I posted on Facebook asking people what they’d like me to write about. Here is one of the comments I received.
Please write about the belief that once you reach enlightenment you won’t experience any more depression, anxiety… or if you are really enlightened you should not feel depression, etc.
When I first started doing zazen as a teenager one of my biggest problems was depression. I used to be quite certain I’d end up killing myself at some point. Things seemed pretty bleak and hopeless.
Depression for me came in cycles. Things would be going along pretty well and then I’d just get slammed with it. It would send me into a downward spiral that just kept getting worse and worse until I wondered if I could ever feel any more terrible. I felt like one day I was going to get so deep I wouldn’t be able to take it any longer.
The holiday season was always a great one for enhancing depression. There’s less light (at least in the northern hemisphere), which helps make things seem quite literally gloomy. All that “holiday cheer” can make it seem like you’re the only one who’s feeling like crap. Which makes you get guilty for even expressing how bad you feel. December always felt worse for me than any other month.
It’s no wonder why some folks have made a lot of money promising a permanent solution to the problem of ever feeling bad.
Zazen practice has helped me a lot. But not by putting me into a state where I never feel depressed. It’s helped by making it clearer what depression is not.
Depression is not me.
But this is a tricky thing. Because happiness is not me either. Contentment is not me. Fulfillment is not me. Joy is not me. Hope, love, bliss… None of it is me.
A great Zen master once said, “If people knew how dry and tasteless the Buddha World is, nobody would ever want to go there!”
I read that quotation when I first started studying Zen and it scared me. It sounded like Zen was a teaching that was going to turn me into a dry tasteless robot. Luckily I had two teachers who I could see very clearly were not at all robotic. This is one of the values of having a real teacher rather than trying to learn the practice from books and YouTube videos or from teachers who you only ever interact with from long distances through highly controlled means like Skype and such. But that’s a different topic.
The thing we generally want when we say we want to get rid of sadness, depression, anger and all the rest is we want the opposite. More specifically, we want to possess the opposite of depression and all that. We want to be the owners of happiness, joy, bliss, peace and what-have-you. Instead of me+sadness we want me+happiness. Y’know, I should start a meditation scam called Me Plus™!
Anyway… the way to be free from depression is to stop owning depression. But if you want to do that in a way that won’t just wind up getting you a rebound of depression after a few days, you have to learn to stop owning any of your emotional states. That’s the part nobody ever wants to talk about.
This does not mean you’ll reach a magical state in which you are never depressed again. That doesn’t happen to anyone. Never has and never will. I know, I know. There are guys in shiny white robes all over the Internets who say it can and it does and who are happy to sell it to you. But that’s just a sales pitch. It’s like how the folks at Coca-Cola admit that Vitamin Water has no vitamins but they can still legally tell you it does even though it doesn’t.
Because if I told you that after thirty-odd years of zazen I still get depressed, I’d probably end up with only 6 or 7 people coming to my weekly zazen things instead of the hundreds who flock to those other guys’ meditation events… Oh wait… That’s kinda already what happens.
Be that as it may. I still get depressed. The only difference is that I no longer own my depression. It’s not me. But — and here’s the part where it gets tricky — the only way to arrive at that was to learn to give up owning my happiness too.
And here’s where it gets even more tricky. You can’t just decide to do this. You can’t just will yourself not to own your emotional states. You can’t just make a resolution to do this or set an intention.
Owning your emotional states is a habit that you started learning the moment you started learning how to breathe. You were taught both overtly and subtly that this was the way things were done. You were told that happiness was yours, sadness was yours. You were told that there was a you and that you belonged to you.
But you don’t belong to you.
It’s harder to kick this habit than it would be if you’d been born with a cocaine addiction and then given a toot of coke a few dozen times a day for your entire life. There is a withdrawal to go through.
I think instead of calling it “enlightenment” maybe they should call it “withdrawal.” Maybe Zen practice should be called “personality rehab.”
So yeah, in some sense once you reach enlightenment (i.e. go through withdrawal from yourself — though not in the way you probably imagine) you won’t experience any more depression, anxiety, etc. But not because those things will no longer be part of your life and not because they won’t be experienced.
In conventional terms you can still say things like “I feel depressed” because how else are you going to communicate? If you start saying shit like “depression is being felt by what is essentially nothing” people are gonna think you’re a loony. And you don’t want that!
But once you know that depression is not yours, depression itself changes completely from what it once was.
In my own case it still comes and it still feels shitty. But it’s a bit more like having a cold. I know I just have to take care of whatever may have caused the depression — if I can even figure it out, and most of the time I can’t. Beyond that, it’s mostly a waiting game. If I can wait it out and resist the urge to make it my own — which is still there believe me! — then I can come out of it and be normal again.
That has been very useful.
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April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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