Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
—from “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan
It starts with dread. In a distant strange city, face up on top of the covers in a two-star hotel, ceiling fan humming and circling slowly, mosquito net shrouding the bed. Or driving alone on the late-night interstate, rolling through a desolation of strip malls and chain stores. Or just walking down an everyday street, feeling empty inside. Dread has a physical quality—dead weight on my chest and shoulders. Sometimes a gnawing sensation in my stomach. Nausea. A wish to jump out of my skin and into oblivion.
Within these sensations there is infinite loneliness, despair, and the certainty of ceaseless separation. The dread is that life will be like this from now on, and that it always has been like this and I have been so disconnected that I didn’t even notice. If I am far from home, I fear I might die there, alone and unknown. I want to be home in bed, watching television, as if that would provide the absent intimacy. Carefully, I think through the necessary steps that would have me on a homebound flight within hours. I have a plan, and that provides me with the illusion of a way out. This feeling can last for three or four days, or weeks or months. And even though there is not something objectively “wrong” with the circumstances of my life—things can even be going well—I can feel as if a curtain has been pulled back on the ugly workings of my life, exposed as meaningless, not worth living for another day. It feels like the end of the line, and still the line continues.
Millions of us suffer in this way. We yearn for wholeness and accomplishment. I have had plenty of that in life so far: two smart and wonderful children, a happy marriage, many old friends, a position of respect in the Buddhist world, writing published, music recorded, stages occupied as a teacher and as a performer. Despite repeated admonitions about “no gaining mind” (some of these in my own talks), the suffering of depression simultaneously suggests the dream of self-fulfillment and the impossibility of that dream.
I don’t usually talk publicly about depression. Nor do most people who suffer this way, whether they are Buddhists or no. But for Buddhist practitioners, all those hours and weeks and years of meditation are supposed to lead to happiness and equanimity. Depression feels like a kind of embarrassment or failure. To admit depression is maybe to suggest that Buddhist practice doesn’t always “work.” Someone in our community said recently, “You’re the last person I’d think of as depressed.” I guess I keep it hid.
But consider a bright young man in his late twenties, well-educated and physically healthy. His mother died when he was an infant. For most of his life he has not left his family’s house. He has all the advantages of a privileged background—good clothes, delicious food, doting servants. He is married to a beautiful young woman from a similar background, and he has become the father of a son. But all of this seems empty to him. There is no joy or happiness for him, though others seem to find at least moments of happiness. So he leaves his comfortable home, his wife and son and friends, without any particular goal beyond relieving himself of the fatalistic gloom that has settled over him like a cloud. For six years he tries every meditation technology and trendy diet or fast available in his day. Even under the bodhi tree, as enlightenment approaches, the Buddha is confronted by Mara the Tempter’s beautiful daughters, one of whom embodies depression and discontent. Finally Shakyamuni gives up, lets go, and everything turns out right.
This is the early life of Shakyamuni Buddha, but I can hear it as the description of someone suffering from chronic depression. Aside from the fact that I am not a prince, there are some parallels with my own life, growing up in a prosperous suburb. By all accounts, the Buddha’s suffering fell away when he awakened under the bodhi tree. Maybe he really did arrive at a place where he was always happy, never anxious. That is what we are asked to believe, but I wonder?
As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation I have come to no great enlightenment. I haven’t seen the cosmic light shows or transcendental visions of reality. This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free and joyful at times. But freedom is momentary. I appreciate it for what it is. I just don’t stay there, and that is okay with me. That’s a loaded word—“stay.” In terms of the law of anicca or impermanence, one does not stay anywhere. But I digress.
What I mean to say is that I have come to think that given my propensity toward depression—biochemical, hereditary or karmic—the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in just sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me. There is a phrase I love from Eihei Dogen, in our Zen tradition: “When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” That is, the very incompleteness of our being, actions, aspirations, is a manifestation of Buddhanature itself. Everything is broken. No regrets.
Over the years I have tried to “deal with” (that means get rid of) depression in various ways. I have done talk therapy and acupuncture. I’ve sampled organic remedies like St. John’s wort, SAM-e, homeopathy, and most recently Vitamin D. I have been on and off a modest dose of fluoxetine (Prozac). Actually Prozac seemed to work for a while. When I began to take it—twenty years ago, on the advice of my therapist and in consultation with a psychiatrist—it was as if a dark cloud that had always circled my head just disappeared. It was a great and joyous relief. But the relief seemed to be only temporary.
So I return to what I trust, meditation—and to that other reliable remedy: friendship. Actually, the two are not unrelated. Meditation is not a cure, but if I can sit down in a quiet space and follow my breath, the weight of depression usually lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I will take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly toward myself.
The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I keep in mind E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howard’s End: “Only connect.” In the darkest moments, when I feel least able to do so, I know this is necessary and true. So I leave my room and seek a friend. In depression, friendship is an alkahest—the alchemist’s universal solvent that brings forth light and energy. It’s the best remedy.
The gift of depression is the ability to identify with people in pain. Their suffering is something I can understand. I can’t count the number of people who have told me in private interviews about unshakable depression and the pain of isolation and loneliness.
I am moved by their predicament and honesty. They suffer as I have suffered, and I am like them.
I was about thirteen when I became aware of my own depression. Fifty years ago. My parents were in the midst of a difficult divorce. I had just completed my bar mitzvah, a ritual that had, if anything, been drained of all joy and meaning by five dreadful years of compulsory Hebrew school. Then my mother kept the cash bar mitzvah gifts to pay for the reception. Times could be hard even in the suburban splendor of Great Neck, New York.
I was finishing eighth grade at a WASPish private day school where I had no friends. For nearly a year I got out of school early one day a week to attend Hebrew school. After the bar mitzvah I just didn’t tell the private school and kept leaving early each week. I didn’t mention this to my mother either for some months. Instead, I had the school bus drop me in the center of town, alone. I would go to the movies, eat some well-done French fries, and walk home. It sounds like a teenage adventure, but with each passing week I felt more and more desolate. I couldn’t stand the private school, I couldn’t go home, and I dreaded being alone. So finally I confessed. In one of those very rare mother-son moments of intimacy (at least rare in my memory), my mother calmly explained that I was depressed, and that this was only natural after all the anxiety of divorce, the buildup and letdown of my bar mitzvah, and the new vistas of puberty. She spoke to me gently, conveying a sense that she knew what she was talking about from her own experience. I am sure she did.
Now I had a name for what I was feeling, even though I had no idea what to do about it. It would be another thirteen years before I saw my first psychotherapist, and even then depression was framed as a psychological matter—a symptom of unconscious issues, mostly centering on my parents—rather than a condition as much physical or biochemical as psychological.
All these years later I continue to live with this condition and its close companion—anxiety. One of the Buddha’s unique discoveries is the Wheel of Life, or Dependent Origination. The wheel is made to roll, from birth through death and on to successive lives. Anxiety is its fuel. But we can also consider rebirth from moment to moment and do our best to end the ceaseless spinning. Anxiety is linked to the fear (and certainty) of future nonexistence, real doubt about my present existence/nonexistence, fear of pain, sickness, debility. Such anxiety leads to a kind of self-fulfilling depression. How can I break the chain?
I may have to live with depression as a condition of my particular being. Current medical research suggests that depression is hardwired into our brains. In evolutionary terms the sleeplessness and hypervigilance may have some survival benefit. So maybe depression is a good thing. I am genetically selected to be a survivor . . . at least if I lived in the jungle.
But Buddhist practice is simply about being awake. It is not directed toward a particular goal, not even survival. The path of practice leads right through our immediate life circumstances. The pangs of depression, or any pains—physical or mental—are vividly part of that life. I’m not able to avoid unpleasant circumstances, but the question is: can I turn depression, or will I allow it to turn me? Again and again the Buddha long ago showed us how to do this. Each event of his awakened life—including illness, injury, temptation, betrayal, loss—was occasion for him to learn, then to share his understanding. He didn’t try to change or avoid external conditions, and he wasn’t pushed around by circumstances. He lived in community with his friends and he turned toward suffering.
There is a message in depression. Things in life are roiling. Change is afoot. After years of practice I sense this even in hard times. If I can bear it, see through it, depression becomes the harbinger of transformation. I know that things are always in a state of change. Only connect. With that kind of understanding, life seems to be a fortunate accident, even in moments of despair. I am alive, so change is always possible, however unlikely it seems . . . What am I doing here on the planet? Oh, I remember. I’m setting up shop in the saha realm, the world that must be endured, the land of samsara, literally wandering on.
The heart of Buddhist practice may be a matter of faith, in a dark night when faith seems hard to find. My friends help me through the night. Night and day, depression and joy—there is really one whole, true life. Practice gets me to what is true. That’s where I want to live.