Free Your Mind From Worries? Sure…

OldLadyIt’s a rainy, cold day in Philadelphia. And my dear sister posted this story on Facebook today:

The 92-year-old, petite, well-poised and proud lady, who is fully dressed each morning by eight o’clock, with her hair fashionably coifed and makeup perfectly applied, even though she is legally blind, moved to a nursing home today. Her husband of 70 years recently passed away, making the move necessary.

After many hours of waiting patiently in the lobby of the nursing home, she smiled sweetly when told her room was ready. As she maneuvered her walker to the elevator, I provided a visual description of her tiny room, including the eyelet sheets that had been hung on her window. “I love it,” she stated with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old having just been presented with a new puppy.

“Mrs. Jones, you haven’t seen the room …. just wait.”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with it,” she replied. “Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room or not doesn’t depend on how the furniture is arranged, it’s how I arrange my mind. I already decided to love it. It’s a decision I make every morning when I wake up. I have a choice; I can spend the day in bed recounting the difficulty I have with the parts of my body that no longer work, or get out of bed and be thankful for the ones that do. Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open I’ll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I’ve stored away, just for this time in my life.”

She went on to explain, “Old age is like a bank account, you withdraw from what you’ve put in. So, my advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories Thank you for your part in filling my Memory bank. I am still depositing.”

And with a smile, she said: “Remember the five simple rules to be happy:

1. Free your heart from hatred.
2. Free your mind from worries.
3. Live simply.
4. Give more.
5. Expect less

Lovely, eh? And even though I know my sister meant well by posting this, it didn’t make me feel good. It kind of made me feel like crap. How come this old lady gets to feel good about everything and I don’t? Stories like this always made me feel kind of cruddy.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I disagree with any of this. It sounds real good. It’s just that I cannot do it. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work for me. The five simple rules are nice enough. All but #2 are standard Buddhism 1o1. But the idea that everyone can simply choose to be happy bugs me the way the idea that people can choose to be gay bothers people who actually are gay.

Besides, the story seems fake. If it’s based on anything real then it’s clearly an exaggeration. Nobody talks like that. Plus the old woman who speaks like a Hollywood hack is feeding her lines is named “Mrs. Jones.” I bet that’s not even her in the photo. But I could be wrong.

I’ve suffered from depression for as long as I can remember. I contemplated suicide well before I even entered my teens. I’ve never been diagnosed with “clinical depression” or prescribed medication for it. But I have little doubt I would qualify if I ever did take whatever tests are done to determine such things.

The most important thing I’ve ever learned about my own depression is that I cannot think my way out of it. Replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts does not work for me. Not for very long, anyhow. I doubt it really works for anyone in the long term. Again, I will admit I may be wrong. But I’m not wrong about it not working for me.

I have never been able to figure out the source of my bouts of severe depression. They just seem to happen. Trying to think my way back to their source is not a solution. I just recall all the things I feel bad about, which only makes me feel worse. Or else I try real hard and still can’t think of anything that would make me as depressed as I am. This just makes me feel like a failure and again ends up making me feel worse.

Zazen is the only thing that has ever really helped. It helped by making me aware that all thoughts – negative ones and positive ones  – are pretty much the same thing. They’re a process that goes on inside the brain, or inside the mind. They do not require my attention. They are not real. They are not true. Not in an absolute sense.

What usually happens when I get depressed is that I try to explain my depression to myself. That’s when I start coming up with things that make me feel even worse. And because I am fairly clever, I can make my bad stuff sound very convincing to myself.

When I have tried to replace my “negative” thoughts with “positive” thoughts, I am rarely very convincing. Nor do these “positive” thoughts seem to hook into my mood centers the way the “negative” ones do. They’re superficial and fleeting. The depression itself seems to exist at a level far deeper than those thoughts can reach. I doubt that even the “negative” thoughts do all that much to create my bouts of depression. At best they can help extend it when it’s already there.

There is some value, I suppose, to positive thinking. So I don’t want to knock it too hard. It does seem that thoughts run sort of like water into channels that have been established before by other thoughts. So training yourself to stay with the positive ones might do some good. But if the grooves are already cut real deep, thoughts are still going to go for those instead.

Zazen offered me a path that went around thought entirely. It offered me a way to see depression the way I see getting a cold. It doesn’t matter where a cold comes from. What matters is how you deal with it. You can treat the symptoms of a cold and make yourself feel a little better. You can also do this with depression. But it won’t get rid of the cold itself. That’s a whole different process. Depression seems to operate much the same way with me. It seems to be a thing that has to run its course. As I’ve gotten better at allowing it to do that, it seems to take less time to finish its business and to be less severe when it does what it does.

With zazen, I can allow the natural processes to work and restore my psychological equilibrium. I do it not by replacing “negative” thoughts and emotions with “positive” ones, but by leaving everything alone to get on with its business. It appears that my body/mind system doesn’t like depression very much. It doesn’t like extreme exhilaration very much either. It likes a state somewhere in between, a state which feels really really good when it happens even though it isn’t the kind of “WOooOOoOoooO-HOOOO!” brand of exessive happiness people seem to think is the cure for depression.

But to get to this space takes practice and it takes constant reinforcement. If I skip zazen for too many days in a row, my depressive tendencies reassert themselves. It’s just like what happens to an athlete if she stops training. If she’s trained a long time, it will take longer for her body to start becoming flabby again. But it will eventually.

This process is not magic. It is not supernatural. It does not work instantly. Its effects are not permanent. But it does work.

I do not believe in meditation programs that attempt to force people to replace their actual feelings with “better” ones invented by “wiser” people. I have no faith in that at all. To me, it’s all about facing yourself as you are.

*   *   *

Some donations from you lovely people would help alleviate my depression by allowing me to continue writing and continue having the heat on when I do it. This blog is free but my rent and electricity are not. Your donations help me survive. Thank you!

Registration is now open for our Zen & Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center May 9-11, 2014

The events page is now updated! Take a look at where I’m gonna be!

You can see the documentary about me,  Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations:

– April 17, 2014 Los Angeles, CA

– April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA

ZERO DEFEX will play on May 16, 2014 in Akron, OH

If you’d like me to do a talk or retreat in your city, write me at I’m especially interested in places that are accessible by train from Philadelphia. But I’ll consider any reasonable offer.

Sharing is caring! Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponDigg this

149 Responses

Page 3 of 3
  1. boubi
    boubi April 13, 2014 at 7:27 pm |

    Malcolm X had a point anyways. I had a colleague and friend who was from Tunisia or Morroco? I don’t remember.

    He agreed that Khomeini was crazy, but he also argued the present regime, while crazy, has enough balls…

    He also argued the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was worse than the present regime …

    Anyways, he was a Muslim because he felt Christianity created a reactionary attitude in fellow black people.

    Whether you are totaly ignorant, whether you are a total liar.

    Malcolm X ( May 19, 1925 — February 21, 1965) died before Khomeini took power in Iran, how in heel could he have said anything about the future?

    You are totaly deranged, you don’t even know what you are talking about.

    Raving, foaming mouth, insulting, persecution paranoias, shouting at night, kicking things at home, pretending that you are a neuroscientist while in fact psychiatrists are treating you, behaving as a mad “man” in your everyday life, saying anything and its opposite in the same sentence, writing pages of paper on something you don’t even know what it is (as the power of Mu) …

    Drop it, recognise you real identity, you have issues with transgenderism, isn’t it, and your “girl friend” … stop pretending.

    Call the ambulance !

  2. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz April 13, 2014 at 11:26 pm |

    Boubi, you fucking idiot. I was reiterating what my FRIEND said. I wasn’t typing what Malcom X said? WTF, are you even reading what I say slowly or are you fuming? I was typing my friend’s complex views! You totally took what I said of his out of context with your excerpt! I thought this conversation was dropped?

    I told you I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Also stop calling me white? You know I have been beat up too because of my accent even though I look white? I was raised in the South. I can’t even tell if, I myself, am technically “white”. It’s abstract labels… just like nationality and they don’t truly reference anything substantial.

    1. I NEVER SAID WE FUCKING OWE EVERYTHING TO PERSIA/IRAN, YOU IMBECILE. I am up late at night after studying and other shit. I just came on here and see you have continued this ONCE MORE after 2-3 days. Let me reiterate: I said we can’t attribute “more progress” on the side of the West because there have been significant contributions for Chinese, Persian, and etc. cultures too. What I’m saying is every “old” culture has had its Golden Ages, and to bias oneself based off the present is not what Zen teaches. The West has not necessarily lead to more scientific contributions than other countries. Even though Iran is currently oppressive with shit Mullahs, it is number 1 in Stem Cell research and also has a semi-decent nanotechnology facility. Iranians are a resilient people even in their current tumultuous time period, and there are many intelligent Iranians/Persians abroad such as Majid Samii.

    2. The Persians didn’t really have slaves. It was never widespread there… Technically Persians are mixed with black because the Elamites freely accepted them (they were black and green eyed people). Unlike Europe which completely killed off the Native Americans, early Persians actually willingly intermingled with the natives of the Persian land.

    3. I don’t have a problem with Western civilization. My issue is more with WESTERN imperialism. I told you I liked Ho Chi Minh and he was democratically selected by Vietnam, but France would not permit it. If France and America did not poke their noses into the country’s affairs and let Ho Chi Minh take over (as he was democratically selected), Vietnam would have avoided the war. Britain and America have also done tons of imperialism in areas like Cambodia, Nicaruga, Iran (’53 coup of democratically selected Mossadegh), and etc. Man, one can write VOLUMES about Western imperialism. It is no fucking joke.

    4. You are REALLY starting to piss me off. Why don’t you just drop the whole thing? If you think I’m stupid, then don’t talk to me. The fact you conflated Arabs with Persians shows how little you know about my goddamn country.

    You’re just a racist black person with an inferiority complex that makes you worship Judeo-Christian faiths. If this were not the case, you wouldn’t liken me to fucking White Supremacists! I’ve gone to Unitarian Churches and hung out with black people, I hope you know. I’m not a close-minded, goddamn hateful person. You don’t even understand the extent of what I’m saying and think I’m pitting a “me against you” mentality when really I’m not.

    Also, I wasn’t lying about my black friend who talked about Malcolm X. We would talk about Noam Chomsky a lot, and he gave me his unorthodox views once. I didn’t fully agree with him, but I still listened. I do not think it’s correct to view Christianity as more civilized as Islam when we look at history as a whole… Christians would burn counts and dance around them, “drown witches”, burn Native Americans alive while reading the bible, and lynch black men while feasting on their bodies. Many Muslims also did, and still do, horrific acts, but to overgeneralize any religion as such is near-sighted. Both Islam and Christianity have cool stuff such as Sufism or the Gospel of Thomas (Christianity). Do you think I am that kind of person…? Being on a Zen forum talking about fucking Hui Neng, suttas, Blue Cliff Record, Wang Wei, poetry, and other shit? Do you think I am a secret “Islamic missionary” or something… just because I say one or two things defending misperceptions of its history?

    HELLO! Don’t you realize that technically after 9/11 Arab-Americans and even other Middle Easterners have become the new Arabs? I have friends who have dealt with so much shit you can’t believe… Mankind isn’t technically anymore “civilized” than it once was.

    You’re really getting at the limits of my patience, Boubi. I apologized, and I don’t want to be scathing anymore. But if you keep fucking calling me “mentally deranged” and construing me as being a terrorist… well then you’re no better than racist White hicks that have given you a hard time.

    Like I’ve said repeatedly, I am not your enemy. I am not the kind of person to go out of my way to jeopardize your future or success. I simply have opinions you don’t agree with. Just leave it at that.

    AND YES, you did insult my heritage by likening ALL of it to the current regime. I haven’t met a SINGLE Iranian that likes Khomeini or the current regime. However, I haven’t met a single Iranian that liked the CIA-installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi either.

    My opinion is that Iran doesn’t necessarily have to abandon Islam but just embrace a more secular and open form of it, such as the one present during Safavid times or 800-1200 AD. You know… encourage diversity and collaboration of people with different views. I, myself, am a fucking Buddhist. It’s why I’m on this goddamn forum debating politics with a man who can’t even piece his thoughts together straight. Chill the fuck down and stop projecting your fucking issues onto me.

    At this point, you’re coming off as being illiterate and I REALLY don’t want to talk anymore. You’re stressing me out, and I don’t know how to calm you down. You’re like a fucking pissed off tiger that won’t cool the fuck down. What do you want me to say to cool you down? That Islam is a savage, backwards religion that is 100 percent full of shit? You want me to admit to that, huh? Well, if that will make you shut the fuck up, okay I’ll admit to it.

  3. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz April 13, 2014 at 11:36 pm |

    Also, if either Mossadegh was not overthrown in 1953,

    or Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the stupid Khomeini w/ his piece of shit Mullahs did not suppress the Tudeh party (which was getting powerful and had good intentions)… BOTH Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Khomeini had tons of intellectual Iranians executed, one of which was my fucking uncle.

    I would move to Iran/Persia. Most definitely. I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s similar to how if Ho Chi Minh was not overthrown, Vietnam would be much more peaceful and would not accept something as destructive as the Trans Pacific Partnership (i.e., unrestricted trade, constant outsourcing, more deforestation for companies, etc.)

    It was actually pretty Western prior to ’79… That’s not necessarily a good thing because Mohammad Reza Pahlavi caused a big gap between the rich and poor. If you want to learn more, watch the movie “Persepolis” and pay attention to the first 20 min. or so:

    Iran was very close becoming secular with Mossadegh and the increasing influence of the Tudeh Party (which was heavily intellectual and influenced by figures such as Sartre).


    The Tudeh party was actually “real Communism” which sought to actualize the Marxist ideal where workers control the means of production and the abolishment of the State, where there is no hierarchical power struggle. Basically a harmonious society where currency or free market does not have more importance than nature, human welfare, and etc.

    So yeah, there you go, that’s my ultimate political position: I had relatives that supported the Tudeh party.

    Like I’ve said, you’re crossing territory you shouldn’t be on a COMMENTS SECTION devoted to ZEN. I never expected my defense of Islam to turn into this. I never should have said the good things about it. Both Islam and Christianity have tons of shit and also tons of good stuff, and they are like brothers in how they constantly project their own problems onto each other.

  4. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz April 13, 2014 at 11:48 pm |

    Also, do you seriously believe I am mentally handicapped, lying about my student occupation, about my fiance, and etc.? What would I gain from any of that? Do you think my life revolves around sociopolitical opinions and this forum?

    Do you really think that or are you trolling in order to rile me up due to your deeply held grudge?

    Like I’ve said, I apologized, and I don’t want to talk anymore. Just don’t respond to this, and I won’t talk on the forum anymore..

    You have misinterpreted what I have said MANY TIMES, and you have constantly taken what I have said out of context on multiple occasions in order to make me look bad in our argument. If you aren’t willing to Google or take some of the things I say into deep consideration, then stop conversing because you already have your mind set.

    If you’re going to constantly say infantile bullshit like “HEEEY YOU NEED TO BE ZAPPED IF YOUR BRAIN LOLOLOL” or “HEEEY YOU ARE LIVING IN A FICTION LOLOLOL”

    Then let’s just stop talking. You’re better suited to talk on 4chan, seriously.

  5. Brian
    Brian April 14, 2014 at 3:29 pm |

    I just wanted to comment on the happiness issue. I have no idea what was commented on the previous pages but the preceding exchanges seem quite a jump from the original topic. Sadly not an uncommon occurrence here.

    Thankfully I have never suffered from depression and can’t imagine how truly awful that is. So I was initially surprised by Brad’s reaction to the article but agree that it sounds like too much ChickenSoup to me as well.

    In the last 15 years I have slowly rid myself of possessions, hobbies and kind-of-friends. At first almost subconsciously and then following a move to Nicaragua zealously. I have made a conscious choice to be happy and in spite of daily inconveniences which could easily lead to aggravation I refuse to go down that path. When I decided that my happiness was up to me I had to decide that all the stuff including race cars, motorcycles etc were things I thought made me happy which was the same thing I thought about drugs and alcohol abuse long before. I now really, truly feel happy and know it’s because of a conscious decision to be so but could not have done it without the changes I made in my life.

    That said, laying the personal responsibility of happiness on one dealing with an organic issue such as depression makes as much sense as blaming a thalidomide victim for lack of piano skills. I had no idea in my limited meetings with Brad at the 4th St. Center of what he faces but thank him daily for what I learned from him, including the lesson from this post.

    And Brad, if you see this, your old Sunflower iMac is still in use as my home server! 11 years old and still running great.

    1. CosmicBrainz
      CosmicBrainz April 15, 2014 at 9:39 am |

      Brian, I’ve also noticed when I leave behind my possessions, I am generally happier. When I went WWOOFing, I barely smoked, and I loved working on the sustainable farm. I was generally healthier and more invigorated.

      Something about the city environment, however, makes me smoke like crazy…

      I remember reading a journal article providing statistics about how wealth is not necessarily correlated with happiness. I have to search PubMed to find the article again, but I feel like your experience of leaving behind modern conveniences, such as saturated media/entertainment, and feeling happier is actually very common.

  6. Subatomicboy
    Subatomicboy April 19, 2014 at 9:36 am |

    Hi Brad,

    I don’t know if you’ll see this reply in a long list of others but anyway – I just read your post on “positive thoughts” and depression and thought I’d throw my tuppence in. I’m a psychological wellbeing practitioner in a National Health Service Depression and Anxiety Service in the UK. I work with people experiencing depression and anxiety. We operate using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and some forms of (ack!) mindfulness. I have also experienced moderately-severe depression on and off over the years, had medication/therapy and all that jazz, and took up meditation about 25 years ago.

    Generally, we advise people that it’s better to act your way out of a depression rather than think your way out of it. That’s because the act of “doing” something (eventually) leads to the mood lifting as positive reinforcement kicks off a feelgood loop (in broad terms.) Obviously, the difficult bit there is getting any depressed person to do anything, but there are some tricks we use…. look up Behavioural Activation if you’re interested. I’ve used this approach a lot both personally and professionally and it works for quite a lot of us.

    Anyway, I just wanted to agree with your observation that “positive thinking” ain’t gonna deliver if all we’ve got to positively think about is a crappy life situation. We don’t generally talk about “positive thinking” because the implication there is if you can’t think positively it’s your fault rather than the hideous psycho-social experiences you may have had or are having. We *do* talk about more “balanced” thinking but generally this is after we’ve looked at the behavioural, avoidant stuff that keeps the depression going.

    On a Zen tip though, meditation builds on the reflective gap or space that opens up when people stop seeing their thoughts as necessarily true – thoughts can be opinions rather than descriptive facts, but when we’re in the “everything is a pile of crap” place we forget that actually that may not be entirely true, as we use cognitive bias/distortion to shape our experience of our lives. In a way this is something that zazen does too – make us examine our thoughts and what they do to us – so we don’t get too caught up in our stories. Once we can do that and recognise the underlying patterns of distortion, that’s when we can nip them in the bud and cut their power over our mood – but we also have to *do* stuff too.

    Personally, I’m very wary of placing the “problem” of depression completely within the individual and always remember this quote from Herbert Marcuse

    “Is not the individual who functions normally, adequately, and healthily as a citizen of a sick society – is not such an individual himself sick?”

    It’s a sick, sad, world (sometimes) as well as a place of wonder, magic and delight and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that.

    In conclusion – positive thinking blows chunks, but the first Ramones album will always sound good.

    Love and hugs

Comments are closed.