Four Zen Truths About Depression

“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”
― Shunryu Suzuki

I had a severe depressive episode after one of my best friends committed suicide.

I was feeling extremely bad. Anxiety, stress, high levels of unhappiness and loneliness, and that aching feeling of never being able to connect with another human being ever again filled me with an existential unease.

I was on the borderline of crossing into clinical depression. I was extremely uncomfortable doing the daily things of life and I knew I needed to do something to change that.

Years ago I had abandoned the religion that I was raised in, which was Evangelical Lutheran, an offshoot of the Protestant branch of Christianity that believes primarily in the importance of missionary work. I didn’t find this religion to have any relevance to me, especially as a teenager. But I had never stopped being fascinated with and studying Buddhism or Zen meditation.

Since I was desperate for relief from my sadness, I went out in public to the Zen Center in Minneapolis, in order to try and find inner peace, or at least any sort of peace whatsoever.

I learned immediately that meditating with others in a formalized setting was very different than meditating in my bedroom at home, and brang with it an entirely new set of stimulus that could easily distract my mind from finding the clarity that I believed was out there to find.

But I kept at it, even though it made me break out in anxious sweating, and eventually began a serious practice at home. I took the Bodhisattva vows, from a book called Awakening The Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das.

I have a soft spot for that book, Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. These are humble books that always help clear my heart when I am lost or confused.

Clinical Depression is not a general feeling of sadness or malaise or gloominess. These type of feelings are manageable.

Depression that is rooted in the physiological, such as the brain chemistry, the nervous system, and the digestive system, is a somewhat different beast.

When you can look into the eyes of a beloved pet and feel nothing, that is clinical depression. The absence of feeling, once experienced, is so horrifying to our sensibilities that we will do anything to escape it.

And so, when you’ve experienced clinical depression like I and thousands of others, you would rather avoid it. By any means necessary.

Sometimes that means drowning ourselves in work or play or distraction or sex or sports or whatever helps us to not pay attention to ourselves.

Paying attention to ourselves can lead right back to that state of depression that we all fear so much.

The statistics tell us that 5.5% of men and 10.4% of women report being depressed. I find these statistics to be a bit lacking in depth.

A theory that I have had since I was a high school kid dabbling in Zen and Spirituality is that the vast majority of us have some sort of mild depression, and the vast majority of activities we undertake are done so to establish a distance from that depression.

As anybody who has studied philosophy can tell you, understanding the meaning of life, or striving to, may not help increase our happiness in any way, shape, or form.

In fact it might do the opposite.

Intellectual understanding of our own depression does not help us. We need to feel it and understand it on a Zen level.

Breathing in, I am aware of my heart. Breathing out, I smile to my heart and know that my heart still functions normally. I feel grateful for my heart.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

As a young man I was mentored by a friend who was only a few years older than me, but seemingly ancient in his storehouse of wisdom, on how to live life in the present moment. His whole existence was focused on becoming more present in the here and now.

He was one of my best and closest friends until my life turned a corner and I ended up living on a farm one hundred miles away from him. Amidst the chaos that was my life then, he had contracted melanoma, which he had already beaten once in his younger days. The cancer spread throughout his body and ultimately consumed him, and he died about a year after I moved away.

He was the only man who encouraged me to continue on the Boddhisattva path, no matter what twists or turns my life took.

He was the man that always encouraged me to never let the darkness consume me, and to always DO SOMETHING to shed my own light onto this world.

We all need someone or something to encourage us to continue on that path. Maybe these words can be something like that for you.

I think it is important to fully come to terms with our depression and experience it fully, so that we can continue on with our journey with a clear heart.

If we do not welcome it in, we risk setting up patterns of avoidance for the rest of our lives.

So if depression has crept up into your mind like a dark cloud, don’t run away. Meditate on these Four Zen Truths About Depression with me.

“You don’t need to see different things, but rather to see things differently.”
― Lama Surya Das

1. Depression is not a state that you will always be in.

You are not Depression. Depression is not you.

Actually, one of the first Zen principles I really grokked was that nothing was the same from one moment to the next. And that is why I could never accept any type of formalized religion, and ultimately don’t even really believe in Buddhism as a religion.

I believe that each of us creates our own religion out of all the myriad bits and pieces of our lives that resonate with us. Because of that, I don’t believe there is any such thing as one type of Catholicism or Hinduism, because to every individual those words mean something very different.

From the day that we realize that perhaps there is something greater than ourselves in the universe, each of us creates our own spirituality.

We are, each of us, everchanging beings interconnected with eachother in endless ways that are always changing. That doesn’t mean that there is no ME here. No , that’s a word game for philosophers to play with. What the principle of interconnectedness means is that all of us are always changing and nothing will ever be in exactly the same formation twice.

That’s a bit of dizzying concept, but it is also a freeing concept. We can never really recreate a romantic love scene from the movies because something always goes a bit wrong.

But that is the beautiful thing about being alive; all the messes and spills and silliness that is our day to day existence.

To be rigidly controlling is to be afraid of death.

And since we are all afraid of death, we all have a little dictator in us trying to seize control of our actions.

When depression creeps up on us, it tells us blatantly we have no control over anything. That is a scary concept to be hit with.

So we fight it and start scrolling on our phones or bingeing shows or eating cookies. Whatever it takes to wrestle control back from the encroaching darkness.

No matter what, our mortal beginning and our end is out of our hands. Life is uncontrollable. So we must let go and let God, in some sense, or let go and let the universe flow.

That is a first step toward some peace.

2. You Are Not Alone

This bears repeating. You are not alone. We are in this together, my friend.

I understand your hurt, and you understand mine. We are not so different, you and I.

Hundreds of millions of people around the globe report being really really depressed right now. And hundreds of millions more are not reporting their depression, or living in denial.

That’s about the population of a few major religions, like Buddhism and Chinese Folk Religion. That’s the population of people who have cancer on this planet.

Or, as I believe, most people are living “lives of quiet desperation”, as Thoreau so famously wrote, and are trying to scramble out of that desperation by doing things to distract themselves from the basic truth: that all we really have is this present moment.

And that is the fundamental teaching of Zen — you are here right now, and you are an everchanging and interconnected being. You are a Buddha right now, not later.

3. You Are What You Eat.

You cannot separate your diet and exercise from your mental health.

You are literally what you eat.

If you eat Cheezits and play videogames, you are going to be depressed. Your body is not made to do that 24/7. There is no way around that.

Our bodies evolved over millions of years to be active, to play, to experience hardships and grow in strength outside in nature, not to sit around staring at screens all day on comfortable padded seats.

We are essentially stacking the deck against our enjoyment of life when we shovel processed foods into our bodies and do nothing all day.

Notice that I do not stress the idea of “happiness”.

Happiness is one side of the coin, sadness the other. Up and down we go, down the river of life until we are old and tired and ready to stop the boat and take a rest on the grass.

No, contentedness is a much stronger state of being. To be content where you are is largely a state of mind.

In fact our whole lives are largely a state of mind.

So when our minds are cloudy and filled with turmoil, our lives are as well.

To change that first we have to eat whole foods and move around a lot more.

There are so many diets claiming this and that benefit, and to be honest at the end of the day I think if we simply stick with whole foods, meaning vegetables, meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, berries, and perhaps some grains and legumes if needed for energy, we will be okay.

As a society, we became obese and unhealthy as soon as we began to process food, as soon as we began to create factory farms and disregard the holistic relationship between the existing soil biota, flora, and the fauna of the landscape.

When we began to disregard the holistic totality of nature, we began to disregard the holistic totality of what it meant to be human.

We started to focus on increasing our comfort levels as much as possible while simultaneously focusing on increasing starch and sugar production in grains. So of course we became fat and depressed.

So switching back to food that is whole, that is real, will help us become more content in our lives.

I would like to add a couple more notes for those of us living in cold climates;

Animal fats are what traditionally got us through the winter. Disregarding this fact will not help your mental health. Animal fats contain cholesterol, which is not found in vegetables, and cholesterol is essential for brain health. Animal fats also contain Vitamin D, “The sunshine vitamin” .

It is important eat animals products from our local areas, to support local farmers, to increase the wellness and happiness of local livestock, and to obtain the highest quality of fat fed on pasture or organic feeds.

Every single thing is interconnected.

4. You Are Not What You Say You Are

Stop telling yourself you are depressed. Maybe you are right now, but you don’t need to constantly reinforce your current state of being over and over and over until you hypnotize yourself.

Just let it be. Depression will stay or go regardless of what you are telling yourself.

What’s even worse is to tell yourself that you are not depressed when you actually are. Then you are lying to yourself, and avoiding going though the depression for now.

Some day, though, you will need to go through that same depression to feel it and to pass through and to look back without fear upon it.

Stop telling yourself stories about who you are so that you can be whatever it is that you need to be, right now.

Everything will change in the future.

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Words are Code - "Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself." - Rumi

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