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Yesterday I received an email from a friend of some 15 years saying he didn’t feel good about life and was going to disappear for a while, which translated means he was depressed and didn’t want to talk about it.

We’ve all been there, it is not unusual. But it reminded me of a dear young relative who at 16 is on anti-depressants and unlikely to get off of them in the foreseeable future; and of numerous acquaintances who if asked will recite their story of woe; and of periods in my own life that I still find after many years too painful to recall with equanimity.

Depression is so sad. It is as if the heart is a bottomless well of tears that will never be empty no matter how much or often they are shed. The downward draw of depression is like a whirlpool escape from which is only achieved by a last minute, desperate will to live – for death is what lies at the bottom. If through an inner strength or through the merciful grace of God we choose to resist the automatic response of No! and replace it with a resolute Yes! we may be saved.

For depression is the result of the mind/ego/intellect’s refusal to accept the reality of the ‘now’. When I was depressed because of a failed love affair, a bad work situation, the betrayal of another, an illness, a humiliation, etc. it was because my mind would not accept the truth, the finality, of the situation. Instead it wore itself out in trying to change it to fit its own desires, battering on an iron door, until the body in turn fell into exhaustion and many times became sick.

Depression is, in many ways, the result of an internal temper tantrum in which we demand but are not given our way. Our love affair, for example, is ended and no amount of crying, pleading, demanding, coaxing, bargaining will bring it back – so we become depressed. We may even punish ourselves for being unable to change the situation and so indulge ourselves in blame, regrets and self-pity.

But to no avail. The lover is gone. We may try sublimation and buy new clothes, a new car, go on a diet to attract a new lover, take a vacation, get a dog, work harder. If these tactics bring no real relief, we are left alone with a feeling of helplessness and despair. What to do to escape these constant negative thoughts?

Through the insights of various spiritual teachers I have found, and continue to remind myself, that my thoughts and I are not one. If they were one I could control them. I could stop thinking on command. But I can’t do that. The thoughts just keep coming. That shows they are ‘not me.’ From this ‘not me’ position of watcher of thoughts, I see them arise, pass by and fall.

If I can watch sad thoughts and realize that I am not my thoughts, this brings a little space into my heart and within this little space is peace. By analogy, I will say that thoughts are like little fishes swimming in the sea of mind and that by watching the fishes swim by I see that they are charged with emotional energies and that ‘I’ am beyond sadness or happiness, anger or despair.

From this place of observation, the reality of a situation can be seen without interpretations.  The loss of the job, the death in the family, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a possession are just seen for what they are and this seeing then frees the mind to allow life to happen. This does not mean that there will not be some grief – it means that there will not be suffering which is the result of trying to change what is and being unable to.

This understanding about the nature of thoughts and the realization that I and my thoughts are not the same thing/entity first arose several years ago when I broke my addiction to cigarettes. After 30+ years of smoking and mostly loving it, I stopped cold turkey because cigarettes no longer provided me the comfort/escape/pleasure they once had.

How I suffered in those early weeks. It was not the physical withdrawal which was accomplished in a few days, it was the mental/psychological withdrawal that took weeks – and to some extent continues today. I cried constantly. I felt there was no end to the sadness that was in me. All those years of smoking had helped to cover up this deep pain that now lay exposed and throbbing.

I had come up against the wall – perhaps it is the wall of aging – and had realized that no matter what I did, what I owned, what recognition I might receive, no matter who loved me or who did not, I would never be happy because something was wrong inside. It was the wall that can be called, “Is that all there is?” I knew that nothing ‘outside’ could make the inside happy.

My koan, my question became, “Is it possible to be joyful – regardless of the circumstances?” I phrased it in this way because I had realized that changing the circumstances with new things/people/places did not relieve the deep sadness. My smoking crisis took about six weeks and then leveled off.

My question of joy took many years to explore and I am still in its labyrinth but can say, without equivocation, that joy is not dependent on circumstances, that it can be ever-present, and that joy exists outside of the realm of thought and thinking. To be truly joyful is to be in no-thought.

Therefore, although I may experience some days in which I am more peaceful than others, I no longer experience the wrenching sadness and loneliness of earlier years. So to my friend who is depressed and wants to disappear, I say ‘You are not your thoughts.’ When you see this much of your sadness will go away. If the mind is dis-identified with negative thoughts, the world is seen as throbbing life and waiting to be acknowledged. In the wake of depression gratitude arises and with gratitude comes love.

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