I’ve been a Zen practitioner for thirty years. Ten years ago I was in a deep depression. If I sat down to meditate, demons took advantage of the opportunity to torment me, until I could no longer stand the pain. More than once I fled from the zendo, drove to the woods, and ran wailing through the trees.
I was afraid to be alone. If I had a car trip that was more than a half-hour long, I had to stop at a pay phone to call someone who could reassure me that I existed. I had no self, but it didn’t feel a bit like enlightenment.
To my great disappointment, my longtime meditation practice wasn’t helping me, and I stopped sitting zazen altogether. The depression continued in bouts for several years.
I was ill, and I got better. Now I sit regularly, both with my sangha and at home. I’m often restless and distracted, but I’m grateful to be alive. I enjoy solitude, as well as the company of others. I’m no longer bewitched. What’s more, I often feel—I’ll come right out and say it—happy.
As the depression recedes further into the past, it’s hard to believe I’m the same person who felt so wretched ten years ago. And as a matter of fact, I’m not the same person, though we go by the same name. But I owe a lot to that woman weeping in the phone booth by the side of the road. She couldn’t eat or sleep; she wanted to be dead, and yet she persevered for my sake. She survived, out of kindness to me, so that I could enjoy my life now.
So what made the difference? What got me through the depression was supportive friends and family, a therapist, being in nature, the passage of time, antidepressants, a new interest in photography, and faith in the dharma.
I want to say something about the last three things. First, antidepressants: Zoloft helped me come out of the depression and, after I’d been feeling better for a while, I stopped taking it. But then a couple of years ago, I started slipping. An aching loneliness (that bore little relation to reality) started dragging me back down into that scary place where I couldn’t focus on anything but my own pain. I went back to a therapist who had helped me before, and she suggested I go back on Zoloft. I did, and felt better within a couple of days—not drugged, not numb, not high, but myself, connected to the rest of the world.
So there you have it—I’m coming out as a taker of Zoloft! It’s hard to admit, because there’s shame around it, especially, I think, among Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners. It’s hard enough to admit that you used to take it; harder still to admit that you are taking it now. I often hear casual judgments about people who take antidepressants. Someone will say to me, “So-and-so is so full of antidepressants, how can she possibly find her true nature?” Ashamed, I don’t say anything. But I’m saying it now.
So am I in any way turning away from the truth? I still cry in the movies, though not as much as I used to. It’s odd how you can take a tiny blue pill and have the same world look so different! Am I cheating? This question interests me.
Another antidote to depression that I’ve found is the practice of gratitude. It’s hard to be grateful when you’re miserable, but you can start anywhere. You can be grateful that your shoes fit your feet, or that hot water comes out of a pipe in the wall when you turn a handle. For me, photography has been a profound gratitude practice. Acting on unconscious wisdom, I signed up for my first photography class while I was still depressed. Through photography I saw unexpected beauty everywhere, and all I had to do was put a frame around it. I learned to celebrate the fact that light touches everything it meets without judgment, and thanks to the light, everything offers itself as a gift to be seen: rooftops in puddles, cobwebs in broken windows, a child in a red snowsuit pulling a sled. When I go out to take pictures, I see what’s already there, what’s given. I’m not asked for my credentials. I see the word TRUPAK on the barn wall and it’s a kind of zazen. I’m silent, breathing, in a place beyond words, a place outside my small self.
The last thing on my list is a biggie—faith in the dharma. Even though zazen didn’t help me, and at times made things worse, my practice took a devotional turn. I bowed and chanted, and prayed to Avalokiteshvara, the one who hears the cries of the world. I trusted in the unfolding of my karma, and in the ground of my being. Somewhere underneath the pain was faith in the dharma, though it was deeply buried much of the time. Now the dharma keeps me going. All the buddhas and bodhisattvas keep me company. After all, that’s their job, isn’t it?
I practice in the Soto Zen tradition, where zazen is the essence of the practice, and yet it’s still hard for me to sit a lot. I sit even though my moments of greatest openness and understanding don’t happen on the zafu; they happen when I’m walking, cooking, taking pictures of a wall.
I sit because others do it—my teachers and my dharma brothers and sisters. I sit regularly, for a day, for a week, with my sangha. I sit at home by myself—just a little. And every morning, zazen or no zazen, I offer incense and say the vows I made for myself. My practice is steadier. I just keep going.
The interesting thing is that my circumstances haven’t changed in any substantial way since my depression, so I know that the suffering was in my mind. My job, home, and marital status (single) are still the same. I worry more than ever about the big world, where things have gone from bad to worse, where war and torture flourish. But drinking my first cup of Dragon Well green tea in the morning makes me happy. So does cooking corn muffins, or watching dark clouds pile up on top of each other across the bay, or hearing my housemate practice the accordion on the back porch. There’s a difference between “clinical depression” and the sadness that comes and goes like weather. Loneliness, disappointment, and regret continue to visit me regularly. And loneliness is real. I don’t believe it’s a sign of weakness to feel lonely. But thanks to the dharma, I finally understand that at the deepest level I’m not alone. When I take a step, the whole world rises to meet the sole of my foot.
I love my sangha, my teachers, my family, my friends, my students, my coworkers. I love the dharma. I practice gratitude. I practice being present. I practice curiosity. I don’t know what’s ahead, but I trust it will be interesting to find out.
Susan Moon is the editor of Turning Wheel, the Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. She is also the author of The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi and editor of Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism, both published by Shambhala Publications.