I just got back from Tassajara last night. Tomorrow I’ll be leading the zazen and giving the talk at the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. The fun begins at 9:30 AM.
While I was there I heard the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. In spite of the lack of radio, internet and TV, news gets into the valley through guests who come in or staff members who go out for supplies.
When I got out I saw that the news of Williams’ death had produced a rather predictable debate on the Internets about the nature of Clinical Depression. Someone dredged up an old interview by Gene Simmons of KISS who said depressed people ought to just go ahead and kill themselves. Others didn’t understand why a guy with so much success couldn’t just get over it. This, of course, was shouted down by folks who said that Clinical Depression was different from normal depression and that people who didn’t have Clinical Depression couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like.
Robin Williams’ Zen teacher friend Peter Coyote posted his perspective on Facebook. I liked what he had to say.
Oddly enough, the day before I heard about this, one of the guests at Tassajara (I wasn’t a guest, but a worker) told me that my book There Is No God And He Is Always With You had played a large role in preventing her from killing herself. She showed me how she had copied out the section that she said saved her life. Here it is:
Here’s what I believe when it comes to suicide. Your life isn’t really your own to do with as you please. That’s a deceptive ego-based fallacy. You are intimately connected to every person and thing you come into contact with. You do not end at the borders of your body. You are not your own possession to throw away.
Sometimes people imagine they can terminate their suffering by killing themselves. I don’t believe that. The idea that committing suicide will end your suffering comes from the belief that you and the world in which you live are two different things. You believe that you can leave this world and thereby leave suffering behind. But my own sense, after years of zazen practice, is that this is not true. I’ve spent a long time watching the boundary line between what I call “me” and what I call “the rest of the world” blur and fade.
So what I’m saying here goes a little further than just the old the-show-must-go-on—type thing, wherein people say you have a responsibility to your friends and family not to go off and blow your brains out in the greenhouse. I would add that you also have a responsibility to yourself and even to the universe as a whole not to do that. If you kill yourself, the suffering you thought was yours alone spreads out like a wave to those parts of the universe you’ve been taught to think of as separate from you. And they really aren’t. They’re you too.
Most people seem to feel that, if nothing else, suicide at least helps the person who does it to escape the pain of life into complete oblivion. But I don’t think that’s true either.
I don’t base this belief on received wisdom from others or on beliefs handed down to me. I don’t base it on speculating about what is most likely to happen to one who commits suicide. I base my belief on my own real experiences. In my deeper and more connected moments I’ve seen that there really is no oblivion into which I might escape.
I don’t know what life was like for Robin Williams. My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, was deeply interested in studying suicide. He never said why. But it’s a big issue in Japan. Perhaps someone he knew committed suicide, or perhaps he’d considered it himself. Both are very likely. He often referenced a book about suicide that he liked very much called Man Against Himself by Karl Menninger. That and Menninger’s Love Against Hate seemed to be his favorite books aside from Shobogenzo.
Once, when answering a question about suicidal depression, Nishijima said that people who suffer from it were usually “too clever.” I can see that in Robin Williams. The same thing that gave him the ability to do those amazing rapid fire improvisations was probably a big problem when he wasn’t on stage. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be that clever.
I’ve dealt with depression all my life and came pretty close to doing myself in. I’ve never been diagnosed with Clinical Depression because I never had the cash to see a doctor about my stuff when it was at its worst. I’ve often wondered if I would have been diagnosed and prescribed anything for it. I’m pretty sure I would have. It was bad. But I’m not clever enough to have had it as bad as Robin Williams did, I’m sure.
It’s hard to get over depression no matter how much of it you have. You cannot think your way out of it. You can always find a good reason to think everything sucks. If you’re clever enough, you can come up with infinite reasons. Some say it’s “bad chemicals” like Kurt Vonnegut talked about that causes your depression. Perhaps those same chemicals cause you to over-think everything. Some say those chemicals can only be brought back to manageable levels with medication. I don’t have the final answer here. But I do feel that just about anything a drug can do to us, we can also do for ourselves. Still, it can take a whole lot of time and work to get to that point and sometimes there’s a need for more drastic action.
I once saw Robin Williams do a few minutes of improv at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in Los Angeles in the front row of an audience of around fifty people. He was good. I wish he could have found a way to stick around.
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I won’t kill myself if you don’t send a donation. But it would help me out a whole lot if you did.
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Here’s my upcoming events schedule:
Aug. 16 9:30 AM — Noon at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230
Sept. 6 Houston Zen Center All Day Zazen
Sept. 9 Austin Zen Center
Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening
Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near WÃ¼rzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)
Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1, Utrecht)
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU
Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 9: Noon — 5pm Manchester, UK