Some Thoughts on Depression

“Embracing the hurt, we learn to trust that there is something greater, something mysterious and full of grace.”                                                            Thanissara

Dearest One,

You’ve asked me to write about depression. I wonder what on earth I can offer. But I love you so much, so here goes…

For starters, I don’t know. I’m feeling a bit depressed and without energy myself, today. My body sags and refuses to sleep, there is anxious overwhelm as my mind swims in thoughts of loss, inadequacy and indecision. Hal and I have just realized together that it’s time for us to let go, to leave this home that we love so much. Our aging bodies are telling us that it’s time to move on; we can no longer manage it all. I will so miss the sturdy protection of all these trees. I’ll miss the Carolina wren who scolds me every. single. time. that I walk out the door. I will miss the thousands of spring daffodils and the bounty of peonies and irises and summer zinnias. I will miss having far too many cucumbers for one family and arguing together about exactly how deep the radish seeds should be planted. I will so miss the daily visits of Bartholomew and Daisy, our resident deer, although they’ll likely be happy to be left to munch the hostas in peace. When we go, I’ll leave notes and photos for the new owners, so they’ll know where the fox den is and what the fox family eats for dinner.  My heart aches; how do I be with this?

Sometimes I think that something like depression was what motivated Siddhartha after that legendary chariot ride.  There he was, like me, likely just enjoying a lovely day in the countryside, when the world as he had known it fell apart. Sickness. Aging. Death. Thanissaro imagines it as a time of “… the shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived.”  Yikes:” shock, dismay…alienation…futility and meaninglessness of life…” Sounds like depression to me.

My psychology books tell me that depression is a “mental disorder,” something wrong. They list as “causes” the likely imbalances of my internal wiring caused by genetic vulnerability or overwhelming stress or faulty thinking or the wrong foods or medications or, possibly, all sorts of physical health problems. Hmmm…something wrong: even more reason to be depressed.

On the other hand, Siddhartha’s inquiries revealed to him that his own collapse was caused by, simply, an ordinary awareness of being human: seeing clearly the limitation of his own fragile little life and the futility of his trying to hang on or fix or control it all in the usual ways. Like me, maybe, he saw that what he had counted on for comfort, security and happiness was, at best, temporary and unreliable. My teacher, John, called depression “a loss of heart.” That fits for me: my depression as awareness of profound dis-ease and vulnerability and, with that, my disconnect from tenderness and presence and an open and receptive heart.

For me today, whatever it’s called, my own loss and grief are inviting me to an intimate inquiry beyond my theories and stories. There is an opening to what is actually going on in my own body, my own mind.  I find a dull ache in my heart, a watermelon-sized lump stuck in my upper chest and throat. There is profound fatigue and, at the same time, a restless agitation. There are swarms of random thoughts and a quality in my head that is both foggy and buzzy. I wonder what is needed. Here. Now. What might help?  It is all so very intimate and personal.

There is inspiration for me in the story of Sujata: how Siddhartha, dying from asceticism and starvation, realized that, against all his rules and against all of others’ reasoning, he needed nourishment. He received a simple bowl of rice milk from her, opening to a woman who was simply and kindly just there for him, offering her care and generosity. I pause and look to see what nourishment my own body and heart and mind are calling for. What food or medicine or music or time with wise others or quiet time alone or in nature am I overlooking? What will feed me?

I take into my mind and heart and bones the small moments of goodness that I otherwise hardly notice. There is the wonder of the sun that is breaking through today’s morning fog, or the sweetness of the little sparrow that just popped in front of my window. There is the memory of you and the chocolate cake that you brought to the party yesterday for my birthday. There is gratitude and delight in my mechanic Anthony who so cheerfully came to rescue me last night when my car wouldn’t start. My body and mind, my heart and soul – tender, responsive and eager – are invited to receive, to take in beauty and wisdom and goodness and care when life presents its difficulties.  When I pay attention, I find, in mysterious and surprising ways that I can rest in a more awakened heart that knows a deep love and joy and peace that is fully independent of all those changing and not-controllable conditions. It is a grace and a goodness. I am reminded with more suffering when I forget.

“…(The) sanity and vibrant well-being (that) are intrinsic to …our true nature (which) is inherently attuned to things as they are, apart from our conceptual versions of them. The basic goodness of the human heart, … born tender, responsive, and eager to reach out and touch life, (which) is unconditional. It is not something we have to achieve or prove. It simply is.”          John Welwood

One day, a few weeks before she died, my Mom and I were chatting through the haze of her dementia. She became very quiet. She paused and looked at me with what I thought of, then, as “the eyes of god.”  “I just love you so much,” she said. “I just love you so much.”  It seemed to come from another space, another world. I think that she, in those days just before her death, was graced with a simple and glorious resting in love, in her own – and my own – basic goodness. She became so tender, responsive and eager to reach out.  Loss, difficulty, illness, death became for her an opportunity to rest quietly in her own deep goodness and to remind me of love; that was her most truly indestructible gift.

The remembering of this deeper reality for me so often becomes obscured. I call myself daily to faith and forgiveness and gratitude and generosity and to openness to the people and places that help me to remember. Like you, dear one.

But then, of course, you already know all of this:

Judy Grissmer

Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness…
and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely, until it flowers
again from within, of self-blessing…
                                            Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow”

The eighteen-year-old cat was kicked to death
at my sister-in-law’s house that day,
by a nine-year-old boy who came to play
venting the pain of his difficult life on a cat
named for the sun. I could not shake
the story—could not shake my sorrow.
But the next morning, when I was meditating,
and felt the full presence of the soft tabby
who entered my arms, I knew this
was beyond story—and I was not afraid.
There was no consideration of time.
I simply held him.
He wasn’t asking for much,
just to enter into my sorrow.
And do you know,
I felt him begin to settle, saw him
start to remember the good
that had been his life—the love
of a sweet grandmother, the voices
of the small twin boys—
the pleasure of purring in the sun.
He remembered his name, and when
he had that to take with him
he was gone—and he had taken
my sorrow.


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