By Duane Toops
I just finished reading a book called Sadness, Openness, Love: The Buddhist Path of Joy.
There’s a line towards the very beginning of that book that says, “sadness and openness are in fact intimately connected.” Maybe we could say that sadness gives itself to openness, to honesty, authenticity, transparency and vulnerability.
One of my primary goals is to be as authentic, honest and transparent as I can be. While I certainly don’t always meet that goal, it is something I constantly strive for, and it is something that I always keep at the forefront of my mind whenever I’m writing and creating, which is why I think that I need to be candidly open about the deep sadness that I’ve been feeling.
I’m prone to periodic lapses into a kind of depressive melancholia, and sometimes this occurs without any kind of provocation. Sometimes morose moods just show up, unannounced and unanticipated. However, since I’ve been practicing meditation more seriously and more consistently, the occurrence and duration of these darkened periods has lessened.
But for the past few weeks…I just haven’t felt right. My anxiety levels have been at red alert, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, I’ve been in a haze, I’ve been really forgetful and I feel like I’m always teetering on the edge of losing my temper. As a matter of fact I’ve lost my shit quite a few times in the past couple of weeks. And, lingering underneath it all there’s this steady sense of sorrow, these salient whisperings of sadness.
Creatively, I feel vibrant. I feel alive. I think I’m really growing.
I’m proud of what I’m creating and I think I may actually be doing some of my best work. With that being said, I have really been pushing myself beyond my comfort zone. I’ve been trying to stretch my abilities and myself—maybe too thinly. Maybe that’s playing a role, but I’m not completely sure.
I think that’s whats been frustrating me the most, the fact that I don’t quite understand where all this is coming from, the fact that I haven’t been able to figure out the root, or the trigger. I’ve been tirelessly struggling to get to the bottom it, to try to determine the cause, frantically searching for a reason, desperately trying to answer the question: Why? Like I’ve lost the plot in a story and I’m scrambling to get it back.
I haven’t come up with a satisfying answer. I can’t figure it out and its driving me crazy. It’s like I’m trying to solve this puzzle and none of the pieces fit. I feel like I’ve failed. I feel like a failure, and as a result I kind of feel like a fraud.
I’ve written about this on my blog, and I’ve talked about it on the podcast, and my YouTube channel. Each of these creative endeavors were also an endeavor to try and figure out whats going on with me.
I just keep thinking to myself that:
I shouldn’t be so short tempered.
I shouldn’t be acting this way.
If I was a better meditator I wouldn’t be flipping out.
If I was more Zen I wouldn’t be losing my temper.
If I was a better Buddhist I wouldn’t behave in this way.
And on and on and on and on…
Its gotten so bad, that after years of not having to see a counselor, I actually made an appointment and went to see my counselor. I told her about how I’ve been feeling; the anger, the sadness, the depression. I told her about how I’ve been frustratingly obsessed with trying to understand: why? Why was I feeling like this? Why did it seem to come out of nowhere? Why all of a sudden? Why now?
My counselor’s only response was…”why not?” I think it was the reminder I needed.
Sometimes obsessing over “why” stagnates us, and sometimes it stifles us. It necessarily involves rummaging and ruminating through the past. Sometimes it also invokes a lot of judgment and criticism heaped upon ourselves. Sometimes “why” just doesn’t matter; sometimes “why” isn’t that important. It doesn’t necessarily change what is and it doesn’t necessarily do anything to aid in how we deal with what is.
Sometimes there’s no answer to the “why.”
I guess you could say I’m experiencing what you could call the third arrow. Let me try to explain. In Buddhism, there’s this idea called “the second arrow.” This comes from the Sallatha Sutta where the Buddha says the following:
When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves and laments, beats his breast and becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. It’s just as if someone were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows.
The first arrow is the initial suffering, the thing that happened or the thing went wrong, the mistake that was made, etc. The second arrow is our response, or more specifically, our negative response. It’s the story we create to tell ourselves about why we are experiencing the pain, the sorrow, the suffering and the sadness. This inevitably causes more suffering because it only makes matters worse.
For me, what I’m calling the third arrow is the shame brought on by my own overly critical judgment for being a bad Zen Buddhist and for having such a negative response. Of course, this only compounds and exacerbates the suffering, now adding a third, and even heavier, layer of suffering.
I was listening to a dharma talk on the Angel City Zen Center podcast and something was said that was a real “light-bulb” moment for me: “Sometimes sadness just comes, sorrow just comes.”
Feelings, emotions and states of mind can just come out of nowhere, and sometimes they just appear out of thin air. The most lovingly kind thing we can do for ourselves might be to allow ourselves to feel how we feel. Maybe the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves is to give ourselves permission to experience exactly whatever we are experiencing.
Chan Master Hanshan Deqing said that, “What is commonly known as practice means simply to accord with [whatever state] of mind you’re in so as to purify and relinquish the deluded thoughts and traces of your habit tendencies. Exerting your efforts here is called practice.”
Meditation, mindfulness and awareness fully confronts one with the contents of reality and all that is included within the present moment, which often includes things that aren’t so pleasant.
Dr. Mark Epstein says “that’s the beautiful thing about Buddhism, it says just work with yourself, just as you are.” Epstein highlights that, “The more real you can be about what your struggles are the more useful this is all going to be.”
In other words, meditation doesn’t make us immune to the mental and emotional pitfalls we’re predisposed or preconditioned to but, it does make us more aware and more mindful, more aware of reality and more mindful of how we meet our struggles. That may not seem like much but it really is a blessing in disguise. That’s where the magic happens.
Choki Nyima Rinpoche has written that, “Sadness makes it possible for us to gain something that is much more precious than anything we could imagine.” He also says that, “Sorrow makes us let go” and “As we stop chasing futile and ultimately painful goals, we embark on the spiritual path with superior strength and resolve.”
That “realness”, that honesty, that openness, authenticity, and transparency can remind us of the need to let go of the stories we make about: why?
That’s the practice.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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