Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Home » Discussion » "Suffering Zen" by Susan Moon

"Suffering Zen" by Susan Moon

3 June 2010

I want to tell you about coming apart, wanting to die, and returning at last to myself, and about how my Buddhist practice both helped and hindered me in this zigzag journey, in ways I couldn't have predicted.

I didn't call it depression for most of the five years I was in and out of it. I thought depression was for lethargic people who stayed in bed all day. But my pain was as sharp as an ice pick. Restless in the extreme, I paced and paced, looking for a way out.

While my misery seemed to be connected to the drawn-out and difficult end of a relationship with a lover, I came to realize that it was about my whole life. The invisible causes were old griefs and fears, about being left alone, and about not being left alone. I had been through painful separations before, but this one deconstructed me as none other had. After a wrenching divorce, I had other relationships, but I always erred on the side of independence, raising my children as a single mother, managing my life, my household, my recycling, on my own. But when it seemed, finally, that I would have somebody else to remind me to change the oil in my car, and then when it seemed, even more finally, that I wouldn't, the dam burst, and my pent-up longing to be taken care of came crashing through.

I had been a Zen Buddhist practitioner for over 20 years. Buddhist teachings are about suffering and the end of suffering, and Zen Buddhism, in particular, emphasizes sitting still in the midst of your suffering and just letting go. I assumed that my meditation practice would steady me. What could be more comforting than 40 minutes in the peaceful, familiar zendo, with the slant of sun across the cedar floorboards, and the sweet smell of tatami matting? But it didn't help. This is what I want to say: At times it made things worse. The demons in my mind took advantage of the opportunity. They weren't real demons, but they didn't care whether they were real or not; they tormented me anyway.

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!

"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.

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.

Then I took refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha, saying the words out loud, whether I felt anything or not. Taking refuge is an act of faith. I followed with my own translation: "I take refuge in my own true nature, I take refuge in things as they are, I take refuge in the community of which I am a part."

That I had shaped this practice for myself gave me confidence. And the early morning incense smoke, though it was thin and drifting, provided a hint of continuity for my days. They seemed, after all, to be days in the same life. One person's life: mine.

Faith is an attitude emphasized more in Christianity than in Buddhism, but it's there in Buddhism too. Faith means faith in yourself, in the practice, in the ancestors, in the teaching. Faith means believing that everything is unfolding as it needs to unfold, and that your own life is part of that unfolding.

Once, when I called Zen teacher Reb Anderson in despair, he came to Berkeley to see me. We sat on a park bench in a children's playground, and he told me, "Try to remember that the universe is already taking care of you." In the following months, I repeated this mantra to myself over and over: "The universe is already taking care of me."

Now, almost two years out of the desolation, I still don't understand what happened, and I wish I did understand, because I don't ever want to "go there" again. But I do know some of the things that pulled me through, including nature, the love of friends and family, poetry, medication, therapy, my own form of prayer, and learning to trust myself. I am grateful many times a day for my mental health. Even on days when I'm the most lonesome, or the most afraid, there's somebody home inside myself.

Originally published on Beliefnet.com; reprinted with permission from the author.

Susan Moon is a writer and teacher and for many years was the editor of Turning Wheel, the journal of socially engaged Buddhism. She is the author of The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi, a humor book about an imaginary Zen master, and editor of Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism. Her short stories and essays have been published widely. Her new book, This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Dignity and Humor, is forthcoming from Shambhala in June, 2010.

 

Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.