Some Thoughts on Depression

“Embracing the hurt, we learn to trust that there is something greater, something mysterious and full of grace.”                                                            Thanissara

“Nyoshul Khenpo, has said that a moment of enlightenment is a moment when we realize “the blessings that are always pouring forth.”              Quoted by John Makransky


Dear One,

You’ve asked me to write about depression, so here goes…

For starters, I don’t know what causes anyone’s depression, if what we are looking for is a “one size fits all” explanation.  My understanding is that a loss of energy, interest and pleasure in life, like any moment of imbalance in my internal wiring, can be influenced by a huge number of things. Disruptions in my brain chemistry, familial genetic vulnerability, overwhelming past or ongoing present stress, deep social disconnection from my family and community, faulty thinking, quite a number of foods and medications, and all sorts of physical health problems all can contribute to the arising of depression in my body, mind and heart.

Our external lives, too these days, often seem filled with perfectly good reasons for depression and overwhelm. Every day there are reports of political wranglings and misconduct, floods and fires, streams of refugees, racism and violence in our beloved Charlottesville, climate change, homophobia, rancor and jealousy and loss and ill will in so many of our families and among so many of our neighbors and friends. Internally, there are the private sufferings of a body that so often doesn’t work as I wish, emotional storms that seem to come from nowhere and take up residence, and such deep longings for our dear ones who, despite our/their best efforts, continue to struggle. You and I know them all. We each can approach it all with the best of intentions and with years of practice and still find ourselves unraveling in rather difficult ways.

Sometimes I think that something like depression motivated Siddhartha to begin his search to find freedom from suffering. On that famous chariot ride, the world as he had known it fell apart.

Siddhartha reportedly experienced an “… oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of (one’s) own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.”                                                                  Thanissaro Bikkhu

All that he previously had looked to for comfort and happiness was shown to be ephemeral: unsatisfactory and completely unreliable. At that, his first deep realization of the inevitability of aging, sickness, failure and death.  He realized that, no matter what he thought or did, everything was constantly changing and he was not in control.

In terms of our spiritual practice, the arising of depression can be good news if we, like Siddhartha, have the willingness to take its signs as an invitation into a deeper inquiry: where is there suffering? What is its cause? What leads to more affliction for myself and others?  To less? Where is the ending of suffering? Where is release?  We are asked to clearly notice our experience but then to not take any of it too personally. We are invited to investigate, very intimately and with a kind and tender heart, what is actually going on here and what is needed. Now.

So how do we gather ourselves? What is the guidance that Siddhartha discovered and that, as the Awakened One, he passes on to us?  First of all, even near death, Siddhartha never lost his curiosity or his radical and fierce presence with his own actual experience. He refused to be guided by views – his own or others’ – about how things were supposed to work. He didn’t listen to his own or others’ mental chatter and he didn’t give up. He relentlessly investigated the mystery; he was determined to find the happiness that is independent of all of these changing and uncontrollable conditions?

As he carefully looked into his own experience, Siddhartha came to see that starving himself to death was helping no one. He ate. He nourished his body and, in doing that, he nourished his mind. He saw that the journey was difficult enough and, on a relative level, that he needed food in order to go on. Further, he received food from Sujata. He opened to another who was simply and kindly there with care and generosity. This can guide us, I think, to pause and look to see what nourishment these particular conditions are calling for.  What food or medicine or time with wise others or quiet time alone or in nature will be of benefit? We are invited to really pause and to genuinely receive, taking into our minds and hearts and bones the small moments of goodness that come so very relentlessly that we hardly notice. It doesn’t make the difficulties go away. It’s just that, in order to regain our balance and navigate difficulty, we need nourishment. Whether it is the simple, purring affection of our kitties or the wonder of the sunrise through the woodlands behind our houses, or the chocolate cake that you brought to the party or, for me, the gallantry of my mechanic Anthony who came to rescue me yesterday when my car wouldn’t start. Our bodies and minds, our hearts and souls, need goodness and care; we will be reminded with pain if we forget.

At a deeper level, Siddhartha also saw that these ordinary, important, and healthy practices are not, ultimately, enough. No matter what we do, bodies still age and get sick and die, important social structures become poisoned and fall apart and our animals and families and friends can suffer and also fail us in profoundly painful ways. Life asks us to see this to be true – for everyone. It’s not personal. Nevertheless, we can find ourselves unmoored from what otherwise we might imagine to be stable reference points and safe harbors.

Siddhartha investigated this universal suffering and discovered an even more profound grace and freedom. He came to rest, not in changing conditions, but in the awakened mind and heart that knows a love and a peace that is fully independent of all changing and not-controllable conditions. Awake to this reality, he taught this as the original, fundamental mind which is beneath and behind all appearances. It is not conditioned; it is not even personal; it just IS. It is the deepest reality for all of us and that we each have surely touched into from time to time, perhaps long ago as a child before our minds became so filled and enchanted with concepts.

John Welwood, describes it as: “…(the) sanity and vibrant well-being (that) are intrinsic to …our true nature (which) is inherently attuned to things as they are, apart from our conceptual versions of them. The basic goodness of the human heart, … born tender, responsive, and eager to reach out and touch life, (which) is unconditional. It is not something we have to achieve or prove. It simply is.”

One of my friends speaks of lying out at night and looking at the stars and knowing herself to be a part of “all that.” Others speak of connecting with an animal or a sacred place in nature, or hearing music or resting in the lap of a loving and beloved relative. For me, oddly, as a child I often found it in the rituals of a Church that was otherwise harsh and unloving.  John describes depression as a “loss of (this kind of) heart,” an experience of disconnect from this, our own awakened heart when we take the challenges of human life personally; we identify with them as “me.” Or as “something wrong” that must be fixed.

“Depression,” John proposes, “sets in when we conclude that there is something basically wrong with us (or the world) because we experience pain, we feel vulnerable or sad, we cannot hold on to our achievements, or we discover the hollowness (and limitation) of our self-created identity. In feeling this hollowness of identity, we are very close to experiencing the larger openness of our being. However, (when we) fall into depression (we) are unable to appreciate the fullness of the openness (and emptiness we have…) stumble(d) upon Instead (we may) … react against this open, hollow feeling and interpret it as bad.”

We run into more and more difficulty if and as we “explain” these sadnesses and limitations as a personal failing, or at least, someone’s fault. These very stories can keep us locked into a conceptual mind that is determined to “rise above” or “figure out” a way out when what is needed is to relax more deeply and lovingly into the not-knowing.  What Ajahn Chah calls “practicing like an earthworm.” Or maybe like learning how, when in the water, to stop struggling and to relax and allow water to simply hold us. The Buddha, awakened, saw that, despite its impermanence and conditioned nature, at its heart, life will hold us. This can allow us to stop fighting the manifestations of this human life and to see more clearly.  What is here? How is it?  “What is needed?”

John writes “… at the root of depression – in the rawness, vulnerability, and poignancy underlying it-our basic sanity is always operating…Depression…can be an opportunity to awaken one’s heart and deepen one’s connection to life…. our true nature…inherently attuned to things as they are, apart from our conceptual versions of them. The basic goodness of the human heart…born tender, responsive, and eager to reach out and touch life…It is not something we have to achieve or prove. It simply is.”

The knowing of this deeper reality for most of us can become obscured as we grow and become identified with (and try to control) the various forms of our lives.  As adults, our spiritual life and our very sanity calls us to fierce and faith-filled investigation and to practices and people and circumstances that help us to remember.

But then, of course, you already know all of this:

Judy Grissmer

Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness…
and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely, until it flowers
again from within, of self-blessing…
                                            Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow”

The eighteen-year-old cat was kicked to death
at my sister-in-law’s house that day,
by a nine-year-old boy who came to play
venting the pain of his difficult life on a cat
named for the sun. I could not shake
the story—could not shake my sorrow.
But the next morning, when I was meditating,
and felt the full presence of the soft tabby
who entered my arms, I knew this
was beyond story—and I was not afraid.
There was no consideration of time.
I simply held him.
He wasn’t asking for much,
just to enter into my sorrow.
And do you know,
I felt him begin to settle, saw him
start to remember the good
that had been his life—the love
of a sweet grandmother, the voices
of the small twin boys—
the pleasure of purring in the sun.
He remembered his name, and when
he had that to take with him
he was gone—and he had taken
my sorrow.


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