Healing | Impermanence and the Lack of Return

I’ve healed past the worst of depression in the last few months, but I find myself in a difficult place that’s hard to understand. I still wish I were dead. I feel like I’m just waiting for my life to march forward, one day at a time until my consciousness blinks out. I don’t really have any joie de vivre, rather a goal of trying to become wiser and tune into the ebb and flow of the mystery of existence while showing up for the other lives around me.

I’ve talked about this a few times on the blog before – the problem of the metaphor of “healing”. People speak of it as though you’ll return to how you used to be, but that’s a very limited conceptualization of healing. I’ve thought of it more in terms of other, physical healing I’ve been struggling with.

Last summer, I was in the best running shape I’ve been in in probably 15 years. I was getting faster and faster, more and more enduring, and simply poised. My goal was to run a marathon, and I was ahead of schedule and pace.

Then, I pulled a hamstring. A few weeks later, I started again and immediately had intensive calf problems. Every run felt like my calves were going to cramp with every single step. Eventually, I gave up on the marathon and shifted to minimalist shoes – I used to wear them all the time and had greater leg strength and balance because of it.

Not long after that, I started having Achilles tendonitis. First in one leg and then the other. Since December, I’ve been fighting and hobbling along as best as I can for one or two runs a week, getting stronger through care and a strong sense of resolve, but one Achilles simply will not fully heal. I would walk around like an old man with one good leg for most of the week, heal, and then run and repeat the cycle.

About a month ago, I realized I could get a compression sleeve to assist. It’s made a huge difference. I can walk around without much any pain and normal gait. I can run with only a slight pain at the start. It’s almost like my Achilles is normal, and the sense of a nodule near the heel has slowly dissipated. However, I can only go roughly a day without it, and it doesn’t feel completely normal. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to walk normally again without some brace to support my foot.

In healing past everything I’ve gone through, have I returned to some version of myself prior to my experiences? Some chipper, confident guy who believed in love, partnership, and the good intentions of others in relationship with a hope about life and the future? No, I haven’t. Not in the slightest. I’m still pained and tortured on a deeper level, and I don’t know how to change that. I only get through due to a lot of developed self-care, the loving care of those in my life who do value me and see me, and the constant presence of my cat as well as my family. In a sense, it’s like the sleeve – if I don’t connect to these supports constantly, I quickly fall apart, unable to bear all the memories, doubts, and feelings of unworthiness.

The funny thing is that shattering pain has made me feel deeper and kinder than I’ve been in the past, and I can’t really imagine going back to normal in some way that covers over the vulnerability and compassion I’ve felt from it. A couple quotes recently really brought that to the fore, affirming my efforts and dispelling some of the doubts I’ve had about myself, which I’ll share briefly below, but I want to summarize this post with a clear point first.

Healing isn’t some river of Lethe forgetting and return to some previous before. Our lives and experiences are integrated in a complicated growth and decay of impermanence – change. In a very real sense, the body and heart keep the score, and healing back to some enhanced functionality may never be complete like it was before, but like some sort of psychological kintsugi, the art of mending may leave the need for supports that hold the cracks together or an inability to do like previously, but with some fortuitous circumstances, it may sometimes also leave some golden, shining new beauty.

In my own case, all I can do is continue on, doing my best for myself and others, with patience and care for the entire process.

As the Kotzker Rebbe, a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi, said: “There is no heart more whole than a broken one.”

Sent by a friend, uncertain origin

Sublimation happens when we are no longer attached to our pain. It is not that our pain vanishes, nor that we become immune. Tender sentiments continue to flow and, in fact, appreciation of beauty intensifies. When we are no longer consciously and deliberately fighting it, the pain itself is reconfigured into the very substance of compassion and sensitivity.

Thus, in the work of these three great masters [Saigyō, Hōnen, and Dōgen], we see a pathway out of tragedy that transforms its energy into the signs of enlightenment, signs that do not designate a sterile and frigid person, but one full of feeling and tender. It is this transformation and this process that Dōgen seeks to explicate in Genjō Kōan.

The Dark Side of the Mirror: Forgetting the Self in Dōgen’s Genjō Kōan by David Brazier, p. 37

May this help those who need it.

Gassho!

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Grief | Love | Death | Moving through Loss

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I just wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend to check that out if you find the music in this post interesting. I haven’t written many posts on the other blog, and it’s only roughly a year old, but in looking back over my experiences of the last year, I couldn’t help but feel like this post perhaps captured the mood and ambience of most of it better than any other, and it fits perfectly with this blog as well. May this resonate with others as well.


As we go through life, there will be loss. Everything composite is impermanent, and everything is composite. All falls apart, eventually. Even atoms will slowly break apart into heat death, according to thermodynamics. This inevitability of change alongside our attachment to beloved events, places, situations, and people means that there will be the pain of losing the things and people we love, and it will hurt.

One translation I love of the preeminent Zen philosopher-monk, Dogen, puts this in the most poetic light:

Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.

Shohaku Okumura, translation of Dogen’s Genjokoan, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo, p. 1

The experiences of big losses, big loves, are some of the hardest transitions we face in life. Dealing with them, living through them, is about as human and mortal as life can be.

As such, it’s no surprise that this is a theme for exploration in post-rock. One of the most iconic songs for this is Caspian’s “Hymn for the Greatest Generation”. The title track and the following track are both seemingly about the band’s process of moving through and honoring the death of a fellow band member.

The sound in this song is gentle, intimate, riding on the picking of an acoustic guitar that builds into a fuller rock instrumentation. We feel the bittersweet moving forward of time, with an almost metronome drum, reminding of the clunky ticking of change, moving on despite loss. The song builds further into something like a celebration for all the joy and love of those we have lost, facing it head on and embracing the memories and warmth of what was. Finally the song melts down to a poignant violin and a return to the bittersweet acoustic guitar slowly going on, knowing that what was had will never be had again.

You can feel both the joy and the sadness in this song. It’s utterly beautiful and unforgettable. Friends of mine have resonated with these feelings slightly differently, claiming to hear the guitarist crying in the song, and I’ve even seen memes about how heart-wrenching it is. This song displays the full beauty of having loved someone and lost them. I highly recommend sitting with it and letting it inspire the greatest affirmation within yourself for these cycles of love, loss, and grief that you will inevitably face in life. There’s perhaps no deeper spiritual experience to sit with.