The Fall 2012 issue of Inquiring Mind includes a thoughtful, moving essay by Hozan Alan Senauke, "Tangled Up in Blue", that wrestles with challenges of mental depression. The core of his discovery is the paradox that, just maybe, there's nothing better than right now, regardless of how rough it is:
As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation I have come to no great enlightenment. I haven't seen the cosmic light shows or transcendental visions of reality. This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free and joyful at times. But freedom is momentary. I appreciate it for what it is. I just don't stay there, and that is okay with me. That's a loaded word—"stay." In terms of the law of anicca or impermanence, one does not stay anywhere. But I digress.
What I mean to say is that I have come to think that given my propensity toward depression—biochemical, hereditary, or karmic—the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in just sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me. There is a phrase I love from Eihei Dogen, in our Zen tradition: "When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing." That is, the very incompleteness of our being, actions, aspirations, is a manifestation of Buddhanature itself. Everything is broken. No regrets.
Senauke summarizes various attempts to treat his depression, including drugs, herbs, psychiatry, acupuncture, vitamins. None fixes him. What really works, besides meditation, is friendship:
So I return to what I trust, meditation—and to that other reliable remedy: friendship. Actually, the two are not unrelated. Meditation is not a cure, but if I can sit down in a quiet space and follow my breath, the weight of depression usually lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I will take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly toward myself.
The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I keep in mind E. M. Forster's famous epigraph to Howards End: "Only connect." In the darkest moments, when I feel least able to do so, I know this is necessary and true. So I leave my room and seek a friend. In depression, friendship is an alkahest—the alchemist's universal solvent that brings forth light and energy. It's the best remedy.
Senauke's essay concludes:
There is a message in depression. Things in life are roiling. Change is afoot. After years of practice I sense this even in hard times. If I can bear it, see through it, depression becomes the harbinger of transformation. I know that things are always in a state of change. Only connect. With that kind of understanding, life seems to be a fortunate accident, even in moments of despair. I am alive, so change is always possible, however unlikely it seems . . . What am I doing here on the planet? Oh, I remember. I'm setting up shop in the saha realm, the world that must be endured, the land of samsara, literally wandering on.
The heart of Buddhist practice may be a matter of faith, in a dark night when faith seems hard to find. My friends help me through the night. Night and day, depression and joy—there is really one whole, true life. Practice gets me to what is true. That's where I want to live.
Connections — like the meditation of long slow running, immersion with the moment, with Nature, with friends ...