Thursday, 13 August 2015

Shipwrecked

I recently re-read a journal I kept in January 2003, during the period of my divorce. I was struck by the events and emotions it recorded, and particularly the role of meditation and Zen in helping me weather them. Although the period was one of the hardest I've traversed (and there are lots of candidates), in some ways I remember it as the best. The log, which I kept to gain insight into my mood swings (and, I confess, to have someone to talk to) ends up documenting a proven strategy for surviving adversity. So for the benefit of others in similar straits, I'd like to share a few reflections.

The first pages, written when my wife was still living with me but flaunting an affair – and getting in a lot of gratuitous cruelty on the side – are especially gruelling. (Borderline Personality Disorder. If you're married to it, run fast and run far.) I was living in the great Canadian G.A.N. ("God-Awful Nowhere"), 3000 miles from my family and friends, in a culture (Québec) that wasn't mine, with no car or income. In short, I was in an abusive relationship and there was no escape. No wonder those paragraphs are so full of angst and fear.

A litany of suffering is listed there: ghastly nightmares; medical issues; niggling terror; my wife's sneering, baiting jibes; and conversely, the odd oasis of peace and reflection. Most of the latter are associated with meditation; I had been sitting twice daily for nearly a year, and snowshoeing in the forest, during which I often meditated as well. Then, suddenly, after my wife announced the date of her departure, a marked drop in stress. Pointed insight, if only in retrospect.

The role of my growing monastic practice in enduring all of this is clear in entries such as:
Good AM meditation, followed by Zen study and tea. Sunny in my cell [a tiny room in which I barricaded myself, often for whole days]. Attitude rises. Productive day. Some sadness at night, before PM meditation. The sit was OK. Cut branches outside this afternoon. Felt very good during and after. Work helps.
Yet I took her actual leaving surprisingly hard. Surprising, I say, because I'd quite had enough of her by then; I was eager to live in a whole house, in peace, without a demon from some Buddhist parable whose personality had dwindled to just two channels: cold and screaming.

I've long since forgiven, in light of what I've learned, and no longer take the abuse personally. But I vividly recall what life was like with her. So it's interesting now to read the lines of grief and despair I wrote the day she left.

Still, the bedtime entry, last one in the log, sums it all up:
Things remained sad and shaky until I meditated at 10PM, for almost 50 minutes. Now I'm still sad, but less so.
Because the journal ends there, it doesn't detail the accruing strength and calm of the following months, due in part to the full-on monastic discipline I adopted. Nor does it record the inevitable relapses, when depression and desperation paralysed me for an hour, or a day – or in one instance, four straight days – before I took up the practice again and forged on to healing. But the seeds of that story germinate in the telegraphic chronicle of the last month of my marriage.
Things don't happen to me,
I wrote toward the end,
they just happen.
And then, in response to my wife's constant insistence that I was the source of all her unhappiness:
They don't happen to her, either.
Zen saved my butt, and not for the last time. I'm a monk today for the same reason my grandfather remained an FDR man till the day he died: not for theory or pretence or cachet, but from sheer fire-hardened memory. So if you're suffering, be assured that you're not alone. Others have been there – others still are – and there's an end to it.

In my case, the Four Noble Truths, and the practice they inspired – not just reading and reflecting, but the actual doing – were that solution. It may be for you as well. Any road, you might as well try; sitting is free.

The path is always there, regardless of trailhead. May we walk it with the Buddha's own diligence and humility.

  • Readers interested zazen [Zen meditation] will find good instructions here.
  • Zen students suffering through depression or despair will find support and companionship here.


(Detail from Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art [Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1906] and Wikimedia Commons.)
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