A few weeks back I had a lively and interesting discussion with Dr. Mara Karpel on her internet radio show, Your Golden Years. She is also the author of a great book, The Passionate Life: Creating Vitality and Joy at Any Age. Check out her site to find out more, or to listen to her archive with 6 years of her radio show.
Many Dharma Lions and Lionesses leaving this world recently, it seems. I was sorry to hear of the death of Stephen Levine on January 17th. Years ago, when I’d drifted away from practice for a time, I was able to go to a weekend teaching on death and dying presented by Stephen and his wife Ondrea. To my surprise it was pure Dharma, so that I almost felt guilty that it was being paid for by my employer. But it was powerful, and returned me to the path.
And some years later when I first struggled with depression, I took much from their teaching about facing pain, softening into grief, and keeping love primary. It helped me to formulate a way to work with that pain.
I listened to this final teaching from Stephen and Ondrea’s website the other day after reading of his death, and found again the power of their wisdom, compassion, and their great gift to all of us. Deep bows and gratitude to them both….
We started a discussion group in the online community I’m part of with my teacher Dosho Port. It was started as a group to discuss practicing with depression, anxiety, and grief. We had our first meeting two weeks ago, and it was such a wonderful and wide-ranging discussion that it was hard to distill down. And part of me didn’t want to do that. It made clear how the subject of depression is more just a useful door into something more vast…suffering, grief, loss, lack of control. So that I was almost tempted that we should rename our group—“bigger than depression,” “beyond depression”—something more than the prosaic “depression study group.”
We agreed we’d have a topic or subject to use as a starting point for our discussion each time we met. That first discussion had me thinking in continually widening circles about what to talk about next. One thought I had was that we had talked about depression as a door (there’s that image again) into suffering, both emotional and physical. And with that goes all the ways we run from or try to transmute suffering. Or since we started at the beginning, with the first Noble Truth, maybe the next thing to consider was the second noble truth, the cause of suffering. Either that or just stay a little longer with the first noble truth, and further explore suffering as truth.
At the same time I was thinking about something one of the members had said in a post, that he’d learned one description of depression is “the inability to formulate a future.” It occurs to me that another way of saying that is that depression, and perhaps suffering, is a failure of imagination.
All of that was rattling around in my mind when I came across this lovely and piercing piece online by Sharon Salzberg, “The Mysterious Junction of Suffering and Love.” Which she ends with the thought, “if we truly want to meet each other, that mysterious junction of suffering and love could well be the most truthful and potent place.”
It seemed to encapsulate much of what the group had discussed, and in truth what we had done in our first meeting. We met there, all of us, at the junction of suffering and love. And so I find myself thinking about practice and depression in terms of imagination and love. Two subjects we seem to avoid in Zen practice. Imagination because it seems in our practice we focus on what is, rather than how it could be or how we want to change it. Love for the same reason, perhaps, seeing it too as a force that wants to change, to put blinders on our seeing, to refuse to face things as they really are.
But again, what is depression if not that failure of imagination? And the Dharma itself is nothing without our being able to see the possibility of an ending of suffering in the hope represented by Buddha himself. We practice because we can imagine that state of being free from suffering, and can imagine ourselves in it. Love too is seeing something in this world, something in others, beyond suffering and attachment. It could even be said that love is seeing the other (and ourselves) as Buddha. And I know there are times when just seeing that in myself requires a very strong imagination.
I heard a Tibetan teacher once talk about the visualization practice as being a process of visualizing oneself as the Buddha or Bodhisattva, so that one closes that chasm that exists in our mind between our small self and that enlightened being, until we become that being. In a sense koan practice is one of sitting with that small mind again, letting it approach the ancestor’s enlightened mind, until the whisper that we are becomes that shout from the absolute. Both of which are nothing if not a process of imagination.
Depression can bring us into a vision and awareness of the nature of suffering. It makes clear the fact that samsara is a place marked by dukkha, and also the place where dukkha becomes the seed of our learning, enlightenment, and compassion. Without imagination we’d be stuck only able to see dukkha. And without imagination we’d also be stuck in depression without hope for anything changing.
Part of what the practice teaches us, as well, is that we are more than our thoughts, more than what we believe to be true. And the same is true of the world around us. I know when I believe I know a person, a thing, a truth, (or myself) I have usually walled it often from the possibility of change. And I have put myself in the position of not being capable of being surprised, of finding I am wrong in what I thought. Here again imagination, the ability to see numerous possibilities, requires the open and flexible mind that allows all things to swirl around me in change, rather than demanding they be the way I think they ought to be, or forcing them to remain as I’ve figured them out—always a dicey proposition.