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Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 5: Depression – Experience & Practice

My last entry was meant to focus on and express my experiences of depression in heartbreak, a particularly vexing set of painful emotions that keeps coming to visit, even after all this time. However, instead, I got into a philosophical examination of how depression alters our experience. This time, I’m going to focus on my experience and offer some tips/support for those readers out there who suffer from the same problems of the heart.

The world is barren. Nearly every day, I feel utterly lonely. It seems like there is no one who can hear me, no matter how hard I try to be heard. There’s no one who really cares–not really. People might show up on their own terms, but can any of them truly bear witness to me in my entirety? No. At least, I don’t know who that person is. Some days, I wonder who would care if I died tomorrow. My family, surely, but anyone else? Let’s stop here. Let me emphasize that these are feelings. Like I wrote about last time, I know that they are a particular alteration of perspective–a very pained one, curled up in a ball and wishing that the pain would end. Let’s not take these feelings to be truths, and let’s definitely not take them as blame on anyone who may be reading this. They’re my feelings, my reactions, and you hold no blame or responsibility for them. That being said, it has been particularly hard for me to move forward in recent weeks. I’m stuck at a job that irks me with false promises, poor pay for my responsibilities, and NO benefits–not even sick days, forcing me to expose my co-workers to illness out of my inability to afford missing a day. Furthermore, I struggle to find meaningful connectivity–something I’ve lacked throughout most of my adult life, despite my best efforts. Honestly, at this point, I’ve virtually given up. Who else reads philosophy for fun and yearns to learn as much as possible in this life? Who else is working hard at being an intensive practitioner of the Dharma? I don’t know such people, and they’re hard to find…

I’ve had an idea in my head for some time of returning to my ex’s city to live with some friends who stepped forward in my heartbreak and appeared as family to me. I’d love to show up and support them. However, each job I apply for comes to naught, and the other people I know there seem to be slowly denying or forgetting my existence. If I reach out and write something kind on one of their blogs or social media profiles, I get no response, but at the same time, I can see when they mention my ex and how great she is in whatever way. I guess she succeeded: in a certain way, I’m dead.

All of these difficulties have exacerbated those intense feelings I’ve expressed, and now, I’ve expressed them, both to let these feelings out and to let others know that they are not alone, not in the slightest. However, despite these feelings, I’m OK, and to explain that, let’s shift to how to deal with such feelings and such times in life. We all go through hard times, so let’s face these together with bravery, tenderness, and equanimity. The following are what I use to get through these feelings that could easily turn me into a blubbering mess; through these methods, I manage to have some grace, dignity, and joy in the wounds of heartbreak.

  1. Take care of yourself. You can’t continue with your life and show up for it if you fall into the abyss now (although there is no judgment if you crash at this point–no shame. Hang in there and recover). Taking care of yourself can make the unbearable a lot more manageable–not nice, not easy, but survivable. Not taking care of yourself will let it crush you. Also, taking care of yourself will give you the base of strength you need to excel with the other tips to follow. So–shower, exercise, continue to do things you like, reach out to friends and family to talk–don’t be afraid: others understand your pain and heartbreak, and the best way to feel loved is to reach out and find that others care, even if they can’t necessarily help beyond just listening. Personally, I had many of these self-care tools well-established this time from other bouts with depression, but this time, I learned that dressing well–that simple move of treating yourself with respect, with dignity–helped keep me positive and empowered day to day. This is not about being ostentatious or dazzling others–it’s about finding and holding your dignity. If you can find a way to do the same, do it. You could be wearing anything–your favorite band shirts and shorts. Just wear something that makes you feel that you matter and that you are embracing that.
  2. Be authentic. I’m not a big fan of the term as it is thrown around to the point of near meaninglessness. Here, I mean: show up for what’s happening. It’s easy to run away from such feelings or fall really deeply into them. Instead, try authentically showing up. These feelings show the depths of your heart. Let these feelings come up. Don’t fight against yourself or your emotion. Instead–gently be present. You’ll find that these feelings come and go, if you don’t grasp at them or fight against them. They’re just another part of your myriad possibilities of human experience. The brave, compassionate practice is to gently lean into them and surrender the fight against your emotional demons, finding that they, like a monster in your dreams, are part of you. It hurts, but it’s not good or bad: that’s just a reaction to that emotional experience. Don’t be afraid. Be brave, tender, and gentle towards yourself.

    Bringing awareness to depression works the same way. People often feel very bad about being depressed. When we don’t understand what depression is, it bears down on us. But when we get the hang of it, so to speak, we can allow more space around our depression and just let it be. Depression often comes when the hidden, dark corners we’ve tried to avoid actually surface. It may feel like a tight knot in our chest or an incredible sense of anxiety. It may feel like the earth has cracked open in front of us and we’re falling into some miserable lower realm. Or we may just feel blue. Depression is often accompanied by strong physical sensations. In the Tibetan tradition, this physical imbalance is called sok lung, or “wind disturbance.” But no matter what it feels like, remember that depression is just “experience.” And the experience of depression can be very valuable in coming to know aspects of our mind. When we come to know our mind, we feel much freer and less fearful. Whether depression is physical or conceptual, the important thing is to try and relax with it. Just relax with depression without feeding it by reacting–physically, mentally, or emotionally–with fear. There is no need to fight or identify with these habitual responses. This only makes them seem more solid and difficult to deal with. Initially the experience of depression is not such a big deal; it is more like a headache. If we bring awareness to depression. it won’t dominate our life. It is important to always return to the understanding that suffering is not personal. It’s an integral part of being alive and something that we all share. A great deal of understanding can come from bringing awareness to suffering, rather than thinking about or judging it. A quality of wakefulness comes with any sensation, which enables us to appreciate any experience. — Dzigar Kongtrül, It’s Up to You, pp. 57-58

  3. Move beyond “me”. You might notice that my expression in my story was all about I, me, and mine as well as how the world/others were not going in line with my expectations/desires. The suffering of samsara comes primarily from the grasping of self, and this is strongest with my attachments, especially in the stories of how I wish the world were. We fight very hard for these things, but in the end, they are impermanent–we lose them, and it hurts. OR we never get them at all, and it hurts because we want them so! We could discuss elaborate counter-plans of changing goals and such, but really, that just is a continuation of the same dynamic. It’s the same game with a different strategy to win. The real step forward as a brave spiritual warrior is to let go of the “me” game altogether. This sounds dramatic and incites immediate aversion, but it’s not the end of existence to stop staring at your belly button and look at the world instead. In this case, start small–engage in things that are about supporting others, even if that’s just doing things for a single friend. It can be as small as getting a plant or a goldfish to take care of and as major as volunteering to feed the homeless every week. Look your cashier in the eye–really see them, and thank them for helping you. There are truly opportunities everywhere. Small things spread positivity in the world and end up not only making you feel more positive but also getting you outside the miasma of your feelings.
  4. Engage, connect, process, and learn. There are so many resources beyond friends and family to help you feel witnessed, learn how to grow/heal, and take up your path as a brave warrior. Check out the book by Susan Piver that inspires these Heartbreak Wisdom Journal entries: “The Wisdom of a Broken Heart”. There are many blogs here in WordPress to read with others’ expressions of their experiences, tips, and tricks. I follow one called: “How to successfully get out of depression… and never go back!” The author adds lots of new ideas regularly, and they are well-informed and practical. Check that one out for a start! Find a therapist or a spiritual community. Know that you are not alone in this experience and that there are many avenues to find help and others who know your pain.
  5. Finally–Try meditating. You might scoff at this, but there is no better way to find peace. We externalize so many of our reactions, and our minds often run willy-nilly without much ability on our part to find mental calm. We think that happiness will come from realizing all the desires of “me”. Meditation sees through this and finds the basic goodness of who we are. It offers the true path to a happiness beyond the constant games of grasping and attachment. Just a few minutes a day can change your life and pull all these other suggestions together into an empowered, present, tender, brave, and beautiful embrace of your life.

May this post help others find companionship in their experience of depression as well as give them some help finding peace through it. As in the quote below, may your heart be big enough to hold all of these experiences with courage and tenderness. Gassho


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In both Western and Tibetan cultures, having a big heart is associated with generosity, kindness, warmth, and compassion. In Tibetan culture, a person with a big heart is also someone with the ability and courage to hold even the most painful truths in his or her heart without becoming despondent. During difficult times my mother used to say, “You need to make your heart big enough to hold a horse race inside.” Working with difficulties in a compassionate way doesn’t necessarily mean we can resolve them. Samsara, by its nature, can’t be fixed. It can only be worked with and transcended–which means seen through. A traditional Buddhist image of compassion is that of an armless woman watching her only child being swept away by the raging torrent of a river. Imagine the unbearable anguish at not being able to save your child–and not being able to turn away! In the practice of bodhichitta, this is the unconditional compassion we try to cultivate toward all sentient beings, even if we’re unable to truly help them until we ourselves become free. The willingness to not turn away from our anguish as we reflect on the suffering of samsara is the bodhisattva path. This path is possible only because we have seen that the true nature of suffering is egoless, or empty. Not turning away from suffering doesn’t mean “toughing it out.” It means that, having seen the true nature of suffering, we have the courage to encounter suffering joyfully. — Dzigar Kongtrül, It’s Up to You, p. 89

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry — Entry 4: Depression’s World Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry — Entry 6: Forgiveness

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Compassion in Action

Pets and loving words
–to the mewling cat
Water, care, and joy
–to the potted plant
Stopping to help
–a lost stranger
Truly seeing and engaging
–all those you meet

Our days
Filled
With others
With opportunities
To realize:
Despite the millions
Of heartbeats & breaths,
My life
–Within a magnificent
Universe
So grand, vast,
And full of happenings
Each passing & flowing

The realization:
It’s not all about me

The opportunity:
To wake up
To take care of others
To awaken the heart

The enlightened path:
Lit by the lantern
Of this awakened compassion
–The lantern of bodhicitta
Yet still with the darkness,
Your own human limitation of vision,
All around
This is a journey
Not a destination

The deluded path:
Shuffling through blackness,
Never looking past
Your own toes,
Holding this vision
As the greatest Truth

A difficulty of understanding:
Compassion helps lovingly
Meaning–sometimes–
It tears down
The masks of ego
And games of self-involvement
Helping others,
Awaken too


2 Experiences of Compassion

I’ve recently been engaging with the Way of the Bodhisattva and have thus been practicing and studying prajna and karuna (wisdom and compassion). Compassion is an unfortunately misunderstood and watered down term in general usage/discussion–something I will return to another time. For now, I’d like to share two recent and seemingly connected experiences.


I have been attending a sangha (a Buddhist community) meeting run by a former instructor and personal inspiration of mine. While at the most recent session, I meditated, and as per usual, I felt the discomfort of the half-lotus sitting position, the coughs and wheezes of nearby practitioners, and the turbulent memories and thoughts about all the transition and pain of the last few months which still pulse in my life. Yet, I felt an intense warmth and utter gratitude for everything. I felt profound connection with all those in the room around me. I could sense the whirrings of their thoughts, their difficulty breathing, also their serenity and presence. I felt such deep joy and sadness all at once–too big and profound for words, filling up my chest to the point of nearly bursting. Such tenderness lies within the awakened heart.


The next day, I walked around my work building on a shared break with a co-worker. We make 2 laps around during our breaks. Near the end of the second lap, an injured bird lay before me on the sidewalk–directly in my path. I slowed and gently tried to pick it up so that I could put it in one of the bushes or tufts of grass nearby–hopefully protecting it from further injury and allowing it to heal. As I daintily cradled it in my hands, it fluttered to life, and I could feel its sheer terror at this situation–no longer able to move and flit about to safety and comfort. It flew just enough to come out of my hand and plop back onto the ground. I had to try again a few times, feeling the visceral fear each time I held the bird. Eventually, I carried him a few feet off the path, and his attempted escape landed him in a bunch of grass where he could rest. I walked away.

The last time I had such a compassionate moment of protecting a helpless bird, my life fell into complete chaos not too long after and that was likewise preceded by experiences of profound joy-gratitude-sadness (all mixed together). What comes this time? I know not–perhaps that synchronicity is only apparent. Either way, such beauty has seldom shone through as a moment of being awake in my life.

Karuna

In the service of all sentient beings,

Gassho.

The Way is in the Heart

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This simple mug, found at a local Ross for a few dollars, has a profound message. The way of an engaged and authentic human life is not to be found in the abstract ideals of dogma and speculations about eternal metaphysical systems. Rather, it is to be found in the concrete embodiment of this body, in the compassionate beat of your heart.

The opening of Jack Kornfield’s book, “A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life”, expresses this lesson deftly:

In undertaking a spiritual life, what matters is simple: We must make certain that our path is connected with our heart. Many other visions are offered to us in the modern spiritual marketplace. Great spiritual traditions offer stories of enlightenment, bliss, knowledge, divine ecstasy, and the highest possibilities of the human spirit. Out of the broad range of teachings available to us in the West, often we are first attracted to these glamorous and most extraordinary aspects. While the promise of attaining such states can come true, and while these states do represent the teachings, in one sense, they are also one of the advertising techniques of the spiritual trade. They are not the goal of spiritual life. In the end, spiritual life is not a process of seeking or gaining some extraordinary condition or special powers. In fact, such seeking can take us away from ourselves. If we are not careful, we can easily find the great failures of our modern society–its ambition, materialism, and individual isolation–repeated in our spiritual life.

Of course, we are individuals, bodies with extremely sensitive nerves which intimately map all the pains and pleasures that the world offers us. We seek out the positive sensations that these senses perceive, and as such, of course we desire these higher goods, ultimate “goods” or the purest pleasures one might say, promised in spiritual pursuits. This is what gets us started. Otherwise, why would we begin? In any path, even if advanced, there will be some small shadow of that egoistic motivation. That’s why Dōgen, one of the greatest Zen ancestors, says: “Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings” (Genjōkōan in the Shōbōgenzō). To put this as simply as I can, as embodied individuals with a limited perspective, we struggle to realize the greater picture of a huge, interconnected, flowing universe of which we are part (in fact, not “part” per se as this can imply separation–there is no separation). We create elaborate stories of “Me” and accumulate myriad possessions as “Mine”. One particularly cutting and separative term I’ve experienced many times of this type is “My Truth”. This individualizes and upholds the ego’s limited perception above all else, thereby glorifying the Self as spiritual ideal (what Chögyam Trungpa would call “spiritual materialism“) and misunderstanding the concept of truth as well (for example, while a schizophrenic’s experience of a hallucination is true insofar as we can believe that he or she experiences it, it is not true in the same sense as “Water freezes at 32°F.”). From our limited perspective, we can aspire to greater understanding, insight, and experience. This is why buddhas greatly realize delusion–out of their self-centered motivation, they begin practice. They are also living beings (a buddha is clearly a living being!), still feeling some sense of separation and individuality even when realizing the greater truth that all is one. Hence, they are greatly deluded in realization.

The danger here for Dōgen is as Kornfield mentioned. A path without heart can mean: “Furthermore, there are those … who are deluded within delusion.” Those are the practitioners of spirit who get trapped in their pictures of the world, their fabrications, and their value systems. They fall into their own fantasies of being heroes or heroines. Rather than compassionately and vulnerably opening their hearts to the universe, this is selfishly putting on armor to protect their ego, their persona, their “story”–it’s a security blanket.


I’ve said that a way with heart is embodied rather than abstract and openly vulnerable and compassionate rather than egoistic and self-protective. The Buddhist idea of bodhicitta is the perfect expression of this. It translates to “awakened heart” or “noble heart”. However, citta in Sanskrit means both mind and heart in English. They don’t have quite as clear of a distinction as we do in the English language. However, this is apt – the heart (poetically meant) has an understanding–a very visceral and experiential one that grounds more than the airy concepts of the mind (from our Western understanding of “mind”). The heart pumps life throughout our entire body day in and day out for our entire lives–taking the air and nutrients from the world and circulating it through our entire bodies, making that external stuff into our bodies and taking the waste of our bodies to be returned to the world. Last, but perhaps most importantly, the heart is the symbolic organ of compassion–with phrases like “opening your heart” or “have a little heart”. The heart chakra is a perfect example of this in the Indian energetic system of the chakras–the point of connection, compassionate connection rather than individuated separation, with all life and existence. It is the symbolic seat of being open to and aware of the sacredness and wonder of everything rather than the self-centered idea of “My Truth”. In fact, in some of my reading about the heart chakra, I’ve read that developing and focusing on the energy of this green, open chakra can be the most fundamentally beneficial energy healing practice, and this position resonates well with the symbol of Yin-Yang (actually called Tai Chi, meaning supreme ultimate or universal harmony) in the Chinese energy practices of Qi Gong and Tai Chi. My point is that bodhicitta, “the awakened heart”, is the open, tender connection of the spiritual practitioner to the universe. It’s the compassionate engagement that brings a gentle support of all people–recognizing their confusion, pain, and human ways, ways needing compassion and guidance without the self-certain way of dogma (which is basically rigid opinion) or the sterile and abstractly disembodied ideals of some belief systems.

Bodhicitta, the perfect example of a way with heart, opens us to wonder at the universe and to compassionate action towards all. Like Ganesha on the cup, bodhicitta removes obstacles in our way, giving us a path forward, without it being a pre-constructed one; rather, we create the path with each engaged step of practice. This is a way that is in the heart and protects us from Kornfield’s identified failures of ambition, materialism and individual isolation.

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To those seeking a path with heart,

Gassho

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