Category Archives: depression

This too shall pass.


Hell in a hand basket?

Despair is in the air this season, coming to the end of a year full of disasters, nuclear brinkmanship and sickening revelations. It’s enough to make a meditation teacher wonder what is the point of teaching how to find personal happiness. It seems equal parts selfishness and delusion.

But then I remember that Pollyanna happiness is not what I teach. Looking on the bright side and wearing blinders is not what I teach. I teach how to be present with whatever is happening with clarity and compassion for ourselves and all beings. That’s all I teach. And it’s always in season.

Last week I had a very bad cold, the first in many years. It wiped me out physically and mentally. I felt like all the color of life had been washed out of me. There was not one creative thought, not one ounce of curiosity. I was completely drained of everything except pain. One particular pain that went on for days was especially challenging: a sinus drip on a nerve ending in my temple. Every time it hit — erratically seconds and minutes apart — my whole body would clench up. No drugs alleviated it. And the only thing that helped was the reminder of the nature of impermanence: This too shall pass.

We can trust in impermanence when the world around us seems to be spinning off kilter. This too shall pass. Lord, I hope so! In class I opened the gates of despair and gave a big permission slip for students to express their feelings. And they did. And there were tears. And you know what? It was good.

Recently I was on a poetry retreat with Kim Stafford, and once we had all written a few poems, he encouraged us to go back and find the ‘B’ story in each poem. The ‘B’ story, he explained, is the hidden truth in what we write, the part that was trained out of us because it might not be nice glossy version our parents would approve.

So this week, after meditating and sending loving kindness to ourselves and out into the world that is so in need of it, we shared our deepest concerns, sorrows, longings and fears for ourselves and the world as honestly and openly as we could.

Part of the reason we resist such looking is the fear of seeing things we can’t cope with, can’t explain, can’t talk ourselves out of. We may worry that we will get lost there, get stuck in the murky mire, succumb to depression and never return.  But when we are looking with clarity and compassion, we can sit with fear. We can embrace uncertainty. The ongoing regular practice of meditation makes this possible.

I meditate every morning and am deeply grateful for my practice. But it is when we gather and meditate together that the real solace of the practice comes. There is something so rich and sacred in the shared silence. And out of that sacredness comes the antidote for despair.

First we discover we are not alone. The group gathers, each person feeling so isolated, stressed out and exhausted. And then, somehow, after ninety minutes together of sitting in silence and then exploring the dharma, we come away feeling refreshed, renewed and awakened.

Meditation lightens us to an awareness of the infinite nature of being. There is no way to explain what happens, but it feels to me like we relax into the flow of the ongoing dance of energy transforming into and out of matter. It’s a joyous dance of welcoming and letting go all that arises as we release into the continuum of being. Oh life! What a miracle! Wacky and wondrous and woeful, all at once.

With this expansive view, we see that, as bad as current times seem, history is full of parallel examples, that life is like this. We see through the lie of our nostalgia, that somehow we were all better, more noble, more exemplary in some long past day. In fact quite the reverse might be true in many cases, but we don’t need to compare. We can just remind ourselves that there is a tendency for the rear view mirror to be rose-colored.

Our tendency toward current events is to focus on negative news. The life we see is the result of the choices we make of what to pay attention to. We who are alive today have the capacity to be ultra-informed about every horror in every part of the world by an information industry playing on our inbred negativity bias ready and willing to scare us to death. If we are looking clearly we can also see that the distressing events are met by heroic and touching actions. We can see that horror, humor and honor all are represented. Yes, this awfulness exists. But so does this beauty, this communion of being, this sweetness, this enlightened awakening of deep appreciation of being here in this moment to experience whatever is arising.

It’s useful to remember that our ancestors had many challenges, hardships and losses, but they also had long periods of quiet and a deep interaction with the rest of nature. This is why meditation feels like a homecoming — it is a natural and necessary part of our experience.

Human evolution is not so quick as technological revolution, so here we are, ill-equipped to cope with all that confronts us moment to moment in our various devices. We are wise to give ourselves permission to turn them off, to step away, to reconnect with nature and with the natural eye-to-eye contact with our fellow beings. And even when we are using these devices, can we be sure to balance our exposure? Can we find a video of a flash mob Handel’s Messiah in a mall food court? And baby animals doing adorable things? This too is our world. Aw and awe!

When we give ourselves this permission, we find more balance in our lives. It is not turning a blind eye to suffering, just acknowledging the truth of our situation as one of 7.6 billion people in the world and it’s not all up to us in every minute so solve every problem. If we give ourselves the gift of clarity and compassion through regular meditation practice, and especially gathering to practice together, we are rendered more alive, more ready to spread the joy of the season, all year long.

Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness – The Five Hindrances

If you have been practicing the first three Foundations — being mindful of physical sensation and our relationship to the body; noting feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral; and noting mental phenomena (thoughts and emotions) as they arise and fall away — then you are ready to incorporate the Fourth Foundation, the dhammas, into your practice. The dhammas are described as ‘categories of phenomena which highlight how the different elements of the mind are functioning.’

If you haven’t had a chance to practice, then the following is just information to have available. The Buddha taught these four Foundations in a particular order for a reason. But the teachings are of value no matter what door you enter, and it’s possible that something in this exploration will inspire you to investigate the previous foundations and begin your practice in earnest.

The first of the dhammas is called the Five Hindrances. A hindrance is an obstacle to mindfulness. What gets in our way of seeing clearly, of being fully present?

The Buddha offers one analogy that fits very nicely with our jungle/garden theme from last week’s talk. He talks about a bowl of water, but we can just as easily see it as a pond we come upon in the garden of our mind — a reflection pool that, when mind-garden conditions are calm, is pure and clear. In this state, all is visible: The fish swimming in the pond, the rocks at the bottom of the pond, the reflections of the trees. It is like my husband Will Noble’s painting Reflection, where everything is visible. Look at the painting and see if you see all of what is going on. For more detailed view where you can scroll around, click here. (This won’t work on Apple products.) The painting makes an excellent focus of meditation. Not surprising since it came out of a meditative experience and was drawn and painted with meditative attention over a period of eight months.

Reflection, a watercolor painting by Will Noble

Now the Buddha has us imagine what if into this pond a dye was poured. It would color our view of what is happening, shifting our understanding of current reality. This is how the Buddha described what happens when the first hindrance of sensual desire is present.

Sensual desire might be sexual in nature, but it could be any craving for something we experience with our senses. For example, our eyes might have a sense desire to be surrounded by only the most beautiful things. Our sense of taste might be addicted to sweet, salt or fatty foods. Our sense of touch might want every creature comfort, to be cushioned and cozy and warm. Our ears might crave only the most delightful sounds and be distressed at sounds that seem discordant to our ears.

When noticing sensual desire in ourselves, in whatever form it takes, we might recognize a quality of mindlessness, as if we are being led by something so powerful we forget ourselves. We disempower ourselves through our desires, because we are so limited in what we can tolerate. The ultimate effect is that we enjoy so little of this experience of life!

Stop now and think of a sense desire that is a challenge for you. Find some recent instance of experiencing that sense desire. If nothing comes to mind, delve into the past and remember what it felt like to crave something so strongly. Oh come on, there was at least that overwhelming teenage crush! And remember how the thought of ‘him’ or ‘her’ colored everything in your experience? The desire is usually more painful than pleasurable when the wanting gets so powerful. Everything is interpreted through whether it fulfills our craving or not. All else falls away and we get out of balance. Life has a driven quality, shot through with desperation, helplessness, and sometimes self-loathing.

It is said that much of literature is based on this hindrance. Think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for example. Here’s a wonderful quote from that tale of runaway desire:  “Vronsky meanwhile, inspite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy. He soon felt that the realization of his desires gave him no more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.”

“No more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.” Whoa! Now that’s a cautionary tale — one that we have all told ourselves over and over again in our own lives after each experience of craving, consuming and then sitting with the resulting emotions and thoughts. Being mindful, being present to savor each moment as it is, helps us to actually learn it!

For the second hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool boiling. This bubbling boiling quality represents aversion, often experienced as anger or hatred. You can physically feel the boiling quality of being really angry.

In this mind state, when the water is boiling, can we see anything else but the bubbles?  No. We can’t see the rocks, the fish, or the reflections that are present in the calm pool. We are just focused on the bubbles, the aversion, the anger, the hatred. It is all consuming. It is the only thing that exists.

For the third hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool filled with algae, stagnant and without movement. This hindrance is sloth and torpor. What great words to describe a sluggish mental state, but the experience of them is debilitating. If we spend long enough on the couch, the easy chair or the bed, there will be insufficient oxygenation to be healthy. Our mind and body shuts down. Life is too much bother. Nothing excites us. The Buddha would no doubt ascribe this state to anyone suffering from depression.

For the fourth hindrance the Buddha has us imagine wind on the water, creating a lot of ripples and obscuring whatever is beneath and making it impossible to see any reflection. This is the hindrance of restlessness and worry. When we feel restless or worried we can’t be mindful of the present moment. We are glued to the future time of our imagination, eager or dreading.

For the fifth hindrance the Buddha asks us to imagine the water being muddy, obscuring our view. This represents doubt. We stir up the silt of the pond with our doubt. In relation to the practice of meditation, we might doubt our ability to do this. Everyone else seems so into it, but our mind is all over the place. Or we might doubt the teacher’s ability to teach or the teachings themselves. This is not just healthy questioning and exploration, but a habituated state of doubt, muddying up our minds. We might also see where in our life we are stymied by doubting our self-worth or our ability to do something that everyone else has told us we are quite qualified to do.

In our analogy of the jungle-garden, we can ponder this pond. As we do we might recognize one or more of the Five Hindrances that keep us from being fully present in the moment, fully mindful. When we become mindful for even a moment, we can check in and notice our mind state. We can think of the quality of that mind state and recognize how it is obscuring our view of things.

We might notice the one, or ones, that come up most often for us: Sensual desire, Aversion, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness and Worry, or Doubt. This is not to label ourselves or get attached to yet another aspect of identity. It is a way to help us to recognize tendencies so that we can see them as they arise. Just as we learn where in our body we have a tendency to carry tension so that we can go there and release it as needed.

If we recognize these mind states, we are being mindful. That’s cause for celebration, not for judging ourselves for having a mind state that is universally experienced by all of us at one time or another, to one degree or another. Mindfulness is that radiant light that has the capacity to dissolve obstructions.

A silent retreat is ideal for creating the opportunity to notice all of what goes on in the mind with few distractions and responsibilities. If we set the intention to be present, anchored by physical sensation, and the paired intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others, then we create conditions to notice these hindrances. At that point we do not try to banish the hindrance, because that just creates more turmoil in the pond of our mind. Instead we just note it, simply recognize it.

Recognition without judgment is key. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, he was able to deflect the tempter Mara by saying with compassionate awareness, “I see you, Mara. I know you.’ We too are able to see and know these hindrances for what they are. We can say, ‘Ah desire, I know you.’ or ‘Ah aversion, I know you.’ or ‘Ah sloth and torpor, I know you.’ or ‘Ah restlessness and worry, I know you.’ or ‘Ah, doubt, I know you.’ That recognition is mindfulness in action! It is the bright light of awareness that is all that is required to dissolve all suffering and nurture all joy.