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“And it ain’t no use in a-turnin’ on your light, babe
The light I never knowed
An’ it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road.”
I experienced my first bout of serious depression when I was 17. Like any child or adolescent, I’d known my share of sadness and self-pity growing up as “the baby of the family,” with an older brother and sister who offered me the normal amount of cruelty that I no doubt deserved.
But this was different. This was like that heavy, lead blanket they lay on you in the dentist office so the radiation from the x-rays doesn’t kill you. I felt like I was wearing ten of those cloaks while slogging through mud up to my knees. Life was suddenly hard and the fog in my brain wouldn’t let me see my way out.
My depression was a gift from my dad, both genetically and behaviorally. Neither was intentional on his part. He didn’t mean to give me depression. He had no control over the genes that I inherited and he had no idea how his choices would shatter my world. Like most of us, he was just doing his life and finding out later what it meant. I suspect he was desperately unhappy before and after he abandoned our family by volunteering in 1968 to serve a year in Vietnam; and bitterly disappointed it didn’t earn him a coveted promotion to Lieutenant Colonel after 22 years in the Air Force.
And my mom was surprised to learn how self-sufficient, competent and confident she became when he left us for that year. She took control, managed the household, parented three difficult teenagers and moved us and the cat from northern Virginia to southern Ohio. I’m sure dad was also surprised how much she grew emotionally and spiritually in his absence. Maybe he realized she didn’t need him like she had before. Who knows? She probably didn’t.
What I do know is a few years later, after he was forced into retirement, dad thought an affair with a younger woman would make it better. And it probably did, for a while. For him. But then mom found out and suddenly dad was gone, living in a crappy, little apartment in Fairborn, Ohio near the military base. As far as I was concerned, he might as well have gone back to Vietnam. It would be at least a year before I spoke to him again.
I found out about the affair on my dad’s 48th birthday in 1973. Maybe it was a midlife crisis. I don’t know, but like a large, glass vase crashing on concrete, it was the official end of my naïve, innocent childhood. It took them a few years to finally give up and get divorced but it didn’t matter. Something died in me that day and while I didn’t know what it was exactly, it defined my life from that moment on.
The pain didn’t stop there. Within a few months, my girlfriend, who I had been with for about a year, graduated from high school and decided she didn’t love me anymore. In our last, pathetic time together, we laid on my bed while I bravely played Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right on my record player; a fraudulent, futile effort to convince her I didn’t care that she was moving on (“You could have done better but I don’t mind”).
I lied to myself that I was ok but I was reeling out of control. Over 45 years later, I still remember the pain of loving Lynn with my whole soul, while she looked at me with cold, empty eyes. I felt like I was falling down a well that seemed to go on forever. It was dark and lonely and nothing made sense anymore.
I didn’t know it was depression, of course. I didn’t have a name for the stale smell of death that seemed to curl up inside me and tell me my life was over. I just knew that the world was gray – all color had drained away – and it all felt pointless and sad. My mom was ahead of her time I guess and had me seeing a clinical psychologist for a few months. I suppose it helped. Maybe it did. And it probably influenced my decision a few years later to seek a career as a psychologist. But it didn’t fix me. Not even close.
Perhaps in another column, I will share the details of the “lost years” that followed, the years spent hitchhiking around the country and Europe before coming back to Dayton to find a sense of family, purpose and meaning in a yoga ashram in the ghetto. But eventually, despite my depression, I got in the groove that society expects and demands of the young and fresh: conformity.
In the next seven years, I went to college, graduated with a journalism and broadcasting degree, got married, went to grad school, got divorced and a doctorate and left Ohio for good, starting over in a little town in northern California that I decided was about the most perfect place on Earth. I still do, mostly. I was 28, doing a postdoctoral fellowship at Shasta County Mental Health, and I was happy, truly happy.
I didn’t stay happy, of course. Few of us do. But I didn’t stay sad, either. I continued to have bouts of despair from time to time, mostly short periods of darkness that formed like black clouds in an otherwise light-filled sky. I was deeply blessed to meet Nancy a few months after arriving in Redding, a remarkably authentic and genuine woman and the least neurotic person I’ve ever known. Like me, she had known love and heartache and was divorced. She was also emerging from a painful breakup while she struggled to deal with her mother’s terminal cancer. Still, she frequently laughed, lived in the moment, rarely complained, took life lightly and seldom over-thought anything. Nearly 35 years later, I continue to learn from the woman who became my wife, brought two incredible girls into the world and has no words to explain her quiet strength, enduring contentment and joyful resilience.
I was with Nancy, her father and most of her siblings in November of 1986, gathered around her mother’s bed, honoring her as she prepared to draw her final breath. Before she left us, she seemed to suddenly come to life. Her eyes were blazing as she struggled to sit up. She was clearly seeing something or someone at the end of the bed, a gratuitous hallucination that seemed to give her tremendous joy and peace. She went out that way; staring into space, her face glowing, beatific and serene, blissful; literally looking forward to whatever comes next.
Like most of us, Nancy and I have had our share of losses over the decades. All our parents and various aunts and uncles eventually died; Nancy got breast cancer in 2007, followed by surgeries, chemo, radiation, and more surgery. I was nearly killed in 2008 sitting on a motor-scooter, waiting for the light to change, suffering multiple breakages in various parts of my body; and 10 years later, our home and nearly everything we owned was neatly erased by the Carr Fire. And too many of our dear friends died too young. This is life. This is what happens when we show up in the world. All families endure big and little horrors of one kind or another. Many have suffered worse than us.
M. Scott Peck once wrote, “Life is difficult” and it is. But what makes it difficult isn’t about what happens as much as what we tell ourselves about what happens. I have been a therapist and then psychologist for nearly 40 years and I’ve spent the last 32 years in private practice here in Redding. And I have probably participated in over 50,000 hours of psychotherapy. Many of my clients have suffered, like me, with severe anxiety, depression or struggled with suicidal thoughts.
What kind of a therapist would I be if I have not personally struggled with so much myself? Of course, I don’t know. What I do know is that many of us seek to become psychologists not because we have our shit together but precisely because we don’t. We are drawn to a profession that offers us clues to coping with our own demons. I’ve been lost in the same dark places that many of my clients find so baffling. And they look to me for understanding and help. And like any other “shrink,”, I see it as my joyous duty to offer them my genuine care along with “the life tools” that I’ve found essential when depression shows up and will not leave.
For example, usually in a first session, I point to a sign I have on my credenza that simply states, “Don’t believe everything you think.” I let my clients know that despite what they think, there is nothing “wrong” with them. Then I correct myself and acknowledge that actually there is one thing wrong with them: they think there is something wrong with them.
In other words, identifying with an idea of ourselves that says we are wrong, bad, broken, defective, or dysfunctional, does not work. It does not help. It is like a key that fails to unlock a door. It is not a bad key. It isn’t wrong. We don’t have to hate it. We simply accept that it doesn’t work for the purpose with which we wish to use it. Similarly, at any given moment, what we are thinking, feeling, saying or doing works or it doesn’t work. We are not wrong or bad. We are not a problem to be solved. However, until we turn and notice the tricks our minds play on us, we will continue to believe our own minds and suffer.
And we all do this. Why? In his book, Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life, Dr. Steven Hayes writes, “…many of the tools we use to solve problems lead us into the traps that create suffering. To put it bluntly, human beings are playing a rigged game in which the human mind itself, a wonderful tool for mastering the environment, has been turned on its host.”
What does this mean? It means that until we understand our own minds, we are more likely to make our psychological problems worse as we try to make them better.
So, what is the answer? In a word, mindfulness, by which I mean, going beyond thinking, blaming, criticizing and evaluating. Instead, we can reside in a different place in the mind from where we can simply notice, observe, allow and accept. Rather than judge and fight against ourselves or declare war on our experience, we can choose to bring peace, compassion, understanding and empathy.
When I use the word acceptance, I do not mean approval. When we fully understand that our efforts to get rid of our depression only amplifies it, we become open to new ways of seeing.
In his book, Falling into Grace, Adyashanti writes, “When we believe what we think, when we take our thinking to be reality, we will suffer. It’s not obvious until you look at it, but when we believe our thoughts, in that instant, we begin to live in the world of dreams, where the mind conceptualizes an entire world that doesn’t actually exist anywhere but in the mind itself. At that moment, we begin to experience a sense of isolation, where we no longer feel connected to each other in a very rich and human way, but we find ourselves receding more and more into the world of our minds, into the world of our own creation.”
Most of us, without realizing it, relate to the world as we think it is and not as it actually is. And because we’ve always done this, we don’t recognize that our view is no more true than any other view.
For example, you may think you know who you are. But is this true? Is it possible to contain all that you are into a thought or an idea? Adyashanti tells us that any thought we have about anything turns it into a concept. In order for me to reach my readers, I must first translate my knowledge and experience into these black marks we call letters that form words. And then in the process of “reading,” you run that process backward, translating these words into ideas and concepts that allow you to create your own version of my message.
But we forget that all our thoughts and all these words are not the same as that which they represent. They are more like signposts, pointing us to an experience of a truth or reality. In themselves, no thought or word is true. Not absolutely.
Adyashanti explains we can know and understand the world through direct experience or through the distorted lens of our language-based, thought-driven, time-bound, egoic mind. This latter method is certainly effective in dealing with the external, physical world. However, too often it is a dismal failure in dealing with ourselves and other people. It is easy to label objects, but when we use the mind to label ourselves and others, we get into trouble. It is after all, why we get depressed.
When I was 17 and deeply distraught because of my father’s infidelity and my girlfriend’s rejection, it had much less to do with these realities, and much more to do with the stories that I told myself about them and me. I wasn’t dealing with my true self. I was dealing with a conceptualized self, essentially “a bad idea” of me that I completely fused with and took to be true. I’ve done this all my life. It is easy to hate yourself when you make up lies about who you really are.
The mind converts everything, including our loved ones, the remembered past and the imagined future into limited ideas and concepts. Sadly, I fully identified with a constant stream of negative thinking about myself. I bought all the lies that my mind was selling. I believed them and in believing them, they felt true.
Adyashanti explains that the labels we use to understand ourselves and our experience are not wrong until we “actually believe they’re true. As soon as you believe that a label you put on yourself is true, you’ve limited something that is literally limitless, you’ve limited who you are into nothing more than a thought.”
He continues, “When we see the world through our thoughts, we stop experiencing life as it really is and others as they really are. When I have a thought about you, that’s something I’ve created. I’ve turned you into an idea. In a certain sense, if I have an idea about you that I believe, I’ve degraded you. I’ve made you into something very small. This is the way of human beings; this is what we do to each other.”
So again, what is the answer? It is so simple, we miss it. Right now, something that defies labels or concepts, something that can never be fully described or captured with words, is present in this moment and is allowing you to have this experience of reading my words. What is this awareness or consciousness that directs what you call your attention to these words and these words and these words? Can you see what is seeing? Can you know what is knowing? Can you touch what is touching this moment? Can you connect with your eternal, infinite, expansive self, and without any thought, know who or what you are in this moment, in the only moment that ever has existed, and will ever exist, now?
Adyashanti reminds us, “All thoughts – good thoughts, bad thoughts, lovely thoughts, evil thoughts – occur within something. All thoughts arise and disappear into a vast space. If you watch your mind, you’ll see that a thought simply occurs on its own – it arises without any intention on your part. In response to this, we’re taught to grab and identify with them. But if we can, just for a moment, relinquish this anxious tendency to grab our thoughts, we begin to notice something very profound: that thoughts arise and play out, spontaneously and on their own, within a vast space; the noisy mind actually occurs within a very, very deep sense of quiet.”
Have you ever noticed how life has a dream-like quality? When we awaken from a dream, that which seemed so real while we were sleeping suddenly seems ghostly, ephemeral and flimsy as it fades and is forgotten. And isn’t our awakened life like that, also? That which seems “real” does not last. “All is fleeting” or temporary. The only constant in the material world is change. All that exists, happens in the now, but most of us fail to notice this. Instead, we dwell on our past, wishing it were different or we project ourselves dream-like into an imagined future with all our hopes and fears. Our minds make it very difficult for us to know what is real and what is a dream.
Yet, once we begin to “mind our minds” and put them on leashes, as Hayes would say, we can identify with “the vast space” instead of the noise within it. We come to realize that very deep sense of quiet is who we really are, who we’ve always been and who we’ll always be. What happens when we realize our true self is infinite peace? The depression may not go away. And that’s ok. Even suicidal thoughts can show up within that which we are. It is our choice who or what we ultimately believe we ultimately are. In that sense, we are completely free to be. Always. Always.