Meditation as Participation

For this week’s blog, I want to share a talk and guided meditation for you to listen to and take part.

Meditation as participation is a rich theme which I explore in my work frequently. In short, what I mean by this is that when we meditate (when we do anything) we are not observers of reality but participants among many other participants in the web of life.

Sensory Awareness and other forms of “present moment work”, especially sitting meditation, where we don’t “do” anything but sit and perceive, may sometimes be confused with witnessing or observing what is going on, but – as we also know from modern physics – we are not removed from and peering into a reality separate from us but always active participants, even when just “following the breath” or seeing someone in despair. Perception is not passive receiving but interaction with (and interpretation of) another presence/agent.

What we interact with – air, wood, cars, glass, frogs, distant mountain tops – are also participants. Be it the air we breath or the earth under our feet – whatever we do, we do with “someone”: walking, breathing, touching. We may consider ourselves to be the main agent when we do something but what about the water when we are washing dishes? It may consider us to be mere assistants in its task while it is really the one doing the washing.

Guided Meditation and Experiential Talk
Given for the Santa Fe Vipassana Sangha on February 22, 2011 

When I took my first Sensory Awareness workshop I had already been a dedicated Buddhist practitioner for several years. I quickly realized that the two approaches not only complemented each other beautifully but that Sensory Awareness gave my meditation practice a solidity and grounded it in everyday life in ways I had not experienced before. It has been my wish ever since to bring the two practices together in my work and in the life of others.

I recommend that you participate in the guided meditation rather than just listening to it. It takes about 20 minutes and can be done sitting up or lying down.

You can also partake in the talk. You will need a fellow participant, like a rock, a mug, or some other “thing”. In this talk we used stones and sand bags but it may be worth having an everyday object ready, such as a cup or plate or something from your office desk. Including a fellow human might be even more fun.

Feel free to download the meditation and talk.

A Model of Experiencing

In the foreground of my experience is a burning, stabbing, pain in the left shoulder, radiating to just above the elbow and then further down into the index finger. The experience itself is beyond words, is what it is. Though I can describe it – burning, throbbing – words are not part of what I feel. The experience is unpleasant, and a moment ago I had a strong reaction of aversion. Along with that came thoughts of disapproval, anger, and generally wanting for the experience to not be there.

Now that I give myself to feeling it, though the unpleasantness is still there, there is very little to no rejection of the sensations. I can explore them further and, like a cluster of stars in the night sky, different places of discomfort group together to seemingly form a pattern. Aching in the left index finger, a stabbing pain just above the left shoulder blade, a similar pain in the middle of my back on the left side towards my buttocks. These three areas are connected, the discomfort clearly interdependent.

As soon as I let go of the aversion (or should I say: as soon as I am interested and the aversion fades away), I have opportunity to explore the sensations in their many facets. Suddenly I become aware of breathing and how the breath moves towards the pain in the shoulder. Aware of the movement of breath, I also become aware of new expectations and the mind becomes active: maybe this will take care of the pain. Aversion is flaring up a bit again and with it the desire to get rid of the discomfort.

The expectation that the pain go away makes it hard to feelingly be with it. I may not be able to get rid of this expectation, but I notice that what’s happening in the shoulder happens independently of desires. Could I allow it? Can I let it take its course? I notice that I now want for the breath to be there instead of allowing it to be there. I’m tempted to push it that way. Instead of allowing and reflecting, I expect and want for something specific to happen.

Then I drop into a different place, without doing. Suddenly, that peaceful darkness in my lower belly outshines all other sensation. Unmoved but holding it all together, it is the silence at the center of my experience, subtly but persistently radiant.

I realize that, though I describe these experiences as happening one after the other, they might as well happen at once: allowing and pushing, expecting and experiencing, being, stillness.

I’ve been working with an image lately that describes this process quite accurately. In this image Earth is the place of experiencing, drawn as a circle with a cross, the actuality of here and now. The Moon circling the Earth symbolizes momentum and mood. Together they circumambulate the Sun in an elegant dance.

  • The dynamic dance of the moon around earth and sun makes for a wild ride, easily causing serious nausea. It is just like that when I am swept away by emotions. Though I often seek that thrill and sometimes enjoy it, it more often than not is a source of much distress.
  • The experience of living on earth is constantly changing too, but her center of gravity provides a focal point that keeps me balanced in the midst of activity.
  • The heart of our solar system, like my lower belly, is a centering force and a source of joy beyond the pleasures of the dance of moon and earth.

Much of the time I seem to be dwelling on moon, being swept back and forth between expectation and disappointment, looking for pleasant experiences on earth: instant gratification. I’m happy when things go my way, while the unexpected throws me out of kilter: when I like what’s happening, I go for it, when I dislike it, I fight.

However: When I am able to move from  reacting to what is happening to the actual earthly experience, then I become grounded in the midst of movement, at home with earth. Things are still pleasant or unpleasant but I respond from a place of connection, engaging with the moment’s occurrences rather than reacting emotionally to their feeling tone.

Beyond the realm of like and dislike there is a place of being, unmoved by the moment’s moods. The quivering heart of the solar system, the sun, is not detached from daily life, but rather its collecting hub, holding it all together and flooding it with joy.

This radiant still-point is often hidden by clouds (especially if you live in New England). But that does not mean the sun is not there. Sight is but one way of perceiving what is. Taking time to come to living from the heart of the matter is crucial for well being. Not once a day but over and again. Because it is always here, it really doesn’t take any time to get to. Yet it does need practice or the cloud-cover will distract us. The entrance door is sensing, the felt and engaged awareness of our moment to moment experience – living on earth. From there we might awaken to that centering force which, like gravity, penetrates everything persistently with its radiance. I may call it being but, ultimately, it has no words or images and is largely a mystery to me (though only when thinking about it).

Images. Useful for reflection. Now it is time to leave the gallery of representations and plunge into living again, where sun and moon and earth and pain and joy are one in a continuous, vibrant, dance – nameless but known.

The Never Ending Story(s) of the Confused Mind

Strong, agonizing pain, emotional distress in my chest this morning when I wake up. No words to it – but thinking is very active trying to figure it out, trying to untie the knot. The unpleasantness of the pain sparks aversion. Not all the time – for moments it is just pain, just sensation. The next moment again it seems unbearable and I want it to end.

The internal battle begins:
“This has to go away, it is too painful, it is frightening.”
“No! I have to do something about it, accept it, feel it, be with it. I shouldn’t have an averse reaction. I should only be patiently feeling what is happening. I should not have the wish for the pain to go away.”
“No! It’s okay to have these thoughts and feelings of aversion. Don’t try to get rid of them.”
“No! This is unbearable. It has to stop.”
“No! I should completely accept the pain.”
Anger rising, frustration, agony.
This is the perpetual battle of the confused mind. No solution will be found here.

It appears to be almost impossible to simply stay with sensation that is unpleasant. Especially when it is emotionally charged. There always seems to be an expectation that it go away or that at least it could be understood.

Here it comes again into the foreground: burning pain. But now it is not as much emotion as it is sensation. I can be more easily with that.

I take refuge in a place that is at peace, somewhere between bellybutton and sacrum, an open space, vast and dark: From here all is fine.
From my chest nothing is fine: Burning, fear, doubt. Here is the realm of judgment, the battlefield of right and wrong, where nothing will ever be solved. It is the kingdom of never-ending uncertainty. Its only match is breath.

Breath: Somewhere between the peace of the belly and the terror of the chest, preferring neither. Breathing is the neutral force, where what is, is just what it is. It is as though breathing keeps the two sides from one another, from getting at one another, creating space, as it were, between good and evil, between pleasant and unpleasant. Equanimity.

It is very important to distinguish between perception and thinking. This burning sensation in my chest right now is simply sensation. There are absolutely no words attached to it. There is not even like or dislike attached to it. It is just sensation. I can describe it with words: burning, for example. I can have an internal dialogue about it, analyze it. But there is no trace of that in the sensation itself. Is there any inherent aversion? No, but that response is very close, like the moon circling the Earth.

Please note, especially if you have not read my last post on exploring:
These writings are not theory but practice. They are not a map but reports from the territory, from the immediacy of experiencing. 
Maps are available @ Sensory Awareness, Buddhism, Psychotherapy and many other locations. I recommend that you study them and that you follow the advice of an experienced guide when you need it – and I hope that you’ll know when you do. I sometimes think I know my way and get terribly lost. I have also used maps showing trails going nowhere. That’s even worse than not having one. At times, however, it is good to have the map snatched out of your hand and get lost in the pathless land so you can find your own way – or simply sit down by a brook and enjoy where you are.
Then, there is also the W.C. Fields attitude in International House, when someone suggested that maybe he is lost, he responds: “Kansas City is lost! I am here!”

Exploring

This entry was to be the introduction to a report of an experience a while back that seemed to call for an explanation. It now is relevant enough to stand on its own. It may sound a bit theoretical but it is important, so please bear with me. In it, I explain a central tenet of Sensory Awareness. The term Sensory Awareness, as I use it, refers to a specific practice based on the work of Elsa Gindler as Charlotte Selver offered it and which lives on in her students. (More on the work here)
Wow, I just wrote a preface to the introduction to next weeks blog.

The beauty of Sensory Awareness lies in the question: “What is your experience?” It is an invitation to explore. In a session, this question underlies an agreed-upon task, which can be as simple as coming from sitting to standing. Ideally, as a teacher* I give as little guidance (and philosophy!) as necessary but enough to provide students with a  framework within which to explore coherently. This is usually done by asking open-ended questions, such as: “As you get ready to come from sitting to standing, can you feel that there is something under you which supports you? Can you feel that something pulls on you, pulls downward? And what in you arouses in response to the pull and the support of the earth that allows for the coming to standing to happen?” Such questions are hopefully not premeditated but arise in the moment from my own experience and from what I notice by seeing the students work.

The questions serve as pointers to experience. Is it possible not to ponder them but to let them sink into our tissues and to then allow for what wants to happen to unfold? The questions are not to be answered through internal dialogue. I may later ask the student what her experience was but until then it is not necessary to verbalize, though incredibly hard not to, because we are so conditioned to give immediate answers to teachers (and the right ones too).

In Charles Brooks’ eloquent words, what we offer in Sensory Awareness is “the rediscovery of experiencing”.  The teacher’s questions ought to give authority/agency to the experiencing student to find out for herself.** In this sense, the students are not “our” students and we are – as Charlotte often pointed out – not teachers, but together we study living, “our attitude towards life”, and how life could be, if we lived without an “attitude”.

This does not mean “anything goes” as one excited student once remarked after back-to-back sessions led by first Charlotte and then myself. It seemed to her that I was giving students more freedom to do what they wanted. I was mortified. No, on the contrary: giving students more freedom means to give them more responsibility. “Here is the task. How do you go about it?” is not an invitation to do ‘whatever’ but a request for diligence and for taking responsibility for one’s own experience. It is not: “How do I want to do this?” but “How does this want to happen?”. Not an easy proposition. In Charlotte’s words: “Sensory Awareness is a demanding mistress.”

An important aspect of Sensory Awareness is reporting back to teacher and fellow students, so we can compare notes, as it were (more on the art of reporting another time). It is with this in mind that I write here. My entries are reports from my own experience rather than teachings of a method, and meant to inspire you to find out for yourself, diligently, playfully. They are spontaneous writings in response often to intentional exploration of real situations. I share them and then ask: “What is your experience?”

After such a report, Charlotte’s sole comment often was: “This was your experience.” (Sometimes followed by: “Now forget it!”, meaning: This might have been an important finding but don’t let expectations get in the way of experiencing anew next time.)

*Or, as Charlotte Selver preferred to call us, leader (because our task is to guide and not to teach.)

** Again, the Buddha’s “be an island onto yourself”. (Beware: this link is supposed to get you to the respective quote on top of the page but your mind might get sucked into the startling title for the next chapter of the Sutta.)

Mindfully Into Misery

or The Blessings of Skillful Thinking

On my way up Bald Mountain I sit down on a rock to better connect with where I am. My gaze sweeps over the hilly landscape but my attention is absorbed by emotional pain and – just as much – by the aversion to that experience. What to do? What I want is to be connected with my surroundings and not distracted by internal turmoil. What I experience is how attention does not stay with what I want, agony, and resistance. Together they constitute a toxic brew.

I finally give in and allow for the sensations, emotions, and thoughts of distress to take center stage: The power of depression, of the “desire for nonexistence”, of the aversion to my experience – even to seeing budding leaves on nearby maple trees – is remarkable. All life seems to point back at my pain, magnifying it.

Paying attention to difficult emotions in this way, I seem to give them even more power. They take over and flavor all experience with a strong, bitter taste. Mindfully, I spiral down into more negativity.

It is then that the thinking mind interferes with a wholesome suggestion: How about if I bring my attention to neutral sensations rather than either trying to stay with what I deem positive and relevant around me or unpleasant but important – because it is strong – within me?

I immediately notice a plethora of neutral bodily sensations: stillness in my lower belly, the subtle warmth in my left thigh, tingling in my fingers. As attention begins to willingly settle there, these neutral sensation become a refuge where I can drop confusion and recuperate. How calm it is here and how quickly joy regains strength! The pain does not go away, but the bedrock of neutral bodily sensations holds it with warmth and care. Anguish so becomes but one of an array of things happening this moment: wind blowing through the still bare branches of deciduous trees, the song of a nearby finch, cold stone, the glistening surface of Willow Pond, sadness, the beauty of the wooded hills, joy of being.

Invigorated I get up and walk on. I am intrigued by this experience. By intentionally directing my attention away from the screaming foreground to the subtle background “hum” of neutral bodily sensations I was able to contain what would have otherwise pulled me down into an abyss of negativity. I usually tend to let attention go to what is strongest, believing that this is how to properly be mindful. But when I am not grounded by what may not shout but offer its unwavering stability quietly, I can mindfully drown in misery.

This willful choosing of a certain segment of my experience over another stands in contrast to the notion that I have to focus on what calls for attention most urgently, especially when it is unpleasant and painful. It goes against the belief that I cannot choose my experience but that I have to take what is given, i.e. what screams loudest. However, by choosing subtle bodily sensations I did not reject the painful experience. In the end the opposite was true: Opening to the whole spectrum of what was there and then intentionally taking refuge in neutral ground, I was able to gain perspective and open up to the pain rather than being overwhelmed by it. The uplifting effect of this experience on the whole day was remarkable.

Of Split Rocks, Stone Walls and Clothes with No Emperor

The many responses to my last blog entry, online and off, have been received with much gratitude. Thank you! I trust that you are now not expecting a blog on depression. That is not what I have in mind. But the drought hardened ground upon which it thrives – the persistent illusion of separation – will be a recurring theme. I get terribly caught in that thorny hedge, grown from drought resistant seeds of long forgotten trauma.

Nor am I in the business of debunking Buddhism or any or any other religion or practice. I deeply respect traditions even when I wrestle with them or disagree. I am part of the Buddhist Sangha and as such I deem it of great importance to participate as an active collaborator rather than a passive follower of premeditated “truths”. This is my understanding of what the Buddha meant when he admonished his followers to be an island onto themselves. It is also what I cherish so much about the practice of Sensory Awareness, which has its roots in the work of Elsa Gindler. As Charlotte Selver often suggested, encouraging her students to find out for themselves and in collaboration – rather than blindly following a teaching (or the Führer for that matter) – was Gindler’s foremost gift to the world.

To be sure: this is not an easy path and treacherous for students and teachers alike. Charlotte had to painfully learn that. When she followed Gindler’s advice and went off on her own, learning as she made mistakes, her independence was not appreciated by her teachers. But she knew she had to follow her own sense of the real, even though it meant painful separation. One important teaching I received from Charlotte was at her breakfast table one morning, when she suddenly turned to me and said: “Forget about Sensory Awareness. Do what burns in you.” This blog is such a following-what-burns-in-me forum: partly poetic outlet, partly laboratory, partly screening room for findings from my practice.

On recent walks in the woods I have been curiously attracted by things that are split or torn apart, by snags too. And by manmade divisions such as the ubiquitous stonewalls of New England, marking boundaries between individual sections of the same land. Incidental borders often – serving as much as linear rock dumps as they were intended for keeping anything securely in or out – these walls have long since become an integral part of the landscape and home to an array of small creatures, legged ones and rooted ones, foraging out on either side of what they do not know as wall but call home and shelter and playground.

Maybe most of our beliefs are such incidental linear dumps for thoughts, carelessly tossed away and suddenly perceived as deliberate boundaries, inherently empty of meaning but vehemently defending a perceived permanent self: thought fabrications, clothes with no emperor. Maybe these captivating features of the landscape could help me understand something about what is torn in me and about the walls I have built within and around me. I always think splits have to be mended and walls need to be torn down, but maybe they can be permeable parts of a whole, hatching ground for new life and landmarks for other lost wanderers. Just as the eye recognizes the beauty in a split stone embedded in the soft forest floor, maybe the heart can recognize the beauty in its brokenness, sheltered tenderly in the woven basket of what the English language calls rib cage, more accurately and breathably named Brustkorb in German.

The most impermeable borders are probably those in our minds, limiting our participation with the larger here and now more than any old stone wall could. Or skin and bone for that matter. Our skin is not just form and boundary, it is just as much like that old stone wall, permeable and infused with sensitivity: a place to make contact. Nor is our skeleton a coat-hanger for our flesh but rather an articulated participant in this adventurous life: responsive and gregarious.

Perception and thought may at times seem like an odd couple but they belong together and make us human. However, thought tends to puts itself in charge, even though  it is completely dependent on and emerging from experience. It tends to get lost in the exciting mirror hall of its own reflections, using the sensuous world preferably as “food for thought”.

My practice is dedicated to felt exploration and the realization that we are participants in a world from which we are not essentially separate but rather active ingredient. This requires that thinking becomes a collaborator rather than an out of control tyrant.

Let it inhabit that stone wall, humbly and boldly, reaching out for nurture and play, let it take a walk on the wild side – as I enjoy doing in this blog entry – but always let it come back to the felt ground of experience.

Every moment of feeling, hearing, tasting, seeing, smelling, is an act of participation. So is thinking, but when thinking thinks it is separate and superior rather than youngest sibling and equal to the other senses, we get deluded quickly. (Maybe it tends to go overboard because it is such a latecomer among the senses in evolutionary time, much like a teenager in need to push boundaries to find her own?)

Being this breathing creature, entirely part and participant of a place, of an intimate world of air and bark, chatting humans and asphalt roads: right here, in a felt exchange with this fragrant air I’m breathing, with this chair I sit on, and this floor under me, I write down these bubbling thoughts.

However, that we are part of a place is often not our experience. Confused as we are, we tend to perceive ourselves as solicitors, barely embodied, peering into this world as if from some place that we might imagine to be somewhere in our skull or – worse – “spiritual beings having a physical experience”, as I once read on a bumper sticker.

To break through that persistent illusion I’ve made it part of my practice to roll around on the floor, rub against boulders, lean against trees and otherwise to give myself a chance to experience being in a less mind-mediated fashion, running and jumping for joy when that is what my muscles ache for. Skin and bones and tissue know more about the realities of this world, of belonging, than thinking may ever understand, unless, that is, it joins ranks with the other senses. It is through this bodily intimacy that we can connect with what is also here and wake up to who we really are.

It is often easier for the thinking mind to be integrated and find its place when I move and physically connect with things rather than sitting still in meditation posture, where I often find myself struggling to achieve something: concentration, a quiet mind, not to mention enlightenment.

All senses, including the often disregarded and intimate tactile sense, are crucial for awakening. The senses may be suspect for some Buddhists, tolerated as necessary tools for survival maybe, but essentially perceived as ghastly sirens, leading into the murky swamp of craving and from there straight to suffering. That this happens all the time is sadly true but not inevitable if we are wakeful: the same senses are also the doors to liberation according to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on the Foundations of Mindfulness.

Sitting quietly on a cushion is for me not currently the primary tool of awakening – in fact, it is often literally a good way of going to sleep – though sitting is also part of my daily practice. It has its importance, its beauty and its place. But if I am not very careful when “sitting”, I tend to get into, what Charlotte Selver called, watchtower mentality: I observe rather than experience, “looking” for insight and liberation. Curiously, in Buddhist teachings we are often asked to watch our breath: something that is entirely impossible, as it is not visible, unless, of course you find yourself meditating outside on a frosty morning or if you look at the expanding and contracting chest of your meditating neighbor. Not commonly recommended as a mindfulness tool. Such “watching” may easily foster the sense of self.

The breath can only be felt. What an intimate communion with air and all other breathing beings.

I consider, thus, rolling on the floor to be a valid Buddhist practice alongside many others. The intimacy of visceral experiencing guides us to a felt, to an incorporated sense of what in Buddhism is called Emptiness, namely that we are part but not apart, that our human individuality is but a rather extravagant way of being a cherry blossom: beautiful and fragrant for a moment before tumbling back into the fertile earth of Impermanence, giving way to another juicy fruit.

Cherry Blossoms

Recommended further readings:

If you read my adventurous friend David Abram’s new book Becoming Animal you will recognize him soon as my favorite wilder brother. Visit his web site at http://www.wildethics.com.

Then there is the beautiful work of Charlotte Selver’s husband, Charles Brooks. His book Sensory Awareness – The Rediscovery of Experiencing can be ordered in its recently revised and expanded version, Reclaiming Vitality and Presence, through the web store of the Sensory Awareness Foundation.

For a fascinating history of New England’s stone walls, read Robert Thorson’s Stone by Stone. http://www.stonewall.uconn.edu.

An insightful piece on Agendas – that ambitious offspring of thoughts and beliefs – can be found here: On Having Agendas.

Beauty and the Beast, Part 2

Part II: Fluoxetine

And suddenly nothing I have learned seems of any use.

Actually, this is what I’m telling myself: “I have learned nothing in all these years. What a failure I am!” Decades of practice vanish in a black hole of a very different nature. I wake up in the morning and the first thought is: Oh no, I do not want to be conscious! I cannot stand being awake. Pressure and burning in my chest, fatigue, despair.

Can I be present with it? For a moment – but that only increases the agony.

I have to get up, it is time to make breakfast for the family. I go downstairs, put a kettle of water on the stove. I do not know how to make breakfast. I open the fridge, peer into it, hoping that something in there well give me a hint. I stand and stare, pressure is building up in my chest and tears start rolling down my cheeks. I wish I could die.

Footsteps in the bedroom above me and then noisy little feet running down the stairs. My son enters the kitchen, excited about the new day, happy to see me and ready to do something together. I quickly dry my tears, turn around and smile at him. “I need to make breakfast. Can you play on your own?” No, he cannot. He wants me.

I cannot either! I can’t be with anybody right now. I can’t make breakfast. I am bursting – and I push it all down. I have to function now. How to make breakfast? Okay, I need to ground myself, feel the floor under my feet, feel the cool milk container in my hand, follow breathing. I know how to do this.

Fuck! I can’t, I can’t stand being present. It hurts too much. I’m about to explode.

My wife has since arrived in the kitchen. She notices my state immediately, asks: “You’re having a hard time, don’t you?” I can’t stand that question. I do not trust that it comes from a place of care. I hear it like a complaint. I mutter: “I’m okay”, and continue with the impossible task of preparing breakfast.

Somehow, I manage to, I even get lunch together for Julian, but when it takes him forever to brush his teeth and hair, the buildup of pressure gets to a point where I start loosing it. My voice gets louder and more impatient and I finally break out in tears. “Just do what I ask you to do, please! I can’t deal with this any longer!” The result is as immediate as it was predictable: now Julian is upset too and won’t brush his teeth at all. My wife is upset because my state is affecting everyone.

Driving to school goes well. Julian has regained his good mood, we chat and have a nice time together. I drop him off and head back home. The person in the car in front of me is driving very slowly. Pressure building up again. “I need to get to work!” I shout. I can’t stand this anymore. Suddenly I have a very strong urge to drive off the road, crash into something and kill myself. What a relief it would be to put an end to this misery. I cannot see another way out. This has been going on for too long. Then I think of my son, I think of my wife, and I know that is not an option. I drive home, devastated, full of shame.

Such a predicament, like anything, arises through causes and conditions. When a lifelong predisposition finds fertile ground the beast can mature. I’d been there before. I will not expound on the causes for the current bout of depression; they shall remain private.

The buildup was slow and steady. It did not go unnoticed but I am a meditator with lots of practice, I’m a Sensory Awareness leader, I should be able to help myself. That is, in part, an honorable attitude. I really want to find out how I can heal by applying all that I have learned. But there is also this kind of thinking: This shouldn’t be happening to me considering all that I have done!

But life is not a rewards program and here it is: suicidal depression. Nothing seems to help. Shame certainly doesn’t and neither do guilt and pride. Alas, here they are, mixed into the poisonous brew. I try all kinds of natural remedies and supplements but nothing does the trick. Therapy doesn’t seem to help either, nor does talking with friends, or running or hiking, though these attempts at least give me some relief. It is good to have friends.

When these friends suggest that I take medication for depression I do not want to hear, though. That is not a solution for a person of my stature. My practices must work. How could they not? And if I can’t help myself how can I help others? What “helps” the teaching role: As a long-time meditator I have the “advantage” of being able to keep a good posture even when my limbs are in danger of withering away.* Actually, I have always been good at that: looking calm while screaming on the inside. I received compliments for my composure even as despairing teenager.

For how many months can I make myself believe that I can get through this with my skills? Three, six? How about a year? It only gets worse and finally I come to a point where I have to admit to myself that I can’t go on like this. I may be a failure but I need medication now. The shame! But I had come to this point once before in my life and was helped by antidepressants in a short time. Could I let myself be helped again in this way? Oh, the humiliation!

I finally give in. Within three weeks I feel much better and able to cope with life again.

This was last summer. In the fall I stopped taking fluoxetine and for a while I seemed fine. But then came our move from the Southwest to New England. All I’ll say is this: moving, selling and buying a house – very stressful! I had to resort to the pill again, even take something for anxiety and sleep for a short while. Don’t tell anybody. It will ruin my reputation of always being calm and dispassionate, even funny – and an accomplished teacher too.

The medication made all the difference. As we are settling in now I can begin to consider going off fluoxetine again. But tricky is the mind and ambition is not a good advisor. I’ll consider the decision carefully and I will allow myself to get outside help to support me in the transition.

Addendum for Buddhists
About 15 years ago, when I found myself in a similarly severe depression, I decided to go on a ten-day silent Vipassana retreat with a well-known monk and teacher from Sri Lanka. I was hoping that would help me but after only one day it became clear that I was spiraling down even more. I often sat on the cushion in tears. It did not help that the teacher had decided not to give any individual interviews at all. After the second day I went to the retreat manager and urged her to talk to the teacher. I really needed help. To make a rather long story short: after another day or two I got to talk to the teacher. His first words were that I surely must already feel better because thanks to me everybody was getting interviews now. Furthermore, he suggested that I stay with the breath and also memorize the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on loving kindness. That would open my heart. With this advice I went back to my cushion. After ten days I was in such deep misery, I was barely able to travel home. This is when I knew I needed to see a psychiatrist. He prescribed Prozac and Charlie Chaplin movies. That helped.

(I should add that I memorized the Loving Kindness Sutra and recited it daily for some years. It’s good practice and I enjoyed it. It did not help with depression.)

(I should also add that when I decided to go off Prozac after only three months, the psychiatrist told me that was pretty stupid. I’d only feel that I was fine because of the medication. If I stopped now I would go down again quickly. He was wrong.)

In a recent conversation with Stephen and Martine Batchelor, two Western Buddhist teachers I cherish deeply, I mentioned my predicament. Their response was very clear: going on retreat is not how you treat depression. Stephen recalled an incident in a Tibetan monastery where he saw that a monk with what appeared to be a psychotic breakdown was taken to a hospital to be treated. Stephen said that he learned (and I’m paraphrasing here) that mental illness, such as depression, was considered by the Tibetans a “physical illness”. It was not seen as a “mental object” caused by craving and healed by letting go of desire, aversion or delusion but that it called for medical treatment.

Postscript: Practice? Practice!
Even though I wonder at times if all this meditating and sensing have had any profound effect on my life (or, frankly, that of many practitioners I meet) I know not to kid myself: if not for the teachings of the Buddha, the Sensory Awareness work of Charlotte Selver, and other modalities I have practiced over the years, I would probably not be here to tell the tale. The willingness to be present has been crucial even when it seemed useless. To meet and truly, deeply connect with what is, – to awaken – has a great healing capacity, and what is more, it brings about the deepest joy. It has also enabled me to recognize the beauty in the beast.

* Occasionally, I would let my guard down in my teaching when it seemed appropriate, and I do it more so now. That’s also the purpose of this blog. It turns out that people like to work with the real Stefan just as much as with the unwavering Buddha statue look-a-like.