Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 5: Depression – Experience & Practice

My last entry was meant to focus on and express my experiences of depression in heartbreak, a particularly vexing set of painful emotions that keeps coming to visit, even after all this time. However, instead, I got into a philosophical examination of how depression alters our experience. This time, I’m going to focus on my experience and offer some tips/support for those readers out there who suffer from the same problems of the heart.

The world is barren. Nearly every day, I feel utterly lonely. It seems like there is no one who can hear me, no matter how hard I try to be heard. There’s no one who really cares–not really. People might show up on their own terms, but can any of them truly bear witness to me in my entirety? No. At least, I don’t know who that person is. Some days, I wonder who would care if I died tomorrow. My family, surely, but anyone else? Let’s stop here. Let me emphasize that these are feelings. Like I wrote about last time, I know that they are a particular alteration of perspective–a very pained one, curled up in a ball and wishing that the pain would end. Let’s not take these feelings to be truths, and let’s definitely not take them as blame on anyone who may be reading this. They’re my feelings, my reactions, and you hold no blame or responsibility for them. That being said, it has been particularly hard for me to move forward in recent weeks. I’m stuck at a job that irks me with false promises, poor pay for my responsibilities, and NO benefits–not even sick days, forcing me to expose my co-workers to illness out of my inability to afford missing a day. Furthermore, I struggle to find meaningful connectivity–something I’ve lacked throughout most of my adult life, despite my best efforts. Honestly, at this point, I’ve virtually given up. Who else reads philosophy for fun and yearns to learn as much as possible in this life? Who else is working hard at being an intensive practitioner of the Dharma? I don’t know such people, and they’re hard to find…

I’ve had an idea in my head for some time of returning to my ex’s city to live with some friends who stepped forward in my heartbreak and appeared as family to me. I’d love to show up and support them. However, each job I apply for comes to naught, and the other people I know there seem to be slowly denying or forgetting my existence. If I reach out and write something kind on one of their blogs or social media profiles, I get no response, but at the same time, I can see when they mention my ex and how great she is in whatever way. I guess she succeeded: in a certain way, I’m dead.

All of these difficulties have exacerbated those intense feelings I’ve expressed, and now, I’ve expressed them, both to let these feelings out and to let others know that they are not alone, not in the slightest. However, despite these feelings, I’m OK, and to explain that, let’s shift to how to deal with such feelings and such times in life. We all go through hard times, so let’s face these together with bravery, tenderness, and equanimity. The following are what I use to get through these feelings that could easily turn me into a blubbering mess; through these methods, I manage to have some grace, dignity, and joy in the wounds of heartbreak.

  1. Take care of yourself. You can’t continue with your life and show up for it if you fall into the abyss now (although there is no judgment if you crash at this point–no shame. Hang in there and recover). Taking care of yourself can make the unbearable a lot more manageable–not nice, not easy, but survivable. Not taking care of yourself will let it crush you. Also, taking care of yourself will give you the base of strength you need to excel with the other tips to follow. So–shower, exercise, continue to do things you like, reach out to friends and family to talk–don’t be afraid: others understand your pain and heartbreak, and the best way to feel loved is to reach out and find that others care, even if they can’t necessarily help beyond just listening. Personally, I had many of these self-care tools well-established this time from other bouts with depression, but this time, I learned that dressing well–that simple move of treating yourself with respect, with dignity–helped keep me positive and empowered day to day. This is not about being ostentatious or dazzling others–it’s about finding and holding your dignity. If you can find a way to do the same, do it. You could be wearing anything–your favorite band shirts and shorts. Just wear something that makes you feel that you matter and that you are embracing that.
  2. Be authentic. I’m not a big fan of the term as it is thrown around to the point of near meaninglessness. Here, I mean: show up for what’s happening. It’s easy to run away from such feelings or fall really deeply into them. Instead, try authentically showing up. These feelings show the depths of your heart. Let these feelings come up. Don’t fight against yourself or your emotion. Instead–gently be present. You’ll find that these feelings come and go, if you don’t grasp at them or fight against them. They’re just another part of your myriad possibilities of human experience. The brave, compassionate practice is to gently lean into them and surrender the fight against your emotional demons, finding that they, like a monster in your dreams, are part of you. It hurts, but it’s not good or bad: that’s just a reaction to that emotional experience. Don’t be afraid. Be brave, tender, and gentle towards yourself.

    Bringing awareness to depression works the same way. People often feel very bad about being depressed. When we don’t understand what depression is, it bears down on us. But when we get the hang of it, so to speak, we can allow more space around our depression and just let it be. Depression often comes when the hidden, dark corners we’ve tried to avoid actually surface. It may feel like a tight knot in our chest or an incredible sense of anxiety. It may feel like the earth has cracked open in front of us and we’re falling into some miserable lower realm. Or we may just feel blue. Depression is often accompanied by strong physical sensations. In the Tibetan tradition, this physical imbalance is called sok lung, or “wind disturbance.” But no matter what it feels like, remember that depression is just “experience.” And the experience of depression can be very valuable in coming to know aspects of our mind. When we come to know our mind, we feel much freer and less fearful. Whether depression is physical or conceptual, the important thing is to try and relax with it. Just relax with depression without feeding it by reacting–physically, mentally, or emotionally–with fear. There is no need to fight or identify with these habitual responses. This only makes them seem more solid and difficult to deal with. Initially the experience of depression is not such a big deal; it is more like a headache. If we bring awareness to depression. it won’t dominate our life. It is important to always return to the understanding that suffering is not personal. It’s an integral part of being alive and something that we all share. A great deal of understanding can come from bringing awareness to suffering, rather than thinking about or judging it. A quality of wakefulness comes with any sensation, which enables us to appreciate any experience. — Dzigar Kongtrül, It’s Up to You, pp. 57-58

  3. Move beyond “me”. You might notice that my expression in my story was all about I, me, and mine as well as how the world/others were not going in line with my expectations/desires. The suffering of samsara comes primarily from the grasping of self, and this is strongest with my attachments, especially in the stories of how I wish the world were. We fight very hard for these things, but in the end, they are impermanent–we lose them, and it hurts. OR we never get them at all, and it hurts because we want them so! We could discuss elaborate counter-plans of changing goals and such, but really, that just is a continuation of the same dynamic. It’s the same game with a different strategy to win. The real step forward as a brave spiritual warrior is to let go of the “me” game altogether. This sounds dramatic and incites immediate aversion, but it’s not the end of existence to stop staring at your belly button and look at the world instead. In this case, start small–engage in things that are about supporting others, even if that’s just doing things for a single friend. It can be as small as getting a plant or a goldfish to take care of and as major as volunteering to feed the homeless every week. Look your cashier in the eye–really see them, and thank them for helping you. There are truly opportunities everywhere. Small things spread positivity in the world and end up not only making you feel more positive but also getting you outside the miasma of your feelings.
  4. Engage, connect, process, and learn. There are so many resources beyond friends and family to help you feel witnessed, learn how to grow/heal, and take up your path as a brave warrior. Check out the book by Susan Piver that inspires these Heartbreak Wisdom Journal entries: “The Wisdom of a Broken Heart”. There are many blogs here in WordPress to read with others’ expressions of their experiences, tips, and tricks. I follow one called: “How to successfully get out of depression… and never go back!” The author adds lots of new ideas regularly, and they are well-informed and practical. Check that one out for a start! Find a therapist or a spiritual community. Know that you are not alone in this experience and that there are many avenues to find help and others who know your pain.
  5. Finally–Try meditating. You might scoff at this, but there is no better way to find peace. We externalize so many of our reactions, and our minds often run willy-nilly without much ability on our part to find mental calm. We think that happiness will come from realizing all the desires of “me”. Meditation sees through this and finds the basic goodness of who we are. It offers the true path to a happiness beyond the constant games of grasping and attachment. Just a few minutes a day can change your life and pull all these other suggestions together into an empowered, present, tender, brave, and beautiful embrace of your life.

May this post help others find companionship in their experience of depression as well as give them some help finding peace through it. As in the quote below, may your heart be big enough to hold all of these experiences with courage and tenderness. Gassho


pablo (1)

In both Western and Tibetan cultures, having a big heart is associated with generosity, kindness, warmth, and compassion. In Tibetan culture, a person with a big heart is also someone with the ability and courage to hold even the most painful truths in his or her heart without becoming despondent. During difficult times my mother used to say, “You need to make your heart big enough to hold a horse race inside.” Working with difficulties in a compassionate way doesn’t necessarily mean we can resolve them. Samsara, by its nature, can’t be fixed. It can only be worked with and transcended–which means seen through. A traditional Buddhist image of compassion is that of an armless woman watching her only child being swept away by the raging torrent of a river. Imagine the unbearable anguish at not being able to save your child–and not being able to turn away! In the practice of bodhichitta, this is the unconditional compassion we try to cultivate toward all sentient beings, even if we’re unable to truly help them until we ourselves become free. The willingness to not turn away from our anguish as we reflect on the suffering of samsara is the bodhisattva path. This path is possible only because we have seen that the true nature of suffering is egoless, or empty. Not turning away from suffering doesn’t mean “toughing it out.” It means that, having seen the true nature of suffering, we have the courage to encounter suffering joyfully. — Dzigar Kongtrül, It’s Up to You, p. 89

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry — Entry 4: Depression’s World Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry — Entry 6: Forgiveness

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Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 4: Depression’s World

Heartbreak changes your entire experience. The world is literally different.

One of my favorite philosophers, Wittgenstein, said in his Tractatus (the following quote is my translation; I add the German original as a footnote to the post along with the original’s section number):

If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not that which can be expressed through language.
In short, the world must then through good or bad willing become an entirely different one. It must, so to speak, increase or decrease as a whole.
The world of the happy person is a different one than that of the unhappy person. [1]

Wittgenstein tells us here that the “world”–for him, the set of everything that is the case: the collection of all facts [2]–isn’t changed by a negative or positive perspective. Happiness doesn’t change the fact that 2+2=4, that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or that the shirt I’m wearing is blue. However, our experience of these facts as a whole, the world, changes in totality when we’re happy or sad–the limits of the world change. That same blue shirt is seen through two different sets of eyes, as it were.

This explication might beg the obvious question: “How could it be otherwise?” It may seem self-evident after the above discussion, but we regularly act as though those emotional states come from out there in the world rather than our own evaluation and reaction to it. We act as though emotions are just another fact amongst that totality of facts, not something that alters them as a particular perspective of the facts. Notice that I just pointed to the word “evaluation”. Wittgenstein would tell us that evaluation has nothing to do with the set of facts that is the world. Facts are facts. They can come in any order we want as the propositions that are the case. They don’t have any inherent value in themselves. There isn’t any inherent meaning or value to the fact that my shirt is blue. Evaluation stands outside the facts. [3]

This may seem an overly philosophical assertion for a post, so let’s put it differently with a quote from a Tibetan Buddhist:

The truth in this statement becomes clear when you pay attention to the inner processes that produce emotional states: you literally dream them up through a complex interaction of thoughts, images, bodily states, and sensations. Emotional reactivity does not originate “out there” in objects. It arises, is experienced, and ceases in you. [4]

This quote brings us back to a more grounded understanding of what has been said so far: the world out there is as it is, yet my reactions to it arise in myself–they are not part of the facts of all, no matter how much they feel to be, but they do change my experience of those facts. That blue shirt is neither hideous nor handsome in itself–those are evaluations, emotional reactions within me.

Now, to return to the emotion at hand: depression. Moods are the most pervasive of emotional filters which shape our experience of the world. They color not only one interaction or glance in the mirror of that blue shirt–they color everything. There’s wisdom to the saying: “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses”. This is what is really at stake with Wittgenstein’s final lines in the quote: The world of the happy person is different from that of an unhappy person. [5] Anyone who has undergone an experience of depression–and it is most definitely a going-under and something that is undergone without choice– will know that the world no longer is the same. Everything feels bereft of meaning, cold, foreign, lonely, empty, meaningless and/or pointless. In depression, all hopes have been dashed, and it appears both as though it was saccharine and naive to have ever hoped at all and that there is no reason to ever hope for anything again.

old-castle-ruins

Perhaps some would disagree with my description anchoring depression on the loss of hope, but I would describe the terrain of depression as a kingdom full of castles made of crushed hopes and dreams built upon the ground of hopelessness with a substrate of meaninglessness. Such a description fits well with both Beck’s cognitive triad–the depressed person’s view of self, world, and future become completely negative and hopeless of change–as well as the lived experience of time in depression–one of events coming forward and washing over you rather than actively moving towards your own goals and meanings. These are theories learned from my days as a psychology student, but the description and theories go along with my own personal experiences of depression as well.

The hopelessness of depression has a particular flavor in heartbreak. Not only does the world seem bleak, but in addition, there are constant points of comparison with another person, a life once had, a particular set of hopes and ideas lost. These comparisons can haunt entire days and wake you from deep sleep. Normal routines suddenly take on a dark glaze of loss that defies any attempt to ignore it or get around it. You might try to deny it through intensive storytelling or a rebound relationship or to distract yourself with booze or other means, or maybe, you won’t be able to try such coping behaviors at all and will instead spend night after night bawling your eyes out while watching movies on the couch. However, extreme measures are required to deny or ignore the loss of a person, the loss of a life–the world of one who is heartbroken is different than the world of one who is happy.

The heartbroken world is a dark and hopeless one, indeed, but the loss of hope offers the opportunity to approach life differently altogether. Hope and fear (they’re opposites and come together–two sides of the same coin. In hoping for something, I also carry fears of what the world will be like without that hope coming true) keep life in a game of ups and downs of samsara–a game of suffering through the attachment of desire and aversion. A broken heart allows the opportunity to develop a tender connection of compassion for the world outside of your own story of your hope and your fear. Put hope and fear aside and open yourself to the world just as it is rather than your evaluation of it. It’s truly a golden opportunity to realize authentic happiness rather than continuing to live in a world based on grasping for hopes and running from fears. This is the first steps of working with depression in practice and in stepping beyond its emotional terrain.


The word in Tibetan for hope is rewa; the word for fear is dopa. More commonly, the word re-dok is used, which combines the two. Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. This re-dok is the root of our pain. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.

In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something: they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.

Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?

We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better “me” who one day will emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.

This is where renunciation enters the picture–renunciation of the hope that our experience could be different, renunciation of the hope that we could be better. [6]

May this help others find their own empowerment and open possibilities in the barren lands of depression.
Gassho


Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 3: Wounds
Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 5: Depression – Experience & Practice

1 §6.43 Wenn das gute oder böse Wollen die Welt ändert, so kann es nur die Grenzen der Welt ändern, nicht die Tatsachen; nicht das, was durch die Sprache ausgedrückt werden kann.
Kurz, die Welt muß dann dadurch überhaupt eine andere werden. Sie muß sozusagen als Ganzes abnehmen oder zunehmen.
Die Welt des Glücklichen ist eine andere als die des Unglücklichen.
2 Tractatus–§1 Die Welt ist alles was der Fall ist. §1.1 Die Welt ist die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen, nicht der Dinge. §1.11 Die Welt ist durch die Tatsachen bestimmt und dadurch, daß es alle Tatsachen sind. §1.12 Denn, die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen bestimmt, was der Fall ist und auch, was alles nicht der Fall ist. (My translation: §1The world is everything that is the case. §1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not the totality of things. §1.11 The world is made certain through the facts and due to them being all the facts. §1.12 Because: the entirety of facts makes certain what is the case and what is not the case.)
3 See §6.4 and §6.41 of the Tractatus. I feel they are a bit too heady to include here.
4 Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche & Mark Dahlby, The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, Kindle edition, loc. 1552.
5 For my fellow philosophers, compare all this with Heidegger’s discussions of Befindlichkeits–mood’s–impact on our understanding of the world in Being and Time.
6 Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, pp. 40-41.