January 6 2013
This fall I experienced something new. With winters approach, I felt depressed. More and more often, by late afternoon dark feelings and unspecific notions of dread colored my thoughts. As time went on, these feelings intensified. I finally realized that, as others had described and I had never before felt, I was depressed! I was seriously unhappy about everything inside and out. Some might say that there were plenty of reasons to feel this way. It had been a stressful year for all of us with difficult news coming daily regarding our national finances, election uncertainties, and everything from the Occupy movement to the so-called Arab spring where bullets and bombs, not spring rain fell from the sky! Now, the warmth of summer had given way to winter cold. Threatening news was being reported from every quarter. And I turned fifty nine.
Spin that number any way you want, fifty nine is impossible to equate with youth and it stretches the definition of “middle aged.” Youthful spirit that I feel myself to be – chronologically I am closing in on the experience of old age. In a culture that prizes youth I am now an old guy. Clearly, I had reasons for feeling depressed! At least that’s how it looked.
So, okay – fifty nine. That means ten to twenty more productive years with my current equipment and then I’ll get a bionic upgrade. Who knows? It may be possible! Until then, what I was not willing to allow was the kind of depressing feelings that made me want to just hurry up and die. It took awhile – I had to do a little time in hell but I finally saw a way through.
What I saw was that depression was just a feeling. “Of course it’s a feeling!” some of you may say. Yes – but I know something important. Feelings come and go. They still want to hang around but by recognizing them as “other,” Somehow I am no longer feeding them. They lack their previous tenacity and move along more quickly. Added to this, insight has turned an unexpected corner. It looks as though depression may be an effective tool in the continuing effort to awaken. “Awaken” is trending as the word most often used when referring to old fashioned enlightenment. Awaken. A better word, I think because its seven letters shorter and it doesn’t radiate the message: “Impossible for normal people to accomplish!”
So, the insight was that depression is just a feeling. As difficult as it was to see around it – once I had recognized it’s true nature I knew there was hope. At bottom, depression is a feeling – as in – just a feeling. The good news is that feelings, like thoughts, also come and go. So, I might feel depressed right now – but, like any other feeling, it will only last a certain amount of time after which it will leave. Better still – anything that comes and goes is not me – is not fundamentally true. Hang on to that thought – there’s quite a lot packed in there and I tossed it off without developing the background. Let’s see if we can make sense of it without writing dozens of pages.
The understanding is this. When asked the question, “Who are you?” a variety of reductions can be employed to dis-identify “me” with my body and mind. For example, does cutting your hair or trimming finger and toe nails diminish your being? No. That’s pretty easy to feel. How about the loss of body parts? That tooth your dentist pulled – did that make you less of a human being? How about the loss of fingers or even whole limbs? Amputation may limit mobility. But ask yourself – If you have one less finger on your left hand – are you actually diminished? No. Loosing fingers will be inconvenient, but you are still you. In other words, you have a body but that body is not who you are!
So, next step. Consider that in each moment thoughts are rising in your mind, coming and going. Notice what you are thinking and then think of something else, and then something else. So many thoughts come and go in a single day. Thoughts come, stay for a while and then they are gone – often never to return again. Seen this way, it is easy to recognize that you must not be your thoughts – no one could be that scattered and survive until morning!
If you’ve followed and agree with this line of reasoning, we can now say that what we are is that which observes – the one watching the thoughts and using the body. But try as we might we cannot see the observer. You are pretty important – at least to you. But really, just try to get a look at the most important person in your life – anything that can be observed is not you – could not be you. If you are observed you are forced to ask, “who is it that is observing me?” The answer is always the same – anything that you see and identify as yourself can in fact, be nothing more than an idea formed by you, about yourself. You are the one who observers but cannot be seen! This is and will always remain important for the simple reason that in the process of growing up – spiritually speaking – you will be asked to die. The part of you that needs to do the dying is all the thoughts you and I and everyone else have cooked up and substituted for our real self. Knowing this will help, but it will not make the job easy.
You are the observer that cannot be observed. You are pure consciousness. Pure consciousness has no mass – therefore you – as pure consciousness, are not inside of time. This explains why you feel the same now, as you did when you were a child. This is why we can say that we – you and I – have neither not been – nor will we never not be. In other words we really are timeless and immortal. The body dies but we are not our body. Some say that thought and memory resides only in the tissue of our brain. But there is much to suggest that the brain is really a reflection – a lower level expression of a field of energy – a living, “morphogenic” field that holds all the information required to make our bodies and just as likely all the thoughts we generate for as long as we choose to inhabit them. Our brain might die but we are not our brains. Dead brains… that’s depressing!
So, not the body, not the mind and depression is just bunch of thoughts that we can ditch. Except for the fact that I realized that I no longer wanted to!
Back to those depressing feelings – one evening I had been feeling particularly down for a couple of hours when suddenly, something new occurred to me. What I realized was that I had been feeling very empty. All of my life’s activities past and present were empty. Even worse, it was easy to conclude that anything I do in the future will be similarly, equally, empty!
I’ve stacked up a rich collection of life experiences but at that moment it became clear that they were all empty. There is nothing complicated about this realization. The simple fact is that nothing that I had or could acquire – nothing had the kind of substance that made a difference – substance that could make me feel validated and somehow – not depressed.
Now – it turns out that Buddhist and Christian scriptures speak of emptiness. Each tradition strongly recommends that we should embrace the fact that in the end – all things – all the stuff in the world is empty. The Buddhist teaching of shunyata speaks of this emptiness or void, saying simply that:
All beings and phenomena are empty of independent, permanent essence.
The Christian approach comes at it by stating:
If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.
So, where does this leave us? In control! Sort of. Knowing that thoughts and feelings come and go – we can now watch them – making them no more personal that a television commercial. Not true you say? What about the guilt or fear I feel resulting from my actions? There is no end to this sort of mildly rhetorical questions – not really a question – rather, a statement of disbelief couched as a question. So, let’s not do that. Instead – just work with it. Make objects out of subjects. Reduce identification with the imaginary world of projection, reactions and hypothecation.
Thoughts and feelings come and go. Anything that comes or goes is not real in the substantial way – the eternal way that we are turning to. Depression showed me emptiness – revealing that emptiness was a fact of life not an esoteric, philosophical knob to twist and spin for amusement. The suffering of depression indicated my true center of gravity more clearly than anything I had experience up until that time. I realized just how much suffering I could leave behind – how much psychic weight I could lose by reducing identification with thoughts and feelings – the dream world.
I am no longer all that interested in this dream world. I must have that which is independent of all – that which is permanent and essential.
This is the gift that fifty nine years has given me. Like a champagne or better pallet… only better.
Biblical scholars (I am just learning) have pretty much agreed that Jesus’ actual words didn’t include the bit about losing your life”….for my sake and for the sake of the good news”. Those were added at some later point, perhaps during the hammering and pruning out of the King James version. So that boils it down to “Those who would lose their life would find it and those who would keep it would lose it.” Which eliminates the whole martyrdom aspect of the statement and turns it into another more radical statement about not clinging to Anything. Even your life isn’t you, at least in the way we understand it. Mankind’s root question “Who (or what) am I?”, around which much if not most of Buddhist philosophy revolves, is indeed the most important question we can ask because it leads us straight to God.
Glad you have been able to find some equanimity, strength and purpose in the face of depression. Not an easy feat.
In thinking about this I wonder how we handle the fact that it is quite comforting to realize that we are not our thoughts if those thoughts are plaguing us. But what about the good thoughts? The high-minded thoughts about who we are and what our relationship to the Divine is? Aren’t we those thoughts either? If I am not the negative, I am not the positive. If duality is present we are still in the dream. I am no more my intellect than my foolishness. Does what wisdom I store up go the way of the all things then? Don’t I even get to keep my wise thoughts? My true ones? Losing my life seems infinitely easier than that. Still, I suspect we do lose even those, but what I also suspect is that it doesn’t matter because what we are is much bigger, much deeper and much more vital than we know. We don’t need a compass if we are a compass. We don’t stand outside Monet’s Garden, we are the garden. But that’s another thought.
Polly, I understand the argument – but chose to quote familiar translations. Read from sufficient altitude – the Mind of Christ shines through – this is the good news!… fer christ’s sake!
And, “The good thoughts…” Ya – neither clinging to pleasure or to pain is the goal. Sometimes it may be sufficient to work on one problem at a time.
Your remarks are insightful – and I’d think helpful – clarifying for other readers.
I generally appreciate your musings, Tom, but as for this one, well, as the Roman poet, Horace, said about another writer, “even Homer nods”. Or, as my Jewish friends back in New York would put it, “oy vey!”.
This is particularly annoying: ” Spin that number any way you want, fifty nine is impossible to equate with youth and it stretches the definition of ‘middle aged.’…So, okay – fifty nine. That means ten to twenty more productive years with my current equipment and then I’ll get a bionic upgrade.”
I mean, my 84 year-old PhD stepfather has been producing a book a year for the last fifteen years of his life, along with a weekly column for a local newspaper.
But your connecting world events — you know, real issues — to your turning 59 is notable in this regard. The “Arab spring” was prompted by the desperate poverty that most citizens in most Arab states are consigned to for the entirety of their lives. Many of your fellow fifty-niners in these countries and countries across the world have lived barely above subsistence level since childhood; I see this where I live in Ecuador, where seniors in their 70s and 80s haul on their backs canvas bags full of bottles they’ve picked out of dumpsters in order to earn enough to buy some food for the day. They don’t have the luxury of sorrowfully contemplating the twilight years of their potential as human beings.
So here’s an instant cure for your “depression”; count your blessings and consider how very fortunate you’ve been in this life.
Thank you Rick, for proof that there is always another perspective. Although I am sorry you found no helpful take-away. But then the tone of your remarks suggests that you did not really read what I wrote. Even as I write this – I realize that you did read it – but from your perspective – that of the fiery revolutionary. So that when I admit to dark feelings but refuse to fall for them – all you are reading is the miserable experience of another over-privileged, (read, American), white guy, whining for want, at the very lit of cornucopia. Well – it’s a mark of progress to be able to take on new perspectives – so I’ll step up to the challenge of seeing this your way. But the same folk who helped us see that “It’s all about perspectives,” were wise enough to realize and declare that, clearly – all perspective are not equal! Some are actually more accurate and… better than others! Ranking is back – I really missed it! So while I can applaud your Professor friend and what must be an example of his perspective on life – as for yours as reflected by your remarks – I see them as just you being unpleasant for the sake of anger – another chance to lash out at the, “White Man’s burden,” as you fail repeatedly to appreciate the humor employed at my expense and the overall perspective that feelings are just feelings – after which we go out and do something more fun and maybe even find another way to be of help to others! All this said – thank you for your less than positive remarks. You remind me that there is always room to improve. And that includes my writing – as it reflects perspective – and around and around. Best to you!