Zen teacher Eve Marko, the widow of Bernie Glassman, recently wrote on her blog an account of how she decided to start taking antidepressants. She describes how for a long time she resisted the very idea of it, resisted acknowledging the various symptoms of depression that she was experiencing, the difficulty getting up in the morning, the lack of energy or enthusiasm for ordinary tasks, a sense of the meaninglessness of things. She describes how at first she tried to do all sorts of other things on her own, doubling down on her practice, her work, she’s involved in numerous social activism causes, and she participates in many sorts of demonstrations including continuing to carry on Bernie’s trips to Auschwitz and things like that. And so there’s no shortage of things to keep her busy or invitations to give talks or demonstrations to join and so forth.
Her first inclination was to throw herself into that, but the depression persisted. She tried to remind herself of all the things she had to be grateful for. She tried to practice in that way, reminding herself of her health and all her capacities and the support of her students and the sangha and all the people around her. But little by little the things that she was trying to do to support herself slipped over into practice-oriented self-reproaches. After all, you’re a Zen teacher. Can’t you handle this? Isn’t your practice enough? Is there something wrong with your practice? Eventually she had to come to a certain realization that despite all these decades of practice, all her experience, when it came to depression, she was just like everybody else. She had lost her husband, and that mourning, that grief, was not resolved. That loneliness was not resolved. Something else was going on.
So at some point she allowed herself to step outside the role of teacher and even step outside the role of Zen practitioner. She allowed herself to say, I’m just like everybody else. If I need help, I should get help, which in the end is a very courageous and admirable position for her to arrive at and I’m glad she was able to write about it publicly. The dilemma for many people who practice is that they get to a point where not only does their practice not help them, but they don’t know how to recognize the point at which the practice itself is part of the problem. Eve describes a reaction of trying to throw herself into more activities of helping, of paying attention to others’ needs as a way of trying to get over herself. What is depression except a kind of preoccupation with the self? Shouldn’t the antidote be to take better care of others? Shouldn’t you pay attention to what other people are feeling, pay attention to the greater needs of all the poor and traumatized people around you who you work with?
The problem with that is it becomes a vehicle for really minimizing or repressing your own vulnerability and neediness. It’s not just a failed solution but it actually exacerbates the problem because we can say that that kind of depression is a result of some basic emotional needs not getting recognized, not being attended to at the time. I’ve called that particular syndrome Trying to save all beings minus one. It’s unfortunately endemic in Buddhist communities, where for one reason or another a person’s emotional difficulties are not addressed. Their teacher or their community or their practice seems to encourage them to double down or ignore them, to practice harder in a way that means to concentrate on something else. Put all your attention into work. Put all your attention into the meticulousness of form, or attending to other people. It all goes exactly in the wrong direction. Some of this, I suppose, inevitably is a gendered problem, that women are particularly encouraged to attend to the needs of others rather than themselves, to see practice as compassionate care-taking, to be other-directed, not to be selfish. All the ways women’s needs in the greater society are thwarted can get played out within the language of Buddhism without much change. We have to be very alert not to allow practice to collude with that kind of repression and dissociation of emotion.
The corresponding practice neurosis for men is the valorization of autonomy, imperviousness, imperturbability, the extirpation of vulnerability and neediness in the name of practice. People can go a long way in that direction, and for a long time they can look very strong and self-controlled and powerful up to a point, the point where it becomes brittle. Unfortunately the typical breaking point for male teachers is that they turn to an affair with one of their students as a surreptitious way to allow their emotional needs to come out and to get any attention for their human side which they’ve been repressing in the name of practice.
I’ve seen both of these gendered outcomes, both the female and male versions, play out with a number of teachers I can think of over the last few decades. It’s the kind of thing that we have to learn to recognize as a built-in danger to this practice. It’s the characteristic way it can go awry. If you’re going to use or prescribe any kind of medicine, you want to be very aware of the side effects and you want to keep an eye on them when they show up, know what they are. Well, this kind of practice, like everything else, has ways in which it can go rather badly. Inevitably people are going to try to make practice collude with the particular character issues they bring to it. At one level, practice is here to erode those characterological organizing principles.
At some level that can go on behind the scenes and we can count on that happening. But if we’re not careful there are all sorts of covert ways in which practice can collude with that, collude with the self-effacement, collude with neurotic feelings of becoming invulnerable and not needing anyone, not being dependent or reliant. These are the ditches on the two sides of the path of practice that we should never forget about. We should only be grateful when a teacher like Eve is able to be honest about her own experience with falling into one of those ditches and seeing what it takes to come out of it.