Thursday, 3 November 2011

Good Book: The Zen Path Through Depression

Depression is the elephant in the meditation hall. Virtually all Zenners suffer from it; nobody becomes a monk because he's happy. But Zen is a macho tradition, and since depression is an illness without visible sores, the old right-wing arithmetic applies:

machismo + (unauthorised suffering) = rejection.

Thus the establishment response to depressed Zenners is mixed, ranging from supportive assistance, to conditional acceptance, to outright insult. Students are as likely to be told that they're "attached," that they have the "wrong perspective," or that they're just plain lazy, as to receive useful, scientifically-valid teaching. In short, depression is our evolution, and our response often amounts to creationism: a crap alibi against having to confess that our founders didn't fully understand something.

Fudo-esque confrontation of such unskilful nonsense is just one of the brilliant strengths of Philip Martin's The Zen Path Through Depression. In sensible, measured tones, he accompanies the reader, in the Franciscan sense of the word, through the myriad symptoms of depression: the lack of energy that physically disables; the incomprehensible, paralysing panic; the ceaseless rumination; the pointless rage; the guilt and self-recrimination. Physical symptoms of a disease as physical as diabetes, albeit not yet as well-understood.

I should say that I approached this book with trepidation, and wouldn't have approached it at all if I hadn't been desperate. I had beaten depression with Zen seven years before, and been a monk ever since; it was the first thing I'd ever found that could bully the bully. But two years ago I got nailed again, and this time my Zen practice wasn't up to it. Just admitting that took months. When I finally ordered Martin's book I was afraid I'd either get a pop-psy puff piece with some trendy Zen, or a traditional Zen treatise that flipped a few koans at me and said, "Stop being depressed."

What I got was a scholarly catalogue of medical symptoms at a chapter each, along with what modern science knows about their origins. That was followed by square, monastic-grade Zen analysis. In essence, Martin says, "This is your mind. This is your mind on depression." Frankly, just that much was already as strong as medication. Depression is a lonely hell; shame and embarrassment convince you it's your fault. Martin proves to you that it's not. "In our depression," he writes,

…we can start to heal by accepting that a great part of our becoming depressed, as well as much of getting over it, may not be within our control. In doing so, we can let ourselves off the hook, and stop taking the blame.

Then he does a genius thing. Once his orthodox Zen prescription to accept what is has taken the pressure off, he scratches a few questions, like lecture notes, on the last page of each chapter. You don't have to read them; only if you want to.


Examine your beliefs about suffering. Do you believe it is inevitable? Or that it builds character? Is suffering connected with struggle for you? Would there be no life without suffering?

Seems pretty anodyne now, but at the time, with my brain freshly stabilised by a few pills and recharged by Martin's explanations, this stuff was Drano. Note again his classic Zen: no answers. There aren't any wrong thoughts, you just have to know what the thoughts are. Doesn't seem like it would work, but it does. The questions, as much as the teaching, flushed out my system.

It would be hard to imagine a writer better qualified for the job. Martin is a long-time student of Zen; a certified and experienced therapist; and most important, a sufferer of hardcore depression. This guy doesn’t have a condescending bone in his body. He's a brother.

In the end, The Zen Path Through Depression felt so good that I started rationing it, because I didn't want to run out. When I felt low, I would ask myself, "OK, I feel bad, but is it Path-worthy?" And that alone motivated me to endure, to find it within, to haul myself up by my sandal straps. And pop went the depression.

The good news is, that with a supportive family, cooperative doctors, my monastic practice, and Martin's book, I landed on my feet again. In fact, I'm better now than I've ever been, and I'm even off the meds. (But if it happens again, I'm back on. Like, now. Get meds, brothers and sisters. They're undramatic drugs, no scarier than aspirin, for a sickness no more imaginary than migraine headaches.)

And while you're up, get The Zen Path Through Depression. When I needed a lot of help, this book was a lot of help.


  1. Interesting. This is one of those things that I think is impossible to fully understand unless you have personal experience. I don't have any experience with depression except for an odd thing upon waking some mornings. I think it has to do with what stage of sleep I am in when the alarm goes off or something. I would call it an overwhelming sense of melancholy that last only a minute or two. But if that is what depression feels like, I sympathize. If it did not go away so fast, I don't know that I could cope.

    Do you really think all monks are depressed?

  2. I get that morning down-ness, too. Depression is a lot like that, only 24 hours a day. You sit around doing nothing and hating yourself for it, but you're physically incapable of getting up and taking care of stuff. (Hence the "laziness" charge.) And you don't sleep, which is what you need most. Really, just getting some decent sleep solves half the problem, at least for me. It's also the hardest thing for medicine to accomplish. They can knock you out, but they can't make you sleep. Different things.

    I not only think most monks are depressed, I know we are. You take _refuge_ in monastic life (that's the actual word for it). So, like, refuge from _what_, exactly? Well, the Buddha called it "world-weariness." I've known high-ranking, Dharma-transmitted, published and trusted Zen priests with major responsibilities who suddenly just disappeared; didn't show up for meditation or meetings, didn't make chaplaincy rounds, wouldn't answer the phone, just vanished. So we go to their house, and the guy's sitting in a chair in his living room in a bath robe, unshaven, eyes half-closed, with a bag of Doritos. Been there for days.

    The good news is that depression prompts you to take the path. If you were happy chasing your tail in this life, you'd just go on doing it. So it plays the same role as death. And like death, well-adjusted people manage it, instead of courting or denying it.


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