Beliefnet

"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.

And so, by trial and error, I learned to construct my own spiritual practice, according to my needs and abilities. I was learning to trust myself.

Every morning, as soon as I got out of bed, I lit a candle on my little altar and offered a stick of incense. I made three full bows, then stood before the altar, my palms pressed together, and recited out loud my morning prayers, starting with a child's prayer a Catholic friend had taught me:

 

Angel of God, my guardian dear,
To whom God's love commits me here,
Ever this day be at my side
To watch and guard, to rule and guide.

It was comforting to ask somebody else, somebody who wasn't me, for help. Prayer was something I missed in Zen practice as I knew it, so I imported it from Christianity and other Buddhist traditions. I prayed to Tara, Tibetan goddess of compassion, to fly down from the sky, all green and shining, into my heart. I prayed to Prajna Paramita, the mother of all Buddhas, who "brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken, and disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion." These words (from the ancient Prajnaparamitta sutra) reminded me of the 23rd Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." I said this too.

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