Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Meditation, Depression and the Sense of Self
Jan 2011 11

Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Meditation, Depression and the Sense of Self

Posted In Blog,Love,Relationships,Society

by Brad Warner

I received two closely related questions via email this week, and I’d like to share my answers. I’ve rewritten these, so they’re not word-for-word the responses I sent.

The first person asked me a general question about how to deal with depression. So I wrote back something like the following:

I am a depression sufferer. I really don’t know how mine scales up next to anyone else’s. My one suicide attempt was half-assed (you can read about it in my book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate). Although I’m not as suicidal as I used to be, even now I go through troughs of depression and inevitably start thinking of doing myself in. This seems to be a deeply ingrained mental response to depression.

My bouts of depression don’t always have any discernable cause. Sometimes there’s an easy chain of events I can trace that leads to them. Sometimes they just seem to come out of nowhere. Perhaps there are causes to these too, but I can’t tell what they are. I suspect diet and general physical condition are major factors. Over-consumption of sugar seems to lead to rebound depression, I’ve noticed. But the cause and effect are so widely separated it’s often hard to be certain, and are also often too complex to work out. Cause and effect relationships are often like this. Dogen pointed that out in his writing.


[SG's LisaRose in a zazen pose / photo: Svetlana Dekic]

Daily zazen meditation has helped tremendously. But it doesn’t do magic. Sometimes it even makes you more aware of your depression. But then you start to get clues as to why you’re depressed and what depression actually is.

Depression is all about thought. The initial depression doesn’t always have a clear relationship to thought. But the thinking mind tends to seize upon depression and try to make something of it.

The thinking brain influences the body’s responses and it makes a neat little loop. That initial seemingly causeless wave of depression can be endlessly amplified by being reinforced by the thoughts it tends to trigger. In turn the thoughts you create based on it will influence the body to produce more of the chemicals that caused it in the first place and you can keep spiraling down and down and down.

You can’t just will yourself not to have depressing thoughts. People have been trying this forever and it never works. Nor can you replace “bad” thoughts with “good” ones. This kind of process is the basis for a lot of popular depression cures. A million self-help books are sold every day based on this seemingly reasonable idea. But I don’t believe in it. This is because thoughts are all kind of the same thing. “Good” thoughts are good because they stand in contrast to “bad” thoughts.

Because of this, thoughts act in pairs, like the heads and tails sides of coins. You only see one side of the coin, but the other side is always there. Behind every “good” thought are all the unconscious “bad” thoughts that contrast with it. By concentrating on “good” thoughts you have to bring up the “bad” ones as well, even if you are unaware of them. This is just the way thought works. Eventually the entire thing falls to pieces.

What you can do to circumvent this is to learn to sort of side-step your thoughts, so that no matter what you’re thinking it has little real effect. This is what the daily zazen practice has helped me with.

This is far easier said than done. It takes years of practice to really get it rolling. But even from your very first round of zazen you can start to see the way to do it. It’s a natural side-effect of zazen itself. Sit in the zazen posture, go HERE to see it demonstrated by sexy Suicide Girl LizaRose (who heads up SG’s Buddhism group). The posture is important. Don’t ignore it and just try to do the mental part without the physical. They are tightly linked. It’s like yoga. You don’t get the full benefit of yoga if you just do the breathing part without the stretches.

Once you’re settled into sitting, don’t try to stop thinking or manipulate your thoughts in any way. Just allow them to be as they are, but stop giving your attention to them. This is what Dogen called “thinking the thought of non-thinking.” Again, it takes a bit of practice to get it going. But hang in there and you’ll get it.

Here is the second email (I have removed or changed anything that might identify the writer):

I was talking to this total bastard CEO of this company today. Ruthless motherfucker. During our conversation, it occurred to me that he has something that I completely lack. Call it hope or faith or trust, he sees his life working out favorably. He sees his deals working, his sexual advances working, his kids, his future, etc. I don’t. I’ve got an advanced degree but I can’t get my shit together, and I realized today that I don’t see things working out. I don’t see them being okay.

I used to be interested in Transactional Analysis, and I think what I’m talking about is a script, a subconscious image that creates a story about how my life will play out. And that script always ends in frustration. Everything is out of reach and I can’t picture myself actually being stable and satisfied.

Anyway, I want to understand why and what to do. There are times when I feel motivated and when I can SEE the script and challenge it, usually after some type of meditation, but it’s not enough. I want to get to the root and be over with this because I see how dangerous it is. Hope you can shed some insight.

My answer went something like this:

You and I have the same script! I always imagine things ending in disastrous failure. But when I look at my life it’s not that way at all. A tremendous amount of great things have happened in my life. I’m a successful writer, I travel all over the world, I’m living pretty much the life I dreamed of when I was younger. Although I’ll admit, in my dreams I actually earned decent money doing it (which I definitely do not, by anyone’s standards). But still, it’s pretty good. And yet I have a strong habit of focusing only on the negative aspects of my life and projecting a disastrous future.

I imagine that if I learned to create a different story for my life, I might feel differently about things. Maybe. I might even be more “successful” in the ways ordinary people conceive of success. But I’m not sure I’m really capable of the level of sustained practice that would involve. Plus I’m not sure I’d care for the outcome.

Because change like that would hit a lot of other things, y’know? You can’t just overhaul your way of thinking in such a drastic way and expect it not to impact every aspect of your life. If I did this, I think I’d change my basic personality. I’m not sure that’s even possible, nor do I believe it would be a good thing if it were.

Instead, zazen practice has shown me that my depressing story is not real. It’s the product of thought. It’s an image I carry around in my head. It’s the result of neural pathways that have been built up in my brain that tend to cause energy patterns up there in my head to repeat themselves. Zazen practice didn’t get rid of this stuff. But seeing its unreality enables me to ignore it like background noise much of the time. The less attention I give it, the more those neural pathways become less well-traveled and the fewer of those repetitive thoughts I have.

I don’t claim I can ignore it completely. My habitual ways of thinking still affect a lot of my day-to-day actions. But when they do, I’m far more cognizant of what’s happening than I was in the past. By being aware of what’s happening I can see that I have a clear choice to ignore my persistent patterns and behave in a different way.

Zazen practice does more than make you consciously aware of these things, though. If conscious awareness was all that was required, you could just read a book or a piece of writing on SuicideGirls about it and be done with it. But conscious awareness is not enough.

This is because these processes begin much deeper than conscious awareness can ever hope to penetrate. By the time they bubble up to the surface of your thinking mind, it’s probably too late to do anything much about it.

Having a clear vision of your life means having a tight grip on your ego structure, it means holding on to a rigid sense of who you are. But that sense of who you are is always an illusion. Eventually it’ll bite you on the ass. Sooner or later you will be forced to come to terms with the discontinuity between who you really are and who you imagine you are. If your grip on your imaginary self is too tight this will be extremely painful. If your grip is not so tight it will be a whole lot easier.

***

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!