Suffering Zen

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

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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."

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!

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Susan Moon
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