I burn incense downstairs at various altars on different occasions: new moon, full moon, memorial days, important days. But in my bedroom, where I sit, I burn sage right under the big, red angel Buddha. Alberto Mancini, an Italian painter, gave it to us years ago. It looks mostly like a Buddha Charlie Brown with wings. Some people didn’t like it; I loved it, especially for the red color, and kept it close.
After Bernie died I found a large packet of sage among our things, and began to burn it. Sage purifies and heals. It doesn’t last as long as incense sticks (it’s common to do Zen meditation for at least the length of one incense stick) and the fragrance fades quicker. But my nostrils have learned to quiver like my dogs’, and long after it’s burned out I can smell traces. My room, too, smells a little like sage.
I went to my doctor on Monday morning and asked her for a prescription for antidepressants. It feels awkward to write about this, but I’ve learned long ago that it’s the very things that feel awkward or raw that are best to write about. It’s not hard to record moments of clarity and even exhilaration; to admit that for the past two months your spirits are hitting lows morning after morning, and that at 6 am the world looks like a fearsome place, that’s something else.
Depression feels a little self-indulgent. I know, I don’t have much control over when it hits, but the voices are there: Do you know what’s happening in the world? Do you have your eyes open to the suffering of so many? How could you be concerned with just yourself? How small, how petty. Get up and do things. Help people and forget yourself.
And indeed, last night I went to a gathering of the Poor People’s Campaign, one of 25 stops they’re making across the country. I was disappointed that Rev. William Barber had to cancel, but I was deeply moved by this rebirth of Martin Luther King’s dream, another big gathering in Washington, DC in June. And as I listened to stories of struggle of those who work hard and are still poor, including health care workers, the poor with disabilities, those in recovery from opioids, and those without homes–right here in my own backyard–a voice whispered to me: You don’t have time for depression. Get over it.
It didn’t work. I do many things during the day without reflecting on how I feel, but it feels like climbing up solo, without ropes or carabiners, each step grinding and uncertain. My brain feels foggy and I make mistakes, overlook things, forget what I’d decided to do just five minutes ago. Small setbacks and challenges loom like gigantic tornado clouds about to set down right on top of my home and destroy it.
I’ve never minded winter in New England before, I actually loved the bad roads that forced one to stay home if possible, sink into things, go deep. It’s when you get below the mental dialogue, story and memory, deeper still under the currents and whirlpools of everyday events, then go deeper still, you often find the universal pulse, the one that reminds you that we get born and we die, and shit happens in between. When you get through your personal karma you find that when it comes to the basics, you’re part of the human and nonhuman community, always were, always will be.
Only I haven’t been able to get there these past two months. My mind is distracted and vaporous. It’s not stuck in stories, it’s just plain stuck.
It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had a good marriage or a bad one, you merge like two trees that feel it’s ultimately more nourishing to share one big-size trunk than relying on two separate cores. Yes, you have your own, but you also have the shared. Till you don’t. And you can’t know what that feels like, having the shared roots torn from under you, till it happens.
So many voices:
You’re a veteran Zen practitioner. If your meditation hasn’t taught you how to deal with suffering, fear of the future, with being alone (I lived alone for many years between marriages, and lived quite well, but that memory offers me no reassurance right now), then what good is it? If you can’t do it for yourself, what are you teaching?
Shouldn’t you just rely on your practice?
And where’s your sense of gratitude for what you continue to have? Where’s your appreciation for your health, your home, your dogs, the love that so many friends and family give you?
Beside, when you love life, you love life absolutely, not on condition that nothing bad will happen.
All those voices are there. And also my sister’s practical voice over the weekend: You’ve been stuck for a few months. Take something to help you get over the hump, and then leave off. Get help. You need help.
I need help.
We used to put it like this: Years of meditation, dharma transmission, leading this or that—all this plus $2.75 gets you into the New York City subway. Or is it $3.00 now? You’re no different from anyone else. Know this at the deepest core of your being, take comfort there: In essence, you’re no different from anyone else. Your mind does its games like other minds, you back away from loss because it hurts and from uncertainty because you’re afraid—like everybody else.
Sit, be as present as you can be, use all you know and don’t know to arouse compassion for yourself and others, and still remember: You’re not different from anyone else.