Thoughts From a Retreat

Permanence is the death we all long for–stasis, quiescence, no more irritation or excitation. This is, according to Freud, thanatos, the reality principle, or “death drive,” that lies beyond eros, beyond the pleasure principle, or “sex drive.” It’s tempting to oppose the drive for sex as a drive for life and creation against the drive for death and destruction, but it’s not that simple. Thanatos is the drive for peace, comfort, safety, and ease, whereas eros is the drive for change, or, to grossly simplify, thanatos is the drive for permanence and eros is the embrace of impermanence.

The practical problem this causes us is that permanence is a wholly fabricated notion. Not only are there no observed instances of permanence (though, admittedly, there are observed instances of apparent persistence), there isn’t even the theoretical possibility of permanence. Just as the ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle cannot coexist on this planet with liquid water, no instance of permanence is possible in a reality of impermanence. This means that the sense of well being that we seek from a good meal, an evening at home, a night out with friends, a tidy desk, all manner of intoxicants, having everyone strip-searched and scanned before boarding a plane, or having the NSA read the whole Internet is delusional. This is, unfortunately, a much more widely shared and more difficult to dismiss delusion than most.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead addresses just this delusion, over and over again, offering many variations on the following (as translated by Francesca Fremantle and Chögyam Trungpa):

…if you do not recognize in this way, you will be afraid of them and escape, and so go on to more suffering. If you do not recognize in this way, you will see all the blood-drinking deities as Lords of Death, and you will fear them. You will feel terrified and bewildered and faint. Your own projections will turn into demons and you will wander in samsara…

…by recognizing all these appearances as the natural radiance of your own mind, your own radiance will merge inseparably with the light and images, and you will become a buddha. O child, whatever you see, however terrifying it is, recognize it as your own projection; recognize it as the luminosity, the natural radiance of your own mind. If you recognize in this way, you will become a buddha at that very moment, there is no doubt.

In short, all that you experience is a projection of your own mind, and so long as you believe those projections to be separate from you, to be something from which you must seek protection, you will continue to suffer. Comfort and somnolence, odd as it may seem, can only lead to further suffering. It’s wakeful, unflinching engagement with experience as it is that leads to liberation. And in a further affront to our intuition, to sleep is to do something, but to maintain awakeness is to do nothing at all.

If you watch your mind very carefully as you fall asleep, you’ll notice that rather than settling, it busily takes up some thread that leads it away from here and now and runs discursively after it. What you see becomes obscured even before your eyes close as your focus shifts to whatever your mind pursues. You can fight your mind, trying to force it to remain focused on your immediate experience, but then you’re doing two opposed things at once, and that’s not very pleasant. If instead you relax your mind and do nothing, your immediate experience will become calm and clear. You will be fully awake and engaged–for an instant. You’ll have to stay relaxed, one instant at a time, to stay awake. Though this requires no effort, it’s inconceivably difficult, all the more so given our habituation to a delusional sense of comfort.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

I completed a week-long meditation retreat in August, and I would like to assure you all that everyone and everything is basically good. Or to put it in more traditionally Buddhist terms, Buddha nature is all we are and all we experience. Admittedly, my reasoning to this conclusion is more inductive than deductive, but I remain confident in the conclusion and urge you all to investigate the possibility for yourselves. Why would sitting still or pacing around in a room in Chelsea for a week with thirty or so like-minded practitioners until my back, neck, and shoulders burned, returning home only to sleep, eat breakfast, stretch, and take Aleve, lead me to surmise this?

To start with, this retreat wasn’t the struggle my last one was. I sat and I didn’t brood. I didn’t ruminate, lament, or fulminate. I didn’t rehearse, scheme, or plan. I mostly just sat there. I suspect that the change in my experience is largely the result of the nearly six years of daily practice in the interim (or, as my meditation instructor has put it, of having termites invisibly undermine the timbers framing my sense of self). Perhaps the medication has contributed as well, but I’m inclined to doubt it. I’ve suffered difficulties with extended meditation despite medication in the past, and just before this retreat, I had been struggling more than usual with my depressive tendencies. My newfound stability over that week seemed to be less a matter of a reduced propensity toward depression or anxiety and more a matter of an increased ability to accommodate those propensities.

As I sat or strolled with myself hour upon hour, I found myself more amenable to myself. (I apologize for the recursion or tautology in that sentence, but I don’t know quite how else to put it. On the fourth evening of our retreat, the Center held its Weekly Dharma Gathering in our midst, and Acharya Bower spoke on “Friendliness Toward Yourself.” After the talk, a participant raised his hand to express frustration that it was unclear who was to be friendly to whom. Whose kindness you might want–and whose amenability I was so pleased to have discovered–becomes starkly clear if you sit for even a day.) My sense of relief became comfort and then a sort of joy. Seven years into my Buddhist study and practice, it was finally going the way my teachers suggested, in person or in books, that it might. But even more than this feeling of accomplishment, the experience of something other than angst amid quiet and stillness was thrilling–I could see becoming quite attached to it. Yet in our occasional discussions, we were urged over and over to offer whatever benefit we gained to others, and being in such a contented frame of mind, I was surprisingly willing to do so. We were shown a video of a talk by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Basic Goodness given right here on the Upper West Side in 1982. In the discussion following the formal talk, a woman asked Rinpoche how she was to believe that the man who once held a gun to her head possessed Basic Goodness. That question, and his answer, animated our group’s discussion after the video ended and my meditation for the rest of the week.

Turning inward, if I’m honest with myself and disregard the tales I tell myself of my own fundamental unworthiness, I’m forced to admit that I’m basically good. This is not to say that I’m only good or even often good, just basically good. What I mean by that is that when I’m aware of what I’m doing, my intention is to do what I believe to be right. If I don’t, I feel ill at ease with myself in a way that no amount of post hoc justification can assuage (at best, I may be able to forget the matter entirely). And those attempts at justification themselves betray a fundamental desire to do, or at least have done, the right thing.

In fact, it could even be said that the very fact of caring–of preferring one outcome to another–is the outer expression of Basic Goodness. This impulse may become terribly malformed between its initial conception and its final expression, but the perpetrator of the vilest wrongdoing originally intended to make something better for someone, even if it was only himself or herself (who, after all, is no less, or more, valid an object of compassion than any other being). I say this because if I continue to be honest with myself, I am also forced to admit that there are no doubt circumstances (in which I have so far been fortunate enough not find myself) under which I could find myself holding a gun to someone’s head. Yes, Basic Goodness underlies all of our motivations, but the potential to corrupt that into aggression, whether petty or profound, exists in all of us as well, as anyone who has watched The Sopranos closely and found themselves in the troubling position of wishing a sociopath well can attest. Our primordial ignorance, the root of all of our suffering, is to see separation, distinct entities, inherent existence where there are no such things. Our Basic Goodness isn’t separate from the suffering its misguided expression causes; we aren’t separate from those we harm or those who harm us; and none of us are devoid of Basic Goodness, nor are any of us free from the ignorance that expresses it as suffering.

Less than a month after our small group arose from our week of sitting in Chelsea, another small group took their seats a little further downtown, and they have grown and remain there still. Though the timing is merely coincidence, I can’t but project a continuity between the two. The week of sitting in August so fundamentally changed my sense of and relationship with myself that I’m still trying to integrate the experience. The Occupy movement has had a similarly profound effect on my sense of and relationship with the world around me. Perhaps the way things are done isn’t the solution to the problems caused by the way things are done, and perhaps from that insight hope might arise. There’s an unmistakable undertone of alarm, panic even, to the various attempts to airily and pithily dismiss the Occupy movement’s manifestations that indicates the deeper truth about the real threat it poses to the way things are done. I often hear that same undertone of alarm when I discuss meditation with people who haven’t tried it. In both cases, I find myself offering the same suggestion: “Try it.” If you can spare the few minutes, sit quietly and follow your breath, and if you can get to an Occupation, go visit. Don’t listen to everyone else’s opinions and beliefs about your fundamental nature or the nature of the world around you, especially not mine. Go and find, or fail to find, Basic Goodness for yourself. But I bet you’ll find it if you’re honest with yourself.

Russell Sits

But the Emperor’s New Clothes Keep Me Warm

I just noticed that I’ve been taking Lexapro for a year. I would have guessed it was half that. (Where does the time go? Last night, I also realized that as of this past September, I’ve been living with my wife for a third of my life.) A couple of weeks ago, I checked in with my psychopharmacologist after cutting my dosage in half back in December. I definitely notice the difference. When I was taking 10 mg (which is still a pretty small dose), nothing bothered me. I felt a sort of steady background sense of peace and even elation. And I’ve only become more aware of that as that sense has receded with the reduction in dose. I’ve been trying to reconcile this with the recent findings that antidepressants are generally ineffective.

I wonder (though not enough to actually read the studies) how the effectiveness of antidepressants might be measured. I can’t imagine how anyone else following me over the last year might have reliably assessed how the changes in dose affected me. It’s not like I’ve become more effective or easier to get along with. I’m not even sure such an assessor would have been able to make much of my attempts to convey how I feel. But that doesn’t make the effects of the medication, subjective though they may be, any less real, and it won’t stop me from trying to convey how I feel anyway.

I don’t know what the narrative in anyone else’s head sounds like, but mine has always been stern, sharp, worried, and relentless. I took up meditation hoping to find some respite from it, only to discover that mindfulness practice brought it into sharper focus. But having it in sharper focus has made the change in its tone over the last year much clearer. And on 10 mg of Lexapro, it was supportive where it had been stern; insightful where it had been sharp; calm where it had been worried; and reassuring where it had been relentless. With the decreased dosage, it has shifted back toward what I had come to believe was normal. I find myself feeling more threatened and vulnerable, and so defensiveness seems to motivate more of my behavior, but not so much so that anyone else seems to notice. I guess it’s not that I’m acting differently, but though I’m still doing the same thing, I’m doing it while wearing the slightly itchy underwear of my background anxiety.

When I visited the psychopharmacologist, our discussion of whether I should stay on the reduced dose of Lexapro or go back to the higher (but still fairly low) dose–a discussion greatly simplified by the lack of side effects, which had been an issue with Celexa–centered on the issue of subjective experience versus objective behavior. She recognized the subjective difference in my experience as real, but suggested that if this change didn’t translate into a difference in behavior and didn’t affect my ability to function, then I should consider staying at this dosage for the time being. I had gone into the appointment thinking that I’d return to the higher dosage, because why suffer if I don’t have to? But I came around to her way of thinking, in part because she told me that what I feel now (manageable irritation), not what I felt on the higher dosage (bliss), is normal. But also, if I simply never suffer, then I suspect the emotional “muscles” used in managing suffering would atrophy, and I’d end up the psychological equivalent of the former earthlings in WALL-E. So now I find myself on the other side of this insight:

Being willing to face the unavoidable pains of life is often a sign of courage and wisdom. Nonetheless, being unwilling to use effective therapies to relieve unnecessary pains may be a sign of misunderstanding, and of a spiritual superego run amuck.

Where a year ago I had to recognize that my pains were perhaps unnecessary and could be more compassionately addressed, now I have to recognize again that some pain is unavoidable and find a little courage and wisdom to work with. But I do so with a sense of hope. First, I know that the medication is always available, that it’s effective, and that I don’t suffer side effects taking it. This offers the non-negligible comfort that whatever’s bothering me can be stopped if I need it to be. But also, having been through this experience in the context of a mindfulness practice, I’ve been able to see clearly that the quality of the narrative in my head, and so of the most intimate layer of all that I experience, is changeable. My very self, as I experience it, doesn’t have an inherent texture. That’s the considerable upside of impermanence.

A Family Allegory

As Jack Kerouac tells it in *Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, Gautama Shakyamuni went forth from a life of luxury to discover the cause and cessation of suffering, attaining enlightenment and becoming the Buddha, one of the most respected and influential figures in human history, and subsequently returned to his father’s palace:*

Followed by his Men of Saintship, yet advancing with the grave mysterious loneliness of the elephant, he came within several miles of Kapilavastu where the sumptuous palace of his youth still stood, as unreal now, in his enlightened mirror-like reflection, as an indicated castle in a child’s tale told solely to make children believe in its existence. The King heard of his arrival and came at once, eagerly concerned.

On seeing him he uttered these mournful words: “Thus, now I see my son, his well known features as of old; but how estranged his heart! There are no grateful outflowings of soul; cold and vacant there he sits.”

There was a dull crack. The plane bounced as though it had gone over a speed bump a little too quickly, and then it started to descend. The oxygen masks dropped down from their overhead compartments, and one of the flight attendants instructed the passengers to place the nearest mask over their mouth and nose, reminding those with children or others needing assistance to put their own mask on first and then to help others. His mother, seated between him and his brother, had been through this as a child. Then her father had efficiently put a mask over his own face and, with the same lack of ceremony and without any attempt to soothe or comfort, put another over her face. She was frightened, and the mask was uncomfortable. It dug into the bridge of her nose and the sides of her chin. She resented it, but her father wouldn’t let her move it. She survived to repeat the experience as a parent. Perhaps she was rebelling because of that resentment, but whatever the reason, she now put the mask on her head like a child’s party hat and told him and his brother to do the same, allowing them to do it for themselves. When she became short of breath, she would put the mask over her mouth and nose for a moment and then replace it on the top of her head. Watching her do that, he figured out that he should do the same, but his brother didn’t.

Eventually, he realized that he was more comfortable if he just left the mask over his mouth and nose. His mother noticed and commented that he was “just like Them.” He was seated on the aisle, and looked around to see that, yes, everyone else was wearing the mask over their mouths and noses, and though anxious and frightened, They looked much better off than his brother. His brother, fading in his corner against the window from the lack of oxygen, couldn’t see what anyone else was doing. His mother was doing better than his brother, but she seemed to be moving more slowly and taking longer between breaths from the mask that she occasionally remembered to pull down from the top of her head. He looked around the cabin again, saw how much better off everyone else was, and thought, “This is absurd.”

He pointed to his brother and asked his mother to help him to put on his mask correctly. She sleepily waved him away and asked who he thought he was to tell anyone what the correct way to wear the mask was. He tried to reach across her to help his brother with his mask, but she pushed him away. Animated by the effort, she pulled her mask over her mouth and nose, took a deep breath, and scolded him.

“Stop trying to control your brother. Respect his decision to wear his mask that way.”

“But look at everyone else. Look at us. The masks worn correctly are giving us the oxygen we all need. There isn’t enough oxygen in here without the mask.”

“Why are you so sure that you know the correct way to wear the mask? There is more to life than cold facts and logic. There is deeper wisdom; warm outflowings of soul. I once read of a man in a similar situation who wore the mask over his forehead and saw God.”

“Look at him. He’s turning blue. He’s going to die.”

“Are you sure that isn’t your own fear of death speaking? Your ideas about what your brother should and shouldn’t do are just projections of your own emotions.”

Denied both logical argument and emotional appeals, he had no idea how to proceed. But just then, the plane leveled off and began to climb, and the cabin pressure returned. It took his mother some minutes to return to full lucidity, but his brother never did. He suffered permanent brain damage from his partial asphyxia, though his mother refuted both the diagnosis and its cause until the day she died.

The Bright, Lucid Night of the Soul

Two weeks into the initial course of the Lexapro, things are generally going well. I haven’t noticed any side effects so far, and I feel a bit better. The last time I did this, with Celexa five years ago, it worked well, but I experienced weight gain as a side effect. Given the lack of side effects this time and the fact that I still don’t feel quite as well as I’d like to (though I’m pretty uncomfortable trying to decide how well I should feel–it certainly seems unnatural), my psychopharmacologist and I have decided to increase the dosage to the minimum average dose, which is twice what I had been taking. I’m feeling pretty optimistic about this, which I would guess is a good sign in itself.

The most profound effect I’ve noticed so far has been on my dreams. Not on the dreams themselves, but on my relationship to them. It started with me remembering more and more of my dreams; seeming hours worth of clear, calm, vivid narrative, evolving over the course of a night from image to image and situation to situation. And as clear as they were, they were strangely impersonal, as though I were watching a movie. I wasn’t confused or disoriented, and it wasn’t as though I was trying to solve a puzzle or fulfill any particular responsibility. I was just watching events–events that I was in the midst of but that didn’t involve me, or with which there was no me to be involved–unfold with a sense of gentle curiosity and a vague awareness that it was just a dream. As this experience has become less exotic, the boundary between my dreams and my waking thoughts has become less clear. I’ve been lying in bed following a particular train of thought, with my eyes closed picturing all of the associations and implications of those thoughts, and been awakened by a noise or a movement, only to realize that I had fallen asleep and the train of thought I had started while still awake simply continued uninterrupted as a dream. And if I wake more gently, I find that the dream can also continue uninterrupted as a waking train of thought.

As I said, I don’t think this is a change in the dreams themselves. I think it’s just a change in my relationship to them. Having gone back and forth in an unmediated way between dreams and waking thought, I’m struck more by their similarities than their differences. Waking thought is more driven by associative leaps and the tangled, non-linear connections and dreams are more bound by logical connections and recent experience than we usually realize. The only real difference between my waking thoughts and my dreams seems to be that when I’m awake, external events or my own conscious intentions shape and focus my train of thought. Asleep, the dreams wander based on their own internal logic. Having experienced those deeper similarities, I can, for the few minutes I’m waking up each morning, hold a different relationship to my thoughts about the day to come. As I’ve gone on at great length about elsewhere, this relationship to our waking life, this sense that we’re dreaming it as it happens, is one way to analogize enlightenment. We’re dreaming, and in becoming enlightened, we wake up but maintain that relationship to our experience, which continues uninterrupted as the train of our waking life. It’s not that dreams aren’t real and waking life is real; it’s just that we relate to the experiences differently, even though they’re both just the manifestation of mind.

Maintaining the Self to Realize Its Lack of Existence

More than five weeks after I last put any medicine in my left ear–with the whole of that ear canal, including the ear drum, seamlessly lined with healthy dry skin that thickens with each passing day–I’m moving from problems with my hearing back to the problem of hearing. Having survived the ordeal of my ear, I’ve returned to my ordinary unhappiness, which I continue to explore. When last we left this scintillating drama, I had tentatively described the erotic, eternalist drive to assert my self behind the depressed half of my cyclothymia and the thanatotic, nihilist drive to withdraw my self behind the cyclothymia’s anxious half, with a particular emphasis on the difficulty of achieving that quiescent withdrawal with respect to sound and the anxiety that stems from that ongoing struggle.

Since then, I’ve become more acutely aware of that self (which has emerged and evolved through my interactions with reality) and its moods as something adventitious. I’m learning more about the effort taken to define and sustain that self, about the effects that self has on other selves in the world, and about its transient, dependent nature. This sense is still preliminary, coming only with careful awareness and going when that awareness passes. I still suffer a great deal on behalf of that self, and I imagine I cause quite a bit of suffering through it. This increased mindfulness places that suffering more fully in my attention, and I find myself unhappy more often. I wake in the morning with a sense of dread and any undertaking outside of my well-worn daily patterns is an occasion for anticipatory angst. But experiencing the self that’s the basis of all of that suffering as something adventitious, I find that I’m more able to abide the unhappiness. And I’m also becoming at least indirectly aware of some deeper agent that experiences all of this, and yet goes ahead and gets out of bed and moves beyond my daily patterns where necessary. Whatever this is, it has a broader awareness and greater motivation than that narrow self. It isn’t depressed or anxious.

This experience corresponds to the progress described in Buddhist tradition. The expectation is that more careful mindfulness of our mundane experience will lead us to develop a healthy disgust toward our deluded engagement with the world, samsara being that manner of engagement. “Revulsion is the foot of meditation,” as one Tibetan chant puts it. And that disgust or revulsion will motivate us to cultivate the Buddha nature that is capable of realization and bliss beyond our narrow, habitual sense of self and the samsara that arises from it. This sounds plausible, and as I’ve described, my experience seems to be bearing that out thus far. But I seem to have reached a tricky transitional stage in this process. I’ve begun to develop revulsion toward samsara, as evidenced by my deeply felt visceral–as opposed to cognitive–disgust with my habitual conduct, but I haven’t yet developed the blissful realization that lies beyond that. I’ve started to see evidence of that possibility in that, despite my dread and angst, I still proceed with what must be done and function in my life, even managing to interact positively and helpfully with those around me. But I’m still unhappy–either sad or anxious–often.

I’ve discussed this with my therapist, and she wonders whether I need to feel that way so much of the time. She points out that there are medications available that can address this, as I’ve seen for myself. But unlike the last time I went on a long-term antidepressant, the issues this time are less clear, the problems are more subtle. I’m fully functional, I sleep at night, and I engage fully and effectively with others. I read less than I used to, and I do less for the sheer pleasure of it. I spend more time slackly watching soccer and Arrested Development, and I don’t get out of the apartment much on weekends. And perhaps most ominous, I’m increasingly upset by noises from outside my apartment. But I’m not going days at a time without sleeping, and I haven’t yet found myself curled in a fetal position, uncommunicative, and hiding under a blanket on the couch. I’m unhappy and passive, but I can handle it. So the questions my therapist and I are considering include: How often should a person be unhappy? And if unhappiness serves as a means of understanding the causes of suffering, should it be suppressed?

In the midst of this discussion, Buddhadharma has published an article with results from a study on the balance and interaction between Buddhist practice and antidepressants. It’s a preliminary study, with only nineteen participants and no control group, and the participants suffer from major depression (which I don’t think describes me), but the results might help frame my discussion with my therapist. I think the article clearly lays out the issues to be considered and the ways in which they would most constructively be considered. It’s not as explicit as I would have liked about the distinction between the goals of meditation and those of psychotherapeutic treatment, but that distinction does ultimately seem to be reflected in the conclusion:

Being willing to face the unavoidable pains of life is often a sign of courage and wisdom. Nonetheless, being unwilling to use effective therapies to relieve unnecessary pains may be a sign of misunderstanding, and of a spiritual superego run amuck. After all, Buddhist psychology regards happiness and joy as healthy, beneficial, spiritual qualities, and discourages subjecting oneself to unnecessary pain as a spiritual path.

To put it another way, becoming attached to a dogmatic and misunderstood notion of Buddhist practice, or any other spiritual practice, is likely to interfere with my vow to end the suffering of all sentient beings, which would include myself. That is, I won’t be able to practice well if I don’t take care of myself. The participants in this study reported as much:

Clearly, the large majority of these meditators felt that they, and their spiritual practice, benefited significantly from taking antidepressants. The changes they described bear this out. In fact, whether looked at from either a classical contemplative or a contemporary psychological perspective, the multiple benefits they describe suggest greater psychological and spiritual well-being.

Several subjects reported that the antidepressants enabled them to recommence or significantly improve their meditation and spiritual practice. In addition, two subjects spontaneously reported that antidepressants gave them a lift that they were subsequently able to maintain with meditation alone.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss all of this with my therapist and my psychopharmacologist, and we’ll see where we go from here.

Yeah, What They Said

I’ve done some editing of my three vacation entries. The last one in particular wasn’t as clear as it could have been, and it’s probably still not as clear as it could be. Unsurprisingly, I’ve found clearer, more pithy statements of the same problem and its antidote among the reading for this fall’s class.

In his Treasury of Precious Qualities, Kangyur Rinpoche describes “the eight unrelenting types of suffering that are intrinsic to the human condition,” which are birth, old age, illness, death, meeting unwanted circumstances, separation from what is loved, not having what one wants, and having what one does not want. He spends the most time describing the suffering of birth, going on for two pages about the horrors of pregnancy and birth for the child, and at the end of the process, we’re left with a newborn:

The child suffers because all contact is frightening and painful; it suffers because of its own filth, or through illness, heat, cold hunger, or thirst. And throughout all this, the baby is unable to tell anyone what is happening to it.

In his Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa lists the four obstacles to the attainment of Buddhahood, which include “being attached to peace.” And he suggests that “meditating on loving-kindness and compassion remedies attachment to the pleasure of peace.”

Those few sentences from the masters say all that I struggled around and around in those three entries.

What I Felt on My Summer Vacation

Buddhism is often described as the middle way, most commonly between the extreme views of nihilism and eternalism. And there’s certainly a great deal of profound madhyamaka philosophy thoroughly examining the cognitive implications of that description, but that may not help us less accomplished practitioners with the emotional responses that are the immediate cause of much of our suffering. That’s not to say that starting from the correct view isn’t crucially important. However, there are deeper attachments and obscurations that will interfere with our attempts to attain and manifest that view. Yet Buddhist practice can indicate a middle way between the extremes of our most primal urges as well.

From Freud‘s later perspective, those most primal urges were Eros and Thanatos, which, based on my reading of Beyond the Pleasure Principle and my own experience, can be understood as the urges underlying the wrong views of nihilism and eternalism. Eros can be seen as the drive to reify a self and impose it upon reality, while Thanatos can be seen as the drive for a quiescence safe from reality. Both instincts are based, like the views of nihilism and eternalism, on the ignorant belief that the subject of these instincts and views is somehow separate from reality. Even nihilism depends upon the existence of a nihilist believing that nothing exists. We hold a view of existence as either real or unreal and, informed by that view and our psychic and karmic history, are driven by these urges to either control or escape from that existence. To the extent that we doubt the genuine existence of reality, we’re likely not to want to be affected by it, and to the extent that we believe in the genuine existence of reality, we’re likely to want to control it. And, of course, we can vacillate between those perspectives, and even hold them simultaneously.

My own inclination seems to be more toward the nihilist/thanatotic perspective than others’. I’d love to be able to claim that it’s a subtler and more refined perspective, but I suspect it’s just the less common mistake. Yet I’m also given to the eternalist/erotic perspective as well, just less often than most people. And it seems that I exhibit different mood issues depending on which of those urges is being thwarted. My DSM-IV diagnosis for all mental health-related paperwork is cyclothymia, which is a vacillation between anxiety and depression. Since receiving that diagnosis years ago, my understanding of the relationship between my anxiety and my depression has been evolving. The anxiety generally seems to precede the depression, so that in some cases, effectively addressing the anxiety leads to depression, and in other cases, the depression just follows from the anxiety. At first, I tended to think of it in the vaguely Freudian terms of psychic energy: Anxiety is a psychic excitation that masks or prevents depression, and once that excitation is calmed (either through treatment or by its own momentum), depression manifests. But now, I’m beginning to see it differently.

My initial or predominant impulse toward reality seems to be the thanatotic urge for quiescence, and my reaction to the inevitable thwarting of that impulse is to be anxious about this unbidden imposition of reality upon my subjective experience. This anxiety is an astonishingly focused hypersensitivity to any unwanted stimulus, real or anticipated (most often anticipated). Once I have reconciled myself (or been reconciled) to the fact that I cannot escape reality, the erotic urge to control that reality asserts itself, and I become depressed at the equally inevitable thwarting of that impulse. This depression is a feeling of hopeless and helpless surrender. That’s my current understanding of how my depression follows my anxiety, and based on this understanding, I’m starting to get a sense of how the Buddhist notion of a middle way, might prove useful.

The term “middle way” can initially be misleading. It isn’t meant to identify a literal middle between two extremes–I can’t really imagine what would be halfway between nihilism and eternalism. Instead, it identifies a view free from the extremes of those two poles: Things don’t autonomously exist, but instead merely appear through continuous dependent co-origination. Thus, nothing is permanent, but neither is anything utterly non-existent. And, of course, nothing is separate. In practical terms, the immediate cause of most of our problems isn’t that we believe that we’re permanent or that we’re non-existent, but that we believe that we’re separate from the rest of reality. I seek to escape from or control reality because I believe that there’s some way in which I’m separate from it, and I suffer from the failure to do either because I’m not actually separate. If I can correctly understand the cause of my suffering as my ignorance or denial of interdependence, then a means to ending that suffering presents itself.

As a child, vacations on Cape Cod were the simplest sorts of erotic revelries (in the sense described above): Biking, hiking, fishing, camping, swimming, kite-flying, and eating. It was like a couple of weeks in an effectively unlimited playground every summer. Returning as an adult, I was well on my way to developing a preference for more thanatotic vacations, a process concluded over the course of my first few adult visits. During those visits, I found myself a bit depressed, I’m now guessing because of my unrealized subconscious expectations of a more erotic experience. Once we found the quiet bliss of the Oxford, my thanatotic preferences were more fully developed, and I learned to relax into the experience. But then we got a dog and were banished from the Oxford’s Eden, and I’ve spent our last couple of visits here fighting an anxiety stemming from what I know are insufficiently realized (and quite possibly unreasonable) expectations of peace and quiet. On the other hand, when those expectations were realized on those stays at the Oxford, going home was painful. Now I can’t wait to get back home and into the rhythm of my daily life. It’s kind of like squeezing a balloon partly full of suffering and having that suffering disappear somewhere only to bulge out elsewhere. I can be depressed or anxious up here and/or depressed or anxious back home. The ideal is to do away with the balloon all together, to achieve an equanimous relationship with the interdependence that I can neither control nor escape.

I’ve suffered anxiety about my interdependence with other guests here–the fact that the sounds of their staying in rooms around me will impinge on my experience–of which I’ve been aware. But, in response to my plea for assistance, family and friends have helpfully suggested a number of other interdependencies that are affecting me, and from which, it occurs to me, I would like to be free, including technology, my body, the weather, and even Provincetown itself. Yet in that very plea, I also tried to cultivate interdependence, quite against my native instincts and with no small sense of trepidation. Rather than trying to act entirely independently, I sought the guidance and insight of those who affect and will be affected by me. Pragmatically, I received the benefit of a good deal of experience and wisdom, but more significantly, I found a way to engage interdependence. I’m still not entirely at ease with it, but if I can persevere in the practice of depending on others and use that as a basis for becoming familiar with and further cultivating interdependence, I may come to experience the truth of interdependence as both reality and liberation from suffering. It may take a few lifetimes yet.

In the meantime, I’ve posted the pictures from this vacation, and if you look closely around the 1:52 mark of this video, you’ll see me and friends watching the seals on Head of the Meadow Beach.

Impermanence Works

There is a syllogism that Buddhists often use to illustrate the concept of syllogism that states that sound is impermanent because it’s produced by causes. Sound isn’t different from most other observed phenomena in this regard, but its example serves as a nice illustration. Like sound, the suffering caused by sound is impermanent as well, because it also is produced by a cause, and furthermore, that cause is itself impermanent. But faced with sound that I deem to be noise, as I have been over the last couple of days, I assume the sound will be, if not permanent, at least persistent, and I seem to strive to make the suffering that it causes commensurately permanent. I don’t know why I do this, but I do. There’s something about noise that undermines my sense of well-being. It’s not that the noise is all that painful or unpleasant in the moment I hear it, it’s rather that it indicates a basic vulnerability that I can’t eliminate. If I’m hearing a noise I don’t want to, then it will always be possible for me to hear another noise that I don’t want to (leaving aside the possibility of deafness, which I haven’t the sense of humor to flirt with just now).

There are certain hard, intractable truths that we all must face. We will die, we will lose everything we hold dear, everyone we love will suffer at some point. Writing those things out, knowing full well that they’re true, isn’t anything like as painful for me as hearing the heavy footfall of my upstairs neighbors. That’s how I experience the world, and I’m not quite sure what to do about that. Is it realistic to try not to be bothered by noise or anything else? Would it make sense for me to trade my sensitivity to noise for the more common panic at the thought of loss and death? I suffered through that pain when I was eight or so, and I’m kind of glad to be past it, but it didn’t occur to me that being past it was only a sort of trade. Still, even if it was a trade, it probably was a good one.

Whatever its cause, I tend to be paralyzed by anxiety, or more precisely, it tends to become depression, and I sit there, wracked and hopeless, in a state of surrender. I feel the heat and queasiness of it flow out from my stomach to my extremities, flushing my face and ears and clenching my hands and feet. I become distracted and monosyllabic. I steep in it. What I don’t do is try to change my situation or my state of mind–I commit to their permanence. If noise is disturbing my reading or my meditation, rather than doing something else, I persist in my chosen effort and seethe at its being thwarted. The situation is intolerable, and I can’t get past that single incontrovertible fact. This doesn’t help in any way, but I can’t move my attention away from the unsatisfactoriness of it.

At the height of my struggles with work this spring, my supervisor at the time kept telling me that it’s okay to be unhappy sometimes. I had no idea what she was trying to tell me, but I’m starting to get an inkling. Things had always gone so well for me academically and professionally that I’d never really been unhappy in that context before. As I became so, I took it to mean not that things weren’t going quite as they should on the project and required additional attention and remediation, but that something was fundamentally wrong and was beyond repair. I tried to fix things, but I couldn’t imagine that there was anything that could be fixed, so mostly I just lamented my fate. And there I was again yesterday, not taking advantage of any of the wonderful opportunities open to me within just a few steps or a short ride, but instead surrendering to the cruel fate of what seemed to be a ruined holiday. I failed to note that its ruination was no more than my opinion.

So after many helpful suggestions from friends, family and well-wishers, I’ve gone ahead and done things, proving the transience of my anxious mood–it’s stubborn, but it’s ultimately transient. If I go for a walk out into the dunes past Hatches Harbor or across the breakwater at the west end of town, it will cause me to feel differently. If I go get a haircut, and do a little shopping, it will cause me to feel differently. If I get an hour-long punishing massage, it will cause me to feel differently. If I read a P. G. Wodehouse novel, it will cause me to feel differently. And still to come could be seeing the seals at Head of the Meadow Beach, kayaking, golfing, and any number of hikes in and around the dunes and beaches of Provincetown.

This Too Shall Pass

Today was a good day. The horrible heat let up some overnight, and we were spared the worst of the severe weather that accompanied the transition. I was actually able to take a pleasant bus ride down Fifth Avenue and stroll over to the ear doctor’s office off of Park Avenue without getting uncomfortable. This was a significant improvement over Monday afternoon’s quixotic test of endurance that we successfully undertook in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium (though the linked story exaggerates–the passing cloud was cheered much more loudly than the sun’s return was booed, if it was booed at all, however justified the booing would have been).

The doctor had very good news for me. He looked in my ear and nearly got giddy. He said not only that it looked “terrific,” but that already, just under three weeks after the surgery, it looks better than it did at any point in the ten months that followed the previous surgery. He said it made his day, and got so excited that he let slip that he wasn’t even sure this would work. His excitement confirms my experience so far. Though there’s still some pain (my ear was all but cut off and gutted, after all) and ringing, the ear just feels and sounds more solid–there’s nothing moving around or squishing no matter how I move my jaw–and the hearing seems to be coming back more quickly than the last time. There’s one small spot near the entrance to the ear canal that’s not healing quite the way he’d like, but he assures me that’s just superficial. I don’t know how long it will be before this can be pronounced a complete success and I no longer have to worry about some sort of relapse or complications, but things seem to be going as well as they could so far.

So I’m in a pretty buoyant mood. But I’m trying not to lose sight of the fact that this run of good fortune will end–not out of some depressive impulse, but to try to clearly see how ephemeral all of that on which my happiness (and sadness) depends truly is. I want to remind myself that the refuge from the severe storms that accompany the movements back and forth from bliss to misery that constitute human experience is an equanimity that won’t be found anywhere on that continuum. The point isn’t to get to and stay at that blissful end of that continuum–it’s to abide in the equanimous space from which that continuum arises. That emptiness is easier to release into when I’m happy than it is to aspire to when I’m depressed or anxious. And as I become familiar with the release of happiness that gives rise to equanimity, perhaps I’ll come to know that the path from depression or anxiety to equanimity isn’t an aspiration, but rather that it’s the same release.