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Buddhadharma : Summer 2005
summer 2005| 84 |buddhadharma after I’d been feeling better for a while, I stopped taking it. But then a couple of years ago, I started slipping. An aching loneliness (that bore little relation to real- ity) started dragging me back down into that scary place where I couldn’t focus on anything but my own pain. I went back to a therapist who had helped me before, and she suggested I go back on Zoloft. I did, and felt better within a couple of days – not drugged, not numb, not high, but myself, connected to the rest of the world. So there you have it – I’m coming out as a taker of Zoloft! It’s hard to admit, because there’s shame around it, espe- cially, I think, among Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners. It’s hard enough to admit that you used to take it; harder still to admit that you are taking it now. I often hear casual judgments about people who take antidepressants. Someone will say to me, “So-and-so is so full of anti- depressants, how can she possibly find her true nature?” Ashamed, I don’t say anything. But I’m saying it now. So am I in any way turning away from the truth? I still cry in the movies, though not as much as I used to. It’s odd how you can take a tiny blue pill and have the same world look so different! Am I cheat- ing? This question interests me. Another antidote to depression that I’ve found is the practice of gratitude. It’s hard to be grateful when you’re miser- able, but you can start anywhere. You can be grateful that your shoes fit your feet, or that hot water comes out of a pipe in the wall when you turn a handle. For me, photography has been a profound grati- tude practice. Acting on unconscious wis- dom, I signed up for my first photography class while I was still depressed. Through photography I saw unexpected beauty everywhere, and all I had to do was put a frame around it. I learned to celebrate the fact that light touches everything it meets without judgment, and thanks to the light, everything offers itself as a gift to be seen: rooftops in puddles, cobwebs in broken windows, a child in a red snow- suit pulling a sled. When I go out to take pictures, I see what’s already there, what’s given. I’m not asked for my credentials. I see the word TRUPAK on the barn wall and it’s a kind of zazen. I’m silent, breath- ing, in a place beyond words, a place out- side my small self. The last thing on my list is a biggie – faith in the dharma. Even though zazen didn’t DEPRESSIoN IS vIolENT and merci- less. For anyone who has struggled with serious depression, the idea that it could possibly serve as an incentive to meditate is to grossly misunderstand just how de- bilitating major depression is. The con- stant barrage of negative thoughts seem to form an unbearable “helmet of doom,” and it is simply not possible to become curious about these thoughts and wish to explore them, as is often suggested for meditation practice. There is simply no space and no ground for this kind of practice in depression. Because there is so much emphasis on the mind in Buddhism, there is a tendency to believe that if you cannot overcome your negativity, you must not be doing something right. If I could only meditate properly! If I could only spend more time at it! These laments are just variations of the same loop of negative thinking. People who imagine there is a bottom to “hit” before one can get better do not know that depression is a bottomless pit. There is no bottom to the dark. The worst of it is that you just keep falling. For years my attempts to “overcome” my depression, fueled by my misunder- standing of Buddhist practice as some kind of self-improvement regime, caused me to reject the idea of taking medication because I believed that my problem was a weak mind. Nope, my problem was a lack of love. The kind of love that is fun- damental in order to live, let alone foster spiritual development. My depression was treated successfully with medication. It is not the answer to my problems, but I know that because of the medication, I will never suffer inca- pacitating depression again. My practice, which I used to think of as a collection of sadhanas and mantra recitations, is now focused on developing compassion for myself. After eighteen years, the first principle of the path begins to dawn. Kathleen Ivanoff Ann Arbor, Mich. I BEgAN MEDITATINg at age nineteen. Meditation instantly became my life raft, the first hope I’d found for the darkness of readers Write help me, and at times made things worse, my practice took a devotional turn. I bowed and chanted, and prayed to Avalokiteshvara, the one who hears the cries of the world. I trusted in the unfolding of my karma, and in the ground of my being. Somewhere underneath the pain was faith in the dharma, though it was deeply buried much of the time. Now the dharma keeps me going. All the buddhas and bodhisattvas keep me company. After all, that’s their job, isn’t it? I practice in the Soto Zen tradition, where zazen is the essence of the practice, and yet it’s still hard for me to sit a lot. I sit even though my moments of greatest openness and understanding don’t happen on the zafu; they happen when I’m walk- ing, cooking, taking pictures of a wall. I sit because others do it – my teach- ers and my dharma brothers and sisters. I sit regularly, for a day, for a week, with my sangha. I sit at home by myself – just a little. And every morning, zazen or no zazen, I offer incense and say the vows I made for myself. My practice is steadier. I just keep going. The interesting thing is that my cir- cumstances haven’t changed in any sub- stantial way since my depression, so I know that the suffering was in my mind. My job, home, and marital status (single) are still the same. I worry more than ever about the big world, where things have gone from bad to worse, where war and torture flourish. But drinking my first cup of Dragon Well green tea in the morning makes me happy. So does cooking corn muffins, or watching dark clouds pile up on top of each other across the bay, or hearing my housemate practice the accordion on the back porch. There’s a difference between “clinical depression” and the sadness that comes and goes like weather. loneliness, disappointment, and regret continue to visit me regularly. And loneliness is real. I don’t believe it’s a sign of weakness to feel lonely. But thanks to the dharma, I finally understand that at the deepest level I’m not alone. When I take a step, the whole world rises to meet the sole of my foot. I love my sangha, my teachers, my family, my friends, my students, my coworkers. I love the dharma. I practice gratitude. I practice being present. I prac- tice curiosity. I don’t know what’s ahead, but I trust it will be interesting to find out.