Depression & friendship

When I mentioned to an acquaintance that I am reading Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, the look on her face pretty much summed up how most people feel about the topic–why would I want to read about something so upsetting?

A few sections of Solomon’s book are hard to read but, surprisingly, some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Humor definitely acts as a leveler for the challenges life brings us; Solomon admits to “being afraid of a lamb chop” and other anecdotes that are not merely self-deprecating–they are somehow universal, at least they are if you are a person who has had a relationship with the Noonday Demon. His descriptions of how his friends bore with him and supported him through his deepest katabasis are hilarious, humiliating, sad, and unbelievably moving.

Simultaneously, I’m reading The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski. Obviously, that text is on the reading list of “the morbid book group.” The approach is mostly Buddhist, but Ostaseski does a good job of gently suggesting that bringing more moment-by-moment, alert compassion into our lives daily can ease many of the burdens of human suffering by making us aware that all of us suffer and that suffering, shared, becomes less of a weight or stressor in our lives.

Friendship keeps us sane. It does so partly through that sense of community in which many hands make light work. And it brings us back to sanity, sometimes (not always–there is no “always” in the human sphere). For many persons, relatives are friends. Other people have no friendships within their families but have friend-relationships that act as similar, or even more powerful, support. The luckiest people have both.

I am one of the lucky ones. Today, while thinking about consciousness and suffering and depression in the human condition, I want to acknowledge the loving, sane difference a friend made in my life: David Dunn, poet, jazz aficionado, baseball fan, Trekkie, fellow laborer in the mines of the abyss, 1955-1999.

Reading these books while navigating the recent loss of an elderly long-time friend has unleashed a reflective current that, while a bit sorrowful, does not feel like depression. There’s gratitude in this rivulet, happy memories and rueful ones–more like inspiration than desperation. That may be because the friendships are still supportive. Relationships don’t die when the friends die; a powerful relationship lasts far longer.

Depressed people feel unlovable and, unable to accept the clear evidence that they are indeed loved and valued, manage to behave in ways that make themselves and others miserable. They don’t mean to hurt others; in their pain, they think that they deserve to be abandoned and their crazy words and actions create a self-fulfilling prophecy of isolation. It takes a surprising amount of strength to be a person who undergoes depressive episodes (they are so exhausting, physically and mentally–see Solomon’s book). And it takes incredible strength to love and stand with a deeply depressed person.

David Dunn, who experienced depressions far more debilitating than my own, acted as my tether when I started to drift too far. In my younger days, that drifting often led me toward Charybdis. In turn, I helped David when he was low; we shared poems of others and poems of our own, shared books, fears, and insomnia tales. We held one another upright in the throes of some pretty miserable days.

I miss him. Though I am much, much better now, I do not think I could have survived those years unscathed without his quiet acknowledgment of my pain and the presence of his friendship. The idea that we can accept what life brings us without bitterness or anger or blame, yet without resignation or helplessness, seems a tough task for the people in my culture. David Dunn could not always attain that balance for himself, but his acceptance of me taught me more than I ever realized at the time.

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“There is something brazen about depression. Most demons–those forms of anguish–rely on the cover of night. To see them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun. You can know all the why and wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded in ignorance. There is almost no other mental state of which the same can be said.” ~Andrew Solomon

 

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Insomnia

Screech owls. Yipping foxes. Howling eastern coyotes. Tree frogs. Flying squirrels. The brown crickets, slowing their chirps as the temperature falls. Night sounds that I notice when I have episodes of insomnia.

night

eerie night

All my life, I have experienced insomnia–sometimes to a distracting degree. Now that I have a chronic condition that induces fatigue, insomnia plagues me less frequently; but something about the change of season from summer to autumn tends to arouse the sleepless demon. A colleague speculates that this seasonal insomnia occurs because for most of my life I have had to operate on the school-year’s calendar, September to June instead of January to December. Annually, this has been my transition time. I think she may be correct.

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One of the most frustrating aspects of insomnia has been my sense that lying in bed unable to sleep is time wasted. We have only so many breaths to take in our lives. Stewing in anxiety, listening to thoughts run heedlessly through my consciousness–such fruitless minutes! I know I should be giving my body complete rest, nestling into proper circadian rhythms, instead of restlessly tossing. Or I should just get up and do something useful (but I’m too sleepy to do anything useful).

I am not a Buddhist; but learning about the practice of tonglen has provided me with a method for insomnia that does not feel wasteful. When I cannot fall asleep, or when I waken in the darkness and cannot get back to sleep again, the mindful breathing and the focus on compassion that tonglen prescribes are enormously helpful. I slow my breath and think about breath; I think about life, and about all sentient beings. In my awareness on the brink of sleep, I send compassion outward with my breaths–outward to all other beings in the cosmos. I repeat in my mind, “May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May they be released from pain and the causes of pain. May they find peace. I send compassion to all sentient beings.”

The practice is akin to prayer, which I learned very young (my father is a “man of the cloth”) in church and at home. From early in my life, however, I encountered problems with prayer because I had problems with the Omnipotent Other Being to whom I was  directing my prayers. In the abbreviated tonglen practice as I practice it, I do not need to direct my thoughts to any one being but toward all beings. [I should note that in actual Buddhist practice, there is considerably more contemplative work in tonglen; a good reference is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.]

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First Presbyterian Church of Yonkers NY, 1964

The benefits are several. Maybe my consciousness does not affect the consciousness of other beings, or in any way affect the suffering they experience. I certainly allow that may be the case. Nonetheless, the practice of thinking kindly toward all other beings works to make me feel happier and kinder; it reminds me of my own and others’ generous spirits. In addition, the practice soothes me both bodily and in my mind. Slow breathing is comforting and relaxing. All kinds of studies show that slow, thoughtful breaths relieve physical stress and mental stress while allowing oxygen to flow freely through the blood. All of that is helpful to the body–and the slow breaths are relaxing enough to get me back to sleep. Which is also, as studies show, quite essential for good health.

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The night sounds and the changing seasons kindle me to write poems, as well. Sometimes those middle-of-the-night awakenings are charged with inspirations, or snippets of imagery from life or dream.The urge to write differs from the urge to share compassion, but they feel like kinfolk to me. Poetry springs, often, from the feeling of shared struggle.

~

May we make good use of insomnia. May we be free from suffering.

The Protestant in my upbringing says, Amen.

 

 

Buddhism, philosophy, consciousness (poetry)

IMG_1440~

Sometimes, a startling morning.

A few minutes that feel time-free, when the phrase “Be here now” inheres in the body, the air, the mind, the moment.

Free to recognize consciousness as a grounding, not as an end-in-itself. Part of the world, part of the cosmos.

~

Reflecting, I realize another thing: poetry does that for me, hands me a moment. When I listen to or read a poem, it moves me into a moment suspended in “now-ness.” I am with Seamus Heaney’s father, digging; I watch the horses in Maxine Kumin’s field. The poems that move me do so by allowing me, the reader, to enter that moment or that consciousness, that perspective, which I may or may not relate to, and may or may not layer through perspectives of my own. Yet there I am, in a real way.

~excerpt from “Digging” (see this link for the whole poem, and audio)~

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

 

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

 

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

 

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

objects, stories

contemplation

~

Sometimes the momentary sense of time-free, liberated unity occurs on its own, smacks me by surprise. Or it may arise from mediation, contemplation, or during “mindless” work–such as digging.

Philosophy and criticism tend not to evoke that sort of free consciousness. They require the brain to operate in a different way, a distancing from one-ness; but I like that sort of brain-work because the intelligent and inquisitive people who write, or write about, philosophy, neurology, psychology, and criticism of all kinds offer insights I would not likely find on my own. They ask the interesting questions (it doesn’t matter to me if they do not have the answers).

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So there’s a balance, right?

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Poets also ask the interesting questions. Through reading a good poem, I am there in the poet’s moment, curious and uncertain. It is a kind of contemplative practice to read, with an open mind and an open heart, poetry.

(The criticism and the analysis come later. Let them wait!)

 

A good start. Possibly.

My most recent reading material is The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, by Antonio Damasio. Damasio is convincingly on the neurological/evolutionary trail to recognizing how consciousness operates and why we have developed it, though he allows for mysteries we do not yet and may never understand.

Damasio is clearly not a dualist who thinks the consciousness can exist separately from the body (one of his previous books is aptly titled Descartes’ Error). He doesn’t address the “soul” in The Feeling of What Happens, but argues that reason requires feeling in order to operate effectively, that feeling is a more “conscious” form of emotion, which is “unknowing” in the sense we call consciousness and is founded upon core consciousness, which is reliant upon the physical organism…a vastly complex array of cells, nerves, you name it, generally self-regulating and not by nature in particular need of a conscious mind.

So next time someone tries to explain why a situation happened and just says, “It’s complicated,” maybe you ought to accept that. Because, apparently, it’s really really really complicated!

http://www.isys.ucl.ac.be/descartes/images/Descartes.gifThat does not keep people like Damasio from trying to track down what goes on in the minds of sentient beings.

Having just read Flow, I immediately thought of what Csikszentmihalyi says about the way true flow experiences depend upon deepening levels of complexity–that’s how we keep from becoming bored by routinization of a task. Dennett suggests that consciousness consists of layers: “multiple drafts,” and Damasio calls the human brain, and the brain-body unit, a series of “systems within systems.” But there is no little self, no metaphorical or actual homunculus, at the very bottom of the system, or at the very top. There are only more and varied connections, he asserts–with profound respect and amazement at what biology has wrought.

I also thought about Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a life project. Some years ago, I began a journal devoted to exploring my poetic project and learned that I do not really think about my writing as a project per se, at least not in the formal sense of poetics. [Here’s Dorothea Lasky harping on the whole concept of a poetic project, in a bit of refutation aimed at poetry critic David Orr.]

What I think I was doing, in fact, was trying to figure out my life project, in the way Csikszentmihalyi defines that concept. What is my life’s philosophy in terms of guiding tasks, principles, goals, projects, challenges? Is teaching part of the package? Motherhood? Gardening? Writing? Human relationships? Learning? Speaking of human consciousness, do I have a conscious path or goal?

Maybe my goal is to keep on amid the complexity and to relish it as much as possible, since it is unavoidable. And perhaps by accepting the complications, I will find my life becomes simpler. That could be a possible outcome–right?

I think of Reineke writing on Marcel Proust’s narrator and his struggle with status, jealousy, conformity, and desire. I read the Proust novel(s) when I was in my early 20s and found his narrator frustratingly neurotic but also a little too familiar, as my life experiences in many ways mirrored his. Eventually, he learns that the way to cure the pain of desire is to discipline himself to let go of desire itself; (and no, neither Proust nor his narrator were Buddhist).

And what happens when he gains this recognition is that he can write the novel. He develops flow, and a life project.

I am past 50, a good time to establish more consciously what my life project is. I know it involves relentlessly and joyously learning new things. I think it will include poetry in some way. And discipline of some kind, conscious effort. For now, those things constitute a good start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More on poetry & the brain

I remain pretty busy with the October poetry workshop and mid-term evaluations, so I’m going to cheat a bit by adding a link to Poet’s Quarterly, which is featuring in this issue one of my brief essays.

Click on this sentence to take you there. (Probably there is a way to embed the post, but I have not quite figured that out and lack the time today to look into it.)

Dissent, controversy, & opinion

It may be obvious that, in this blog, the writer tends to shy away from highly controversial contemporary issues–with the possible exception of my occasional strong views on education–even though philosophical and critical arguments are part of my job and integral to my life interests. One possible explanation is that I am, as Charles Schultz memorably popularized, “wishy-washy.” (This strip is from 1952, © Charles Schultz):

Peanuts

And a little destructive criticism from 1959….

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Indeed, my students sometimes get annoyed with me because I do not take sides during class discussions of controversial topics. “Don’t you have an opinion?” they ask.

Why, yes, I do. It is not my job to share my opinions with students, however, as much as it is my job to make them think more than once about their own opinions. It is also my job to help them navigate the complexities of critical thought, weighing “both sides” (and pointing out that many controversies have many more than two sides), and learning that perspective can deepen understanding and sometimes even alter opinions. This approach is far from wishy-washy; it is courageous. It can be risky to analyze rationales and points of view that differ from your own, and risk takes courage.

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A good book that explores the courage it takes to analyze and, often, to dissent from the normative view is Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent. Sunstein argues that truly free societies need to permit dissenters room for expression and criticism; he provides evidence that without dissent, societies fail to thrive through change. Because growth is a change process, societies that resist change too rigidly fall apart.

This year, my class and I will be exploring Sunstein’s text in an effort to recognize the kind of thinking and evidence needed before one writes an essay. I hope they apply these ideas in their freshman Philosophy course.

I hope they apply these ideas in my course, for starters…

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Argument has a negative connotation in American English, so many critics substitute the word discourse. I have no problem with such a substitution: the term discourse seems to connote politeness and respect, behaviors necessary for useful dissent and analysis of alternative perspectives. The philosophical argument, whether taking place in philosophy class, conference hall, or koan, operates most productively and insightfully when predicated upon mutual respect for differences.

Dissent as discourse may not be the most natural behavior for human beings, but it is something we can demonstrate and coach in the university classroom.

With any luck, both students and teachers may be able to apply the techniques to other areas of our lives. Along that vein, here’s an easy-to-interpret Buddhist explanation from New Lotus on how to approach argument in the Buddhist way.

GFS2

 

 

 

Clear skies

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(A friend traveling through Thailand took this photo.)

Given that these are the coldest, darkest days of the year, I have felt the need for clarity quite keenly. Today, we had clear skies. When I walked outside this afternoon, I felt as though a note from a singing bowl was vibrating through my body.

{Wake up!}