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Mindfulness, Meditation,and the Me Me Me Generation

17 Aug

bodhi tree buddha



The tradition of Ch’an/Zen Buddhism is steeped in iconoclasm.  From Bodhidharma’s “special transmission outside the scriptures” to Lin Chi’s comparing the Buddha to “the hole in a privy,” Zen Buddhism has always been a maverick amongst its more conformist siblings.  Yet, what are we doing here?!  Are we not referencing a revered tradition in our very observation of that tradition’s upending of traditions?!  In that moment of realizing the paradox, it’s as if we can hear every trickster guru from Shakyamuni down to Alan Watts chuckling at our confrontation with upaya (cunning means of education).

We are not here to be the butt of their joke, however.  We are here to grapple with a dynamic at play between accreditation and appropriation, legitimacy and interloping, trappings of Zen and true Zen.

Though not a new quandary, as of late a number of articles have explored these largely American questions.  The Magazine Buddhadharma dedicated its Summer 2015 issue to these matters.  In 2014 Joshua Eaton wrote an article for Solon magazine on the appropriation of Buddhist dharma by “mindfulness” movements, particularly in and among the corporate culture elites.  And NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a story in September 2015 on San Diego State University’s fledgling Buddhist fraternity and sorority.  That’s a short list of more than dozens of articles that were recently published on this topic.

The fundamental question that these various articles are asking is: What is Buddhism and whose Buddhism is it?  I say that this is largely an American question because, though Buddhism’s history is one of transplantation – from India to China, China to east Asian countries, including Japan, and from there to the West – today, we Americans are putting a uniquely American spin on the age-old question of authenticity.

Twenty-first Century America repeats like a mantra, “Have it your way.”  We choose our news and entertainment on-demand.  We order customized sneakers made across the globe to our exact specifications and have them delivered in a matter of days.  It makes sense that we’d want our Buddhism to be à la carte.

But, as my professor, Jon D. Levinson of the Harvard Divinity School, used to say so frequently in teaching about Judaism and its rules, commandments, traditions, and interpretations, “A canon is not a smorgasbord.”

The appropriation of Buddhism in America today is more insidious than simply picking and choosing aspects of the religion that we like, find appealing, or helpful.  With the rise of “mindfulness” and “self-help” movements distilling the “beneficial” aspects of Buddhism and (other traditions) down to the “essence” without the “accoutrements” of the religion, rituals, traditions, and cultural specificities, there is a threefold danger: 1) the danger of displacing the central message of Buddhism (anatman, “no-self”) and replacing it with me me me; 2)  the danger of an externally originated reductionist evaluation of Buddhism; 3) the danger of distorting Buddhism and/or diluting its unique identity until it lacks any and all identifying features.

Each and every day we hear more and more about the health, wealth, and wisdom to be gained from “mindfulness.”  From the Dalai Lama’s collaboration with M.I.T. and Harvard on the “scientifically proven” benefits of meditation, to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based stress reduction, to Marsha Linehan and others who have incorporated meditation and mindfulness into Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), aspects of Buddhism have been incorporated, appropriated, and lauded as therapeutic in the West in a rising tide of health-conscious seekers for the solution to the stresses of modern living.

Westerners are practicing meditation and mindfulness, surgically selecting aspects of age-old traditions that suit their current needs, just as yoga has frequently been transformed into a workout designed to be a stress-reducer, without reference to or concern for the rich and deep spiritual and religious tradition of which it is a part.

Just as so many Westerners are searching for “spirituality” without religion, so too have Western Buddhists sought satori without rituals.

We could, provisionally, divide “Buddhist practitioners” into two camps: secularists and traditionalists.  The former could say, “What’s wrong with taking what works for me and leaving the rest behind?  The Buddha himself preached, ‘Do not accept any of my words on faith, believing them just because I said them.  Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns, and critically examines his product for authenticity.  Only accept what passes the test by proving useful and beneficial in your life.’”  (Jnanasara-samuccaya

            The traditionalist could respond, quoting Shakespeare, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” just as Satan did in Matthew 4:1-11.  Or, paraphrasing Robert Frost, the traditionalist could retort, “‘Mindfulnesss’ without Buddhism is like playing tennis without a net: It’s fun, but it’s not tennis.  It’s helpful, but it’s not Buddhism.” 

But beyond these objections, there is a greater danger.  Just as the secularist invoked an authority (the Buddha himself) in order to legitimize the secular view, the rejection of tradition opens the bulwarks of the religion to being coopted, appropriated, even perverted by “false prophets,” false preachers, false teachers of the Dharma.  The authenticity of the religion is put into jeopardy by the potential for illegitimate, unaccredited interlopers to propound “the Dharma” as they see it.  

Whether we are talking about a religious practice or a judicial practice, what a canon offers is certain long-standing, time-tested, limits on interpretation and advancement of the tradition in question.   As such, just as in Plato’s ideal city, the fundamental principles of any tradition rest on the guardians of the canon. 

On the other hand, institutions and centers of authority run the risk of becoming entrenched in their own bureaucratic bulwarks.  Time and time again we see in well-established religions ossification and corruption amongst the accredited elites followed by a reaction and rejuvenation among marginal figures.  For instance, the Cluniac reforms and St. Francis of Assisi challenged the decadence and corruption of the powerful within the Catholic Church.  Martin Luther attempted reform and found that the tradition was so rigid it needed to break.

This tension between tradition and reform, between authority and the maverick is concisely sketched by Robert M. Pirsig, quoting A.E. Hoebel when he says:


[T]he priesthood fights an unrelenting war against shamans….Priests work in a rigorously structured hierarchy fixed in a firm set of traditions. Their power comes from and is vested in the organization itself. They constitute a religious bureaucracy.  Shamans, on the other hand, are arrant individualists. Each is on his own, undisciplined by bureaucratic control; hence a shaman is always a threat to the order of the organized church. In the view of the priests they are presumptive pretenders. Joan of Arc was a shaman for she communed directly with the angels of God.

Without the shamans or “presumptive pretenders,” the form is in danger of being dedicated to perpetuating its own existence, rather than a commitment to the original vision and mission that brought it into existence in the first place.  It could grow stale, a fossil, dead weight lacking the dynamic force that is necessary for an institution to be in the service of life and vitality.

Shamanistic reform can be of two types: one, pushing the tradition forward in the face of new, unprecedented challenges; two, returning the tradition to its origins in the face of decadent deviation from its roots.

The former is exemplified by the Buddha himself.  Born into Hindu tradition, religion, and society, he incorporated much of the religious, social, and philosophical milieu, but he also upended it essentially, vertically, and horizontally.  By that I mean, he transformed the central formula of the Upanishads from atman Brahman (you, yourself, are the Supreme Deity, Brahman) to simply anatman (there is no self).  Vertically – in terms of the strict hierarchical caste system, he opened up the possibility of nirvana to everyone and anyone, not just the highest priestly caste.  And horizontally – he did away with the stages of proper roles according to age (student, householder, semi-retired/semi-spiritual, fully-retired/fully-spiritual practice), and said that anyone at any time can become enlightened.  These three heterodox doctrines responded to the rigid Hinduism of his time in the face of a new set of problems in the time of the Buddha.

The latter shamanistic reformer can be seen in the figure of Dogen, who, dissatisfied with the Zen Buddhism of his day in Japan, went back to the sources in China to rediscover its more authentic origins.

Both of these forms of reform can be considered “radical” (the root meaning of which is “root”).  The former, in that it is radically breaking from tradition, pulling the tradition up by the roots, as it were.  The latter in that it is returning to the roots of the religion in order to revitalize it.

Placing too much faith in the accrediting body (the word “accreditation” itself being derived from the Latin credo – belief, faith) runs the danger of perpetuating formality over vitality.  But disregarding the structures that confer legitimacy (root word lex, legis, meaning “law,” “lawful”) runs the danger of distortion and dissipation of the Dharma (one meaning of which, is “law”).  Furthermore, the transformation of Buddhism into “mindfulness” is worse than dilettantism, it is to appropriate a venerable tradition and coopt it into serving one’s own purposes and needs.

What we find in modern, particularly American, “mindfulness” practices, from Jon Kabat-Zinn onward, is a notion of transcending the parochial and sectarian “muck” of religion, particularly Buddhism, just as Buddhism uses the metaphor of the lotus lifting and blossoming out of the “muck” of the pond.  Though this transcendent mindfulness attempts to leave behind the trappings of Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, the seeds of this transformation can be found in the early advocates of Zen in the west, namely in D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, among others.  There is, in their writings, a strain of “essentialism,” or purity – a biased and subtle notion that Zen, of all the world’s religions, is the most transcendent and universal.

This essentialist idea can still be detected in a modern defense of the tradition.  In her article, “Don’t Strip It All Away,” in Buddhadharma Magazine, Gesshin Greenwood relays the following story:


Last year during a public question-and-answer session at Nisodo, the Soto Zen training monastery for women in Japan, a German nun asked the abbess, ‘How much of the practice here is Japanese culture, and how much is true Buddhism?’  The abbess, Shundo Aoyama Roshi, answered with a metaphor she often uses in dharma talks and writings: Buddhism, she said, is like a wheel turning.  The outside of the wheel is everything that depends upon time and place–culture, forms, language.  As the wheel makes its way across cultures and time periods, the outside moves and changes.  However, the inside, which is the true buddha-dharma, stays the same in every place.  It takes a lifetime of practice, she says, to be able to identify what is at the center and what is on the outside. (p. 35)



This lovely little analogy, complex as it may be, does suggest an essentialist, “true Buddha-dharma” that is transcendent to time and space.  Of course, as Brad Warner of “Hardcore Zen” points out in his commentary on this article, “The wheel can’t move forward without its rim.”  (July 13, 2015, “Form vs Essence”)  We can go further and say that without the rim there is no center.  But the bigger point is that Buddhism is staunchly anti-essentialist.  The notion of anatman, no-self, could also be understood as no essence to anything.  There is only dependent arising.  There are no absolute truths within the world of dependent arising, only relative ones, dependent ones.  Those truths are dependent upon the time, the place, and the relationship of the subjects involved.  Again, as so often in Buddhism, we find ourselves running up against the limits of logic and language.  Here, the paradox is that Buddhism is, “essentially,” non-essentialist and therefore it follows that there is no “essential” or “true” Buddhism either.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s anything goes.  Buddhism is “staunchly” or dogmatically or doctrinally non-essentialist so long as one is in a relationship with a religion that one feels the need to pin it down.  In other words, what Buddhism “is” depends upon who you are (how you understand yourself) and what Buddhism is to you (your needs, your ability to understand and realize).  As the Buddha has said, once the raft (here, a symbol of the religion of Buddhism) has been used to transport one from the dangerous shore to the safe shore, then the raft is no longer necessary.  The raft (doctrine, dogma, concepts) can be discarded once its purpose has been served.

But don’t be so quick to determine that you have arrived safely upon the nether shore!

Perhaps that is the fatal flaw of the mindfulness movement – that it is too eager to believe itself well beyond the need for such “primitive” rituals and practices.  There is an ego-aggrandizement to be found is such a stance and that ego-centeredness is only fed by the supposed benefits to be reaped through mindfulness – happiness, productivity, wealth, prosperity, health, and a better you!

The fact is, just as Buddhism is anti-essentialist – a stance that decenters our conceptions of the world around us – through that negation of essence, selfhood, and ego, it also decenters us from being the subject and object of our practice.  One doesn’t meditate to be better.  One doesn’t meditate to do more, be healthier, happier, or for any other purpose.  That’s just the point – that there is no point!  There is no reward to be reaped through the diligent effort.

However, this is just scratching the surface of the underlying cultural prejudices that are violently glossed over when meditation and mindfulness are practiced in a Western paradigm of enhancing productivity.  E.F. Schumacher, in his article, “Buddhist Economics,” has pointed out that in the West there is a long-standing cultural distinction made between work and leisure.  And it is with this underlying cultural assumption that we find surprising common ground between Adam Smith and Carl Marx.  Both of them see “work as little more than a necessary evil.”  They have different ways of maximizing production or maximizing leisure, but they share this cultural predisposition of a dichotomy that goes as far back in western culture as Adam and Eve.

In Buddhism, however, there is no dichotomy between these two concepts.  One doesn’t work for the sake of leisure, nor is leisure, in itself, desirable and work undesirable.  Rather, the “dull” and “mundane” tasks of work take on a sacramental quality.  They are not done for reward, but rather, as in play, the reward is in the doing.

As the philosopher David E. Storey has pointed out, one can approach one’s activities with the mindset of rut, routine, or ritual.  A rut is something that one dreads doing.  It takes all of one’s effort just to do it and one often resents the activity.  A routine is an act that is done mindlessly. One has neither aversion to it nor cherishes it.  And a ritual is an act that is performed for the sake of its performance.  One approaches it with awe and devotion.  In the West, ritual and this mind-set is usually reserved for acts relating to the sacred.  (Or, perhaps, they used to be, but now such sacred acts such as church-going and holy-day obligations are performed at best as routines, and at worst as a rut.)  But in Buddhism, every act, no matter how small or how “ordinary,” is undertaken with the mind-set of ritual.  That is what mindfulness in the Buddhist context really means.  (Note that “ordinary” is etymologically related to “order,” as in a religious order, as well as “ordain,” to make something consecrated, holy.)

One reason that westerners have been so enthusiastic about mindfulness and a possible explanation of its popularity, especially among the wealthy, urban elite, could have to do with this desire in the West to flee the ordinary.  As Slavoj Žižek has pointed out in his essay, “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism,” westerners have long searched for the more exotic in origin of mystery cults rather than the native fruits. (Cabinet Magazine, Issue 2, Spring 2001)  A meditative practice with origins in Buddhism from Asia, but in the relatively unimposing form of mindfulness, is more preferable to a western audience than the relatively closer-at-hand tradition of Catholic contemplation.  (In the Catholic tradition “contemplation” is the non-verbal, non-imagistic form of prayer, contrasted with “meditation,” which involves positive images and discursive thought.)  And, as Žižek points out, this “mindfulness” not only has the cache of exoticism, but it also upholds the status quo while at the same time unburdening the practitioner of any guilt by association with the great inequities of Capitalism.  Thus, rather than disrupting and decentering (the tradition, the self, the system), there is a danger that mindfulness could mindlessly reinforce all of the egoistic constellations, easing us into complacency.

Perhaps, despite the great popularity of the Dalai Lama in the U.S., it is in order to counter this fetishism and searching for something else that he cautions, “Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a better Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”  (Source unknown)  Perhaps, in the final analysis, this saying sums up best the uses and abuses of Buddhism.  By that I mean that the Buddha, in and through his life and teachings, and Buddhism, as an emulation of the Buddha, are both generous and not rigidly doctrinal.  A collection of Alan Watts’ essays is entitled, Buddhism, the Religion of No-Religion, and much can be gleaned from that title in conjunction with the parable of the raft.  The starting point of Buddhism is that we suffer.  In that sense, we are stuck in the pits.  Buddhism can be used (and has been used by such folks as Jon Kabat-Zinn) to help one with great and small suffering alike.  Buddhism also offers much by way of practical advice and pragmatic approaches to trenchant metaphysical and philosophical problems.  In this way, Buddhism speaks to the plains – the day-to-day concerns of life such that the Noble Eightfold Path is a helpful guide.  Finally, Buddhism points to and encourages us to climb the peaks – to have “peak experiences” in every moment.  But, unlike many western religions that make themselves indispensable to the individual for purposes of salvation, Buddhism preaches not salvation but liberation and that liberation entails liberation even from the attachment to the religion itself.  Zen, in particular, preaches that you, as you are, are already enlightened, a Buddha, and not in need of salvation or improvement.  All you need to do is accept it.  In its generosity and focus on the individual, not the religion, Buddhism says, “Here, take this if you wish, if it helps you, if you can use it.  If not, that’s ok too.”  In Buddhism’s great generosity, it doesn’t staunchly defend its “turf,” jealously guarding its techniques as if protected by copyright, patent, or trademark.  And, in that sense, perhaps all the recent hullabaloo about appropriation of Buddhism by mindfulness is just balderdash.  To some extent, that would include this very writing itself, though I hope to encourage mindfulness to be more mindful of what it is actually doing.

So, to return to our original story, the special transmission outside the scriptures implies three very important features that are pertinent to the topics we’ve discussed herein: 1) It focuses on the interpersonal, relational, and contextual conferral of the dharma seal; 2) It simultaneously upholds and disrupts the tradition; 3) It is not a doctrine, dogma, or system.

As we mentioned, Buddhism makes no claims to absolute Truth, but rather only conditional, dependent truths.  As the “Flower Sermon” illustrates, the authentic, legitimate, stamp of accreditation occurs only by “pointing directly to one’s mind” and “seeing into one’s true nature.”  In other words, don’t pretend to be something you’re not.  There is a great story about this in which Ananda, the Buddha’s hand-picked chosen successor to lead the Sangha, knew that he was not enlightened.  When it came time for him to lead the first meeting of the Sangha after the Buddha’s death, he stayed up all night trying to become enlightened so that he wouldn’t be seen as a fraud before the congregation.  Finally, after much sweat and anxiety, only moments before the meeting was to come to order, alone in his room he conceded, “Oh well, I’m not enlightened.”  And by virtue of seeing and accepting things as they were, he became enlightened at that moment.

With regard to a tradition, it is true that a canon is not a smorgasbord, but it also isn’t fixed.   Canons do change.  The notion of a compulsory canon is only for cocktail party intellectuals.  As with an individual painting, for instance, the history of the painting, its deterioration, the damage it incurred over time are as much a part of the art as the original, pristine image – if, in fact, there was an original.  So too with canons – whether literary, religions, judicial – canons change across time and space.  They provide certain internally generated limits and guides, but they are not inflexible.  Of the religious canons, it could be said that the Buddhist canon in general and the Zen canon in particular are the most flexible, even to the point of canonizing perpetual revolution.

In this sense, Buddhism, and certainly Zen, is not doctrinal, dogmatic, or systematic.  In many respects, Buddhism shares the sentiment of Jesus when he said to the Pharisees, “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you.”  (Luke 17:21)  Saying The Kingdom of Heaven is within you is a subversive idea since one who knows and experiences this owes no allegiance to any established institution or church.  And, quite the contrary of the Unitarian Universalists, who attempt to bring every tradition into one church, this suggests the ability to feel at home in any and every church.  When all traditions are jumbled into one (as with the Unitarian Universalists), the unique is sacrificed for the universal.  By the same token, when the distinctive qualities of any tradition are filtered out (as with mindfulness), then the beauty of medium is sacrificed.

One could use a few analogies to illustrate these points.  As with food, the former approach is like putting every and all ingredients into a pot and creating a stew that, because it lacks a time-tested recipe, ends up tasting like nothing in particular.  The latter approach reminds me of the nutritional paste represented in The Matrix.  Or with alcohol – the former is like mixing every drink together resulting in an unpalatable cocktail and the latter is like these new alcohol vaporizers that introduce alcohol directly into the blood stream via inhaling it.  It may produce the intended result of intoxication, but without the pleasant, tasty medium of the fine wine, aged whiskey, or perfectly blended mixed drink.  Or finally, the metaphor of language: The former approach is like rambling prose, the latter is like summing up the Iliad into a few sentences that say, “Guy takes girl and has temper tantrum when girl is taken from him.  People die.”  Somehow that misses the beauty and texture of the poetry itself.

On the other hand, even if you are a virtuoso of the spirit and feel at home in any and every place of worship, that doesn’t mean that any and every tradition welcomes you as one of their own.  Nor should they.  You may be a game master, even a maker of games or game theorist, but that doesn’t mean that you, as a player-participant, are not bound by the rules of the specific game you are playing.  To be a master gamer not only entails understanding and seeing the hidden connections between different kinds of games, mapping the meta-rules that organize and undergird all games, but also being able to play a particular game according to its own limited rules.  And sometimes those rules exclude you as a participant.  Respecting the rules of the game is part of what being a master means.

There is more than just metaphor to the image of a “game master” as relates to religion.  But, suffice it to say for now that just as the master gamer sees, finds, and makes a game of all things – all things become play-things – so too does the spiritual adept feel every place as sacred, all time as holy, all things as God incarnate.  Incipit Magister Ludi.



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Daily Obstruction: Zazen

2 May
First Sermon. Hadda. Musee Guimet.

First Sermon. Hadda. Musee Guimet.



Going everywhere; getting nowhere?  Just sit.

Daily Obstruction: Karma-Yoga

1 May

wheel of law




“Karma” literally means “action.”  Bad karma is bad action.  The worst karma is when people pass along their bad karma onto you.  But you have a karmic choice: continue the chain of bad karma by passing it along to others, or stopping the chain with you.  Karmic transmission is symbolized by the image of the fire of a candle igniting the wick of other candles.  “Nirvana” literally means “blowing out” and is symbolized in this metaphor as “blowing the candle out.”  “Yoga” literally means “union.”  Thus Karma-Yoga could be understood very physically as the act of proper breathing: The union of Karma (inhaling) and Nirvana (exhaling).

Daily Obstruction: Moksha & Art

21 Feb

guan yin

Moksha & Art

It has been said that the power to enlighten others, if not discharged, is like a restless elephant caged by a straw hut.  Conversely, if that power is released to others, it is like draining an aquifer of its water causing it to implode upon itself.  Is not the creative process akin to this power to enlighten?

Daily Obstruction: Nomenclature

10 Jan




There is no writer who writes in a language made up entirely of neologisms.

Zen and the Not-Two

15 Sep

Zen and the Not-Two


Jason Giannetti


The Western philosophical tradition has long been known for its reliance on dualistic distinctions. From the time that Aristotle articulated the Principle of Non-contradiction as the fundamental principle of thought, Western philosophy has been rigorous in its pursuit of discovering Truth through the instrument of logic and its dualistic structure.  This structure has pervaded Western thought to such a great degree that it is the building-block of artificial intelligence and computerized models of the mind, as exemplified by the 0/1 foundation of binary code.  This deeply ingrained “programming” could be why many Westerners find Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular so mysterious and confusing.  But in this brief account I would like to demonstrate the strange logic of Zen and the critique it offers of more traditional Western forms of logic.


In Zen and Western Thought, Masao Abe lays out a three-stage formula of Zen understanding.  Simply stated it is: 1) samsara; 2) negation of samsara; 3) satori. The Sanskrit term “samsara” could be understood as everyday-mind, or the mind of a novice or non-initiate. This is the mind that is caught up in the experience and phenomena of day-to-day existence and the formidable questions of life and death. After some training in Zen, one begins to see that things as they seem are not as they really are, and thus one moves to the transitional stage of negation. But finally, upon “awakening” or “enlightenment” (also known as “satori” in Japanese, or nirvana in Sanskrit), one is able to re-affirm the original position.


Abe uses a passage from the Chinese Zen master Ch’ing-yüan Wei-hsin who says:


Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, ‘Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.’


After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, ‘Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.’


But now, having attained the abode of final rest, I say, ‘Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.’ (Zen and Western Thought, 4)


This three-step process is also examined by Malcolm David Eckel in his study of the Mādhyamaka philosopher Bhavaviveka. There Eckel says:


It is customary in Mādhyamaka studies to speak of this way of thinking as a dialectic, for obvious reasons. The assumption of conventional distinctions seems to function as a thesis, the denial of distinctions seems to function as an antithesis, and the reappropriation of distinctions seems to resolve the two antithetical positions in a new synthesis. (To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness, 44).


Eckel rejects this Hegelian understanding of what is happening in passages such as the one about the mountains and the waters above. However, to explain this, a little must be said about the fundamental Mādhyamaka position.


According to the Mādhyamaka tradition, especially as articulated by such great Indian Buddhist philosophers as Nāgārjuna and Bhavaviveka, but having its origin in some of the earliest texts in Buddhist literature, nothing is permanent, nothing is fixed, nothing has persistent identity, selfhood, or essence. This is impermanence (anitya). All, ultimately, is empty of atman (self). This is the ultimate insight of satori, the insight that the Buddha was granted when he attained enlightenment. Thus everything resolves into Emptiness. However, saying this posits some kind of permanent position, a point of resolution akin to a ground with its own essence—the essence of Emptiness (śūnyatā). Thus, as Eckel says:


From the point of view of Emptiness, none of the normal distinctions between things applies [for they are all empty]. But emptiness itself is a distinct position, too, and when it is analyzed from the point of view of Emptiness, it also has to be empty. So the ‘intelligent’ readers who have followed the argument faithfully through all of its [distinct] stages finally see the last distinction, the distinction between distinction and no-distinctions, vanish before their eyes. At the end they are left where they began. It is not that they can plunge into the distinctions of ordinary consciousness with the same naïveté as before, but they are aware that Emptiness ultimately is not different from the process of distinction-making with which they began . . . Without denying the distinction between distinction and no-distinction, the concept of Emptiness would be essentially sterile. It would leave the philosopher trapped in a world of Emptiness as opposed to something else.  But with the emptiness of Emptiness, the argument not only pushes the concept of Emptiness to its final limit; it also forces the transition from the stage of denial to the stage of reappropriation, the transition that returns the argument to the world of distinctions out of which it came. (Eckel, 43)


To illustrate this terminology, we can return to the saying of Ch’ing-yüan Wei-hsin. In the first stage he was caught up in the everyday-mind of distinctions whereby mountains are distinguished from waters and each has its own essence. This is called “conventional truth” or “conventional perspective.” In the second stage, after some Zen training, he begins to realize that everything is ultimately empty. Thus, this stage, from the perspective of “ultimate truth,” is negative and denies the conventional truth of the first stage. Hence, mountains are not mountains and waters are not waters. But in the third stage, where Emptiness “itself” is understood as empty, thus negating the negation of distinctions, the conventional distinctions can again be affirmed.


This strange “logic” can perhaps be better illustrated if, instead of mountains and waters, one uses the concepts of true and false—the foundational dyad of all Western logic. According to conventional truth, statements are either true or false. But, according to the Mādhyamaka, the ultimate truth is that all conventional truth is empty. That would include conventional terms such as “true” and “false.” Hence there is no distinction between “true” and “false.”  Both are empty.  Both resolve into Emptiness, for Emptiness alone is. . . is what?—True, of course. But, based upon the truth of Emptiness, we just declared that there is no distinction between true and false, thus the claim that Emptiness is true is itself an empty claim. This would seem to undermine the whole argument, and from the point of view of conventional truth (or from Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction) the argument would fail as self-contradictory. But rather than admit defeat, the Mādhyamaka insist on the fact that the claim that Emptiness is true is itself an empty claim. The emptiness of Emptiness thus allows all the conventional claims and distinctions to stand as they are.


According to Eckle, the Mādhyamaka argument


holds the perspectives of the two truths [conventional and ultimate] together simultaneously in a kind of double vision or, as Jacques Derrida would say, in a double register that permits no synthesis. The Mādhyamaka critique ‘deconstructs’ in the sense that it brings to the surface the contradictions that lurk within particular systems of thought. [Or, one could say, all systems of thought.] It does not resolve the differences in a higher synthesis but unmasks the differences for what they are. Instead of the Hegelian Aufhebung [sublimation] that negates a previous position and conserves it by ‘lifting it up’ to a higher level, there is a différence that “differs” and defers” the contradiction without leading it to a higher synthesis. (Eckel , 44-45)


Hence, we must recall what we said earlier, and now claim that there is no “fundamental Mādhyamaka position,” for any and all systemizing philosophy is, according to the fundamental Mādhyamaka position, deficient, for all discursive thought and language are dependent upon conventional truth. Ironically, however, it is only by means of an explication of “the fundamental Mādhyamaka position” that we discover its impossibility and that Mādhyamaka cannot be reduced to any system.


Thus we find in the great collection of Zen stories, The Gateless Gate, it said that “Daibai asked Baso: ‘What is Buddha?’  [Or, ‘What is Enlightenment?’]  Baso said: ‘This mind is Buddha.’ [Or, ‘Everyday-mind is Enlightenment.’]” (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Shambhala Press, Boston, 1994, 210). And then, separated by just two stories, we find, “A monk asked Baso: ‘What is Buddha?’ Baso answered: ‘This mind is not Buddha’” (Reps, 214). Or, as Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an (Chinese for “Zen”) Buddhism, said:


If, in questioning you, someone asks about being, answer with non-being. If he asks about non-being, answer with being. If he asks about the ordinary man, answer in terms of the sage. If he asks about the sage, answer in terms of the ordinary man. By this method of opposites mutually related there arises an understanding of the Middle Way. For every question that you are asked, respond in terms of its opposite. (Quoted in: Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, Vintage, New York, 1985, 94)


In other words, if one speaks about what is profane, reply in terms of things profound, and if one speaks about what is profound, reply in terms of what is profane. Thus we find snippets of dialogue such as:


A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax: ‘What is Buddha?’

Tozan said: ‘This flax weighs three pounds.’ (Reps, 192)




A monk told Joshu: ‘I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’

Joshu asked: ‘Have you eaten your rice porridge?’

The monk replied: ‘I have eaten.’

Joshu said: ‘Then you had better wash your bowl.’

At that moment the monk was enlightened. (Reps, 175)


Or, as an example of taking a mundane statement and responding from the perspective of the ultimate:


As the Layman [P’ang] and Sung-shan were walking together one day they saw a group of monks picking greens.

‘The yellow leaves are discarded, the green leaves are kept,’ said Sung-shan.

‘How about not falling into green or yellow?’ [replied the Layman]. (A Man of Zen: The Recorded Sayings of Layman P’ang, trans. Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitaka Iriya, and Dana Fraser, Weatherhill, New York, 1992, 83)


And finally, an almost shocking transposition of profound and profane:


A monk asked Ummon: ‘What is Buddha?’ Ummon answered him: ‘Dried dung.’ (Reps, 195)


Of course, if one takes the statement of Hui-neng as a prescription and applies it formulaically, one has completely misapplied the statement. For, as Alan Watts has pointed out, such usage can become an “institutionalized technique, and therefore lends itself to affectation and artificiality . . . This, too, can become a fetish” (Watts, 169). And what is a fetish but an attachment?  And whether we subscribe to the complex and difficult philosophical discourses on Buddhist metaphysics and logic, or we look no further than the clarity and simplicity of the Four Noble Truths, the maxim is: The cause of suffering is attachment.  Thus, the crux of Buddhism is giving up our attachments and that means, paradoxically, even our attachments to Buddhist logical systems, truths, and maxims.  Hence, if you’ve followed me thus far, I congratulate you, but it is now high time to throw away the proverbial ladder and see the mountains and the waters.

The Cyclone

28 Aug

The recent suicide of Robin Williams reminded me of a writing of mine from a few years ago.  I welcome your comments.


The Cyclone:

Depression’s Insights Into Dharma




Jason Giannetti


“[A]ll the strong emotions stand together, and. . . every one of them is contingent on what we commonly think of as its opposite.”


“To wage war on depression is to fight against oneself.”


  • Andrew Solomon,

The Noonday Demon, p. 38



The immortal I

Encountered had his head

Buried in his hands;

Collapsed, prostrate

On the table in front of me –


Broken, defeated,

Worn down by time and eternity,

Worldly-wise, thin, faded

(Almost to the point of transparency),

Drubbed; raising the flaccid flag

Whose tattered white remnants

Bled more than blew;

A banner drooped with the weight

Of a thousand surrenders,

Signaled by the standard-bearer

For the state of Woe

(An endless marsh of muck and mendacity),

Who, drunk and dying

A thousand deaths,


Like so many devils of depravity

Shot through and through

With the proverbial thousand arrows

Of outrageous fortune –

“What is to be done?”

The battle’s lost and rounded with

A sleepless dream

Hollow as the proverbs’ sounding

And the musket’s distant report,

A poem that tells of naught –


The angels, the angels of possibility;

Taunting, tantalizing, demoralizing

With their visions of the endless

Game of chance and necessity. . .


For a single moment,

Looking up – eyes so bleary

And confused –

I thought I saw, however brief,

A glimmer of recognition

As we, across from each other,

Stared, straining to see,

Is that me?



It’s not life. It’s not death. It’s memory that is the scourge of existence. I’ve lived so long now that I feel as if I’ve lived too much. Late at night (or early, early in the morning), alone in the darkness, I feel the crush of people, faces, experiences that impinge upon my mind unbidden and remind me of all that is past, all that is lost, all that is irretrievable. It is not as if I have lived through a world war or a famine or even a tragic event – and that is part of what makes the pain so unbearable, for it is simply the mundane moments, the passage of time, the most common of all experiences that oppress me. During the broad light of day I can only mock my moods. I deserve ridicule and mockery. But in those dark hours. . .

For a long time I couldn’t tell the difference between “depression” and what others refer to as normal ups & downs of life or “the blues.” My therapist was no help at all because he just opened the DSM and read the entry on depression and, of course, that could apply to just about anyone (hence the spike in numbers of people diagnosed and treated over the years). But then I picked up Bill Styron’s Darkness Visible and the way he described his depression (from the inside, rather than just listing symptoms) really clicked with me. Suddenly I realized, “Yes, that’s depression. Not the blues. And I suffer from it.” Unfortunately, what I also realized through reading his book was that he “self-medicated” for years with alcohol. The two things that I do to “treat” my depression are sleep and drink whiskey.

I usually can feel an episode coming on. My thoughts turn to memories and incidents that I find unpleasant. It’s as if the repression valves in my brain get opened and there’s no way to close them. Bad thoughts (about me and others) begin to seep in and then flood my brain. In addition to that, the mounting pile of things I have to do seems to grow so much larger and feels insurmountable. A flood of “must do” tasks swirls in my brain and I feel totally impotent to accomplish even one thing because I feel as if I must complete everything. As a result, nothing gets done. I find ways to procrastinate and waste time because all the jobs seem too big, cumulatively, and it is daunting to even start. Connected with this is the feeling that I’ve been lazy and unproductive in so many facets of my life and that I really have squandered what little time has been given to me (as if I were on death row).

All of these (irrational) feelings build and feed on each other and have the effect of creating an overall feeling of frustration that often results in my lashing out in anger and being extremely temperamental, hostile, and impatient with people and things. Sometimes, I’ve noticed, I have an episode of uncontrollable rage and then, out of regret, the depression sets in. But was I already on the path to the depression and that caused the irritability or does the depression result from the spike in adrenaline released in the outburst of anger? It’s a chicken and egg thing.

The dark thoughts, the flood of repressed memories, the overwhelming feeling of having so much to do and the paralysis of not being able to do anything, the irritability and anger all well up in my mind and create exactly what Styron calls a “brain storm.” That’s how it feels – like a giant storm of dark clouds, swirling winds, and chaos run amuck in my head. All I want to do at those moments is shut out thought. I want to turn it off. I want consciousness to be squelched. To this end, if I can, I curl up in a ball on my bed and cover myself in blankets and pillows. I sometimes cover my eyes and forehead with a pillow and press down hard as if to prevent my head from exploding or to stop the flow of thoughts. And, as I said, the most successful way of stemming the black tide of thought is to drink whiskey till I finally pass out. I wish that I had a coffin in which to lie, tightly hemmed in on both sides and protected from the world.

When I am in these moods I am a horror to be around. I know that. But I find it almost impossible or futile to communicate or to even try to communicate. Lately, during these episodes, I have had suicidal thoughts and feel like a bullet through my brain would be better than the experience I am going through. I heard an interview once with a person who dedicated his life to studying suicide after the loss of his son to the “disease” and he said that two factors combine in almost every suicide or attempted suicide: the feeling of being a burden on others (that they would be better off without me) and a lack of fear of death. I don’t mean to brag in any way, but I never fear death (for better or worse). And when the dark clouds form I sometimes do feel as if the world would be better without me in it. In addition to that, I feel like shutting off the mind. Anything. Anything to deliver me from this misery of consciousness. As a result, in order not to burden those I love with the knowledge of what I am thinking, I shut down. I don’t talk. I don’t express myself or how I feel. I just want to be left alone.

The worst situation for me when these storms blow in is being in a social situation in which I have to interact with others. I usually sit quietly and brood and it is apparent to others that I am being “anti-social” or something, but they have no idea what is going through my head or from what I am suffering. It would make no sense to them if I did try to tell them because, as Styron says repeatedly, it is like a physical pain, but unless you’ve experienced the pain yourself you cannot possibly imagine what it is to go through it. It is mental anguish – a sort of squishing of the brain. Lately these (gradually more intense) episodes have been accompanied by discrete headaches. They are very intense and usually localized to one area of my cranium and they feel as if someone is operating on my brain with a laser, boring about an inch into it.

Luckily I have a significant other who, unlike everyone else, can see these storms coming, even when they are still on the horizon. I’ve tried to help the situation by announcing to her that I think “a storm’s a-brewing.” I try to give her a heads-up while I still can. Much like a tornado warning or a tsunami alert, there’s not much time between the warning and the storm and I have learned that when the storm is barreling down, the lines of communication will be severed and there won’t be any way of relating to the outside world what is happening in the vortex. Sometimes this has resulted in false alarms, but I feel it’s better to report and give her time to evacuate the area than to keep silent and let the storm take another casualty. Unfortunately, often these episodes lead to fights between us and her inclination is to resolve a fight immediately whereas, in these states, I am incapable of escaping from the havoc.

It has happened in the past that, seeing my mood become irritable, snappish, and downright nasty, she has said to me, “You know what? You have a choice. You can either make this weekend a good one, or you can continue in your pissed-off state. But if you continue like this, I’m not going to go.” We were on our way to Vermont for a ski weekend during Christmas and everything seemed to bother me. Later, when I had calmed down enough to actually communicate, she asked me, “Did you always hate Christmas?” and that was the key that unlocked the floodgates. Unbeknownst to me, I had a lot of pent-up emotions about Christmas. That, combined with my general anxiety about taking long trips, had led to my depression that time. My point here is that I don’t feel like I have a choice, any more than people in the trajectory of a hurricane have of choosing to stop the impending tempest. I told her as much. I explained that it feels as if I am on a sled (it was Christmas time after all and we were on our way to ski, so the simile seemed apt) and it is cruising out of control down a steep hill. I have no way of controlling it or even of jumping off. It’s just going to fly downwards until it reaches the bottom and then it will be time for me to slowly, step by step, walk my way up and out of the valley (of the Shadow of Death).

I find that the doom & gloom subsides after a good sleep or at least a few days. When it does subside, I feel so much better – I can think clearly. It feels, cliché as it may sound, like the beautiful blue sky, singing birds, and clear sunlight that arrives after a giant gale has pushed the dark clouds of the hurricane through, washed the streets clean, and has miraculously birthed the world anew. I find that the onslaught of thoughts and demands and stuff that just swirled around and around in a funnel cloud of confusion in my brain has left things where they are and I am able to pick up the pieces one-by-one. “Just do one thing.” That is my mantra after these storms. I feel as close to Zen as possible because I focus on one thing and one thing only and I take immense satisfaction in the completion of one task at a time. Things don’t seem overwhelming any more, and even if they seem like a lot, they seem possible if I only do just one thing.

In time, however, the calm gives way to a frantic rush of activity. My mind becomes active and activated. I get excited, energetic, happy, elated, and feel like I can take on anything. I feel immensely powerful and my view of my life becomes inexpressibly cheerful. I think “positively” and imagine that everything is not only going to be alright, but it will be splendid. I spend like there is a giant inheritance just waiting for me to claim and I smile at people and say hello to strangers. People see my sunny disposition and most of them react in kind. I feel pity for miserable people and I forget that I ever had a time in my life that I was laid low by powers out of my control. I begin to think, “I don’t have depression. I just get blue sometimes. Everyone does.” My partner reminds me of things I said or did during my depression and they seem funny to me and I laugh about it. I make fun of myself and it all seems so distant – like another lifetime or, more accurately, like it was literally another person. That is exactly how my partner describes it to me. She says that I am like two totally different people. She’s in love with the “normal” me, but she is afraid of the “depressed” me.

I have no answers and, at times like these – as I write right now – I feel so good and so creative and so active. I’m in a good balance right now. But, inevitably this balance will start to accelerate and I will become like one on speed. My mind will become a flurry of ideas and thoughts: things I want to do; concepts for novels; essays I want to write; etc. The best description I’ve found of this experience is Homer’s metaphor in which he describes Odysseus’ mind as “teeming” with thoughts. Teeming – like thousands of fish swimming in the ocean, each glimmering and slithering and beautiful to the eye. That’s how my mind feels when it becomes over-activated. Lately, at those times, I think to myself, “What goes up must come down. You’re in for a hard landing from this one.” It feels like being at the crest of a rollercoaster and knowing and anticipating the sickening feeling you are going to get in the pit of your stomach when the car plummets down to the nadir below. There’s a certain rush of adrenaline one feels as one looks out over the amusement park and everything seems so beautiful just before the arms go up and the screaming starts.

People ask me why I just don’t take some sort of medication for this. They tell me that a mild antidepressant will level out those peaks and valleys. But I feel that philosophically I am opposed to it. If I am going to ride the rollercoaster, I’m going to ride the fucking thing. I’m going to take the ups and the downs and when I get off I’m going to say, “That was one great ride. Fuck it. Let’s do it again.” Or maybe, “Fuck it. I’m never doing that again.” Who knows?




All I need is darkness.

Surround me. Hem me in

Like the cover of night –

Hidden where none can see;

Protected by sweet invisibility.

Comfort me with your silent lullaby.


You, gentle hands, receive me –

Deliver me from the pounding

Of life’s cannon fire;

The hoary dissonance of existence.


Redeemer, redeemst thou me

With your merciful kiss:

Inhale the breath of this prayer,

This plea, this indulgence,

And grant pardon, a clemency;

Translate me to bliss.



That “good balance” has departed. A number of factors in my life have conspired together in order to put me on the precipice of another descent into the abyss. It doesn’t really matter what those factors are – irritations, relationships, frustrations, etc. – but I can feel it coming on. There is, however, one recurring trigger (is that the proper term?) that often contributes to my melancholia. In his wonderful movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen has his buffoon director repeat his formula, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Hegel too has said that time heals all wounds and leaves no scars behind. There may be some truth to those adages about time’s restorative powers, but during my episodes and often leading up to them, I find that the one inevitable truly tragic thought is simply the passage of time. Time is the abyss that swallows all meaning. Time is the world-destroyer whose yawning jaws devour all and into whose pit all significance is drowned by the nothingness of formlessness and void.    For me the most melancholic thought is the thought of the passage of time and as more time passes (that is, as I grow older) the more poignant the melancholy.

The passage of time is synonymous with loss. Loss is synonymous with absence and absence is synonymous with nothingness. Hermann Hesse once said, “In eternity there is no time, only an instant long enough for a joke.” That “joke,” as his novel Steppenwolf illustrates, is life. But a joke, even an absurd joke, has significance. What I am talking about is the total absence of all significance. The irretrievable loss and destruction of that which we hold dear to the vast, indifferent, void of insignificance. If there is a joke at all, it is the perverse joke that we humans are capable of having a trace, a remnant in memory, of what has been and is no more. Aye, there’s the rub. Nietzsche put it so succinctly when, in discussing the essential nature of Greek tragedy, he said, “Look there! Look closely! There is your life, this is the hand on the clock of your existence!” In other words, the essential nature of tragedy, it’s utterly overwhelming and tragic component, is simply the passage of time, the inevitable loss of “now” to “then,” the ever flowing, ever falling present into the past, and the inevitable death, darkness, and destruction of it all into meaningless non-being.

As I said, I am not afraid of death, nor do I seek to avoid it. But the passage of my life and its haunting ghost of memory impinge upon my present consciousness with an action-squelching black morass that it makes the thought of continuing this absurd pantomime oppressive. That is why I wish to obliterate my consciousness. Life as an animal, without memory, without past or future, in an eternal present is what I crave. I well realize that instead of turning to mind-numbing spirits or to the temporary death of sleep, I should turn to Eastern meditation and Buddhist practice. I have done that with some success, but even that, in the darkest of my gloom, strikes me as a “vanity” along with so many others. And so I am left with the ironic and painful paradox that the only temporary cure for my illness is the cause of the illness itself – time. This too shall pass, or so I try to tell myself with little or no success.

These morbid musings on time, from whence do they haunt me? They may haunt others and for other reasons. But for me, I had a moment of insight into it when, after a lecture one of the audience members asked me what got me into philosophy in the first place. I paused a moment – there were so many answers I may have given – but feeling rather melancholic that day, I opened up about my childhood.

Now, I have to say as a little disclaimer here that I am rather embarrassed about all this. I mean, there are people out there, people I know and people I’ve met and people I’ve read about, who have a truly “legitimate” claim to depression. People who have been horribly abused (physically and sexually) as children, people who’ve lost a beloved child, people who have had a long history of mental illness, chemical imbalances, and depressions since childhood. These people, in my mind, have a right to discuss their depression, if they can. But I, I am embarrassed because, in my more lucid moments, it seems to me like I am afflicted with some sort of “philosophical depression,” the depression of Hamlet, or, less literary, what Dr. Evil calls, “the sort of general malaise that only the genius possesses and the insane lament;” a depression that does not stem from some traumatic experience or from clearly measurable physiological imbalance. And so, for years now, I have been reluctant even to call it depression or bi-polar or admit a problem. And so I feel embarrassed even to talk about it as if it were on par with those who seem to me to truly suffer from more than mere consciousness – especially since in our culture this illness “melancholia” or “bi-polar” has a certain cache to it that makes the statement of Dr. Evil quoted above so pretentious that it is comical. I feel like a comic Hamlet – as in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Be that as it may, I spoke to this inquisitive auditor about my childhood and I said that I grew up in the seventies and eighties; a time when mutual nuclear annihilation seemed like a real and tangible possibility. I grew up with disaster drills in school. No one said why we had to duck under our desks with our heads down and our hands over them. No one told us why we were to report to the room with the yellow and black flower on it. But no one had to. Nuclear apocalypse was unspoken yet known, like Voldemort, in Harry Potter. I grew up with such television specials as “The Day After,” and movies such as the adaption of Neville Shute’s On the Beach. “Twilight Zone” reruns of what a suburban neighborhood would do in the event of a nuclear war where only one neighbor had built a fallout shelter was part of popular consciousness. As I grew older I became more fearful of and infatuated with the questions posed by such works of art. I read On the Beach, Turgenev, and Camus. Perhaps most devastatingly I watched Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.

All of this literature, philosophy, and film asked one fundamental question: Given the prospect that all intelligent life as we know it (not just my life, but all life, except for, maybe, cockroaches) will be wiped out in a nuclear inferno, and with it, all art, literature, philosophy, and other fruit of human creation, what is the point of living and doing and creating? The problem was that I had turned to this literature, philosophy, and film in order to find an answer to that life-negating question, yet none of the acclaimed works satisfactorily answered that question so much as merely rephrased the question. Like an itch that is just out of reach, the more I tried to answer the question through seeing what these writers and directors had to say about it, the more poignant the question became for me when each attempt failed at providing an answer.

In one way or another all of my writing and all of my philosophy lectures are really about trying to answer this question; trying to find a reason to live, trying to find a reason for existence, trying to find a reason for artistic creation. I realize now, with forty years of hindsight, that I have struggled with this question in various ways since I was about ten years old. It was this most philosophical of questions that first led me into philosophy. This question rattled me to my core and would not let go of me.

I can also say now that my quest to find an answer to this question was successful, eventually. In the writings of Nietzsche and Buddhism, I found the answer that had eluded me for so long – the answer, you might say, to the meaning of life. It was so simple, so obvious, so easy that no self-respecting Western philosopher would dare utter it for fear of appearing as a fool. But there it was; the only justifiable answer for why we live, work, and create in the face of utter oblivion. The answer? Play. A game. The irrepressible joy of making a sandcastle. Outside of the game, outside of the sphere of play, outside of the world of make-believe or pretend, there is no meaning, no significance, no importance. All of it is completely empty, void, a vanity. But within the child’s imaginative horizon everything is transformed into meaningful symbols of the game.

Now, it would seem, having discovered the key to life’s central mystery, I would be able to go on – to live, love, laugh, play, sing, dance, and create with abandon. At times I am capable of that. But yet, despite this, there are still dark periods that pervade my existence. Now, in the midst of my life, it is not so much the grand, enduring questions that loom over me, threatening to squelch my very existence. It is the little things that can send me spiraling into a dark brooding: Watching Fiddler on the Roof with its repeated lines of “Sunrise, Sunset,” like the dirge of a Greek chorus reminding us of the tragedy that “swiftly flow the years.” Seeing my son, brilliantly smiling with a giant gap in his teeth as he holds up the newly extricated front tooth saying, “Look, Dad!” as I struggle to smile back and look delighted while inside me I feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut and it registers to me that there is no going backwards; he will never be seven again. My daughter’s adult front teeth have already grown in and it is a struggle to remember what she looked like before they did.

Once, while talking about all the infinite trials and tribulations of being a dad one of my friends remarked to me, “Yes, enjoy it now, for the days are long, but the years are short.” That line reverberates in my ears constantly, “The days are long, but the years are short.” Again and again, as I grow older, I can almost feel the time fleeting like one feels the water of a flowing river rushing over one’s skin. I look into the faces of beautiful young people and, as in a horror movie, I see their features grow old and decrepit. I am made constantly aware of the brevity of youth, the ephemeral nature of beauty, the brief span of our lives.

Some time ago I had a friend who was in his eighties. He lived a couple of doors down from me and on a hot summer day I invited him to join me under the shade of my grape arbor (planted by my grandfather, my neighbor’s friend), and have a beer. We sat there and he told me of his childhood growing up in the neighborhood, of the Great Depression and his having to collect coal that had fallen from the trains as they went by so that his parents would have heat in the winter time. He told me of parties my grandfather would throw and how they danced and sang Italian songs long into the night. And then he grew silent and stared blankly into the middle distance and, after some moments, he said, “It has all gone by, so quickly, like the blink of an eye.”

I thought to myself then that, unlike my octogenarian neighbor, I could stem the fleeting nature of time by writing, keeping a journal, preserving the memories, making something significant from my otherwise insignificant life. But now I am old enough to see: No, no, there is no stemming the tide of time and that as it flows outward there is no holding on to it, just as there is no grasping at the ocean and keeping it in your hands or your pocket. Write words – it is like scrawling your name in the sand of the beach. The waves will wash it away. Death is indeed the great leveler. Intellectual or illiterate, your life is but a passing shadow, a cloud, a mayfly. My friend is long since gone. “Alas, poor Yorik!” Who remembers him? The River Lethe flows into the Sea of Oblivion and all is washed away as if it never had been.




It starts as a tear in the pituitary gland

And drops through the nebula of

Synapses down to the back of the throat

Where it gathers mass into a globule of

Molten lead – a marble of grey and black –

Waxing as it falls through the esophagus

Down to the chest.

There it multiplies in size –

A tennis ball of bile and bitumen –

Till in the left lung, near the heart,

It reaches maximum expanse

As large as a softball,

Now cold and dead

It drops in a vacuum

To the abdomen and lands

In dread where it spreads

Like a filthy cancer throughout the soul

Making black all the windows of my head.

“Closed,” “Vacant,” “Danger,” it says,

Posted in large letters for she schooled in this rune.

(No one else can discern the enigma of the blank emotion.)

The occupant has shuttered up his abode

And wishes all visitors to vacate the premises.


That’s how it starts and it’s anyone’s call how it ends.



In the dark hours the depression sneaks up on me. As if it were a stalker following me by day, at night it puts on its mask and becomes a cat burglar. It sneaks in at night upon a slight breeze and, if I am not properly “medicated,” it steals from me my sleep and my sanguine humor. Thoughts as dark as the night seep from the surrounding shadows and it feels as if that trespasser Depression has taken “me” out of my body and left “me” an empty shell. I feel, in my interactions with others – particularly my intimate partner who, unfortunately, is subjected to me most often during these episodes – that this is not who I am. But I am incapable of being otherwise; nor, because of the demon who has taken possession of me, am I inclined to admit to being someone else. “I” am possessed, and the demon who has possessed “me” is not going to admit to the trespass, kidnapping, holding hostage, impersonating and stolen identity. No, no way.

Now, continued existence, if you can call it that, under these circumstances would certainly be unbearable. And it is probably the unbearable nature of that unique sort of suffering that makes me feel that the game is not worth the candle. My profoundest sympathies are extended to anyone who suffers under a prolonged depression of this nature, for I am aware that such depressions can last a year or more. But, having said that, my experience of this fluctuation, this swinging pendulum, this existence as an electrical current pulsating between the two poles, carries with it its own challenges. For, when “I” feel like “me” – whatever that may mean – the shadow side, the stranger, the imposter, thief, the demon seems to be merely a chimera. But when the demon takes hold, then “I” am exiled and have no place “there” (that is, in my own skin). Such disturbances and cycling can be very disorienting for both “me” and others. It leads to real and profound questions of identity and trust.

Similarly, when my moods spike and “I” become revved up like a jogger on a treadmill where the speed of the treadmill is gradually being increased by some unseen sadistic controller, “I” lose the ability to take stock of “my” judgments. Is this what “I” really want and really want to do or am I just cranking up on the rollercoaster’s ascent? When I come crashing down, will this be of use to me or will it count in the column of regrets that accuse me? Such questions as these sometimes get heard, but the real indicator of whether the treadmill is accelerating or not is, when I am on high speed I don’t ask these questions.

These extreme emotions and radically divergent behaviors shake the foundations of a Western conception of self, but oddly reinforce the ancient Buddhist insight of anatman – no abiding self. As Andrew Solomon has put it, “There is no essential self that lies pure as a vein of gold under the chaos of experience and chemistry. Anything can be changed, and we must understand the human organism as a sequence of selves that succumb to or choose one another. And yet the language of [Western] science. . . is strangely perverse.” (The Noonday Demon, 2001, p. 21) That tension between language, idea, and metaphysical predisposition on my part and others toward permanence on the one hand, and the experiential flux of existence on the other, leads to psychic dissonance and suffering.

There is no objective scale of suffering and pain. As Tolstoy has observed, the one wilting rose in the rose garden of the wealthy man afflicts him as much as the hunger pains of the pauper. So it makes absolutely no sense to ask which is worse: prolonged depression or the panic-riddled highs and vacuous lows of bi-polar confusion?

But, perhaps the real question to ask is, would I have it otherwise? As much as I feel as if “this” isn’t me – whether on a high or stuck in a low – I still reject the option of meds. I’ve heard from many people that the use of prescription meds for moods and anxiety allows them to feel like themselves again. And though I must admit that having this odd demon crouching at my door, waiting to pounce, is disconcerting and, in the other direction, the sudden acceleration of my thoughts and elevation of my moods makes “me” feel as if “I” were being hijacked by Willy Wonka on crack, just the same, I think that somewhere, deep down, I secretly enjoy both experiences.

It is a strange experience. Every moment of every day recently, I am constantly taking my psychic temperature trying to evaluate just what is happening and in just what direction things are about to turn. But I find that I’m not so good at figuring it out. The “attacks” are different each time. Sometimes the come on with a swiftness that takes me by surprise as if I were ambushed by either depression or exhilaration, other times it is a slow slog through the morass of a general malaise that can last for a couple of weeks. Sometimes I plod on unaware of any mood either high or low – is that “me”? – and at other times I find it unbearable to even think about continuing for another day. Certain days I feel as weak as a geriatric patient in critical care and other days I feel I can take on whatever the world has to throw at me. And so, after reflecting upon all of this, I am left with the nagging question of whether this isn’t just life. Are not our mental states like the weather? Do they not fluctuate up and down, grow stormy, clear again, get icy in certain seasons and thaw in the spring? Isn’t that what life is? Is this the life of an “afflicted” man, the life of a diseased mind, or is this just life’s range of emotions? Aren’t we all like a radio with a band of frequencies? Perhaps in addition to AM and FM, my device is sensitive to short wave.




No one really knows me

No one sees me how I am

No one feels my pain

Like I when the darkness descends


No one sees the depths

No one feels the edge

No one knows the vertigo

Like I when the past pulls me low


No one goes down

No one responds

No one feels the night

Like I, alone.



“Feel like absolute shit today—want to die.” This was the text that I sent to my girlfriend on Saturday and it quite succinctly expressed my state of mind at the time. She called me immediately and said, “Are you ok?”


“What’s going on?”

“I feel like shit.”

“Physically or emotionally?”


She asked if she thought that the physical drain and aches and pains “triggered” the depression or vice-versa. And the real answer is: Who can tell, really? Below is an attempt at an analysis of the onset of a depressive episode for me.

I’m not really sure for how long things were going well. I had moved about three weeks ago and that was a lot of stress and required a lot of physical exertion. Since then, due to a number of factors and new schedules, I had been averaging about 5 hours of sleep a night with some nights logging as few as 3 hours and other nights as much as 6, but never more than that. Even if I could sleep later, I would wake up before the dawn and write. I had been in a state of mania perhaps and I was working on one particular writing project that had me inspired and desirous to complete it. But every time I sat down to write, the thoughts and ideas just flowed and the project grew. I felt like the proverbial hare that can never catch up to the tortoise. Each time I hit what I thought was the half-way mark, the project took a new direction. I was excited and enthusiastic about having both the creative ideas in my head and the energy to actually put them on paper.

This went on for about a fortnight. And then came Friday. That morning, like the morning before it, I woke up in a euphoric state. I wrote at length in my diary about how good things were and a new outlook I had on life. I was happy – happy in my new home, happy with my relationships, happy with my job and how it was going. I had a bit of a cash-flow problem, but I was confident that I would be able to overcome it. I also worked on the writing project that had possessed me for the better part of a month and I finished it! Not that I couldn’t go on (and the truth is that it was only a long chapter in a very long work), but I found a way to draw the chapter to a close and I was satisfied with the result.

I got myself ready for work and went in with a good feeling about the day. But during my class – I’m a professor – two relatively minor incidents occurred. Both incidents involved students doing or saying inappropriate things for a college classroom. I swiftly and adeptly addressed the problems in class and disposed of them, but on the way home I pondered over them and my mood began to deflate. A headache grew in intensity behind my right temple. Despair of my entire situation in life plumed in my mind like thick black oil from a burst wellhead in the ocean.

I got home and had just enough time for a half hour nap before the kids got off the school bus. I fell right to sleep, buried under the pillows. The kids got dropped off and I grunted something to them about letting me sleep a little longer and that they could watch T.V. The next thing I knew it was 5 p.m. I had slept for almost two hours and I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a train. I would have slept more, but I had to take my son to hockey practice. After the practice it was back home, getting the kids to bed, pouring myself a whiskey on the rocks, and getting myself to bed. I just thought I was tired. However, I should have known it was more than that.

For about a week I felt an ever increasing sense of anxiety. It had begun as a low-grade fly in the ointment sort of bothersome feeling about four weeks prior to this total meltdown. It started with a carton of milk. One morning I had poured myself a bowl of cereal and later that night I returned home to find I had left the milk container out that morning. The entire half-gallon had spoiled. This disturbed me, not merely because of the waste of milk, but because whenever I forget something or drop something from my radar, or lose something (no matter how trivial), I get anxious. It is an indicator for me that I’m slipping.

I already have a number of issues with my memory – I forget whole conversations, events, experiences – and it feels to me like early onset Alzheimer’s or senility or dementia. I used to have a wonderful memory and people even commented on how surprised they were that I could remember such details. (Or am I remembering a fictitious memory? You see, when your memory is unreliable in one area it causes you to question the entire representation as an unreliable narrative. This leads to frustration and a stubborn insistence on being right about the recollection of past events. Admission of error or fictitious memories only leads to more self-doubt, anxiety, and frustration. So, the only alternative is I must be right, even if everyone else says I’m wrong.) But then friends and family members began expressing concern that I repeated myself to them. “You told me this two days ago!” they would exclaim. Or, “Yes, I know that that is a good restaurant. Every time we pass by it you tell me that.” “I do?” “Yes. And every time I tell you that you have told me that, you ask, ‘I do?’” Moments like these are really terrifying. How is it that not only one event, but repeated events just get wiped out, like erasing a video tape accidentally?

Such loss of memory can be scary – especially when one forgets to show up to a lecture at which 50 people who have paid for the lecture are awaiting your arrival. But it also can be liberating in some respects. One day a song is playing on the radio and I say, “I hate this song.” Three days later the same song comes on and I might turn it up instead of off. “But I thought you hated this song?” says my girlfriend. “No, I love this song. I never said I hated it.” “Grrrrrrr,” she growls in frustration as I contentedly hum along with the lyrics. In other words, I’m free each and every day to be who or whatever I wish that day without the constraints of having to conform to who I was yesterday – because I don’t remember who I was yesterday.

But I digress. I was talking about leaving out the milk. It started with that and it bothered me. Then I forgot to blow out a candle before leaving the house for work. I then forgot my umbrella at work. Each of these minor events was building up in me as an augury of impending doom. Soon it would be something important that I’d forget and then. . .

That happened once, about a year ago. I completely forgot to go to a lecture at which I was scheduled to speak. I didn’t call anyone, I didn’t cancel – I just forgot and went about my day pleased as peach with my “free” time. And then I got that phone call asking where I was and the rush of adrenaline shot to my head and made me dizzy and I felt as if I was going to faint. There was no way to undo the wrong I had done and that sent me into a depression that lasted almost three days, during which time I just lay on the couch with my entire body and head covered in the blankets and pillows draped in darkness and unable to talk or speak to anyone.

So it was crucial that I not forget; not the little things, not anything. But here I was, beginning to slip. The milk, the candle, the umbrella. They weighed on me and I could feel my chest constricting and my stomach tightening. I grew ever more anxious, even as I was ever more prolific with my writing and as my spirits were soaring with good emotions. I felt as if it was all leading up to something and I couldn’t anticipate what.

So, I went to bed that Friday thinking I was tired and awoke the next day feeling like I had had not just one whiskey the night before, but twenty. My head hurt. My body ached. I couldn’t wake up. My eyes were sore. But, I again just chalked it up to a lack of sleep and the burning of the candles at both ends finally catching up with me. But then the kids got up and my girlfriend got up. I was a total crank. A curmudgeon. Suddenly this youthful man of 40 was behaving like Walther Matthau in Grumpy Old Men. They could do nothing right. Everything they did set me off. And, the worst of it was that, though I knew I didn’t feel well, I also knew with every fiber of my body, that in every case I was right. I’m not claiming now that I actually was right or justified, but at the time it certainly felt like it. Any protests to the contrary only served to irritate my ill-humor even more. This went on for some time till my girlfriend stomped out of the house to go do some shopping. I got the kids ready to go and off we went for another round of hockey practice. At the rink, watching my son skate and sitting next to my daughter is when I sent the text quoted above.

I was recalling how awfully I had treated everyone that morning and feeling like I just couldn’t pull myself out of this and that things would be better if I just wasn’t around.

The spiral had begun. Depression leads to anger and short tempers. Unprovoked outbursts lead to regret and more anger and more depression, and so it goes. Or is it the anger that leads to the depression that leads to more anger? For me, anger and depression are as inextricably linked as pain and pleasure for Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo. Anger and depression are the twin demons constantly crouching at my door awaiting the ever slightest opening to let themselves in. Anger and depression – these are the circling winds that make up the Cyclone of my spinning mind, just as manic euphoria and negative melancholia are the polarities of my mental globe upon which the Cyclone travels.

Sitting there in the bleachers of the ice rink, I was feeling light-headed as if my blood pressure had dropped to near zero and my head felt light and the room began to spin. Vertigo and weakness had a hold of me and it was as if all information coming in was too fast for my brain to process. My mind was slogging through the muck as if under muddy water. Really, it felt exactly like a hangover, but I had not drunk nearly enough to produce a hangover that would last all day. Yet, there was no way I could step out of life for a moment to collect myself.

I hear stories of people with depression who don’t get out of bed. People who can’t get out of bed and they stay there for days, weeks even, on end. I don’t have that option. Divorced, with two kids, three jobs, and an endless list of bills to pay, the demands placed upon me and the responsibilities I must live up to do not afford me the luxury to indulge my depression. If I could, I certainly would. In those moments of despair, I not only just wish to be alone and in bed – literally sick – but I know that it would be better for all parties involved if I didn’t have to interact with them. Yet that is not possible for me. But, to be fair, for people suffering worse than I, it is not an “option,” it is not a “luxury.” It is a debilitating illness. Will my illness develop to that intensity?

I think that at this point my kids – 10 and 7 – have either consciously or unconsciously understood that sometimes dad is not in a good mood or not feeling well. When I start barking at them about this and that, they know to keep as far away from the vicious dog as possible. My girlfriend is also well aware of my mood swings and she tries to cope and help as much as she can. But best of all would be to have a cave inside of which is a small, candle-lit room, inside of which is a red satin-lined coffin with two pillows. I would lie inside the coffin with one pillow under my head and one covering it and, in that confined sepulcher I would seclude myself until the episode had passed. A modern day Dracula.

Why a coffin? It is difficult to explain for, on the one hand when these episodes inundate my consciousness, I am hyper-sensitive to crowded spaces. I get a sense of claustrophobia that I don’t usually have. I feel like the walls of a building are crushing in on me or that there are just too many people and they and everything is in my way creating an obstacle for me. On the other hand, when I’m alone during this time I just want to be packed up tightly, covered in pillows and cut off from the rest of the world. A tight space such as a coffin would be wonderful. And, in addition, I feel as if I wish to be as close to death and being dead as possible.

With this particular episode it was mercifully short. At the end of Saturday I had a large glass of whiskey on the rocks and went to bed. The next morning I felt better, both physically and mentally and I was ready to meet the challenges of the day. However, there are certainly times when the depression, like a fog, doesn’t lift for three or four days at a time. Those can be particularly bad and damaging to my loved ones. And I suppose writing this is one way of trying to mitigate those damages. Perhaps if you understand what is happening, if you have some clue as to what is going on behind my dreary and vacant eyes, you might not get so upset with me for my being a colossal pain in the ass.




Buddha points at the moon –

Hidden behind the clouds;

A storm gathers impending doom

Covering the earth in a shroud.


Lunar symbol of enlightenment

In like phases wax and wane

Mood and mind impermanent –

Nirvana and Samsara are the same.



All of the above is an in-depth description of this affliction – a description, not as in the medical journals, but a description from the inside out. Having identified the disease, named it, described it, I must ask, is there a cure for it? Is there a way to prevent it or, if it is not preventable, is there at least a way to treat it once it descends upon me? Besides the use of drugs – either prescribed or self-prescribed (as in my use of whiskey for medicinal purposes) – are there coping mechanisms I can practice or methods I can employ to either mitigate the damage or avoid it altogether?

I’ve already alluded to a few things that I think (in theory) would or should work. The first is taking some time for myself – time to be quiet, alone, and, if possible, sit and meditate in the Buddhist manner. That is, intentionally and calmly doing exactly what it is that I, in the depths of despair, wish I could do with a gun or by means of self-suffocation – clear my mind of all thoughts, wipe away consciousness, remove memory, and stop thinking. Quiet, regular, disciplined meditation in which I get to the open, vast, and empty state of no-thought may be one thing I could do more of to reduce or avoid these episodes.

Something else comes to mind, also along the same lines as Buddhism, and that is caring for others – the Bodhisattva path. One of the great pitfalls of this disease is the self-absorption that it engenders. In its clutches I am wracked by self-loathing, self-hatred, and self-criticism. I am literally obsessed with myself. (Perhaps during the manic stages I’m equally guilty of being impressed with myself.) But a phrase that keeps on coming back to me, a little snippet of a song by Yes, is “Don’t surround yourself with yourself. Step on back two squares.” I don’t really know what this means, but I hear it as directly addressing my thoughts at these hopeless moments. It’s so easy to fall into this narcissistic fixation in which I feel as if I am absolutely no good to anyone. Isn’t the antidote to that to be some good to someone?

I am reminded of Pierre from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For much of the first third of the novel he is a spoiled, self-absorbed, self-centered rich kid whose leisure time is spent wrestling bears, drinking vodka, and searching for meaning in gammatria. But then along comes Napoleon, the war, the burning of Moscow, poverty, and the peasant Platon, and suddenly Pierre gets it! He finds meaning, real meaning in his life through the small altruistic acts by which he aids others in whatever ways he can. He can’t stop the war. He can’t stop the suffering. But he can help this person in need. Coming to the aid of others who are immediately at hand rather than being overwhelmed by the cosmic futility of it all is how Pierre escapes the prison of himself.

Similarly, I recall that some years ago when there was the devastating tsunami in southeast Asia, a number of people who were there – on vacation or for whatever reason – reported that prior to it they were all caught up in their own troubles and their own problems, but when disaster struck all of their own problems seemed so trivial and all that mattered was helping those in need. One cannot conjure a tsunami to order (nor should one want to) but, it is important to keep in mind that there are always people in need all around you and that perhaps by reaching out to them and helping them you “step on back two squares” from that position where you surrounded yourself with yourself. That is, at heart, the Bodhisattva path.

I wish that I could end this essay on that note of Buddhist meditative and altruistic salvation from despair, but there is a post script that I feel I must mention. Full disclosure: I have practiced sitting meditation. I have had numerous periods in my life where I was called upon to come to the aid of others. As a father such demands are never far away. As a human being with a lot of close relationships, there’s rarely a time when one or more of my friends isn’t in need. But the truth is that after a week of intense meditation on a Buddhist retreat I fell into an extremely deep depression. The truth is that after a period of calamity after calamity befell someone close to me and I came to her aid repeatedly – getting away from myself and my own troubles for nearly a month – when there was a moment of relative calm amidst the storm, I suddenly felt myself unravel. The only thing I could compare it to is the feeling of fending off a cold. You feel it coming on, but because you have this to do, you fight it mentally and physically, but you know that ultimately once this is done, you are going to be laid low by the cold. The crucial time or event passes, and then suddenly the cold besieges you with twice the fury it would have had, had you just allowed it to follow its natural course rather than fending it off for so long. That is what happened to me with my depression. I was a tightrope walker for the entire time I was needed, and then once the need let up, I fell from a great and tense height.

So maybe there is no cure. Maybe there’s “managing” the disease, the symptoms, the pain, the fallout as best one can. And maybe all the talk of “happiness,” “peace,” “nirvana” is just a load of bullshit. Maybe, as the ancient Buddhists proclaimed, “The Buddha is the piss and the shit,” and “Nirvana is every-day mind.” That is, there is no there there – over yonder, over the rainbow. There is only right here, right now. There is this moment. There is this mind, this state of mind, this mood, this mental construction, this state of being, this illusion. Maybe all nirvana is is embracing this this and letting go of the thought of that bliss. And maybe this is all there is. And the laughing Buddha sits back and asks, “Can you live with this? Can you live without that? Can you?”