journey.  This seems to be an unavoidable pathway to the present time and place.  I have wondered if this phenomenon was simply a matter of loneliness, since I almost always arrive alone.  But on this trip I was not alone.  Laurie was with me.  And the first five days were as hard as ever. I was not lonely, but in some way I was still alone to wrestle with the darkness.

I was grateful to be able to talk things over with Laurie.  Far from home, among the teeming streets, she was having trouble of her own adjusting to India, quite unlike mine.  The opportunity to talk about my difficulties was valuable perspective, but it did not make them go away. I felt distant from my body and mind, alienated and uncomfortable — what I take to be the meaning of the Buddha’s dukkha. In the morning it was hard to get out of bed.  In the day, even the sunlight seemed to hurt.  Then after about five days I woke up “normal.”  The weight had lifted and I was relieved to find myself home in body and mind.

So it was not really a matter of loneliness.  My depression seems to arise from a deeper displacement.  This is simply what I must live with.

­— Hozan Alan Senauke

“Tangled Up in Blue” originally appeared in Inquiring Mind Vol. 29 no. 1 (Fall 2012). Republished by permission. © 2013 by Inquiring Mind. http://www. inquiringmind.com

About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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16 Responses to Tangled Up in Blue: Zen Practice and Depression (edited version)

  1. Seth Segall says:

    Thank you, Alan, for this honest and lucid account of living with depression. I am sure that many readers who struggle with depression will be able to relate to what you have written, and perhaps find comfort in the fact that they are not “failures” because Buddhist practice has not “cured” them. The beauty of Buddhist practice is in learning how to be with the difficulties that biology, fate, and the vicissitudes of life present us with. Very few teachers have had the courage to share their experience of depression with others. Thank you for having both the courage, and the love to want to share. Many blessings!

  2. Sara says:

    “Wandering on…” !

    Throwing flowers at your transparency. There is still far to much shame in our culture around depression for there to be collective healing that embraces it. So overdue! More overdue than the library books I have had out for two years! Your words are a true-hearted movement in that direction of embrace. Thank you times ten, or times all the Buddha emanations.

  3. Thank you for courageously writing about epidemic depression. As a psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner I too live with a chemistry that is often at odds with my preferences. As a child I lost my father to suicide. As an adolescent I felt defective. I am grateful for the depth of Buddhist practice, the sheltering rock.
    Andrea Campbell, PhD

  4. Michelle Calaba says:

    I think that the message from Seth, above, describes my feelings exactly. Thank you for sharing
    this informative, revealing experience that you have had. It has given me comfort.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I will refer to this article many times.

  6. Barbara Hasslacher says:

    This article was SO helpful to me as I too have struggled with this difficult condition and many people simple do not understand. I have to say that even the reknown Thich Nhat Hahn has a saying that some people stay with their suffering because it is more familiar, and I have a hard time accepting that as I would much prefer to not have depression.

  7. MJ says:

    Thank you so much for this. Mine was hardwired in too, and I remember being a lonely, desolate, worried little kid so I guess it was always there. Zen practice has helped me learn to be awake and cope better, probably better than anything else. But thank you again for reminding the fellow sufferers that we aren’t alone or uniquely broken (we’re all broken in our own ways, that’s why we’re human…).

  8. Pat Chaffee says:

    I simply repeat the comment of Beth Adele Long: Thank you Thank you Thank you
    Pat Chaffee

  9. Thanks so much for sharing this, Alan. I can relate to so much of it, and while I have found ways to cope with my own depression (some days better than others, of course), it is so refreshing and comforting to learn of others’ experiences with their own struggles and know I’m not alone.
    I also wanted to say how much I and many other women at Dublin appreciated your teachings and meditation. I don’t think I realized how much it helped me until later on the outside. Thank you.

  10. Nathan says:

    Alan, I heard your presentation of this story at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate yesterday. I’m grateful for hearing your perspective, and many people at Ancient Dragon were moved by what you said.

    You said something during the discussion at Ancient Dragon that is not mentioned in this written version of your talk, but I think it is crucially important and is one of the great gifts of Buddhist teachings: Loving-kindness (metta or maitri) is perhaps the greatest medicine for these states of depression, as is a sense of gratitude for what is given or offered in the present moment. You quoted the Metta Sutta: “Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living beings, suffusing love over the entire world…” You mentioned Dogen’s phrase “parental mind,” which captures this sense of motherly love for all beings, including ourselves and all our mental states. Nonin Chowaney once pointed out that the Japanese character for intimacy is shin, which also means “parents”; this kind of parental intimacy with our mental states can often be the best medicine. As Kosho Uchiyama beautifully put it: “What does it mean for the present-day person to become an adult? It is nothing other than each one of us becoming a bodhisattva, where we see every encounter as our child and discover our joy and ardor in life through looking after each of our children.” As you said at Ancient Dragon, there is a vast treasure trove of Buddhist practices, from slogans to koans to guided meditations, that allow us to do just that. (As you may know, there are now a number of good books on this topic, such as The Mindful Way Through Depression.)

    If I were to give a talk on the topic of zen and depression, I would emphasize several issues that, from my perspective, seem very important:

    First, the word “depression” is used by people to refer to a wide variety of subjective states and experiences. I’ve heard people use the word “depression” to refer to a vaguely bad feeling (“dread” as you put it); a crisis of meaning; general sadness; chronic low mood or low energy; mental distress during difficult life transitions; restlessness; persistent negative thought patterns; or any combination of these. The situation that you have described in the hotel room seems to me like a very mild or high-functioning mental state, because you’re able to imagine escaping from that state and able to plan concrete steps to escape from it. But depression can refer to states in which it is impossible to imagine any escape or to make any plans to escape. In these darkest of mental states, the only imaginable way is downward into deeper and deeper pain, hatred, and meaninglessness. These mental states make a horror movie seem like a pleasant, lighthearted experience. In such states, when we’re not able to help ourselves with “parental mind” of loving-kindness, we need the help of others to provide the loving intimacy and alternate perspectives that we are not able to give ourselves.

    Second, we have to face the social fact that all discourse about “depression” today is strongly shaped by the mental health industry. Psychotherapists and psychiatrists label their patients as “depressed” so that insurance companies will pay for treatment. This is not necessarily bad, it is just how the system works, but it can have a very strong influence on the way that people talk about their problems. Moreover, over the past 30 years or so, pharmaceutical companies have developed a very lucrative range of antidepressant products which they aggressively market to doctors and the general public, not as a result of a disinterested exploration of the truth but as a result of the quest for ever-greater financial profits. A number of reputable exposés, such as Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America and The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, have investigated this industry. There is good reason to be skeptical toward the idea that “depression is hardwired in our brains.” As far as I know, no neurologist can take an fMRI scan of your brain and show you where depression is hardwired in it. A neurologist may be able to detect neural activity that is related to some aspects of your problems, but I greatly doubt that a neurologist would tell you: “Sorry, you lost the genetic lottery; depression is hardwired in your brain.” But drug companies certainly benefit when people believe the “hardwired” storyline.

    Third, in your talk at Ancient Dragon you mentioned that you went to a therapist and told her that you wanted to know what you were doing on this earth, what the purpose of your life was. The therapist told you: That’s a spiritual question, not a therapy question. That’s a very clever phrase, almost a joke, but psychotherapists have written many books showing how the line between matters of “spiritual” meaning and matters of mental distress is nearly imperceptible, if it exists at all: I’m thinking of famous twentieth-century therapist-authors such as Horney, Bion, Winnicott, Frankl, as well as more recent anthologies for therapists such as Integrating Spirituality into Treatment: Resources for Practitioners, The Psychologies in Religion: Working with the Religious Client, Spirituality and the Therapeutic Process: A Comprehensive Resource from Intake to Termination, Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy, Second Edition, or Religion and Psychiatry: Beyond Boundaries. I’m very glad that you mentioned the word “creativity” in your talk at Ancient Dragon (though it doesn’t appear in the written version above). For me, creativity is a synonym for spirituality. The great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Longchenpa has been translated as saying: “This universal creativity sums up the unique reality which is the core of all spiritual pursuits and teachings.” I recently gave a talk at Ancient Dragon on the topic of creativity and the ancient Buddhist teaching of the five paths. In my talk, I distinguished between what I call “uncreative creativity” (compulsion, habit, procedure, stagnation) and “creative creativity” (discretion, growth, improvisation, generation). I think that much of what we call the feeling of being depressed could be seen as a symptom of a loss of “creative creativity,” or a symptom of becoming stuck in “uncreative creativity.” (The famous twentieth-century therapist-author Otto Rank once gave a talk with the title “Neurosis as a Failure in Creativity.”) In the depths of depression, there’s a problem. We may not able to see that there’s a problem; but we certainly feel the symptom of the problem. The Buddha’s four truths are like a blueprint for responding to this symptom: (1) attuning to the problem of uncreative creativity; (2) attuning to the source of the problem; (3) attuning to the solution of creative creativity; (4) attuning to the source of the solution. There is no panacea; the problems and solutions are different in every situation. But in every situation there is a path.

    Thanks again for your talk.

    • asenauke says:

      Dear Nathan,

      Thanks for these extensive comments. I will write you here, briefly, and cross post this to my blog.

      I agree that depression denotes a wide range of troubles, and I used in a wide sense, not with intended precision or generalization. I wanted to through some light on my own experience and be open about it. In many ways I think this was the central function of the written piece–just to own that experience, to admit that from the standpoint of being a Zen teacher, and to outline my process of practice. My experience is not exhaustive. I know that this suffering can be debilitating.

      Actually the hotel room scenario was meant with not to point to the possibility of “escape,” but to the kind of desperate and pointless thinking one/I can fall into. And yes, it can be awhile lot worse.

      Agreed, there is much we don’t know, and the discourse is largely shaped by the pharmaceutical industry and mental health establishments. The whole field of brain imaging is young and imprecise. But by “hardwired,” what I mean is there seems to be a genetic predisposition for depression, of course among other physical and mental dispositions. Certainly this is my experience within my own extended family. Then we fall into nature/nurture questions. But my instinct suggests there is a genetic component.

      I know that there is much common ground between so-called psychology and so-called religion. One could easily argue that early Buddhism was, in our terms, very much a psychological practice. Having said this, my therapist offered me “turning words,” not a prescriptive truth. And her words right away turned me to practice. Knowing her quite well, I believe she was instinctively pointing me in a useful direction, while not deflecting me from the psychotherapeutic process we were in. I am grateful to her.

      Anyhow, thats all for now. Take good care and stay in touch.
      Peace,
      Alan

  11. Nancy says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Alan.

  12. Lily Zallian says:

    I believe depression is a biochemical problem, and thoughts can influence your biochemistry, for sure. I no longer take an anti-depressant, but when I had clinical depression in my early 20’s imipramine gave me my life back. Prozac affects only one neurotransmitter, serotonin. Some older tricyclic antidepressant drugs, like mine, influence serotonin and norepinephrine, which might be of help to you. There are side effects and it should be used cautiously, but I thought I should share that with you. I’d feel bad if I didn’t! Your essay is simply amazing. Thank you so much.

  13. Thanks for sharing so Frankly.
    I am your age and also Jewish ; I have suffered from Chronic Depression most of my Adult life.
    Sometimes I experiences the Debt of Depression.
    I have been an Ardent Seeker since age one and one half years.
    At age 12 Avatar Me her Baba contacted me Innwardly and I have Been his Disciple for 50 years now.
    Perhaps The Buddhist Path doesn’t Touch you Heart Sufficenly

    Look into Avatar Meher Baba’s Life ;
    Perhaps He will help.
    I have cessed to experience any depression ,anxiety or other Mental
    Alliments !!”!!
    Call me at 843-213-7634
    Love and Joy
    Murshid Isa Lions
    Sufi Order of the Star
    sufistar.com

  14. Laura Hitt says:

    Reblogged this on breathetocreate and commented:
    A profound writing about Zen and depression. This week I still think about the passing of Robin Williams, my own struggle with depression and my beautiful young students and their struggles with depression, anxiety, and addictions. We are all on this path together. May we breathe deeply and know that simply taking one step on a walk outdoors or take pen to page or calling a friend…or or or…we are alone and never alone. May the gifts be received by each of us. Big love to all. Truly. Laura

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