angry with you', said one sister to the other sister as both returned from their
'Because you didn't act appropriately at the funeral.'
'What do you mean?' replied her sister.
'You seemed to be having too much of a great time.'
'How can you say that with your mother dead only five days?'
'I think sorrow and joy run on parallel paths like two horses pulling the same wagon - the important thing is to recognise each in its place and in its time.'
'But you were laughing and '
'Sure, I found joy in seeing old friends. I loved talking about mother and reliving happy memories. The grieving I do on my own. If I seemed happy, I was in that moment. And I liked the food.'
'But what about appearances?'
'Appearances are your problems, not mine.'
'You are right about the food though.'
'I'm right about the joy too.'
The second second thing that we have to understand is that depression is not necessarily always a bad state to be in. One can see depression as providing another window on our life. Being in a depressed state can also reveal what, in Buddhism, is called 'the world of samsara,' or the world of everyday life. Simply because we are in a state of depression does not automatically mean that the way in which we see things is completely unreal and illusory. When we are depressed, we may actually be able to see through the falsity and deceptive nature of the samsaric world. In other words, we should not think, 'When I am not depressed, I am seeing everything clearly while when I am depressed, my mind is distorted and messed up and I am seeing everything in a completely lop-sided fashion.' In and through depression, we see the world through an alternative window, in a manner of speaking.
In that sense, there can be value in our experience of depression. We are not talking about chronic depression here or depression that has got way out of hand. We are talking about the kind of depression that makes us stop and think and re-evaluate - the kind of depression that makes us see everything that we thought of as valuable, important, significant and meaningful. In that sense, we can view depression in a totally different light. That kind of depression can aid us in terms of our spiritual growth, because it makes us begin to question ourselves. For all these years we may have been thinking, 'I'm such-and-such a kind of person,' 'I'm this kind of person,' 'I'm that kind of person,' 'I'm a mother,' 'I'm a father,' 'I'm an engineer,' or whatever. Then suddenly, that familiar world crumbles; the rug is pulled out from under our feet, as we say and we are left sort of dangling.
We have to have experiences like that for our spiritual journey to be meaningful; otherwise we will not be convinced of what we call the non-substantial nature of the samsaric world, the world of everyday life. Instead, we will take that to be real. According to Buddhism, the world that we perceive - the world that we interact with and live in - is insubstantial. Through the experience of depression and despair we can, in fact, begin to see things more clearly rather than less clearly. It is said that we are normally charmed or bedazzled by the world; it is like a spell has been put on us by the allurement of samsaric excitements and entertainment. When we get depressed, we begin to see through that and are able to cut through the illusions of samsara. If we look at it that way, we can work with depression.
The third point that we have to understand is that if we cease to see our experience of depression as something that is bad, we can change something fundamental in our lives. We cannot be reborn without losing our illusions. Instead of seeing depression as a negative thing, as something dark and sinister and destructive that is going to gobble us up or suck us down into a dark pit, we can see that there is actually light within depression itself. In fact, depression can teach us how to see things more clearly. According to Buddhism, this is the starting point of our spiritual journey. When we look at it like this, we will see that depression is something that can be worked with.
Depression and the Spiritual Path
There are many different kinds of depression, there are depressions that are liberating and there are depressions that can lead to mental breakdown or psychotic episodes and so forth. There is also a type of depression that is insightful, which is not at all anathema to creativity, to insight, to a greater sense of intuition, where one can gain non-discursive knowledge into oneself and others. Depression, when we work with it, can also be like a signal, something that puts a brake on our excesses and reminds us of the banality of the samsaric condition, so that we will not be duped into sliding back into the old habits again. It will constantly remind us of the futility, insignificance and non-substantiality of the samsaric condition.
With a genuinely constructive form of depression, we become nakedly in touch with our emotions and feelings. There is a need to make sense of everything, but in news ways, rather than the ways that one is used to - because making sense of everything from the samsaric point of view does not work. All the old beliefs, attitudes and ways of dealing with things have not worked. One has to re-evaluate, say and do things differently, experience things differently. That comes from using depression in a constructive fashion.
Depression can be used to curb our natural urges to lose control, to become distracted and outwardly directed, dispersing our energy in all directions until there is no one inside. The feeling of depression always reminds us of ourselves, it stops us from becoming lost in our activities, in our experiences of this and that. A genuinely constructive form of depression keeps us vividly in touch with our emotions, feelings and various aspects of ourselves. In that sense, a modest form of depression is like a state of mental equilibrium.
Everything that we experience is normally experienced self-indulgently, from an egoistic or narcissistic point of view. But a constructive form of depression takes away the brashness, the security and the illusory forms of self-confidence that we have so that we have to always re-evaluate and check ourselves. Instead of thinking, 'I know what is going on, I know where things are at,' with such confidence, we are constantly forced to be more observant and to question our assumptions, attitudes and behaviour, in terms of our interactions with others and with the world at large. That is what has to be there if we are to make progress on the spiritual path.
That means that the individual is then open to new ways of doing things, new and creative ways of thinking. As the Buddhist teachings say, we have to ride with life, we have to evolve. Life itself is a learning process and we can only evolve and learn when we are open. We are open when we question things and we only question things when we are aware of our inadequacies as much as of our abilities. Being aware of what we do not know is more important than being aware of what we do know, because if we concentrate on what we do not know, we will always be inquisitive and want to learn. We want to learn if there is that slight experience of depression, which in Tibetan is also called yid tang skyo pa and which also has the connotation of being tired of all that is unreal; of all that is sham and illusory. The mood of depression can, in fact, propel us forward.
Even though many people who experience depression say that they feel stuck, the feeling of depression can be a motivating force to move forward. The Christian mystics used the expression, 'the dark night of the soul,' which means that you have to experience the darkness in order to go forward. You cannot just embark on the mystical journey and expect there to be light and everything to be hunky-dory. You have to have the experience of the carpet being pulled out from under your feet and you have to experience yourself dangling and questioning, filled with doubts and uncertainties, not knowing what the hell is going on. As Lao Tzu says the Taoist classic Tao Teh Ching (The Way of Chuang Tzu), 'Those who say they know, don't know and those who say they don't know, know.' I suppose he is making a similar kind of point, in that the true intuitive knowledge necessary on the spiritual path comes from doubt, uncertainty and not knowing - so that the arrogance of knowing is expiated.
The point is that depression, in terms of its symptoms, can be debilitating and paralysing, because of what the Buddhists would call the 'conflicting emotions' associated with it. However, not all forms of depression are debilitating. There are kinds of depression that can actually aid the individual on the spiritual path. In order to progress on the spiritual path, one has to look at depression in a much more positive light, because depression does have the potential to give us insight into ourselves and into the world that we live in. What we are familiar with is a world that we just take for granted. The onset of depression can upset everything and turn everything upside down, which then becomes an impetus for us to search and explore. We start thinking, 'There has to be more to life than what I have been doing, or what I have been, up to this point.'
That is extremely important, according to Buddhism, because if we are not convinced of the illusory nature of the samsaric condition, we will always be two-minded. We will have one foot in the spiritual realm and the other in the samsaric realm, never being fully able to make that extra effort. As Shantideva said, 'This kind of experience can inject a lot of fear and anxiety into a person, because that person feels totally uprooted and everything becomes uncertain.' However, if we persist with that feeling of uprootedness, it is a valuable experience and one that is essential for travelling the spiritual path. In other words, the spiritual path does not just consist of things that massage the ego or make the ego feel good and comfortable. The ego has to be continuously and repeatedly challenged in order for us to grow spiritually. One of the first things that the ego has to learn is that nothing in this world is stable or absolutely true.
Depression and Meditation
Two of the main symptoms normally mentioned in the literature on depression are a loss of concentration and a weakening of one's memory capacity. If that is true, clinically speaking, then meditation will obviously be quite a useful tool for someone who experiences depression. Meditation is designed to enable us to learn how to concentrate, avoid distraction and maintain a sense of stability, how to resist yielding so readily to upsurges of emotions or overwhelming feelings. Meditation is therefore an essential practice for dealing with depression, because in Buddhism, we have to deal with everything that arises through and from the practice of meditation. There are many different kinds of meditation: meditations that involve recitation, meditations that involve visualisation, meditations that involve physical posture and gesture as well as meditations that do not involve any of these things. However, whatever form of meditation we choose, we still have to use it to deal with the various mental states that we find ourselves in. We cannot deal with depression, therefore, without meditation.
Even if we are not immediately aware of depression or have not realised that we are actually experiencing it, when we start to practise meditation we may recognise the depressed state. At other times, we may meditate for a while and find that our minds are out of control and restless, then as we gradually stabilise the mind and experience a little meditative concentration, we notice that we are actually in a state of depression. In other words, even when we are meditating, we can experience depression in many different forms. Sometimes the depression may actually be related to our practice of meditation, to thinking that we are not getting anywhere, for example. Especially for beginnings, the initial pleasant meditative experiences appear to get worse rather than better and they become depressed over it. These kinds of experiences are common. They have been noted and written about by the great meditation masters in Buddhist literature.
Courage and meditation
In order to deal with depression, we have to cultivate courage in our meditation, which means that we have to have the willingness to allow oneselves to be in that depressed state. If depression is the state that we find ourselves in, we should not become alarmed and regard that as a sign of something terrible. We have to have the courage not to recoil from that experience, but simply allow it to arise. 'Courage' is called mi 'jigs pa in Tibetan. It is unhelpful to indulging in negative internal dialogues like, 'How long is this depression going to last?' 'Is it going to get worse?' 'How is this going to affect me?' 'How am I going to be able to cope with myself?' 'What will people think of me?' Approaching everything that we experience courageously and fearlessly will result in those experiences having no effect on us. On the contrary, we will become empowered by them.
When we are courageous we are not afraid or anxious or fearful. When we are anxious and afraid all kinds of other conflicting emotions will arise, such as resentment, guilt, self-condemnation and frustration. This sort of courage is based on a fundamental conviction in ourselves as capable of dealing with whatever it is that has arisen, rather than thinking that somehow or other it is going to have an adverse effect on us. When we start to think that it is going to affect us adversely, then fear, anxiety and all of those things come up. But when we are able to say, 'Whatever arises is okay,' we do not have to be so self-protective. By allowing the depressive mood to be there, if that is what comes up, we are showing courage. If we have that kind of courage we are not harmed. More damage is done by hiding behind our illusions and delusions, because then the conflicting emotions become insidious. Most damage takes place due to lack of courage. This lack of courage is almost like a pathological need to protect ourselves, thinking, 'I won't be able to handle this, it will be too much. I will be crushed. I will be destroyed. I will collapse. I will go crazy.' We indulge in all kinds of negative monologues like that. This is the reason why our minds get disturbed, not because we have had such-and-such experiences. It is not our experiences but our reactions to them that cause the damage. We have to forget about our fear that we will somehow be harmed by our negative experiences. If we concentrate more on the courageous mental act of being able to accommodate and accept, we will provide room for the depressive state of mind to be there and we will no longer react to it with alarm.
Awareness and meditation
Having courage in meditation practice means that there will automatically also be awareness there. Awareness is the next important point in relating to depression. It is called shes bzhin in Tibetan: shes bzhin means 'aware-ing,' actually shes means 'aware' and bzhin means 'continuous,' the continuous act of awareness or aware-ing. Awareness means being able to see what is going on. If we do not show courage in our meditation there will be no awareness either, because we would be instinctively recoiling from our meditative experiences. As soon as something disturbing or unpleasant arises, such as a depressive mood, we would recoil. We have to practise awareness in relation to things that we think of as harmful as well as the things that we regard as harmless and innocuous. Through showing courage, we can be aware of what we have allowed ourselves to experience.
Awareness is a process; it is not a state, but an 'aware-ing.' Whatever mental states that arises in the mind, they are also processes in themselves. This is a very important thing to notice. Even if you are in a depressive mood, you will see that the mood changes, if you are aware. If you were not aware there would be no change, no transmutation, no movement. However, if you are aware, you will notice that the subtle permutations of change are continuously taking place. You will see that the experience of the depressive mood itself fluctuates. Even though we automatically assume that it is the same depression, due to our habitual tendencies, if we become more attuned to what we are experiencing we will notice that, in fact, it is never the same. It is always presenting itself differently.
This kind of attention is one of the things that Buddhism encourages us to exercise through the practice of meditation, because not noticing things is what leads us to solidify our experiences; whether that is depression or some other mood or feeling or mental state. When that solidification takes place, our minds become fixated on things and awareness is instantly dissipated, because we are no longer in touch with our own mental state. When we are directly in touch with our mental state, we can see the changing colours and hues of the depressive mood. Another sign of a depression is a person's posture. In meditation, we pay attention to our physical posture. We do not sit with our shoulders slouched, looking defeated and forlorn. It is said that the shoulders should be extended and the chest out, showing some kind of majesty and royal bearing. That has to be included in the practice of awareness.
The way to stay in touch with our mental state is not by retracing the past or anticipating the future. We simply need to pay attention to what we are experiencing at that particular moment. When Buddhists talk about 'being in the now,' they often think that the 'now' has no relevance to the past or the future. That is not true. The way to experience the present moment is not by ignoring the relationship between our present experience and where that experience has come from or where it might be going. The past and the present are embodied in the experiences that we have as human beings. Whatever experiences we have, we have them because of the past; we cannot have an experience that is totally disconnected from our past.
The reason why such-and-such an experience arose in the first place is because of our past. That is the reality of karma. Our present mental state is the product of previous mental states and previous life experiences. In other words, what we are experiencing now is the fruit of what we have experienced in the past. When we pay attention to what we are experiencing now, through awareness, we are able to determine our karmic history in the future by making it take a different course. If we do not pay attention, our karmic history will not be changed or altered.
That is another reason why paying attention to the present is so important. It is not that we somehow just disconnect ourselves from our past and future and simply be in this state called 'nowness.' Buddhist teachings actually say that there is no such thing as nowness; that is just a concept. As soon as you have said, 'I am in the now,' you are already in the past. This is not some kind of metaphysical discussion, phenomenologically speaking in terms of our experience of time; nowness is really only a concept that we use. We cannot be other than in the now. The point is not that we have to be in the now - we cannot help but be in the now. We have to pay attention to that and realise the discrepancies between our concepts and our experience, which is why the practice of awareness is so important.
Joy and meditation
The third factor that we need to cultivate in regard to working with depression is joy. Joy here does not mean elation - which is always a bad sign, as you know! When you are feeling really high, you crash and come down really hard. In this context, joy means a sense of physical and mental well-being. This basically means that if you have good experiences in meditation, you do not feel too excited and if you have bad experiences, you do not feel too down and hopeless. Joy is called dga' ba in Tibetan, it means not being like a yo-yo, basically. In either elation or depression, according to the Buddhist teachings, there is no real joy; we are just being swept along by our emotional currents. When we are happy we are so happy and we become completely overwhelmed by that and when we are unhappy the emotion is so strong that we cannot bear it. Joy is more about being on an even keel.
This does not mean that we cannot sometimes experience feeling really uplifted and joyous, while at other times feeling a sense of flatness or whatever. Joy, here, means the underlying mental attitude that we have; developing a joyful disposition, in other words. If we have a joyful disposition, then we do not completely break down when things do not go our way, and we do not lose it to the other extreme when things do go well. There is a sense of equilibrium, something that is emphasised tremendously in Buddhist teachings.
Buddhist teachings, more than any other teachings, emphasise the notion of change and impermanence. We do not know what to expect - sometimes things will be wonderful and at other times things will be terrible. However, having practised meditation, having dealt with the depressive mood and other states of mind, there can be that underlying sense of joy. This is a general mental attitude and is therefore different from other feelings of joy, because there is no particular reason why we are feeling joyous. It has nothing to do with what we have been able to attain or acquire or experience. It is just generally a cheerful disposition, just a general sense of not going up and down. In pathological sorts of states, psychiatry talks about manic-depressives, in the manic state you think you can do anything, that you have all kinds of powers, while in the depressive state you feel the opposite way. However, if we learn how to deal with whatever is there in the present, a kind of underlying joy will be present. On the other hand, if we are always thinking that things should be better and fighting against what we have and what we experience, we cannot experience joy.
I think this story illustrates that point:
A man grew up with the decision that he would be satisfied with nothing but the very best. This decision helped him to become very successful and very rich so he now had the means with which to provide himself with nothing but the best.
It so happened that he was suffering from a severe attack of tonsillitis, a condition that could have been dealt with effectively by any qualified surgeon in the land. But impressed as he was with the sense of his own importance and goaded by his obsession to provide himself with the very best that the medical world had to offer, he began to move from one town to another, one country to another, in search of the best man for the job. Each time some particularly competent surgeon was recommended to him, he began to fear that there might just possibly be someone who was even more competent.
One day his condition became so bad and his throat so infected that an operation had to be performed immediately, for his life was in danger. But the man was in a semi-comatose state in a god-forsaken village, where the only person who had used a knife on a living creature was the village butcher.
So, dealing with our present situation is the most important thing, according to Buddhism. We should not always be thinking that things should be different, that something else should be happening based on our own wishes. If we cease to do that, we will experience joy. We have to have courage, awareness and joy in order to deal with our depressive mood as well as our other mental states during meditation.
Love and compassion and meditation
The fourth thing that we need to have in order to work with depression is love and compassion in relation to others. Love is byams pa and compassion is snying rje in Tibetan. Love is defined as 'wishing that others have happiness and the cause of happiness,' while compassion is defined as 'wishing that others be free of suffering and the cause of suffering.'
When we become depressed, it is a very lonely and private world that we enter into - we feel cut off, disconnected and our suffering is internalised. It is important for us to feel connected to others. Meditation is not just about developing certain virtuous qualities and attributes within us; it is also about developing certain qualities in relation to our interactions with others. That can come about only through love and compassion. In Buddhism, love and compassion are not cultivated purely for the sake of others, but for the sake of both oneself and others. As it is said in the teachings, we cannot grow without others. A truly spiritual person can only grow in relation to others. That kind of individual is called a bodhisattva in Buddhism.
In Buddhism, love and compassion are related to how we view ourselves and others, they are not just based on feelings and emotions. For example, when we are depressed, we do not feel worthy of receiving love let alone giving love and we do not feel worthy of receiving the gift of compassion from others let alone giving that to others. But through the practice of meditation on love and compassion, which is collectively known as 'mind training' in Buddhism, we begin to realise that we have something to give, that we can give. When that feeling returns, we feel more connected to other beings. Love, according to Buddhism, is something that we have to give freely. Love does not have to be reciprocated and we cannot give it or receive it on demand. That point is emphasised again and again, that we should not expect something in return. We become enriched simply by being able to give. Here is another pertinent story:
Frederick Wilhelm, who ruled Prussia early in the eighteenth century, was known to be a short-tempered man. He also detested ceremony. He would walk the streets of Berlin unaccompanied and if anyone happened to displease him, a not infrequent occurrence, he would not hesitate to use his walking stick on the hapless victim. Not surprisingly, when people saw him at a distance they would quietly leave the vicinity. Once Frederick came pounding down a street when a Berliner caught sight of him, but, too late, and his attempt to withdraw into a doorway was foiled.
dare,' said Frederick, 'where are you going?' The man began to shake.
'Into this house, Your Majesty.'
'Is it your house?'
'No, Your Majesty.'
'A friend's house?'
'No, Your Majesty.'
'Then why are you entering it?'
The man now began to fear that he would be taken for a burglar, so he blurted out the truth.
'To avoid Your Majesty.'
'Why would you wish to avoid me?'
'Because I'm afraid of you, Your Majesty.'
At this, Frederick Wilhelm became livid with rage, seizing the poor man by the shoulders. He shook him violently, crying, 'How dare you fear me? I am your ruler. You are supposed to love me. Love me, wretch, love me!'
In the Buddhist teachings it is said that the gift of love or compassion is in the act of giving itself. We do not have to receive something in return by way of reciprocation or acknowledgment to make these gifts worthwhile, the simple existence of others is what makes them worthwhile because without others we would be solitary, lonely, cut-off and miserable people. Life would be far less rich if other people were not part of our world. It is said in the teachings that even people, who cause us difficulties and problems, provoking all kinds of negativities in us, help us to grow if we are able to deal with them properly. How much more so can we grow if we are able to connect with others in varieties of positive ways?
In Buddhism, there are many different levels of friendships that are spoken of, including karmic connections with people. Sometimes we are karmically connected with another person. Just by seeing that person we feel connected, while with others, even after twenty years of living together, we do not feel connected. Many different kinds of connections are spoken of and they are all different for each of us. In the west, individualism is valued as a very important thing, however, at the same time we have to feel a sense of connectedness and belongingness with others. We cannot feel that we are just going through life adrift, without being connected to anything or anyone. There has to be a larger context within which we, as human beings live, interact and grow.
According to Buddhism, while the concepts of justice, personal rights and so forth are very important for social harmony, love and compassion are even more precious in terms of the concept of community; both on a secular and spiritual level. Practising love and compassion and the other virtues I have spoken about will keep what Winston Churchill refered to as his 'black dog' at bay. That does not mean we will get rid of our depression overnight, but we do not have to try to get rid of it overnight. The negative effects of depression will gradually decrease and our ability to make use of depression in a constructive fashion will increase.
If we are able to meditate and learn to develop courage, awareness, joy, love and compassion we will grow and depression will dissipate. We do not have to get rid of it. Depression will get worn out by itself. That, I think, is important. Thinking of depression as an enemy and trying to conquer it or overcome it, at least from the Buddhist point of view, is a self-defeating task. Our task in meditation is not to do that, but rather to learn the skills necessary to deal with whatever it is that we are experiencing and to do that as skilfully as we can.
Contacts @ Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute
673 Lygon Street (Between Pigdon and Park Streets),
Carlton North, Victoria, 3054.
Phone: 9387 0422
Fax: 9380 8296