I have lived with a depressed person for a while. And although I have only personally experienced mild forms of depression, my friends illness clarified a few things for me about the nature of suffering which I would like to share with you out there.
First of all, what is a depression? For me, it is the painful sensation of life’s “pressure” due to a person’s inability or incapacity to flow with it. Life happens but the person resists, tries to desperately hold on as (s)he does not accept the impermanent nature of life. And this resistance to life is what manifests as suffering as it creates contraction in the body-mind, shuts the depressed person off sensually from experiencing the wonders of being alive and sucks him or her out energetically.
If you read my blog you know that my mantra is to say “yes” to life, to first understand it and then accept it. The reason for resisting (saying “no”) is always rooted in fear and fear is rooted in misunderstanding life. We usually find it easy to understand the “positive” aspects of life but we completely misunderstand the “negative” and so our fears and our resistance arises (I call our tendency to resist and clutch “ego”).
So what is it we do not understand?
We think the “positive” is independent of the “negative”. As we take a stroll in the woods we may be enchanted by the beauty of nature ignoring the fact that “behind the scenes” organisms are continuously fighting for survival. But the beauty of nature precisely hinges on the principle of the survival of the fittest. If you say “yes” to nature but “no” to the darwinistic principle you are being contradictory and will be hopelessly confused about life. Same applies to human qualities. If human beings had no means of being aggressive, we would not be here now capable of enjoying the world. Let’s face it: whatever exists has its place and makes sense in the grand scheme of things. Everything (including the “positive”) is the way it is, because everything (including the “negative”) is exactly the way it is. Or “this is this, because that is that”, as the Buddhists say.
Because we fail to see this interdependence we think that the “positive” and the “negative” are engaged in an epic battle against each other and that the “positive” can (and must!) win. This is the oldest story ever told. The quest to get to this place where the “good” will permanently prevail within (e.g. new-age “enlightenment”) and without (e.g. “heaven”). But that’s an impossibility because the “positive” can never take over the “negative” as they depend on each other. Like one side of a coin can never take over the other. Hence, trying to win this battle will forever frustrate us. It can’t be done. Life is the whole works, it includes light and darkness. For how would we define “good” if we could not contrast it with “bad”? The sense of darkness gives rise to the sense of light and vice versa. Eradicating something must ultimately eradicate its opposite as well. Take away one side of a coin and you don’t have a coin anymore. So, as we go on tackling this futile task of seeking “heaven” while rejecting “hell” we roam in the cycle of suffering that the Buddhists call Samsara (consequently, thus from a Buddhist standpoint even the angels have not transcended Samsara but are only temporarily in heaven). Hence, depression is another word for being very tightly stuck in Samsara.
Sometimes, though, being stuck is part of the way forward. The spiritual literature abounds with people having awakened in midst of a depression as they got so exhausted that the tendency to reject the flow of life (“ego”) just stopped. In these situations the biblical statement “thy will, not mine” reveals its deeper meaning.
To conclude, some wise words from the Buddha, the first systematic psychologist in history. His whole teaching can be summed up as follows: as long as we are too ignorant to notice that everything continuously arises and passes away in mutual interdependence, we are caught in grasping and rejection which leads to endless frustration and suffering.
Let things be and you have arrived.
The next few posts will be Q&A’s that I have compiled over the last year writing this blog. The questions start of basic and broad and get more and more specific.
Hope you enjoy the dialogue. Further questions welcome (to: truthlesstruth[at]gmail.com).
Why do we feel separated, alienated from our environment?
Whenever our attention is focused on our experiences (thoughts, feelings, sense impressions) there arises the illusion of an experiencer, a separate agent. The experiencer is nothing but an echo of experience itself, an experience of experience (or a self-experience). With this separate agent arises fear and a feeling of alienation. Whenever our attention comes to rest on experiencing itself (which is the natural state), this illusion vanishes and we feel at ease.
Our attention gets focused on experiences when we grasp or reject them (which happens automatically in accord with our unconscious fears and desires). When we are in a complete affirmative mind state, judging is transcended, the “experiencer” collapses for a while and we seem to flow along with life and feel “one” with it.
It is important to realize that this “flow” is always there. It’s not something we need to first align ourselves with. Everything, including our fears, our confusions, our restlessness, the boredom and our anxieties are part of it too. Mostly, though, we reject these unpleasant sensations and get caught up in the illusion of separation. In this rejection mode, the (illusory) “experiencer” goes about trying to hide from these aspects of the “flow”, push them away or channel them. However, this is an impossible task, because the “experiencer” has no control over the “flow” whatsoever. We simply cannot decide to feel, think or sense this way or that way or not at all. All such futile pursuits ever accomplish is exhaustion, depression or repression.
The only way to stop anything from moving that we have no control over is by moving with it at the same pace. Or in other words, by non-objecting to what is (already g(fl)o(w)ing on) we keep on flowing with life and find our stillness in motion.
Why do we object to reality?
As we feel separate from the universe, we live in unconscious existential angst. This angst is the driving force of Samsara, the endless, frustrating struggle to fight with or to flight from what is. Our fears make us continuously seek either control or distraction, because truly resting in the present moment would mean coming face to face with our unconscious fears. How long can you be all by yourself before you get the itch to “do” something to distract yourself from yourself or to try to become more than you are?
How to realize our unity with the universe?
Actually, our non-separation with the universe is the most obvious fact. Read any science book and you’ll get the point. However, since in our aculturisation process we were conditioned to fear and mistrust our inner selves and our environment, we are under the spell of illusory separateness from the universe within and without.
Any attempt to unify ourselves will perpetuate the illusion of a separate entity that seeks unification. So, to realize our unity is to see through our illusion of separation. The only way to do that is to convince ourselves that our fears are fundamentally ungrounded.
My advice is this: spend some time alone into nature (e.g. a cave, a monastery, etc.) try out psychedelics (in a beneficial setting, with professional guidance, respect and care!), or, alternatively, seek so hard to unify yourself with the universe (yourself!) until you get the point that “you are riding on a horse asking where the horse is!” (~Ajahn Chah).
Will I ever be able to see through my illusion of separateness?
No, not by any effort from your side. It’s an illusion to ever be able get out of an illusion, because you can never get out from what does not exist in the first place. You were there from the beginning. You are never not IT.
Is spiritual practice relevant?
All goal-oriented practices are ways to try to outsmart the way things are. So, they are inherently non-affirmative to what is and, thus, increase the illusion of separation. It’s like wearing a CIA-shirt when going on a undercover mission. It defeats its own purpose. But spiritual practices do it so consistently that the practitioner may eventually burst into a liberating awakening experience.
Practice is relevant as long as we are under the illusion of separateness. Once we “know”, practice becomes irrelevant (but not necessarily futile, because one could still go on practicing for the sheer enjoyment of practicing).
What is liberation?
Liberation is granting yourself the freedom to allow yourself every experience genuinely, to respect and non-object to it. Liberation is something you give to yourself! It’s the freedom to be ashamed, to be a fool, to be embarrassed, to be angry, to feel sad, etc. By not minding you re-align with the universe and pacify the heart and mind. Or in other words, a liberated being lives completely autonomous, free from social conditioning of “good” vs. “bad”.
So, liberation is not about freeing oneself ideologically or physically from social conventions, but about gaining the ability to move within one’s social sphere without getting “hung-up” on it.
Wouldn’t civilisation fall apart if we all acted genuinely without a control feature?
I think its the other way around. I think civilization is falling apart, because of too much civilization. As we are trained to not attend properly to our emotions, feelings and urges we not only develop the dangerous illusion of a separate self but also act them out in harmful ways. Think of priests molesting children in the name of God, or the general violence against our natural habitat, mother earth.
Our cultures and societies in general deeply mistrust our innermost being. Therefore, it emphasizes the need to control it. But go, get lost in nature and ask yourself this question: has the universe ever produced a mistake? Has there ever been a “wrong” snowflake or a weird constellation of stars? All is happening perfectly coordinated and orchestrated by itself. Why not trust the universe’s intelligence? Or ask yourself the following question: if you can’t trust the universe, the fore- and background of all there is, whom could you trust? You couldn’t trust anybody, not even yourself! So you would have to come up with checks and controls and because you couldn’t trust the checker and controller either you would have to come up with a check for the checks and a control for the controllers, etc. As a consequence, you would never find peace, you would never be at ease. So then, tell me what reasonable option do we have other than to take the risk to trust the universe?
How to quiet the mind?
The desire to quiet the mind is a rejection of the disquiet mind. In other words, the disquiet mind is rendered into a problem. To try to get rid of a problem is to enforce it, because the very trying validates the problem by giving it credit. So, the attempt to get rid of a (psychological) problem by problematizing it is as accomplishable as trying to not see an elephant when you think you see one. It can’t be done. The source of any psychological problem is the thought of a problem. You can never ever not have a problem as long as you think you have one.
How to solve this dilemma? What to do? Do nothing. Do not mind the disquiet mind and it will calm down by itself. Once you realize this, the problem of a disquiet mind ceases to be problematic and will not bother you again.
End of part one
I have written on this blog much about (self-)acceptance, letting go and surrender to “what is” as the key tenets of spirituality. At the same time I have tried to convey the point that acceptance, letting go and surrender is not something we can do, force or bring about. There is no way we can help ourselves on the path to enlightenment. In fact, the very trying is what makes it completely unfeasible. We have to trick ourselves into it somehow.
Because that is so, any spiritual method, in one way or another, tries to undermine the “ego”, that is, our reflex to control and manipulate our experiencing of “what is”. Therefore, I have tried to show you either that there is no separate “you” (wisdom about life) or that the world exactly as it “is”, the full catastrophe, is perfect (love for life).
This time I will try to synthesize these two positions, the position of (non-dual) wisdom and (dual) devotion. I will do so by trying to prove that the “we” (the “ego”) has no control whatsoever over our experiences and that this is no problem at all. To me, this is the ultimate trick of the spiritual trade.
Let’s start with our five senses. Do we have control over the experience of seeing, touching, hearing, smelling or tasting? No, we don’t. Our senses can’t be shut down (only blocked). Even if we are not conscious of hearing, touching, seeing, smelling or tasting (because we may not pay particular attention), unconsciously the gates of perception are always wide open.
Let’s now consider thoughts. Can we not think of a pink elephant while we are reading this line? No, we can’t. Thoughts constantly arise from the depths of the unconscious. We have no control as to what thoughts arise at what time. Can we stop thoughts? No. Since the “we” is itself a thought, “we” trying not to think thoughts just creates more “we” thoughts (thickening the illusion of a solid “we”). Stopping thoughts is as impossible as licking our own tongue. Try and you’ll notice it will just create motion in your mouth. A thought (the “we”) can never control another thought (it can only replace it).
What about feelings? Feelings are regulated by thoughts which are the mental precursors to physical sensations: when we have “good” thoughts we feel good and when we have “bad” thoughts we feel bad. As stated above, thoughts arise from the unconscious and are uncontrollable. Hence, we have no control over our feelings either.
What all this proves is that just as we cannot be spontaneous on purpose, we cannot influence our sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. We cannot want to be spontaneous because both, spontaneous and unspontaneous acts always happen spontaneously, that is, without our implicit consent! Likewise, we cannot want to change our experiences, because they always happen no matter how we feel about them! Think about it.
And it gets even more interesting as we delve deeper into the subject. As we understand that thoughts determine how we feel and that we have no control over our thoughts, the “we” is naturally inclined to try to change how we were conditioned by our parents and society (our “judges”) to interpret our experiences. We know, that if we reject our experiences, we suffer. So, we may think: “Let’s accept it all, “good” or “bad”! Let’s surrender to everything! Let’s go with the flow!” Of course, though, not controlling is as much an “ego”-trip as controlling since any intent to do something about our experience is a total denial of “what is”. Trying to accept and surrender logically implies a stance of non-acceptance and non-surrender. No matter where we turn, there is no way out of this “double bind”. Whatever option we chose, controlling or not controlling, we can only go wrong. “We” are trapped.
At some point (for some after many, many years of struggling!) it will hopefully dawn on us that there is nothing “we” can do: no controlling thoughts and feelings, no “be here now”, no “going with the flow”, no letting go, no surrendering, no (self-)accepting, no (self-)improving, no spiritual method, no absolutely nothing at all that will work to “advance” on the spiritual path and find peace of mind! Of course, having truly realized this IS the ultimate disillusionment, the death of the (imaginary) “ego” that the spiritual path is all about!
To know that nothing can be done to change one’s experiences coupled with the wisdom that the universe, with its interplay of light and dark, is perfect in design leads one directly into the hands of (self-)acceptance and surrender. There is no more grounds for objecting to anything! All is, and has always been, as it was supposed to be! And even if we wanted, it couldn’t be changed anyhow because the “we” is (just another experience and therefore) absolutely powerless. There is no need and no capacity for change, ever.
In reality, all that “is” is this divine “No-thing” experiencing itself through itself. We are the container and the contained. We, the universe, move(s) through ourself. With this realization, the dis-ease with “what is” in this present moment ceases and we leave our futile struggles to find salvation in the future behind. And this is non other than the most natural human condition. Or nothing special, as they would say in Zen.
“Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image.”