I Want to Tell You about Coming Apart and Struggling Through Depression
I Want to Tell You About Coming Apart
A moving account by Susan Moon of her journey back from depression, and how her Buddhist practice both helped and hindered her.
Although I suffered from severe depression, I didn't call it that for most of the several years I was in and out of it. I thought depression was for lethargic people who stayed in bed all day. But my pain was as sharp as an ice pick. Restless in the extreme, I paced and paced, looking for a way out. The visible cause was the drawn-out and difficult end of a relationship with a lover. The invisible causes were old griefs and fears and other conditions unknown to me.
It's taboo to be depressed. When I was feeling really bad, I still went to work, though I was barely functional. If I had had the flu and felt a fraction of the pain I was in, I would have called in sick. But I couldn't call in "depressed." One day I threw a whole issue of the magazine I edit into the computer's trash can, thinking I was saving it. Then I emptied the trash. I had to hire a consultant to look for it in the virtual garbage, and eventually I got most of it back. But it was myself I wanted to throw in the trash.
Physical pain is hard to describe; psychic pain is even harder. I was in intense, moment-by-moment pain, and all I wanted was to get away from it. The pain was in the thoughts, which I didn't (and couldn't) recognize as just my thoughts. (As Buddha said, "When, for you, in the thought is just the thought, then you shall be free...") A voice in my head repeated what I took to be The Truth: I was completely alone, I would never again love or be loved by another person, I was nothing.
I spent hours every day on the phone. Once, during the 45-minute drive from my lover's home back to Berkeley, I had to stop and call a friend from a pay phone by the side of the road, so that I could drive the rest of the way, even though it was only fifteen minutes. Luckily she was home. "I just got off the Richmond Bridge," I sobbed. "I'm afraid I don't exist. My body's here, but there's nobody in it."
"You exist," she said. "How could I love you if you didn't exist? Come over right now and we'll take a walk on the Berkeley pier."
I've gained some understanding of what it must be like to have an invisible illness, like lupus or chronic fatigue syndrome. I wanted to wear a sign around my neck—I might look okay, but I'm sick!—so people wouldn't expect me to be functional.
I couldn't eat, a common symptom of depression. It wasn't just loss of appetite. Chewing itself was unbearable. A blob of bread was scary because it got in the way of breathing, and breathing was already hard enough to do. Liquids were more manageable. It occurs to me now that I'd regressed to the stage before I had teeth, when the only kind of eating I could do was sucking. So I drank hot milk with honey, and Earl Grey tea. I lost a lot of weight, something I'm always trying to do when I feel "normal," but I was too downhearted to take any pleasure from it.
Like many other depressed people, I didn't sleep well. I clutched my pillow and called out to the flapping curtains for help. I took sleeping pills—sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. I couldn't read in the night (or during the day, for that matter) because I couldn't get past the fear to concentrate on anything.
Waking in the morning was the worst of all. The moment consciousness returned, the pain came with it. Oh no! I have to breathe my way through another day.
I didn't like getting into the shower because I didn't want to be alone with my skin. To feel my own skin and imagine that nobody would ever touch it again was unbearable. Better to swaddle myself in layers, no matter what the weather, so the skin didn't have to notice it was alone. I remembered a pale young woman who had lived next door to me years earlier, who began to wear more and more layers of clothing—a skirt over her pants, a dress over her skirt, a long shirt over her dress, then a sweater, a long coat, a cape, a hat—in Berkeley summer weather. Finally her father came and took her away to a mental hospital.
One of the worst things about being so depressed is that one becomes totally self-absorbed. I could hear other people only when they were talking about me: recommending homeopathic remedies for me, interpreting my dreams to me, telling me they loved me. During my depression, one of my adult sons had a serious bicycle accident, and my fear for his well-being snapped me out of my self-absorption for the five days he was in the hospital. I sat all night in a chair beside his hospital bed, hypervigilant, watching him sleep. I put a cool cloth on his forehead, I prayed to whoever might be listening, and I made a promise I couldn't keep: not to be depressed if only he would be all right.
He came home to my house from the hospital, with one leg in a full cast. It was summer. He sat on the back porch of the house he'd grown up in and I washed his back. One day I walked into the living room where he was reading on the couch, and he said, "My god, what's the matter? You look like a ghost!"
Dry-mouthed with panic, I told him I had to go see my lover; we had to decide right then whether to break up. "Do you think I should stay with him?" I asked.
My son looked at me with an expression I'll never forget—a mixture of despair and love. "I don't know how to help you any more," he said. "I don't think you should be driving in the state you're in. Why don't you just stay here and be my mother?"
But I couldn't. I drove out to see the man, compelled by an irrational sense of urgency, with my son's stricken face burning in my mind.
I had then been a Zen Buddhist practitioner for more than twenty years. I assumed that my meditation practice would steady me. What could be more comforting than forty minutes in the peaceful, familiar zendo, with the sweet smell of tatami straw matting? But it didn't help. This is something I want to say: at times it made things worse. The demons in my mind took advantage of the silence. They weren't real demons, but they didn't care; they tormented me anyway.
My Buddhist teachers urged me to keep on sitting zazen. "Don't turn away from your suffering," they said. "Just watch the painful thoughts arise and watch them pass away again."
When I sat down on a zafu, the painful thoughts arose all right, but if they passed away, it was only to make room for even more painful thoughts. I'll die alone. And, adding insult to injury: After twenty years, I'm the worst Zen student that ever was.
When I told my teachers I was disappointed that zazen didn't make me feel better, they scolded me. "You don't sit zazen to get something. You sit zazen in order to sit zazen. If you want zazen to make you feel better, it won't work." But didn't Buddha invent Buddhism in the first place to alleviate suffering? Did all those other people in the zendo really get up out of bed at five a.m. for no particular reason?
Still, I kept going back, hoping that if I meditated hard enough I'd have some sort of breakthrough. In the past, sitting in the zendo, I too had had the experience of watching my worries turn to dry powder and blow away. So now I signed up to sit Rohatsu sesshin, the week-long meditation retreat in early December that commemorates the Buddha's enlightenment. He sat down under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he saw the truth. It took him a week. I had sat many sesshins before, but maybe this would be my week.
The first day was bad. I cried quietly, not wanting to disturb the others. The second day was worse. Tears and snot dripped off my chin on to my breast. I hated myself. Nobody else will ever love me!
"Bring your attention back to your breathing," my teachers had advised me. This was like telling a person on the rack, whose arms are being pulled out of her shoulder sockets, to count her exhalations.
But I wasn't on the rack. I was in the zendo. Around me sat my dharma brothers and sisters, hands in their pretty mudras. As for my mudra, I dug the nails of my left hand deep into the palm of my right hand, feeling relief at the physical pain and the momentary proof of my existence. On the third day, during a break, I snuck away to a pay phone down the street and called my sister in Philadelphia. Choking on my own words, I told her I didn't know who I was. I wasn't exactly convinced by her reassurances, but just hearing her voice was some comfort.
The fourth day was worse yet. The distance between me and the people on either side of me was infinite, though their half-lotus knees were only six inches away from mine. I thought of the lover who wasn't going to be taking care of me after all. I'm nobody, I thought. There's nobody here at all. This feeling of no-self was supposedly the point of meditation, and yet I had somehow gotten on to the wrong path. While a nameless pressure mounted inside me, the people around me just kept sitting zazen. I couldn't stay another second. I left without getting permission from the sesshin director.
Driving away from the zendo in the privacy of my car, I shouted: "This is the worst day of my life!" (There would be other days after that when I would say it again: "No, this day is worse.") I drove into Tilden Park and walked into the woods, where no one could see me. I screamed and pulled my hair. I lay down on the ground and rolled down the hill, letting the underbrush scratch and poke me. I liked having leaves get stuck in my hair and clothing. It made me feel real. I picked up a fallen branch from a redwood tree and began flailing myself on the back. The bodily pain was easier to bear than the mental pain it pushed aside.
But I scared myself. How could I be spending my sesshin afternoon beating myself with sticks in the woods? How had it come to this? I picked the leaves out of my hair and went home. The next morning, the fifth day, I called the Zen Center and said I wasn't feeling well—an understatement if ever there was one—and wouldn't be sitting the rest of the sesshin. I didn't sit zazen for some months after that.
I thought I had failed in my practice—twenty years of it!—and I was bitterly disappointed in myself. Only after the depression subsided did I see what growth that represented: choosing not to sit was choosing not to be ruled by dogma, to be compassionate with myself, to take my spiritual practice into my own hands.
Buddhism teaches that we have "no fixed self." There is nothing permanent about us During the depression, I wasn't my "self," as we say. I didn't seem to have a self at all, in a way that cruelly mimicked this central point in Buddhist teaching. You'd think that it would be painless to have no self, because without a self, who was there to be in pain? And yet there was unbearable pain. Like a wind-up doll, I went stiffly through the motions of being Sue Moon, but there was no person present, no aliveness—only a battery that was running down.
I felt angry at Buddhism, as if to say: You told me there's no fixed self, and I believed you, and look where it got me! I knew the yang of it but not the yin—the balancing truth that there was no separation.
I couldn't have gone on like this indefinitely. I was tearing up the fabric of my life. As I was weeping to my friend Melody on the phone one afternoon, speaking my familiar litany, she suddenly shouted at me: "Stop it! You've got to save your own life! You've got to do it! Nobody else but you can save yourself, and you can do it! You just have to be brave. That's all there is to it." This was an important phone call: she startled me into finding a stick of courage, and I held on to it by reminding myself of her words.
Still, the misery continued, and I finally decided to try medication. I consulted a psychiatrist, who prescribed Prozac. I took it for about a week and felt much worse, though I wouldn't have thought it possible to feel worse. The psychiatrist had me stop the Prozac and try Zoloft. I felt it kick in after a couple of days. I didn't feel drugged; I felt, rather, as though a deadly fog were lifting.
Zoloft is supposed to be good for people who have trouble with obsessional thinking, and I seem to be one of those. Zoloft did what zazen didn't do—it quieted the voices in my head: I hate him. I hate myself. It didn't shut them up entirely, but they weren't as loud and I was sometimes able to turn away from them.
I had a lot of resistance to taking medication. I thought my unhappiness had two parts: negative circumstances in the outside world, which Zoloft obviously couldn't fix, and negative attitudes inside my head, which I thought my Buddhist practice should take care of. Besides, an orthodox Zen voice whispered in my mind that the monks of old got along without Zoloft. But some of those monks probably obsessed their lives away in misery; others may have left the monastery because they couldn't concentrate. Buddhist history doesn't tell us about the ones who tried and failed, the ones with attention deficit disorder or clinical depression.
I was learning to trust myself. Taking Zoloft and stopping sitting were both acts of faith in myself. So, too, I learned to construct my own spiritual practice. Every morning, as soon as I got out of bed, I lit a candle on my little altar and offered a stick of incense. I made three full bows, then stood before the altar, my palms pressed together, and recited out loud my morning prayers, starting with a child's prayer a Catholic friend had taught me:
Angel of God, my guardian dear,
To whom God's love commits me here,
Ever this day be at my side
To watch and guard, to rule and guide.
It was comforting to ask somebody else, somebody who wasn't me, to help me. Prayer was something I missed in Zen practice as I knew it, so I imported it from Christianity and other Buddhist traditions. I prayed to Tara, Tibetan goddess of compassion, to fly down from the sky, all green and shining, into my heart. I prayed to Prajnaparamita, the mother of all Buddhas, who "brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken, and disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion." Then I took refuge in buddha, dharma and sangha, saying the words out loud, whether I felt anything or not.
That I had shaped this practice for myself gave me confidence. And the early morning incense smoke, though it was thin and drifting, provided a hint of continuity for my days. They seemed, after all, to be days in the same life. One person's life—mine.
Now I can say this: there are times in life when nothing helps, when you just have to feel terrible for a while. All you can do is go through the agony and come out the other end of it. It's a gift, in a way, to hit the bottom (though it doesn't feel that way at the time). If you lie on the grass, you can't fall down.
There's a saying in Zen that "inquiry and response come up together." Perhaps that's what prayer is. To make an inquiry is already to get a response, because asking implies that there's something else there. And there's not even a time lag. The moment you're asking for help, you're already getting it, though it may not be the help you thought you wanted. Once, when I called Zen teacher Reb Anderson in despair, he came to Berkeley to see me. We sat on a park bench in a playground, and he told me, "The universe is already taking care of you." I said this mantra to myself over and over: "The universe is already taking care of me."
One late afternoon at the end of a hard summer, while I was visiting friends on Cape Cod, I walked barefoot and alone down the beach and into the salty water. There were no people about, so I took off my bathing suit in the water and flung it up on the sand. I swam and swam and felt the water touching every part of me. I was in it—no dry place left. I wasn't afraid to be alone with my skin because I wasn't alone; there was nothing, not the width of a cell, between me and the rest of the universe. I did a somersault under the water and looked up at the shiny membrane above me. My head hatched into the light, and I breathed the air and knew that I would be all right. No, not would be, but was already. I was back in my life.
I'm more than two years out of the desolation, and I still don't know why I suffered so much, or why I stopped. I can neither blame myself for the suffering nor take credit for its cessation. I sit again—I mean on a zafu—but not as much as I used to. I also bow and chant and pray. I've stopped taking Zoloft, though I'd return to it without shame if I thought it would be useful.
I practice curiosity. What is it to be born a human being? What does it mean to be embodied in your separate skin? There are many other (and more reliable) paths out of the delusion of separation besides having a boyfriend—things like writing and swimming, for example. And most of all, there's studying this human life. You could call it buddhadharma, or you could call it something else. It doesn't matter.
I now admit that I sit zazen for a reason: I want to understand who I am (if anybody), and how I'm connected to the rest of it. And yes, I want to stop suffering and I want to help others stop suffering. When I was in despair, time passed slowly, so slowly. Now it sweeps by faster and faster, gathering momentum. The shortness of life stuns me.
Susan Moon is the former editor of Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and author of the satire The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi.
Insight Meditation at 25
Insight Meditation at 25
The idea was almost too ridiculous to contemplate. Three twenty-something meditation teachers, who had spent most of their adult lives wandering around Asia, now stood in front of a 150-room, former Catholic monastery-complete with bowling alley-in the hills of central Massachusetts. They were debating whether to buy it.
The plan was to start a Buddhist retreat center. The prospect was intriguing, but overwhelming. They had no money, no income, and only a handful of students. As they struggled to make a decision that day in late 1975, the group went to explore the nearby town of Barre, 50 miles west of Boston. There, on the Common, they came upon a plaque emblazoned with the town motto: "Tranquil and alert." All doubts dissolved.
A quarter of a century later, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) is the flagship of a movement that has brought mindfulness into the American mainstream. Its founders—Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield—are key architects of the rise of Buddhism in the West.
"They're my teachers and IMS is my Mecca," says Sylvia Boorstein, herself a well-known Buddhist teacher and author. She is not alone. Many of the leading names in American Buddhism have studied under the trio or completed an IMS retreat.
"Consciously be in the present moment and be in your body in the present moment," veteran IMS teacher Christina Feldman tells the crowd of about a hundred people who sit, eyes closed, legs crossed, on cushions in the main meditation hall. The room once served as the monastery chapel. After a pause, she continues softly: "Be conscious of the places where your body is in contact with the ground. Feel the sense of belonging where we are. Be present in this moment." Be present. Be mindful. It is the IMS mantra.
At the foundation of everything taught at IMS are three primary forms of meditation. Breath-focused shamatha meditation is designed to stabilize the mind. In vipassana, or insight meditation, the practitioner consciously explores the body and mind. Metta, or loving-kindness meditation, is meant to produce a generosity of heart. Periods of sitting meditation are interspersed with walking meditation sessions, when the wooded grounds of the imposing stone mansion are filled with people moving at what, to the uninitiated, seems an excruciatingly slow pace.
Mindfulness infuses every moment of an IMS retreat, from the breakfast hall to the shower stall. To facilitate concentration, participants in programs—whether a weekend, ten days or three months—maintain silence except during one of the periodic consultations with a teacher.
Thousands of people from around the world have taken IMS up on its invitation, in Feldman's words, "to be very awake, to be very aware, to be very conscious and have access to depths" of experience available to everyone. Most programs have been full since the mid-nineties. "We've been turning people away at the door," says executive director Edwin Kelly, with only slight exaggeration. Waiting lists are common and for some programs, such as the advanced three-month retreat, a lottery is used.
What is it that draws them? For a start there is the high profile of the IMS founders. Kornfield, Salzberg and Goldstein have become marquee names of American Buddhism and their books top the spiritual best-seller charts. When reporters from the mainstream media write about Buddhism, odds are one of those three will be among the first called. And exposure like a recent spread in O magazine, featuring a weekend of meditation at Oprah's house led by Salzberg, doesn't hurt either.
But Kornfield insists they are just the messengers. "I don't think it's us that's popular," he says from his home in Marin County, California, where he established a related center, Spirit Rock, in 1988. "I think it is the simplicity of the buddhadharma. We were just fortunate to receive teachings from masters in our lineage who expressed it in the simplest and most immediate ways. It makes it possible for people to relate to the teachings as relevant to their lives, and not as being esoteric or connected with a kind of mysterious or distant culture."
Certainly, the trappings of Buddhism are kept to a bare minimum at IMS. Teachers wear street clothes. A simple Buddha, flanked by flowers, sits at the front of the meditation hall. There are no altars filled with offerings, virtually no rituals, and in the walking meditation room, two of the windows still hold stained glass images of Christ, a reminder of the building's Catholic past and a subtle sign that meditators of all religions are welcome.
A 1993 survey of participants in IMS programs found that the majority came from a Catholic or Jewish background, but had distanced themselves from those roots. A recent follow-up revealed that many of today's participants have found their way back into organized religion. "While what's presented is grounded in Buddhist teachings, we certainly don't present meditation practice as being tied to some kind of dogma," says Salzberg. "Many Christians and Jews come and they don't feel the need to give up that to explore Buddhist meditation."
"IMS as an institution and the way we teach expresses and emphasizes the universal aspects of Buddhist teachings. So that makes it easy for people to come and get into the practice," Goldstein observes. "It's really an offering of the basic methods of Buddhism—of developing insight and wisdom—and many people respond to that."
Most people who have visited IMS or read books written by the founders would agree that a big part of the appeal is that all three were born in the U.S.A. "Many people went to Burma, but they also recognized that the Western teachers, through their own experience, were beginning to teach this practice in a way that was—I hate to use this word—more 'palatable' to Westerners," says executive director Edwin Kelly. "They were able to infuse it with a contemporary cultural understanding absent from the Asian experience."
Just as Buddhism took on the cultural trappings of the various Asian countries to which it migrated, a certain American accent was inevitable as it moved into the Massachusetts hills. "I don't think we made a conscious effort to Americanize the dharma," says Salzberg, who spent three and a half years studying in Asia. "This is our idiom. Metaphors of the West, the ways we talk, the examples we use, the living examples of the teachings through us, are necessarily Western."
Jack Kornfield emphatically rejects any notion that, by making the teachings accessible to non-Buddhists, they are in some way being diluted. "I don't see an evolution. What I see is the dharma finding a new language in English and in Western culture to express the same fundamental truths," says Kornfield, who went to Thailand in 1967 with the Peace Corps after requesting assignment to a Buddhist country. "My own teacher said that if I went back to the U.S. and taught, I could call it Christianity for all he cared," he recalls of the Burmese meditation master Achaan Chah. "He said what mattered was to teach people to be free."
Salzberg says that while she uses the term "enlightenment" less these days in favor of phrases like "freedom from suffering," or terms like "awakening," there is no change from the core message she first wrote about in her high school term papers. "I would hate to think I would ever not say something I thought was true because I was afraid I would drive people away," she insists.
Joseph Goldstein believes there is something else about the teaching at IMS that appeals to Americans in this age of self-exploration. It is the fact that vipassana practice, with its emphasis on systematic exploration of the inner self, offers parallels to Western psychology.
"It fits very well with our Western mode of investigation, of going in and understanding the mind," he says. "Buddhism is a way of understanding oneself on the deepest levels and Western psychology has been an effort in that direction as well." In fact, many of the teachers associated with IMS are psychologists or psychotherapists, including Kornfield, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology.
"I don't draw those kinds of lines," Kornfield replies when asked about the division between Buddhism and psychology. "The Buddha taught about suffering and the end of suffering, so when someone comes in and is suffering because of the circumstances of their life, I can't define one kind of suffering as being Buddhist and another not. The four noble truths and the teachings of loving-kindness and compassion always apply."
All the success seemed so unlikely back in 1975, as Goldstein, Salzberg and Kornfield contemplated purchasing the former monastery and its 80 acres of forests and fields. Goldstein and Kornfield had linked up at Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's newly-created Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where they began teaching in 1974. Salzberg, who had met Goldstein at the first retreat she attended, in 1971 in Bodhgaya, had turned up in Boulder when she returned to the States from Asia.
"Of the whole community of us, Joseph was the first to come home and get a job and an apartment, and we all moved in," she says with a laugh. The idea of the group buying the monastery came from a Catholic nun who attended a three-month retreat they had held in Maine. Up until then, most of their teaching outside Naropa had taken place in the living rooms of would-be meditators.
"We didn't even know what a mortgage was," recalls Salzberg, who was only 23 when IMS was founded. Even though the $150,000 price for the 80-acre site with its complex of buildings was a bargain, it was still a vast sum to three itinerant dharma teachers with no assets of their own. They managed to scrape up $50,000 from supporters, and the Church agreed to hold a mortgage for $50,000, leaving another $50,000 to be financed.
Ironically, they got the money because Buddhism was then such an unknown commodity. "There had recently been an article about the Maharishi and how rich he was," explains Salzberg, "and the bank thought we were some kind of substantial organization with a world network.
"People always say, 'You must have had so much courage and vision to see what Buddhism would mean to the West,'" Salzberg says. "But the answer is, no. A lot of our decisions look like they make sense in retrospect, but at the time..." she lets the thought trail off. "We were so young.
"We had long discussions about things like whether we should have the word metta over the door," she recalls. "We worried it might be too foreign."
One thing they agreed on early was that IMS would stay carefully focused on the vipassana practice taught by their Burmese and Thai teachers. "This was a conscious decision at a time when many of us were exploring our own practices in other traditions," Goldstein recalls. "We had a lengthy discussion and we felt that there would be a greater power and strength in the institute to keep its sense of purpose and mission clearly focused on one tradition."
That focus remains to this day. "There is a great consistency through those 25 years of teaching," observes Swiss dharma teacher Fred von Allmen, who attended Goldstein's first public dharma talk in Bodhgaya in 1973, which he gave at Mahasi Sayadaw's urging. "Though they learned from many different traditions and many different teachers, there has been a consistency in teaching the dharma in a simple but very clear way that has power.
Yet even as IMS has remained firmly focused on vipassana, its founders have continued their own spiritual explorations. For Goldstein and Salzberg, that has included Dzogchen retreats in recent years with the young Tibetan teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche. It is in this way, they believe, that Buddhism in America is being shaped—not in a conscious merging of traditions but in the subtle influence of interpretations that are, in many ways, crossing paths for the first time on these shores.
"I certainly don't draw on other methodologies," Salzberg says of her teaching. "But we all express the dharma through the amalgam of who we are. I have very profound relationships with teachers in the Tibetan tradition, and I am sure that comes through in my teaching."
The mahayana concepts of bodhichitta and compassion have found a central place in the teachings of Joseph Goldstein, though they are not usually associated with the Theravada school. This emergence of what he calls "one dharma" is the subject of his forthcoming book.
"The Buddha didn't teach Buddhism, much less Theravada or Tibetan," he observes. "He taught about the nature of the mind and how to understand it, and everything else came later. I really like going back to that basic way of understanding the mind."
Explosions recently shook the ground at IMS. Deep in the forest a half mile from the main IMS compound, workers were breaking ground on a new $8-million long-term retreat center. The Forest Refuge, as it is called, is the brainchild of Joseph Goldstein. He sees it as an answer to those who worry that the evolution of dharma in America threatens to produce a "Buddhism Lite," one that has stripped away the authenticity and left only a set of feel-good techniques.
"There is a danger of the teachings getting watered down, and that's one of the main motivations for the development of the Forest Refuge," he explains. "Because what will be the antidote to that is people who are very well-trained and very well-matured in their practice are then able to teach from that place." In the early days of IMS, the center received a letter addressed to the "Instant Meditation Society." The Forest Refuge, says Goldstein, is an antidote to the American quest for instant gratification.
"The idea that inspired me a lot in creating this was the enormous, rapid spread of dharma in the West," Goldstein explains. "I was considering what conditions would be necessary to create the same kind of enlightened masters that are in the East—the really great teachers, the enlightened beings. And it seemed that one of the critical pieces was a place where people could devote themselves to the practice for long periods of time."
The Refuge hides in the woods between IMS and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, an academically focused teaching center spun off from IMS in 1989. The facility will have accommodations for 30 meditators, or yogis as IMS calls them, who may spend anywhere from a few months to a few years in silent retreat. "It's the archetype of going off to the mountaintop; that's the essence of the vision," says Goldstein, who spent most of his seven years of study in Asia at city monasteries in Burma, Thailand and India. He adds wistfully, "In some ways, this is what I would have liked my own practice environment to have been—clean and beautiful, simple and natural."
Sharon Salzberg says the very presence of the Forest Refuge, which is scheduled to open early in 2003, sends an important message. "Even if someone never gets to a long-term retreat center, the fact that it exists here changes the parameters of what we imagine, so you realize it's not just a weekend-a-year endeavor. It's good for our imagination to be stretched that way so we don't fall into the idea that dharma is a commodity we can buy a little of on Tuesday."
A quarter of a century of American dharma. The history of IMS has tracked the current wave of Buddhism in America from its modest beginnings to its current popularity.
"When we opened the doors, we were really excited if anyone showed up," Salzberg recalls. "If we had 35 people in a retreat, that was considered really great. The demographics were pretty much people like us, who had been to Asia to practice or who had gone to Naropa." Today, thanks in part to their pioneering efforts, Buddhist meditation can be found in corporate boardrooms, hospital corridors, prisons, and thousands of dharma centers large and small across North America.
"I think it's a great time for Buddhism in America because it feels like people's interest is genuine," says Kornfield. "Our materialistic, consumer society has led us to really look for a different kind of happiness, which is the happiness that comes through the transformation of the heart." And as that interest in the dharma has begun to mature, so, too, has IMS—much to the amazement of some of the participants.
"Somebody said, 'The thing that always surprises me is that IMS was begun and flourishes without any adult supervision," says Salzberg with a self-depreciating chuckle.
"We've matured," continues Kornfield, the only married member of the original group, who established Spirit Rock in order to explore a more family-oriented approach to the dharma. "We were very idealistic in the beginning in a beautiful way and there were a lot of fanciful ideas about enlightened retirement, rather than understanding that liberation is always now. In the beginning there was more emphasis on understanding the mind and less on the transformation of the heart. One of the most wonderful changes has been the very deep thread of loving-kindness and compassion practice that has come to be interwoven with all of our teachings."
"It feels like the development of the organization parallels the development and growth of a child," Goldstein observes. "When I look back to the beginning stages and the teenaged years, going though all the ups and downs, the growing pains—now we're in a really good place. It feels like the welcome fruit of many years of learning."
Still, it's all taken them by surprise. While Kornfield's passion for the teachings ignited a burning desire to share them, Salzberg and Goldstein never expected to find themselves looked upon as teachers. "I didn't really accept it. I ended up teaching because the Burmese teacher Dipa Ma told me to," Salzberg says. "I thought it was impossible, so for the first couple of years back until we started IMS, I thought it was temporary. Now, I look at myself as both a teacher and a student, and I think they're inextricably woven together. My service is as a teacher and the core of my life is being a dharma student."
Goldstein, meanwhile, looks forward to the day when he can take refuge in the forest retreat taking shape in the woods behind his home. "As a teacher, I have a long way to go," he says emphatically. "That's the harsh truth. That's why, for me, an essential part of teaching has been taking time each year to be on retreat. I was recently in a planetarium and it really conveyed the unimaginable immensity of the universe on a level that we generally don't think about. And I have that same feeling about the exploration of the mind and the journey to buddhahood—it's so vast and we're all just on the path. For me, the immensity of that journey is a source of inspiration."
As for Kornfield, he's not sure how they managed to get to the place they are today, but he is profoundly grateful. "It feels like we've really been led by what some might call magical, wonderful karma. It's just been a kind of grace. I don't know how it happened, but I feel really blessed to be part of it all."
Lawrence Pintak is a freelance writer living in Princeton, Massachusetts who writes regularly on Buddhism.
Thich Nhat Hanh on Loosening the Knots of Anger
Thich Nhat Hanh on Loosening the Knots of Anger
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how to relax the bonds of anger, attachment and delusion through mindfulness and kindness toward ourselves.
To be happy, to me, is to suffer less. If we were not capable of transforming the pain within ourselves, happiness would not be possible.
Many people look for happiness outside themselves, but true happiness must come from inside of us. Our culture tells us that happiness comes from having a lot of money, a lot of power and a high position in society. But if you observe carefully, you will see that many rich and famous people are not happy. Many of them commit suicide.
The Buddha and the monks and nuns of his time did not own anything except their three robes and one bowl. But they were very happy, because they had something extremely precious: freedom.
According to the Buddha's teachings, the most basic condition for happiness is freedom. Here we do not mean political freedom, but freedom from the mental formations of anger, despair, jealousy and delusion. These mental formations are described by the Buddha as poisons. As long as these poisons are still in our heart, happiness can not be possible.
In order to be free from anger, we have to practice, whether we are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish. We cannot ask the Buddha, Jesus, God or Mohammed to take anger out of our hearts for us. There are concrete instructions on how to transform the craving, anger and confusion within us. If we follow these instructions and learn to take good care of our suffering, we can help others do the same.
The Knots of Anger
In our consciousness there are blocks of pain, anger and frustration called internal formations. They are also called knots because they tie us up and obstruct our freedom.
When someone insults us or does something unkind to us, an internal formation is created in our consciousness. If you don't know how to undo the internal knot and transform it, the knot will stay there for a long time. And the next time someone says something or does something to you of the same nature, that internal formation will grow stronger. As knots or blocks of pain in us, our internal formations have the power to push us, to dictate our behavior.
After a while, it becomes very difficult for us to transform, to undo the knots, and we cannot ease the constriction of this crystallized formation. The Sanskrit word for internal formation is samyojana. It means "to crystallize." Every one of us has internal formations that we need to take care of. With the practice of meditation we can undo these knots and experience transformation and healing.
Not all internal formations are unpleasant. There are also pleasant internal formations, but they can still make us suffer. When you taste, hear or see something pleasant, then that pleasure can become a strong internal knot. When the object of your pleasure disappears, you miss it and you begin searching for it. You spend a lot of time and energy trying to experience it again. If you smoke marijuana or drink alcohol and begin to like it, then it becomes an internal formation in your body and in your mind. You cannot get it off your mind. You will always look for more. The strength of the internal knot is pushing you and controlling you. So internal formations deprive us of our freedom.
Falling in love is a big internal formation. Once you are in love, you only think of the other person. You are not free anymore. You cannot do anything; you cannot study, you cannot work, you cannot enjoy the sunshine or the beauty of nature around you. You can only think of the object of your love. That is why we speak about it as a kind of accident: "falling in love." You fall down. You are not stable anymore because you have gotten into an accident. So love can also be an internal knot.
Pleasant or unpleasant, both kinds of knots take away our liberty. That is why we should guard our body and our mind very carefully, to prevent these knots from taking root in us. Drugs, alcohol and tobacco can create internal formations in our body. And anger, craving, jealousy, despair can create internal formations in our mind.
Training in Aggression
Anger is an internal formation, and since it makes us suffer, we try our best to get rid of it. Psychologists like the expression, "getting it out of your system." And they speak about venting anger, like ventilating a room filled with smoke. Some psychologists say that when the energy of anger arises in you, you should ventilate it by hitting a pillow, kicking something, or by going into the forest to yell and shout.
As a kid you were not supposed to say certain swear words. Your parents may not have allowed you to say these words because they are harmful, they damage relationships. So you went into the woods or to an isolated place and shouted these words very clearly, very strongly, in order to relieve the feeling of oppression. This is also venting.
People who use venting techniques like hitting a pillow or shouting are actually rehearsing anger. When someone is angry and vents their anger by hitting a pillow, they are learning a dangerous habit. They are training in aggression. Instead, our approach is to generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace anger every time it manifests.
Treating Anger with Tenderness
Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair. Mindfulness is there in order to recognize. To be mindful of something is to recognize that something is there in the present moment. Mindfulness is the capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. "Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger." This is not an act of suppression or of fighting. It is an act of recognizing. Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.
When it is cold in your room, you turn on the heater, and the heater begins to send out waves of hot air. The cold air doesn't have to leave the room for the room to become warm. The cold air is embraced by the hot air and becomes warm—there's no fighting at all between them.
We practice taking care of our anger in the same way. Mindfulness recognizes anger, is aware of its presence, accepts and allows it to be there. Mindfulness is like a big brother who does not suppress his younger brother's suffering. He simply says, "Dear brother, I'm here for you." You take your younger brother in your arms and you comfort him. This is exactly our practice.
Imagine a mother getting angry with her baby and hitting him when he cries. That mother does not know that she and her baby are one. We are mothers of our anger and we have to help our baby, our anger, not fight and destroy it. Our anger is us and our compassion is also us. To meditate does not mean to fight. In Buddhism, the practice of meditation should be the practice of embracing and transforming, not of fighting.
Using Anger, Using Suffering
To grow the tree of enlightenment, we must make good use of our afflictions, our suffering. It is like growing lotus flowers; we cannot grow a lotus on marble. We cannot grow a lotus without mud.
Practitioners of meditation do not discriminate against or reject their internal formations. We do not transform ourselves into a battle field, good fighting evil. We treat our afflictions, our anger, our jealousy with a lot of tenderness. When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: "Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger." We behave exactly like a mother: "Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child." This is the practice of compassion.
If you don't know how to treat yourself with compassion, how can you treat another person with compassion? When anger arises, continue to practice mindful breathing and mindful walking to generate the energy of mindfulness. Continue to embrace tenderly the energy of anger within you. Anger may continue to be there for sometime, but you are safe, because the Buddha is in you, helping you to take good care of your anger. The energy of mindfulness is the energy of the Buddha. When you practice mindful breathing and embrace your anger, you are under the protection of the Buddha. There is no doubt about it: the Buddha is embracing you and your anger with a lot of compassion.
Giving and Receiving Mindfulness Energy
When you are angry, when you feel despair, you practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, to generate the energy of mindfulness. This energy allows you to recognize and embrace your painful feelings. And if your mindfulness is not strong enough, you ask a brother or a sister in the practice to sit close to you, to breathe with you, to walk with you in order to support you with his or her mindfulness energy.
Practicing mindfulness does not mean that you have to do everything on your own. You can practice with the support of your friends. They can generate enough mindfulness energy to help you take care of your strong emotions.
We can also support others with our mindfulness when they are in difficulty. When our child is drowning in a strong emotion, we can hold his or her hand and say, "My dear one, breathe. Breathe in and out with mommy, with daddy." We can also invite our child to do walking meditation with us, gently taking her hand and helping her calm down, with each step. When you give your child some of your mindfulness energy, she will be able to calm down very quickly and embrace her emotions.
Recognizing, Embracing, Relieving the Suffering of Anger
The first function of mindfulness is to recognize, not to fight. "Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me. Hello, my little anger." And breathing out, "I will take good care of you."
Once we have recognized our anger, we embrace it. This is the second function of mindfulness and it is a very pleasant practice. Instead of fighting, we are taking good care of our emotion. If you know how to embrace your anger, something will change.
It is like cooking potatoes. You cover the pot and then the water will begin to boil. You must keep the stove on for at least twenty minutes for the potatoes to cook. Your anger is a kind of potato and you cannot eat a raw potato.
Mindfulness is like the fire cooking the potatoes of anger. The first few minutes of recognizing and embracing your anger with tenderness can bring results. You get some relief. Anger is still there, but you do not suffer so much anymore, because you know how to take care of your baby. So the third function of mindfulness is soothing, relieving. Anger is there, but it is being taken care of. The situation is no longer in chaos, with the crying baby left all alone. The mother is there to take care of the baby and the situation is under control.
Keeping Mindfulness Alive
And who is this mother? The mother is the living Buddha. The capacity of being mindful, the capacity of being understanding, loving and caring is the Buddha in us. Every time we are capable of generating mindfulness, it makes the Buddha in us a reality. With the Buddha in you, you have nothing to worry about anymore. Everything will be fine if you know how to keep the Buddha within you alive.
It is important to recognize that we always have the Buddha in us. Even if we are angry, unkind or in despair, the Buddha is always within us. This means we always have the potential to be mindful, to be understanding, to be loving.
We need to practice mindful breathing or walking in order to touch the Buddha within us. When you touch the seed of mindfulness that lies in your consciousness, the Buddha will manifest in your mind consciousness and embrace your anger. You don't have to worry; just continue to practice breathing or walking to keep the Buddha alive. Then everything will be fine. The Buddha recognizes. The Buddha embraces. The Buddha relieves, and the Buddha looks deeply into the nature of anger. The Buddha understands. And this understanding will bring about transformation.
The energy of mindfulness contains the energy of concentration, as well as the energy of insight. Concentration helps you to focus on just one thing. With concentration, the energy of looking becomes more powerful.
Because of that it can make a breakthrough that is insight. Insight always has the power of liberating you. If mindfulness is there, and you know how to keep mindfulness alive, concentration will be there too. And if you know how to keep concentration alive, insight will also come. So mindfulness recognizes, embraces and relieves. Mindfulness helps us look deeply in order to gain insight. Insight is the liberating factor. It is what frees us and allows transformation to happen. This is the Buddhist practice of taking care of anger.
Every time you give your internal formations a bath of mindfulness, the blocks of pain in you become lighter and less dangerous. So give your anger, your despair, your sorrow a bath of mindfulness every day—that is your practice. If mindfulness is not there, it is very unpleasant to have these seeds come up. But if you know how to generate the energy of mindfulness, it is very healing to invite them up every day and embrace them. And after several days or weeks of bringing them up daily and helping them go back down again, you create good circulation in your psyche, and the symptoms of mental illness will begin to disappear.
Mindfulness does the work of massaging your internal formations, your blocks of suffering. You have to allow them to circulate, and this is possible only if you are not afraid of them. If you learn not to fear your knots of suffering, you can learn how to embrace them with the energy of mindfulness, and transform them.
Reprinted from Anger, by Thich Nhat Hanh, with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Thich Nhat Hanh.
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Enclaves and Expanses
Enclaves and ExpansesBy: The etymology of "space" and "room".
"I'm looking for space."
When we hear that phrase, we generally don't think that the speaker is searching for a planetarium, or that they're looking for room to grow (in which case, they would have said, "Give me some space, please.") We assume rather that this is a real estate issue. We assume they are looking for lodgings or a place for their business.
Often, buried within commonplace phraseologies are strange semantic coincidences; in this case the fact that "space" means both the wide open spaces of the cosmos and the cramped, enclosed space of a studio apartment or a garret. Curiously, there is a related word that leads the same kind of double life. When we talk about needing "room," we are of course looking for open space. But if we are looking for a room, we are looking for an enclosed space. We can also speak of a room itself as being roomy, which would drive a person learning English as a second language to distraction. Speaking abstractly, we can note room for improvement or make room in our schedule.
If we go back to the Indo-European root from which "room" derives, we find that it means simply "to open" or "space." In fact, early speakers of English would have referred to the wide open spaces as rum. (The word "space" comes into English from French.) The same root that gives us the English "room" developed into the Latin words "rural" and "rustic," meaning having to do with the open lands.
I came to think about these words and dig up their etymologies after visiting prospective colleges with my daughter. Most of what you need to find out about the education offered at a college, you can find out about in printed material, on a web site, or in a phone conversation. You visit the college to get a feel for the people, but also, I discovered, you go there to get a feel for the space, for what kind of room you are going to occupy. So you look at the overall campus and you look at lots and lots of rooms: libraries, dorm rooms, classrooms, cubicles and so forth.
Overall my daughter was seeking a feel for what it would be like to inhabit the greater confines of the school. We began to divide the places we looked at into two categories: enclaves and open spaces. The open space colleges were contained within big cities. To get from one building to another, you crossed busy urban thoroughfares. You knew you were at the school from the signs on the buildings. The smaller town enclave college enveloped you in quads and carefully coifed inner spaces. As you moved about the campus, you always felt enclosed within its bosom. Each had it charms. The best seemed to have a nice balance of each quality, like Central Park both a enclave and a vast space.
This caused me to think about how in everyday life we move from enclaves to open spaces, and in general we like to have some of each. I so often encounter spaces ill-fitted to their uses. Where an enclave is needed for concentration to occur, it's poorly designed for the purpose and too exposed. Where open space is wanted, there is too much obstruction. We see this in offices. We see it in cities. We see it in our own homes.
Now that feng shui has become a fad, its injunctions can seem laughable. Wealthy people will spend $100,000 to move walls to create a space more conducive to wealth. But the original spirit behind feng shui and geomancy altogether comes from the fundamental human appreciation for the interplay between closed and open spaces, the desire to have both enclaves and expanses. Design is not a trivial issue. It can even be a spiritual issue.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche understood this and openly proclaimed it in many ways. One of his most masterful demonstrations of the significance of finding space within space was an exhibition he did called "Discovering Elegance," at the Laica Gallery in Los Angeles in December 1980. The work was motivated by the principle of "art in everyday life."
A series of arranged rooms-kitchen, library, garden, drum room, buddha room, warrior room and audience hall-conveyed how the simple arrangement of materials and boundaries could carve the mind and evoke a particular spirit. To look at the Discovering Elegance kitchen was not like looking at the kitchen at the Home Show. You were not meant to drool over the goodies there, but to celebrate what goes on in the kitchen, to understand it as a sacred, even a spiritual, room. It was not intended practically, as a design to copy, but as an expression of what Trungpa Rinpoche would have called "kitchenness." Contemplating these rooms made you appreciate room altogether.
In the headlong march of globalization, we are rapidly gobbling up and despoiling the open spaces and cramming the enclaves with stuff and things. What's the rush? Where are we going? All of space is right before us-in our kitchens, in the park down the street, in the night sky.
Barry Boyce is senior editor and staff writer for the Shambhala Sun
Wake Up to Sleeping Well
Wake Up to Sleeping Well
By: It's going to be a long, tough night. It's one a.m. and my four-year-old son is inexplicably standing on his bed. "Go to sleep!" he yells, pointing at me. Drawing on the depths of my parental wisdom, I counter, "You go to sleep!" "No!" he bellows.
The next morning I'm low on patience. Connor is behaving like a malevolent, manic imp and presents a clear and present danger to his younger sister. This is one of those times when my medical knowledge is pointedly unhelpful. Knowing that sleep deprivation has raised my blood sugar and blood pressure levels higher than normal just adds to my aggravation. To top it off, the flagship of stress hormones, cortisol, is running amok through my veins, putting my body on yellow alert for the day.
It's also scant comfort to know that I'm not alone in my misery. On any given day, one in every seven people experiences serious daytime drowsiness that interferes with their quality of life, and in some professions, that ratio is undoubtedly much higher. Poor sleep habits and tiredness are epidemic in today's brightly-lit, busy, time-pressured environment. We now average one and a half hours less sleep than we did a century ago, yet we need the sleep no less than our forebears. One in ten of us has long-standing, serious sleep problems and lots of the rest of us are just plain sleepy much of the time.
Sleep deprivation and fatigue are major causes of errors and accidents in our society. Sleep experts love to cite the contribution of fatigue to well-known disasters such as the Exxon Valdez, the space shuttle Challenger, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Every year traffic accidents temporarily increase following the switch to daylight saving time, when people in affected regions lose just one hour of sleep, so even a modest amount of sleep loss affects the next day's performance. Research has shown that driving low on sleep can be equivalent to driving under the influence of alcohol. If you're deprived, don't drive.
Insomnia-which doctors define as dissatisfaction with the quantity, quality or timing of sleep for at least one month-is a common complaint and is strongly associated with poor health. People who consistently sleep less than six or seven hours a night have a higher death rate than those who get adequate sleep, and that's generally not because they already have a serious medical condition that interferes with sleep. Poor sleep habits eventually increase the chances of developing heart, lung or kidney disease and also impair immune function, leaving us more likely to suffer colds and flu. Individuals who report insomnia lasting for one year are forty times more likely than normal to develop clinical depression.
So how much sleep do we need? The average amount is seven to eight hours a night, but everyone is different. The key, as with many things, is awareness. Do you feel refreshed most mornings? If the answer is no, you may need more or better-quality sleep. Conversely, if you are sleeping more than nine hours and are still tired, consider getting checked out, as there are also health problems associated with sleeping too much.
If you are chronically tired or sleep-deprived, the obvious solution is to make sleep a priority, which of course is easier said than done. Parents of small children or those whose jobs demand long hours or around-the-clock shifts start with a substantial handicap in terms of flexibility and opportunity to change. Still, it's usually not impossible to carve out a bit more sleep time. People often come up with creative ways to adapt. One patient of mine who works long hours negotiated with his employer for a telecommute day in the middle of the week. He invests the two hours saved traveling every Wednesday toward sleep and feels far less tired by the end of the work week as a result.
I'm delighted when people come to me with sleep complaints because they are often easily treated. Sadly, many people don't bring such complaints to their doctor's attention. Sometimes patients tell me they just can't sleep even if they have the chance. Typically they are busy, driven folks who may just want the quick fix of a sleeping pill. I usually deflect that request gently and first try to rule out any common correctable medical factors that could be contributing to their sleep problem-pain, depression, asthma, obesity, or drug or alcohol abuse. Next I check out their lifestyle habits. Smoking, lack of exercise and stress can all interfere with our natural capacity to sleep well. The same is true for drinking caffeine or alcohol excessively or late in the day.
There are simple common sense suggestions to improve sleep quality that I usually discuss with patients. These include getting up at the same time every day and not napping during the day. I stress the need for quiet time one hour before sleep, during which you should avoid stimulants such as bright lights, TV, or work-related reading. (Everyone asks same question; yes, sex is O.K.) If these strategies don't work, there are more structured treatments such as relaxation techniques that work well, although they may take a few weeks to show results.
Sleeping pills will prolong sleep by about one hour on average for the rare patient for whom I prescribe them. Sleeping medications have their downside, though. It's generally recommended that you use them only for temporary relief and stop after two weeks to reduce the chances of becoming dependent on the medication. These drugs also have potential side effects such as morning drowsiness, dizziness and light-headedness. Paradoxically, one of the problems associated with using sleeping pills nightly is that sleep temporarily worsens for a few days when people stop using them.
All said, it usually doesn't take much to motivate us to improve our sleep habits. We all know how lousy life can be when we are deprived of sleep, and most people have experienced the feeling of vitality and energy that can follow a good night's sleep. The great thing about making positive changes to your sleep habits is the immediacy of the payoff the next morning.
The biggest problem with sleep loss is that it's not often recognized as a problem. Those under its influence can be prone to ignore the real source of their problems. Those of us who become converts to the benefits of sleep choose to guard our sleep with the same commitment that some apply to eating right and exercising. My hope is that many more of us will treasure sleep and realize its power. Given the pace and pressure of our world, this may be a while in coming. So for the time being, we can just dream of the day when everyone is walking around under the influence of a good night's rest.
Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D. is assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and works as an emergency department physician at an inner city hospital in Vancouver.
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