My Zen name is Clear River Joyful Ground. The “Clear River” part was chosen by my teacher as a reflection of where I am now, as someone who sees things clearly and (I like to think) someone who allows herself to be seen. I try to be like a clear river, to let people see through to the base of who I am.
“Joyful Ground” is what I am supposed to develop through my Zen practice. The “Joy” part of that name has been passed down through my teacher, whose name means “Joyful Dragon” from her teacher whose name meant “Inconceivable Joy.” To me, it feels like an articulation of what my practice has given me; access to my own joy. I feel like there is a great wisdom in the name Joyful Ground, that even learning such a thing was possible was a revelation.
I had always viewed “joy” as an ephemeral high point in an otherwise grey life. The idea that “joy” could be my ground, that it could be the stable state to which I returned, was so alien that I almost saw my name to be a contradiction when it was given. But over the past year, I have come to believe in it even if I don’t always experience it.
A joyful ground isn’t some wispy fleeting experience, it is a solid thing upon which you can build your life. Like the base of a house, it is sturdy and enduring. And, like the base of a house, it can necessitate some work to get it put in place.
I often talk about, and have written about, how I used to be sad and now I am happy. I think the people I discuss it with get the impression that I “did something” that “made” me happy, but it always seems very abstract. Like, “Emma did Zen, had some mystical experiences, and is happy now.” But, that’s not the case at all. My experiences have been very earthy, very simple, and very concrete. And, I want to expand on that a bit, because I don’t want my (still continuing) path to joy to seem like some mysterious thing. It is a very ordinary thing, something I think anyone who is sad could have. But, it wasn’t quick, which is important to note.
Let’s start with my low point. Right around 25 years old, I wanted to kill myself, but I couldn’t motivate myself to get out of bed. My room looked like something out of hoarders, and I owned so many things I couldn’t have cleaned it up even if I’d wanted to. And the world, there’s no other way to describe it, the world just looked grey.
Around this time, the girlfriend of one of my jiu jitsu instructors killed herself. She was beautiful. She had a son. She was loved, and it was terrible. I saw how her death just ripped through the lives of the people around her. I remember asking one of my happy go lucky jiu jitsu bros how his weekend was, and he responded “Good. I mean, it’s a terrible life, but it was a good weekend” and something about that stayed with me. Like, yes, I knew the people closest to her would be drowning in pain, but even further removed people, even “happy” people felt the repercussions. The terribleness of her death was felt by so many more than I think she would have guessed.
After I saw that, I gave myself permission to do whatever I needed to do. If you ever find yourself seriously wanting to kill yourself, treat it like a “code red.” Everything else in your life has now become secondary. Your career, your family, your everything. Spending a year in foster care I’m sure is one of the most traumatic things a child can go through, but having a parent kill themselves is worse. Truthfully, even recognizing the severity of the problem is hard because when you’re suicidal, you may not want to kill yourself all the time. I think you’re suicidal if you ever feel so bad that you might seriously kill yourself, even if it’s just for an hour.
Anyway, if you ever recognize you are suicidal, this is a good time to reach out to people, go to therapy, and whatever else. You can get more specific recommendations here if you need. And, it’s quite possible you may be able to find immediate relief for your current pain. However, there’s a hard truth that people tend not to be frank about: in the long term, no one else can take away the pain that is in your mind. You have to do this for yourself. You can go on medication, you can see a therapist, you can drown yourself in drugs or sex or video games, and this can be useful. If you want to die, anything that helps you not die right now is good. Even if it’s long term bad. But, eventually, to pull yourself out for good, you have to face the source of the problem.
In my case, I was carrying a very deep shame. I had recently tried the own company thing and failed. As a high achieving MIT kid, I wasn’t used to failure. I kept trying to hide it from people. And, on top of my failure shame, I was ashamed for being so sad. Eventually, I just decided to open up about my shame and admit how terribly I was doing. I told my friends and my family what was going on, even though it embarrassed me terribly, and this decision moved me from “wanting to die” to “extremely unhappy.” It was a small step, but it was an important one. A large part of wanting to kill myself had been seeing no other way out. I was so afraid of being embarrassed that I initially dismissed telling people as an option. But embarrassment really wasn’t that bad, not compared to what I was feeling anyway. It just seemed like it would be.
After I decided against killing myself concretely, I had to find a way to get though the next year. It was pretty apparent to me that “happy” wasn’t anywhere on the horizon, and although it defies conventional wisdom, accepting that was useful for me. Everyone always tries to reassure unhappy people that they can be happy one day, but this is what I’d say to unhappy people: your life can have meaning right now in your current state. Your life still matters, and you don’t need to be happy to have purpose.
A great book about this is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a holocaust survivor, and talks about how he found meaning in an environment when happiness was impossible. He suggests that meaning, not “enjoyment” is the primary motivation of life.
Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Reframing my motivation around this was useful, because it helped me stop feeling like a failure for being sad. Part of the toxicity of American culture is that unhappiness itself begets more unhappiness, causing a death spiral of misery.
[O]ur current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.
Frankl quoting Edith Weisskopf-Joelson in Man’s Search for Meaning
I very consciously labelled what I thought my purpose was (for me, it was “connecting with other people”) and every time the misery spiral came up, I would remind myself of my purpose. I would say to myself, “it’s true I am unhappy, but my unhappiness will help me understand other unhappy people. I will be able to connect with them in a way that people who have always been happy won’t be able to.”
An additional thing that helped me during this time was coming back to meditation. I was reading this book The Mindful Way Through Depression, which brought meditation back into my worldview. This book usefully described the mechanics behind the “depressive death spiral” I was so familiar with. I saw that negative thoughts created negative emotions which in turn generated more negative thoughts.
[S]adness can give way to depression when the sadness turns into endemically harsh negative thoughts and feelings. This morass of negative thinking then generates tension, aches, pains, fatigue, and turmoil. These, in turn, feed more negative thinking; the depression gets worse and worse and, with it, the hurt. We only compound our feelings of depletion if we deal with them by giving up activities that normally nourish us, like getting together with friends and family who might be a real support for us. Our exhaustion is compounded if we deal with it by simply working harder.
The Mindful Way Through Depression by Williams, Tearsdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn
This book also has an 8 week program which I found useful. I’m not sure if I finished it, but it gave me enough practices to stop the death spiral. Controlling your emotions and your thoughts is hard, but breaking the link between negative thoughts causing negative emotions is possible. It comes when you stop believing your thoughts. As I learned in The Mindful Way Through Depression, thoughts are not facts.
One of the most distressing thoughts I used to have during this time was the “you should kill yourself” thought. It came up even after I was actively suicidal. In fact, I still get it from time to time. When I first started having that thought, I believed it, and I would get very distressed. If that thought crossed my mind, it would cause my mood to fall even further, and I would engage in highly destructive reinforcing behaviors (like, researching how to kill myself.) However, after reading this book, I learned how to shut down that spiral somewhat.
If I thought “I should kill myself” I would immediately respond with “this is a thought, not a fact.” This stopped my unhappiness from progressing further. Now, after years of practice, when I think “I should kill myself” I say “hey now, what’s going on?” I have noticed that this thought tends to come up when I am experiencing a particular kind of loneliness or frustration, and it’s useful for me to acknowledge that. Over the past 5 years, this thought has gone from a terrible thing I believed, to a neutral thing I ignored, and finally to a positive thing that tells me something. In my mindscape, “I should kill myself” usually means something closer to “I am feeling isolated right now.” Once I realize that, I can take more productive action like calling a friend.
I remember this period of my life as walking the desert. I was plagued by a persistent unhappiness, but I was also developing methods of coping with it, and it required emotional fortitude and persistence to keep going. The motto of the Lindsay clan (my ancestral Scottish clan from which my last name is derived) is “endure forte” which means “endure with fortitude.” I thought about that a lot over the years as I kept reminding myself to just keep going even though I didn’t know when things would get better, if they ever would. I was in the desert about 6 years, although it got easier toward the end. I remember when I first entered the desert, I noticed that even in periods of extended misery, there were always moments of joy. As time wore on, I noticed that the moments of joy were longer and closer together. I assumed what would eventually happen was that eventually my moments of joy would outnumber my moments of misery and I would be “fine” but that’s not what happened.
About a year ago, I intensified my meditation practice and started sitting longer retreats called “sesshins.” While I can’t say I was completely content with where I was in life, things were so much better than I’d ever dared hope they’d be I wasn’t really driven by the desire for self improvement. I was driven to find some version of the answer to the question “who am I?”
I’m always a little reluctant to say what my specific meditation practices are, because I’m not a teacher and I wouldn’t want someone to take my instruction without getting more guidance first. However, I did include an overview at the end under the assumption that some people may be motivated to research further if any of the specific practices appealed to them.
As a fairly cerebral person, my practice had always drifted to the cerebral side. For a long time, my primary practice was “counting breaths” which my numerical side was drawn to. This is called a “concentration practice”, and my experience with it helped my ability to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time. However, I was not so practiced in being aware of what was happening with my body. During my first 7 day meditation retreat, my teacher suggested I focus more on “sensation labelling” practice which would help me get more in touch with what my body was feeling.
This was quite painful for me. Part of the reason I tend to be cerebral is that I use it as a distraction from unpleasant emotions. I’d rather spend an hour analyzing why my relationship failed than spend that hour feeling sad that my relationship failed. However, even when using my mind as a distraction, my body always holds the key to my true feelings. By learning to recognize these sensations, I can become more aware of what I’m feeling. For instance, a few weeks ago, a friend of mine was visiting from out of town. He straight up propositioned making out, and although I found him attractive, I noticed I was feeling a tension in my shoulders. “I’m feeling tense,” I said “I don’t think I want that.”
“Oh,” he replied, “Well, I don’t want to if you’re feeling that way!” I’m not sure why I didn’t want to make out with him, but it’s not really important. It’s more important I noticed that I didn’t want to and communicated it. The first time I started noticing my physical sensations during sesshin, however, was hard.
I had so many years ignoring painful experiences that my body just had so much misery stored in it. It was all trapped in my chest, like a kind of heaviness in my heart. I cried for days during that sesshin. During breaks, I lay on my bed and cried, and it was so panful that everything else was crowded out of my experience. But, it passed. Once fully felt, emotions tend to move. There wasn’t really any catharsis, or emotional realization, which I secretly wanted. There was only absence of pain, and the world became clearer to me.
After that sesshin is really when the veil of depression lifted. Depression felt like an ever-persistent sadness and lethargy, but it was really the weight of my mental activity that was preventing me from fully feeling that which I was afraid of. By focusing on my thoughts, I could avoid feeling the physical sensations of my body. I was scared of that sinking feeling in my heart, so if I started to feel it, my mind would find some interesting problem to focus on to distract me from it. Unfortunately, some of the most “interesting” problems my mind could dredge up were long lists of my own failings.
I remember once, when I first started seeing a therapist I said my goal was to — basically — feel happy all the time. He said he didn’t think that was an appropriate goal for therapy. What was? I asked. He said he wanted to give me access to the full range of human emotions. I wasn’t so sure at the time, but I see the wisdom now. As soon as I was willing to feel my pain, I regained access to my joy. I regained access to my love, and my boring, mundane life sprang forth in full color. The last day of that sesshin, I asked myself the question “When I am dying, what do I want my last thought to be?” and the answer came right away — gratitude. If I can die being grateful for my life, it will have been a life well lived.
Then I saw, I was already grateful. I was so, so grateful for the life that I had lived, even the bad parts. Even being depressed and wanting to kill myself. Even all those years in the desert. My life was already a life well lived.
In America, we like to imagine that problems just get solved and never have to be revisited, but obviously that isn’t the case. I still have a lot of mental patterns from when I was depressed, and I probably will my entire life. They’re not always harmful. The ability to have a critical eye, to see what’s wrong with everything often serves me well. In fact, I’d argue it’s the basis for this blog. I look around at the world, and I keep saying “oh my god, they’re doing that totally wrong” and then I write about it.
I was also a little lost for a few months after my sesshin. If I’m not criticizing everything, if I’m not cracking self deprecating jokes, if I’m not hating like a hater, like, what the hell should I do with my time? More than that, who am I now that my negativity has dropped away? I feel like I don’t even know myself anymore, but then again, maybe I never did.
I often keep a pertinent life question on my door, and my question during this period was “What now?” I’m happy. Things are ok. So, what do I do now? I had a habit of always looking for problems to solve because it unnerved me when there was no problem I was “working on.”
Additionally, I still carry a lot of judgement for myself in joyful moments. When I had sex with a man for the first time in 5 years, I had a really good time and I was ashamed of that. I felt weak. For so often, the story I had given myself about why I was unable to form the deep romantic attachments others seemed so capable of was that I was stronger than them. I was more independent, less needy. I could get through life without the human contact these other more frail people needed.
And, I was strong. And I was independent. But, I also saw it was time to put that story away. I’m glad I had it when I needed it, to help me in the desert, but it wasn’t serving me anymore. Because the story I told myself was covering a deeper story I was afraid to see, the story that maybe I didn’t get love because I wasn’t worthy of love. I pretended to be better than the people around me so I didn’t have to face my secret fear that I was worse.
It reminds me of a “Buddha quote” which was altered for the needs of people in the west:
You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.
Ultimately, I found relief in the fact that I am not special. I am worthy of the things every other person is worthy of. My life is ordinary, but is wonderful in its ordinariness.
Here is a quick overview of some meditation practices I do. Again, I am not a teacher. If you are seriously interested in pursing any of these, I’d recommend a conversation with someone with more experience instructing. Note that especially in Zen practices, posture is very important. It is especially useful to have someone who can give you feedback on your posture.
Counting Breaths or Awareness of Breath. This is a standard Zen practice, that I started with, and come back to regularly. When I breath in I think “one” and when I breath out I think “one.” Then, on the second breath I’ll think “two”, “two”, third “three,” “three” and so on up to ten when I’ll start over. If I lose count in the middle, or get distracted by thoughts, I’ll start over at one as soon as I remember to.
Sometimes, I don’t count, and instead focus on the physical feelings associated with breathing (with a similar re-focusing on breath if I get distracted.) Suzuki Roshi, founder of my temple, gives some meditation instruction in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This particular practice is a “concentration” practice, and helps to learn how to cast your focus to something particular.
Sensation Labelling This is more of a Vipassana or “Insight Meditation” practice. What I do (and, here especially I’m reluctant to give advice since I don’t train in Vipassana so please research this if it appeals to you) is when my mind is called to a physical sensation in the body, I will label it with an emotionally neutral label. Something like “tension” or “cool” or “pressure.” You can read more specifics here because I would rather not go into them myself.
This has been especially useful for me, because it has increased my awareness of my physical body and my emotions that I sometimes have tr
Just Sitting or Shikantaza. This is another “Zen” one. The idea behind this is that you are sitting completely, and doing nothing else except sitting. Another way to say it, is you have awareness of your posture or general surroundings, but your mind is focused on nothing in particular.
It is my understanding that many modern teachers recommend starting with a breath practice rather than having this be the base practice early on because sometimes it can be hard to build up concentration. That said, I think back in the day in Japan, it was what monks would start with? Not sure. Again, this is why it’s good to check in with someone.
Self Enquiry “Who am I?” is a question that comes up in many practices, but the guy who I like the most who talks about it is Ramana Maharshi. This may be a little out of left field, he wasn’t part of Buddhist tradition, but I like what I’ve read about him, so I do his style sometimes.
Essentially, the meditator asks themselves the question “Who am I?” and when they have thoughts or emotion, traces back to where the thought or the emotion is coming from. I.e. “the I” from which all thought springs.
There’s no way I could do this one justice, but I read about it in this book The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Additionally, disciples of his also teach a similar practice although he had no formal school or “transmission.”