Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Every Day a Reprieve
JOSH KORDA knows
he is not cured—he never will be—but through honesty and diligence he
enjoys a daily reprieve from depression and addiction.
I woke up sweating,
gulping for air. I was in the grips of a panic attack, my stomach
cement hard yet churning. In my mind, movie screens played horror films
in a loop; the images in this multiplex were darker than Dostoevsky.
been sober for six years, but it didn’t matter. My new marriage was
surely destined to fail, the small house we’d purchased in Brooklyn
destined to crumble. My skills were worthless and would, without doubt,
leave me unemployable. Everything about me, an inner verdict announced,
was phony and shallow. Friends and family would turn away once my true
nature was exposed. I had the feeling that countless eyes were piercing
through me and locating something pitiable.
awoken into what was eventually diagnosed as “a major depressive
episode.” What was the root of it? A childhood spent in a household
where rage was routine, violence not unknown. I recall the terror of
being awakened from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. and dragged by my ankles into
a bathroom for a cold shower—the drunken voice of my alcoholic father
berating me for being “unclean.” I also remember the sounds of my mother
pleading to be freed from a room into which she’d been locked as
there were the feelings of low self-esteem brought on by my own drug
and alcohol addictions and the years I’d spent in society’s
margins—living in squats, waking up late for job interviews, receiving
dire head shakes from doctors and concerned friends.
six years of sobriety were thanks to meditation practice and numerous
twelve-step meetings, but my sanity was a patchwork affair held together
by diversions: work, relationships, family dramas, and creative
projects. I raced from one preoccupation to the next, never
acknowledging the hollowness in my chest, the tightness of my stomach,
and the sense of meaninglessness that pursued me. This denial had
finally caught up to me. That’s why my wife found me shaking in bed in a
patiently guided me to our primary care physician, followed by an
appointment with an Upper East Side psychopharmacologist, who was as
polished as a TV weatherman. He had an immaculate suit—down to the
breast-pocket hankie—and his broad smile conveyed the impression of a
life spent entirely free of doubt, much less depression. I emerged from
his office with a stack of prescriptions: sleeping meds,
antidepressants, mild benzos for panic attacks, and mood stabilizers. I
spent the following months alternating between medicated numbness and
self-hatred. There was a great deal of healing that needed to be done.
self-care during this period consisted of weekly visits to a variety of
Buddhist centers, daily twelve-step meetings, and morning meditation.
Perhaps this routine would be more than enough for most people.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t for me.
morning sits were grinds. Instead of observing them, I was intent on
resisting my obsessive thoughts. Instead of listening to the entombed
fear, I wanted to numb myself. I was falling into the trap of using
meditation as a form of avoidance instead of acknowledgement and
healing. I cannot conceive of a less skillful strategy for a meditation
did the twelve-step groups have to offer? Unending variations of “Pray,
go to meetings, read the literature, do service,” proffered smugly by
true believers who—armed with quotes from the “big book”—dutifully
insisted that clinical depression was repayment for lack of effort.
my desperation finally motivated me to seek my own solutions. I located
a Buddhist therapist and found our sessions a safe space in which to
share my thoughts and feelings. Session after session, I practiced
locating my fears as they arose not only in my mind, but in my stomach,
chest, and shoulders. I contacted the long-buried feelings of a
terrified five-year-old boy and learned to console him and provide him
with a new sense of security. I rekindled my studies in the Pali canon
and sought out retreats with monks who seemed to embody the kindness and
balance I so desperately needed. I stumbled across the Buddhist teacher
Noah Levine, then starting the New York chapter of Dharma Punx, and I
attended every class, barraging him with questions and objections, while
he remained unruffled and accommodating. Slowly, I stopped seeking the
shelter of external distractions and turned toward the despairing,
I could sit and ask myself, “What does it feel like to be rejected? To
feel unloved?” I’d watch an array of sensations and memories arise and,
though the trembling in my stomach felt like it might take over my
entire being, I found that my mind was always a little larger than the
feeling. I wasn’t as vulnerable as I feared. I practiced an
unconditional form of compassion that could greet any inner demon that
arose, no matter how ugly and intrusive.
Kathy and a couple of friends, I started a meeting group that focused
on real-life challenges and solutions, rather than stifling evangelism. I
sought out new, wise friends who could listen to suffering without
trying to dismissively solve it. Meetings are still very much a part of
my recovery, even after more than seventeen years of continuous
sobriety, but I consider my Buddhist practice and community to be the
foundation of what sanity I can claim for myself today.
never think of myself as “cured” or “entirely free” of depression or
the possibility of panic attacks and disabling anxiety. Rather than
avoid these experiences in my dharma talks, I discuss them whenever
appropriate, as the fear of remission diminishes when it’s addressed in a
supportive environment. And, similarly to my alcoholism and addiction, I
view depression and anxiety as the inevitable results of a
consciousness that doesn’t take time to turn inward and listen to what
needs acceptance. My sanity, like my sobriety, is a daily reprieve born
of effort and diligence, rather than a birthright. And, quite frankly, I
wouldn’t have it any other way.
Josh Korda has
been the teacher at New York Dharma Punx since 2005. He has also taught
at New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care and New York Insight