Suffering Zen

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

BY: Susan Moon


Continued from page 1

Occasionally a Zen teacher will concede that if a person is in the middle of a mental breakdown, perhaps she should stop sitting until she gets her strength back. This is like a track coach telling you that you shouldn't run while you have a broken leg. The assumption is that if there weren't something wrong with you, if you weren't so weak, you'd be on the zafu.

And when I told my teachers I was disappointed that zazen didn't make me feel better, they scolded me. "You don't sit zazen to get something. You sit zazen in order to sit zazen. If you want zazen to make you happy, it won't work." But I wasn't even asking to be happy; I was asking to be less miserable. I was hoping for some peace of mind. And didn't Buddha invent Buddhism in the first place to alleviate suffering? Did all those other people in the zendo really get up out of bed at 5 a.m. for no particular reason?

I kept going back, hoping that if I meditated hard enough I'd have some sort of "breakthrough." In the dimly remembered time of normalcy, sitting in the zendo, I too had had the experience of watching my worries turn to dry powder and blow away. So now I signed up to sit Rohatsu-sesshin, the weeklong meditation retreat in early December that commemorates Buddha's enlightenment. He sat down under the bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he saw the truth. It took him a week. I had sat many sesshins before, but maybe this would be my week.

The first day was bad. I cried quietly, not wanting to disturb the others. The second day was worse. Tears and snot dripped off my chin onto my breast. I hated myself. Nobody else will ever love me!

"Bring your attention back to your breathing," my teachers had advised me. But this was like telling a person on the rack, whose arms are being pulled out of her shoulder sockets, to count her exhalations.

Sometimes it was like being in heavy surf. A wave of pain would grow, crest, and break with a crash, grinding my bones against the rocky bottom, and then I'd get my head above the water just in time to notice another, bigger wave coming.

But I wasn't on the rack. I wasn't in the surf. I was in the zendo. Around me sat my dharma brothers and sisters, hands in their proper position. As for my hand position, I dug the nails of my left hand deep into the palm of my right hand, feeling relief at the physical pain, and momentary proof of my existence.

Sometimes being on the meditation cushion was like being in heavy surf. A wave of pain would grow, crest, and break with a crash, grinding my bones against the rocky bottom.

On the morning of the fifth day--after fleeing the zendo several times in agony--I called the Zen Center and said I wasn't feeling well--an understatement if there ever was one--and wouldn't be sitting the rest of the sesshin.

I thought I had failed in my practice--20 years of it!--and was bitterly disappointed in myself. Only now do I see what a growth it was: not to be ruled by dogma, to be compassionate with myself, to take my spiritual practice into my own hands. I didn't sit zazen for some months, and now I know that stopping was zazen. Unfortunately, it wasn't until after the depression subsided that I saw that choosing not to sit took as much faith in myself as choosing to sit.

Buddhism teaches that we have "no fixed self." There is nothing permanent about me. During my depression, I wasn't my "self," as we say. I didn't seem to have a self at all, which in a way cruelly mimicked this central point in Buddhist teaching. There was nobody home, and it was terrifying. I felt angry at Buddhism, as if to say: You told me there's no fixed self, and I believed you, and look where it got me!

It helped me to give a name--other than "crazy"--to how I felt, but it took me awhile. I finally called myself "depressed" when I read an article by the writer Andrew Solomon about his own depression in The New Yorker (January 12, 1998), and he described symptoms similar to mine. It turned out I wasn't the only one who had ever felt "too frightened to chew," as Solomon put it. And I knew just what he meant when he wrote, "Depression is a disease of self-obsession." I was sick. I was "clinically depressed."

It was reading this article that made me decide to try medication. Solomon says, "To take medications as part of the battle is to battle fiercely, and to refuse them is as ludicrous as entering a modern war on horseback."

I had a lot of resistance to taking medication. The voice of orthodox Zen whispered in my mind that the monks of old didn't have Zoloft, the drug that eventually helped me. But some of those monks probably obsessed their lives away in misery; others may have left the monastery because they couldn't concentrate. Buddhist history doesn't tell us about the ones who tried and failed, the ones with attention deficit disorder or clinical depression.

Continued on page 3: Susan decided to create her own spiritual practice »

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