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