Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Imperfectly Zen

Recently a friend asked me how I've dealt with the 48-hour-cycle of depression I've had for some time now ~ good day/bad day.  I had to tell her I haven't conquered it, though it went to rest during these last two months that included two cataract surgeries, a heart cath (without anesthetic), and frightening shortness of breath caused (it turned out) by a major UTI, which entailed a six-day hospital stay.

The hospital stay in the nice new Heart Hospital was actually the nearest thing to a vacation I've had in a long time; I just put it in there to impress you. The cycling depression didn't bother me much during that busy time.  Inbetween being tested this way and that I enjoyed sitting at the window and watching the Life Flight helicopters come in.  I thought a lot about sudden death. I also thought about depression as a spiritual ailment.

My first inkling of this idea was from Parker Palmer many years ago, his little book, Listen to Your Life,which has become a classic. There he talks about his own disabling major depression, how he learned through it that the way he was living and working was not the life for him.  He had not found his own life and work.
The black cat of depression
I think the word "work" there is important.  It can be hard to do any kind of work when you're really depressed. But we all need to feel useful, even when it's all we can do to stay alive. The women's sitting group that meets in my home has given me work to do, in the sense that there is something I do for other people on schedule.  It was frightening to undertake it.  It has helped to understand that leading the group is not about me.  I'm not giving a performance, I don't have to shine. It's about them - giving them a chance to meditate with friends, to hear the dharma, to talk about their own spiritual lives.  In Zen terms, I took my ego out of it.

I've found that the best way to put aside the dark thoughts and feelings that come unbidden to people with depressive disorders is always just to do the job in front of me (though sometimes intellectual tasks are beyond me).  One of the women talked about this last week, how she moves through her own unwelcome thoughts when she's cooking by putting her mind back on the task.  I've found this is a really good idea when I'm trying to chop carrots - not my fingers.

For me, another key to doing anything is that I don't do it perfectly.  My house is never perfectly clean (oh, I hear my Mother turning over in her grave).  When my group meets, I sometimes forget to put the tea water on. Last time I forgot about the chants altogether until after we got our tea, and so had the wonderful woman who helps me set up.  So we did a chant at the end.  Call it Imperfect Zen.

It happens that leading and teaching on this small scale are part of my way, and they are not for most people, depressed or not.  But there are opportunities to give to and serve the world in every single life. They are there even when we are crippled by depression. When you go to the grocery store, you can smile at the older child who isn't getting the attention the baby gets.  You can let someone cut in ahead of you on your way home. You can give yourself time to walk around the block, a change of air.  You can share a funny dog video on Facebook.  At your worst, you can "like" a friend's post.

It's the holiday season - you can wear a Christmas sweater - you can't possibly look as bad in it as that poor cat.  You can call someone and not talk about how bad you feel, but instead ask how she's doing.  If you're on the phone, not on Skype, you don't need to wear a Christmas sweater, but can stay in your gloomiest bathrobe.  Nobody needs to know.  No matter how the call feels, congratulate yourself after you hang up. You're a nice person.  It was good of you to try.


  1. Wish you were on Facebook so I could share this.

    1. Thanks for mentioning this - I have put a widget on the right side to take you to my Facebook Page.

  2. Thanks Jeanne. A good reminder to try not to do the perfect Christmas,but to ask for help as well. Always something in your blog I need to hear.

  3. This is so wonderfully imperfect, which is a way to say, this is just right perfecto, Jeanne.

    Gosh I miss you. And I'm sorry for all the ongoing medical issues. You are my teacher for gaining insight from difficulty and, for just going with how life shows up. Tea kettle off? Turn it on. Forgot to chant? Chant when I remember.

    So heartening.

    Speaking of heart-- the Heart Hospital as a vacation resort? Now that right there is one good nudge to work with my perspective.

    I love you, Jeanne. So very much. Thank you.