Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Low Point

Winter’s the down time in more ways than one. In the monastery, we get a chance to have an extended retreat, like bulbs gathering energy for the coming year. But it’s also the time of death and long grey vistas. Around the winter solstice the energy is particularly low, hence the custom in Britain of burning a ‘yule log’ during the period, bringing in boughs of holly, (which bear the only bright fruit at this time of year) and holding festivities — anything to get some energy going and fend off the dark spirits.

Nevertheless it’s a down time. This year one of the friends of the monastery committed suicide. A great thinker and first-class university graduate, he’d suffered from depression for twenty-five years; finally, having raised his children to the brink of maturity, he had no reason to keep on living through these troughs of feeling worthless and essentially bad. About 150 people came to his funeral; and if their presence wasn’t statement enough, the anecdotes that flowed forth showed that he was well-liked and creative, with caring brothers, sisters, wife and children.

It was much the same with the long-term resident at Amaravati who took his own life a couple of years ago. Not only was he well-liked, a really helpful all-rounder, but also a juggler and clown who delighted the children at the monastery’s summer Family Camp. A day or two before he died, hearing he wasn’t so well, the children brought round trays of sweets and gifts and left them by his door.

Monks too. Last year, a man who’d spent seven years in training, five as a bhikkhu, took his life a year after disrobing. He’d been a solid and steady member of the community, and a diligent meditator, but then started having anxiety attacks and depressive symptoms. We looked after him as best we could — company throughout the day, and people in the next room at night whom he could call upon, and visits to a psychiatrist who prescribed medication. However after a few months, he decided to disrobe and return to his native country to be admitted to a hospital. But despite drugs, phone calls and visits from monks, and even electric shock treatment, the malady continued. Eventually he couldn’t bear it any more.

To see and be with this man was a blow to the heart. It’s like our friend was somewhere else, on the other side of misted glass. You could see, speak but not really gain access; one time holding his hand and leading him to a psychiatric unit, I could almost feel him slipping away. And yet walking together, and physical contact, seemed one of the best ways to get through. Particularly if he had to do something. Better than massage was doing exercise together. It was as something that vigorous, and entrained to another person, was what was needed to break the shell that the depression erected around him.

So one might conclude that good friends and family aren’t a conclusive help; that living in a community doesn’t work, and that a life of mindfulness has no effect. But I’d qualify all that. What’s more crucial is whether the mind can receive what’s offered: as I’ve said, the depressed state weaves a trance that’s difficult to break. In the case of the layman, attention and emotional support were constantly offered. And in the case of the monk, the only reservations that people made about him concerned his meditation practice. He called it ‘letting go’ into what he felt was samadhi. The results (seen from the outside) were that his body would start to manifest involuntary movements, and he’d come out of meditation slightly groggy. I questioned his mindfulness, but no-one could shake his belief that this was valid practice.

It seems to me that one of the key features of mindfulness is that it’s about bearing something in mind. You don’t exactly do letting go: what occurs through carefully holding and moderating attention around a specific theme is that the stuff that the mind projects is deprived of a foothold. So it lets go of its pre-occupations. To me, appropriate meditation practice is about aligning one’s attention to a specific object (breathing, body, mental image) and out of the store of moods, phobias and desires that the mind holds in its archives. There’s a danger of drifting into states without your steering.

I suppose we all have our store of downers; and my own experience of ‘melancholy’ is probably as close to the serious depression as a sniffle or mild cold is to pneumonia. But, having experienced this since my teens and into monastic life, I perhaps have an inkling of an inside view of the depressed state. What I notice in myself is an isolation, like being in another world — either the world’s a dream ‘out there’ or I feel like a ghost wafting through it. The sense of being ‘out of contact’, of ‘not feeling’ makes it seem like one is on the dark side of the moon — a frozen and dead landscape with no atmosphere. And this is independent of being alone ( which I am by and large very comfortable with). Essentially it is an existence with no heart.

A couple of ways that I dealt successfully with this state ( rather than just enduring its thankfully passing duration) offered a reflection on how the heart in perceiving the world places us in touch with it. One was a hunch that came through as I felt the descent to moonscape beginning: no-one was around, so I hastened to a drawer in the office where I often leave letters, and grabbed one from a dear friend. Holding the paper and reading the familiar spidery handwriting, with phrases that brought his voice into my mind, just checked the mood at its tipping point. Using the letter (ah, how much richer than e-mails!) grounding myself in the body and holding the sense of communication didn’t produce a comfortable mood, but it did mean at least feeling the sense of separation and being able to focus on it. Then it was just a matter of weathering through. And feeling connected to some existence outside the current frame of reference; so I could come out of the trance and back into present embodied experience.

Reading a letter, moving the eyes, interpreting handwritten forms, and ‘hearing’ a voice arise as I did so, a voice that my actions were contributing to, all seemed to have a mediating effect. It was also that the experience was loaded with unique and specific items: hand-written, tactile and conversational, not some typed-out screed (or even sound advice) that could have been written by anyone, to anyone at any time. It touches the heart.

I’m saying this quite literally; heart is not just a metaphor for emotional sensitivity. Some clinical researchers in the field suggest that the physical heart is an important contributor to the affective-response intelligence that we call ‘mind.’ So mind is not exclusively in your brain. (Traditional Buddhist cultures place mind in the heart, and in bygone centuries, no-one knew what the blancmange in the skull was for.) Apparently, the entire nervous system — but principally the intestines, the heart and the brain — contributes to this intelligence called ‘mind.’ For example, there is a constant exchange of nervous information between heart and brain. Heart ( which is about 60-65% nervous tissue) also emits an electro-magnetic field that extends around the body for more than 10 feet; and it produces hormones that affect the mind in terms of stress, ease and arousal. So apparently there’s this constant radar sweeping around us detecting things like changes in pressure, and more important, the electro-magnetic fields that every other living being is putting out. Without that, no matter what you see, there’s no felt sense of something ‘out there.’ Which is one of the salient features of the depressed state.

When the heart’s messages get ‘reported’ to the brain, the brain mostly filters them out ( too much to handle) and processes a small proportion with great dexterity to produce a meaningful and conceivable reality and figure out what to do about it. This is all in abstract of course, and ‘brainy’ people can do wonderful things with concepts: politics, maths, management, philosophy, and every theory under the sun. Heart-receptivity on the other hand deals with specific details of sense- experience. So if you want to develop the 'heart' aspect of mind you observe, listen, smell, or touch something to find out exactly how this is right now. And then ask yourself how it feels: is it pleasant or unpleasant? Do you incline to staying with it, or to moving away? This process, called 'mindfulness and full awareness’ would better be called ‘heartfulness’ if we hadn’t decided that heart was just a matter of irregular emotions with no sensible intelligence at all.

Now you can dismiss all this as mystical twaddle. However, mindfulness is now widely recognized as being of assistance in cases of depression; and it’s salient feature is to take the mind into the specific, into the here and now. It’s in the abstract, the assumed, the possible and ‘what others think’ that the mind hold its phobias, as life messages of abandonment or inadequacy (and on the other hand entitlement and egotism). Those qualities aren’t there in specific direct experience: there’s painful and pleasant moments, but there are no life messages. However our daily world is commonly held in terms of non-specific generalizations, like its ‘another Monday,’ or, ‘a typical man’, or ,‘I dread meeting Janice, she’s always like this,’ or ‘I’m hopeless.’ In fact from the Buddhist perspective, any sense of a lasting entity or state of being is an act of generalization (papaƱca). It’s a useful convention, but one that allows the mind’s neuroses and corruptions to be projected onto the here and now.

On another occasion as I felt the ‘down and out’ fog coming over me, and, again on a hunch, I used the breath. I knew I had to get into my body, so I just breathed out and stopped the in-breath from happening. I had been given guidance in a system known as ‘Buteyko’ after its Russian originator, which basically works on lengthening the pause between the out- and the in- breath. The reasoning behind it is that this increases the carbon dioxide in the lungs, and this improves the rate at which oxygen is metabolized — with remedial effects, particularly in the case of respiratory problems like asthma. Having been taken through some exercises under guidance, I also noted that this brought around a very high degree of focus on the breath (no wandering when your life depends on it) and a shift in energy ( as well as taking you through the experience of panic). So as the downer moved in, I held my breath. With this you have to resist the push of the vagus nerve, so there’s a point at which the exercise becomes a struggle. However you work with that for as long as you can, then let the breath in as slowly as possible (against an instinct that wants to gasp and suck). Then wait for everything to settle down and repeat the process. So this is what I did, observing the effects. What occurred was that the emotion — a kind of hopeless ‘nowhere’ bleakness — steadied and separated from the energy. By controlling the vagus nerve temporarily, and passing through the emotions that that brought up, the spin-out was avoided. Instead what was experienced was a level of inner ground that was sober and flat, but at least grounded. As I sensed and sustained awareness of that, the downer slowly faded, and I gradually returned to specific awareness of where I was.

One of the most common ways of dealing with depression is to use drugs. Of course humans have been using drugs to shift their consciousness since time immemorial — mushrooms, peyote, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine all have had popular usage. Without denying that prozac and valium etc may be the best option for a lot of afflicted people, it strikes me that the best chemicals to use must be the ones that the body manufactures, the ones like serotonin, that cause happiness and ease. And the autonomous nervous system (which includes the heart, vagus nerve and intestines) plays a part in all that. Its triggers, wired through the whole body, send the message to the glands to produce the neuro-chemicals in our sympathetic ( fight, flight) and parasympathetic (ease, relax) nervous system. Hence when you sense something dangerous, you don’t have to think about it, the adrenalin starts flowing.

So I wonder if getting the body to produce appropriate neuro-chemicals is part of the answer. And before this all gets too scientific-materialistic, just recall how the sense of being here and being coherent can flow through simple acts of kindness like writing a letter. The chemicals start flowing with anything that evokes responsive feeling. For example, in the book that he wrote to chart his own journey through severe depression, William Styron wrote that what prevented him from killing himself at a crucial moment was suddenly hearing a piece of music.* It jogged the emotional memory into acknowledging that there was such a thing as happiness, and he had experienced it. At that moment he came to enough to recognize that his life depended on getting into a hospital —and that it was worth saving.

I speculate that in looking for help to ease or cure depression, a study of the heart as well as the brain may help us understand ‘mind.’ And also that one of the causes of depression may be a diminished sense and importance that the heart’s sensing is given in modern life. By which I mean that a lot of training goes into the abstract and the individual, and not much into observing and being with the specific and immediate and responsive. Maybe as a preventative at least, more heart-centred activities — like paying mindful attention and knowing how it feels, just now — should be balanced against our development of abstract thought.

To have been encouraged and trained in mindfulness, I am indeed grateful. As I stood by my fellow-human’s grave while people were throwing rose-petals over the coffin, I wondered where I’d have been now if I hadn’t picked up Dhamma-practice some thirty-five years ago.

*William Styron: Darkness Visible
For more on the science, I’d recommend looking into Heartmath;
and at Stephen Buhler’s book: The Secret Teachings of Plants ( Bear, Vermont 2004).