[guest post] The Dharma of Depression

My friend Seth, who has guest-posted here before (read it, it’s awesome), returns to talk about depression and Buddhism.

Note: The following is a transcript of a speech given at the weekly College Meeting for Worship at Earlham College.

Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming. It means a lot to me that people have come to hear me talk about this.

For my entire adult life, and most of my adolescence, I have struggled with depression.

Sorry to drop the heavy stuff on you right away, but this must be understood if anything is to come of the rest of my talk.

In many ways, I have been very lucky. I have never had to take medication; I know people who have. I know people who would not be with us today if they hadn’t had medication. I know people who are no longer with us. I have attended memorials for those people in this very meeting house.

Depression is a terrible, terrible disease.

Other diseases ravage your body; depression ravages your mind. It tears away at you will, your hope, at everything that makes you, you.

Let me be clear about this: depression is not sadness. 24/7 sadness would be incredibly obvious to everybody around you. But depression is much more insidious than that, and in my experience, it often takes your friends and loved ones by surprise when it crops up.

So what is depression, then?

Well, I obviously can’t speak for everybody, but here’s my experience:

Depression is being trapped in a slow, steady downward spiral of negative thoughts. Depression is thinking that the biggest mistake you made all day was getting out of bed. Depression is the feeling that you’re slowly falling to pieces, and the inability to pick yourself back up and put yourself back together. Depression is the irrational yet inescapable idea that your life means nothing to anybody, and that nothing would change if you just suddenly vanished from off the face of the earth.

The worst thing about depression, though, is that it devours the very resource that is necessary to fight it: your willpower. Sure, maybe you know that you should try talking about it to a friend you trust, or make an appointment to see a councilor, and that might help. But how in the world are you going to do that when you’re lucky just to have the ability to pry yourself out of bed in the morning?

All this is very important to understand. Partly for my story, because this is what I mean when I say that I was depressed. But also because you may well meet somebody suffering from depression in the future, or maybe you already know somebody who is. It will help both of you if you have at least some idea of what they’re going through.

But back to my question, because for far too many people, it isn’t rhetorical. How do you fight something that destroys your ability to fight?

Like the experience of depression, the key to overcoming it is different for each individual person. For me, the key was faith, which is why I’m here talking to you all today.

It may surprise some of those here that know me when I say that I consider myself a deeply religious person. Part of that is probably because I’m not extremely outspoken about my religious beliefs, and when I do talk about them I tend to frame them as a general philosophy about the world rather than a spiritual belief. Part of that is probably a cultural tendency to assume that “religious” means Christian, or at least Abrahamic, which I am neither. Nor is the religion I wound up devoting myself to the same one I was brought up with. Nevertheless, I consider myself religious because my personal philosophy and sense of morality are, if not directly taken from my religion’s teachings, very much in sync with them.

Allow me to explain.

I was in high school, I was depressed, and because of some combination of those two, I was deeply cynical. National politics had disenchanted me with humanity on a global scale, and middle school had disenchanted me with it on a personal scale. More to the point, a growing awareness of the vitriolic rhetoric being thrown around in the name of God brought me into conflict for the first time with a system of belief that, until that time, I had taken unquestioningly as truth. How was I supposed to love my uncles and their partners—who were themselves uncles to me—if they were blasphemous abominations before the Lord? Could a kind, good-hearted person really be condemned to hell for eternity just for believing the wrong scriptures? I no longer remember the exact timing or thought process, but whatever it was, it ended with me deciding that my beliefs were not compatible with Christianity’s teachings, and I abandoned the religion entirely.

(Please note that this is not intended as a condemnation of Christianity as a whole. I have since affirmed that the things that turned me away from it are specific to certain denominations, or even denominations of denominations. Indeed, in another life, I could see myself quite spiritually fulfilled as, say, a Quaker. The religion I wound up with was simply a result of how my life transpired.)

I spent a year or so “drifting” here—I believe the term is “spiritual but not religious.” I didn’t adhere to the teachings of any particular religion, but I still believed that there was some sort of higher order to the universe, and in the absence of any particular creed I tried to puzzle it out for myself. I never hit an answer that truly satisfied me, but I did manage to solidify some ideals that would later become core to my spirituality, most notably a) the belief that spirituality should concern itself first and foremost with the well-being of humanity, and b) the belief that anybody who claimed to have a perfect understanding of the way the universe worked was either delusional or a liar.

It was at the very end of my tenth grade year that my dad stepped into the picture. He had been on a bit of a spiritual journey himself, and had gradually begun to involve himself with an American take on Tibetan Buddhism, known as Shambhala. I was vaguely aware of this, but I had never considered becoming a Buddhist before, knowing of it mainly as a religion for idealistic hippies who took a few too many psychoactive drugs for my taste. At this time, however, my dad gave me a book he had found called Hardcore Zen. It was a book on Buddhism written by a former punk rocker who had discovered Zen Buddhism in college before beginning to practice in earnest when he moved in Japan to work on monster movies.

It was the most unlikely book imaginable, and it changed my life.

Right away, Buddhism appealed to my rebellious teenage sensibilities because it didn’t ask for me to accept any ideas blindly. As the Buddha said before dying, “Be lamps unto yourselves”—which is to say, believe what you find to be true and ignore the rest. For the first time in my life, I was being encouraged to seek truth instead of having it handed to me.

I could be in control of my own life.

I dove into Buddhism eagerly, my father helpfully providing me with as many books on Buddhist philosophy as I could read. I started practicing sitting meditation. I hung out at the Shambhala Center in Boulder, listening to teachers give talks. I don’t really remember how fast the whole thing went, only that by the time I started eleventh grade, I was willing to call myself a Buddhist.

This was a happy time for me, happier by far than I had been in years. Even my depression, which had been hounding me since middle school and which I had been in therapy for twice, seemed to be easing up. Looking back, though, I realize that my depression wasn’t going away; I was starting to learn how to deal with it. And those tools for dealing with it were coming from my burgeoning Buddhist practice. In particular, there were three lessons I learned from my practice that made my depression easier to handle.

The first lesson was forgiveness. Not forgiveness of others—although that is certainly important—but forgiveness of myself. It sounds like an odd lesson, I’m sure, but it was a crucial one. There have been studies that show that people tend to be more critical of their own appearance than they are of other peoples. The same is true, I think, for the mistakes we make and the sins we commit. We forgive others for actions that we mentally beat ourselves up for long after the fact. For the depressed, this is magnified hundredfold. Many depressed people get stuck on the idea that they’re completely useless, that they can’t do anything right, that they’re nothing but a burden on everybody around them—a frightening, dangerous idea that has no doubt been the driving force behind a number of suicides. There have been times for myself when I’ve been willing to say without a second thought that I hate myself. It’s a terrible feeling.

None of this is to say that one shouldn’t be accountable for one’s mistakes. But what many people don’t realize is that the self-loathing we so often direct at ourselves for slipping up is not actually productive. When it comes down to it, productive responses to one’s own mistakes form a fork. If there’s something you can do to fix or mitigate it, do it. If not, accept the consequences and make sure that you don’t do it again. Beating yourself up and putting yourself down over the situation just injects negative feeling into the whole thing. Of course, like many things, the idea is far simpler when stated than when put into practice. The take-home message, though, is to learn to be as forgiving with yourself as you are with other people.

The second lesson I learned was equanimity. This is a big one in Buddhism. The basic idea is that suffering is caused by desire, and the most engrained human desire is to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. Thus, the key to not suffering is learning to not be afraid of pain and not be obsessed with pleasure. Again, far more complicated than I make it sound. But the idea is incredibly pertinent to somebody who’s even more prone to suffering than usual. Whereas most people would say you need a reason to be unhappy, when you’re depressed your emotions will every so often just up and slap you in the face for no particular reason, and believe me, it’s rather disconcerting to be upset and not be able to tell anybody why. The typical response to this is to try to fight back against the emotions, but that works about as well as trying to stop a pot from boiling over by jamming a lid on it. In contrast, the approach that Buddhism advocates is more akin to turning down the heat—and, somewhat counterintuitively, allowing the pot to boil over if it must. There is, after all, nothing intrinsically wrong with feeling emotions. Problems only arise when they start controlling your actions, making you do something you regret. The key is finding a balance where you acknowledge the presence of the emotions without letting them completely consume your mind. It should be said, this is a balance I still have trouble finding even after five years of practice, but it’s possible nonetheless, and when I do find it there’s the wonderful satisfaction of feeling like I’ve done the right thing without the exhaustion of having fought an uphill battle against my feelings.

The final, and most important, lesson was purpose. You may remember me mentioning earlier that this is a fairly sticky one when you’re depressed. These are some of my darkest memories—the times when I got stuck in an endless loop, thinking about how utterly pointless I thought my life was. No purpose. Nothing I could say I had contributed to the world. Nobody who needed me for anything. If I just spontaneously stopped existing, everybody would mourn for the socially appropriate period of time and then get back to their lives, nothing changed by my absence. You could pull me aside and tell me that I meant everything to you and that you’d be crushed if I died, and I wouldn’t believe you, not really. Right. Give me one thing my existence does for anybody. There’s nothing.

A completely absurd idea. But it wasn’t until I started practicing that I realized why.

The thing is, existence is incredibly finicky. So much so that you change the world just by virtue of the fact that you take up space in it. Add to that your family, your friends, the people you talk to every day, the people you walk past on the street, and suddenly your existence reaches out in more directions than you can comprehend. And there is no more noble reason for living than making your presence in other people’s lives a positive one. This includes large callings, of course, but also small ones—and in many ways, the small ones are the most important. As the author of Hardcore Zen writes, “Save the whales—but also, clean your room.” (Another area I could stand to improve in, incidentally.) So smile at people you pass on the sidewalk. Hold the door for somebody whose arms are full. Give your friends a hug and an encouraging word when they’re feeling down. Being a fundamentally good person isn’t all that hard when you break it down to its basics—after all, Shambhala teaches us that we are all, at our core, enlightened beings—and it’s probably the most important contribution you could ever make to the world.

So I’ve come to a tricky part of this talk. This is where the end of the story goes. Unfortunately, this story doesn’t have an ending. I never “got over” my depression; it’s quite likely that I’ll be dealing with it on and off for the rest of my life. Just last year, I had a relapse that reminded me of how difficult life can be. I got up some mornings resenting the world for forcing me to face other human beings. I fought with, and hurt badly, some of the people I care most about. I even once broke down into uncontrollable sobbing because my dad told me he was proud of me. But through everything, I never really stopped believing that I’d come through okay on the other side—maybe a little more neurotic, maybe a little more bitter than I was before, but fundamentally unchanged in who I was and what I wanted my life to be. It’s not a happy feeling, but it is liberating—the feeling that you can gaze into the darkest depths of the abyss and not fear falling in. Life can beat me, break me, even kill me, but I can be content to the bitter end as long as I just keep trying to do what I think is right. And so, I’m going to leave you today with three simple but important words:

Live your life.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

5 thoughts on “[guest post] The Dharma of Depression

  1. Pingback: In My Mind | Living With Schizophrenia

  2. Pingback: [guest post] You Are Not Alone: A Shared Story of Depression | Brute Reason

  3. Lol, so it turns out we went side by side depressed through high school. That’s rather a relief to know, in retrospect. Thank you for lending your eloquence to this subject. Having just had a violent 2 week battle with my own depression, this was very comforting.

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