Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them from
— 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.
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