Suffering Zen

How a woman's struggle with depression taught her about faith, prayer, and when to stop meditating

BY: Susan Moon

I want to tell you about coming apart, wanting to die, and returning at last to myself, and about how my Buddhist practice both helped and hindered me in this zigzag journey, in ways I couldn't have predicted.

I didn't call it depression for most of the five years I was in and out of it. I thought depression was for lethargic people who stayed in bed all day. But my pain was as sharp as an ice pick. Restless in the extreme, I paced and paced, looking for a way out.

While my misery seemed to be connected to the drawn-out and difficult end of a relationship with a lover, I came to realize that it was about my whole life. The invisible causes were old griefs and fears, about being left alone, and about not being left alone. I had been through painful separations before, but this one deconstructed me as none other had. After a wrenching divorce, I had other relationships, but I always erred on the side of independence, raising my children as a single mother, managing my life, my household, my recycling, on my own. But when it seemed, finally, that I would have somebody else to remind me to change the oil in my car, and then when it seemed, even more finally, that I wouldn't, the dam burst, and my pent-up longing to be taken care of came crashing through.

When I sat down on my meditation cushion, the quiet just provided a chance for my obsessional thoughts to take over the stage.

I had been a Zen Buddhist practitioner for over 20 years. Buddhist teachings are about suffering and the end of suffering, and Zen Buddhism, in particular, emphasizes sitting still in the midst of your suffering and just letting go. I assumed that my meditation practice would steady me. What could be more comforting than 40 minutes in the peaceful, familiar zendo, with the slant of sun across the cedar floorboards, and the sweet smell of tatami matting? But it didn't help. This is what I want to say: At times it made things worse. The demons in my mind took advantage of the opportunity. They weren't real demons, but they didn't care whether they were real or not; they tormented me anyway.

My Buddhist teachers urged me to keep on sitting zazen. "Don't turn away from your suffering," they said again and again. "When you sit, painful thoughts and feelings will arise. Just notice them, without clinging to them. The painful thoughts and feelings will pass away again, and you'll realize that they are empty."

But when I sat down on a zafu [meditation cushion], the quiet just provided a chance for my obsessional thoughts to take over the stage. "I've ruined my life." "How can I get him back?" The painful thoughts arose all right, but they didn't pass away. Or if they did, it was only to make room for even more painful thoughts. "I don't know how to give or receive love." "I'll die alone." And, adding insult to injury: "I'm the worst Zen student that ever was."

Continued on page 2: How did Susan respond to meditation? »

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