Taking the "Middle Way" through the Dark Wood
by Douglas S Johnson
On March 2, I conducted a very pleasant interview with Philip Martin, the congenial and unpretentious author of The Zen Path through Depression. Having suffered from depression and a rather nasty anxiety disorder (the latter of which I continue to struggle with nearly on a daily basis), I can assure you that Martins are not techniques to be mastered in an afternoon, any more than depression and anxiety can be cured in an afternoon. However, if they are practiced and lived with gentleness, and within a wide margin of compassion for the self and for all the feelings and sensations that come and go in life, these methods will meliorate the terrors and the darkness that come from the struggle we often make against something unexpected and unpleasant which, for whatever reason, has come into our lives.
Ive chosen to omit my longwinded interview questions, simply shaping Philips answers into a cohesive whole, as follows. I led off by asking him why he thought the image of Dantes "journey through the dark wood" so captured the feelings and emotions of those who have suffered from clinical depression.
I think the Dante quote is compelling for two reasons. One is that depression, more than anything else, represents a loss of color in the world, an absence of any real light. I think the other reason people respond to that image is because depression feels like a qualitatively different place, a place in which one becomes lost, a place strange and often frightening. I think that's why the image of the "dark wood" emotionally touches so many depressed people.
Because it does take light from us, depression is decidedly a spiritual disorder. For me, a big part of spirituality is the ability to be really present, to give total awareness and attention to the present moment, and depression also takes that away. It takes away any feelings of spiritual bliss, and nothing feels as it should. Of course, it manifests physically, too, and the depressed person does not need the medical community to do research to find that there is something biological going on, because there is that incredible heaviness which besets the body as well the mind and soul.
Depression works on many different levels, and there are so many factors involved that there is no simple, once-and-for-all answer for any one depressed person. I'm not even sure it's important to answer the "why has this happened to me?" kind of questions; even if one could answer the question as to why it is happening, it's still happening, and it still must be dealt with one way or another.
A big part of spirituality is the ability to be really present,
Personal responsibility for recovery is very important, because in the vulnerable state of depression, people are tempted to want others to tell them what to do, but I think there is a kind of spiritual maturity in being able to take responsibility for what needs to be done to get better. This involves what is called "living in vow," which requires living moment to moment, rather like in the 12-step programs, not expecting to make a decision for recovery once and forever, but rather to continually make the decision, day by day, minute by minute, moment by moment, so that one's commitment is always fresh and meaningful.
Fortunately, even though the commitment to recovery is moment to moment, when one is depressed, the depression is usually not there every moment of the day. There are still times of beauty and joy, if only for a few seconds. When one learns not to spend so much time fighting against and pushing away what is unpleasant, and can step back and just be objective about both the good and the bad and accept them equally, the moments of beauty and joy can be more readily enjoyed.
People react strongly to this statement, but it's true: "If you can just step back and look, you can see that it's just depression." I realize that depression and anxiety can be horribly uncomfortable, but ultimately, it's only a sensation, and people get in trouble when the willful mind gets all caught up in that sensation and starts fighting against it. There is that paradox of stepping back from an experience that actually allows one to be more connected with it.
There can be something about depression that is somehow comforting,
I used a Roshi quote in the book that I like a lot: "The way to control a cow is to give him a wide pasture." People can do that with thoughts and feelings, too. The reason relinquishing control gives people a measure of control is that they're no longer trying so hard to force things, which always complicates and sometimes even creates many problems that sometimes would have worked themselves out quite naturally if one hadn't struggled with them so hard.
Surprisingly, there are certain blessings that come with depression, if we can view it that way. I think that because depression gives us a more intense experience, there can be much meaning to be discovered in its sensations, and as depressed people become more sensitive, they become more susceptible not only to pain but to all the good in life as well. During my depression, when I ultimately saw that there was something to be gained, something I could learn from my depression, and then the depression began to go away, I was actually somewhat sorry to see it go! There can be something about depression that is somehow comforting, that ability to turn inward and just kind of retreat for a while. I actually felt a real grief that, here this "teacher" had come, and I had been able to learn some really important things through it, and then suddenly it was going away.
One of the teachings that depression has to offer is that it can break through the denial we all have about the fact that life is all impermanent. Everything we have in this life is on loan; it's not ours to keep. As many have said, it is the very fact that things which are alive always die that makes them precious. People who come to grips with this impermanence, and with their own eventual death, can appreciate all of life more because they realize that this is all they get. Depression's tendency to make one focus on death and impermanence can begin this process.
Depressed persons can appreciate depression and pain and even their own eventual death, because these things are a part of them and a part of life. Inasmuch as the depression is a part of themselves and therefore they show it compassion and are patient with it, they show compassion for and are patient with themselves. That kind of acceptance of themselves and all of their feelings and sensations, even the ones that are most unpleasant, is crucial in dealing with depression. After all, if we shut out pain, we shut out joy and anything else that is good in life. One simply cannot shut out one aspect of experience without shutting out its counterpart, and this is true of pain and joy.
However, we don't have to suffer. Pain is physical and emotional sensation that we really can't avoid. It comes as part of having a human body and a human mind, so as long as we choose to be alive, we can't avoid pain. Suffering is our resistance to that pain, and all the complications we put on top of our experience by trying to control it by either striving to hang onto what feels good or by pushing away and avoiding what feels bad. Thus, suffering is optional; pain is not.
One of the things that really came alive for me while I was writing this book was how important is the Buddhist teaching of the "middle way," finding a balance in all things. In this way, the quiet and stillness of Zen practice can be wonderfully helpful as a balance for the cyclical and dark thinking that come with depression and anxiety disorders. There are even qualities of depression that have a meditative quality about them, and so depressed persons can look at these qualities that way and give themselves a framework for dealing with their depression.
I tried to make my chapters short and my exercises practical; I also tried to make the exercises so that they could be ignored if they were simply too much, but at the same time easy for someone who wanted to do them. My hope is that the spiritual practice itself can be incorporated into day-to-day life. My Zen teacher stressed that strongly. It comes from the tradition of Dogen; he didn't teach as much through the koans as some do, but by way of stories of everyday life. According to him, everyday life was the challenge, even more so than koans and Zen practice.
Also in line with the "middle way" is the balance between the meditative aloneness of reflection and the interaction with others who have gone or are going through the experience of depression. I think there is a definite similarity between the modern-day support group and the ancient Buddhist "sangha" [the brotherhood of monks]. In support groups, people are "on the same path," so to speak. If you have people who are loving and supportive and are trying to take a spiritual approach to depression, that can be incredibly helpful to all the group's members, and they can truly heal each other like no one else could.
Depression is difficult to describe, so it's hard to understand for anyone who has never experienced it, and while people who haven't felt like that can help, that help is very limited if they can't intimately understand the experiences of depression and haven't been though it all themselves. While I was in the midst of my own depression, I set up my own support group, people I could call up or just hang out with when I needed to. Sometimes, I didn't even need to talk, but just to know that someone was there. Sometimes just knowing you're not alone in the world is enough.
As strange as it may seem, depression can also give people a purpose. It's easy to lose track of that because the depressed person is in so much pain, but the purpose lies in the fact that he or she becomes so much more sensitive to the pain of others. It's surprising to see the bonds that are forged between people and how close they can become because of sharing the depression experience. Granted, often one is limited in what one can do, since it's like two people both climbing up a steep cliff, but at least the one who's a little lower can call out to the one who's higher up and know that someone else is there. There's definitely something in that.