I was applying an over-the-counter remedy to the toenail fungus on my left foot—my right foot is asymmetrically fungus-free—when I found myself feeling disappointed that it doesn’t seem to be working. At that point a slightly modified line from Chuang Tsu popped into my head: “Why am I getting all crookedy like this? My back sticks up like a hunchback and my vital organs are on top of me. My chin is hidden in my navel, my shoulders are up above my head, and my pigtail points at the sky.” (Chuang Tsu; Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, 1964.)
Realizing I’m not in nearly as bad a shape as Master Yu immediately put my disappointment into perspective—things could be much worse. I started wondering how my brain’s unconscious processes had brought that particular quote to mind out of all the words it has stored away, how it had come up with a thought that would replace my disappointment with glee. It has always had a preference for happiness, but it hasn’t always known how to get there.
In thinking about my life—72 years of it as of tomorrow—I get the image of a stream, bounding down a mountain from boulder to boulder, pool to pool. There were times when I thought I had arrived at happiness, when a woman or a drug seemed the answer, but sooner or later gravity pulled me toward the edge of that pool, and I continued ricocheting downhill toward the next thing, accumulating words and experiences along the way.
I seem finally to have flowed into a vast, tranquil lake, and although the winds of toenail fungus and other maladies occasionally ruffle the surface, some calming influence always floats up from the depths, leaving me sparkling in the sun. New words and experiences wash down from the mountain so stagnation doesn’t settle in, but they arrive at a gentle pace—no drama.
This lake may have an outlet somewhere along the rim, and I may eventually be swept over the edge and on toward the ocean, chattering and complaining. Then again, I may linger here till I evaporate. We’ll see.
When I’m depressed, there’s no point in trying to figure out the reason for it, because when I’m depressed, everything I think of seems like a good reason:
Is the sun shining? All that light is oppressive—no wonder I’m depressed.
Is it overcast? Of course I’m depressed on such a gloomy day.
All the routine things I do for maintenance seem like incredible drudgery—here I am, brushing my teeth again for the ten thousandth time. My apartment is cramped, my back hurts, everything is wrong. My depression comes up with so many reasons for it to exist that it’s impossible to narrow them down to something I could change that would make it all better.
This has happened enough times that I’ve learned to recognize depression shortly after it sets in: Aha! I’m having depressed thoughts! I’ve also learned that there are some actual physical conditions that can tilt my brain toward depression. Sometimes I just need to take a shit. Sometimes I’m hungry. Sometimes I’m tired from going to the gym the day before.
If none of these are true, then I conclude that some unknowable something has soured my brain chemistry, and there’s no real point in trying to figure out what that something is. What I need to do is change my brain chemistry. Sometimes just smiling can do that. My brain is stupid to the point that if it finds the muscles of my face making a smile, it thinks, “Well, I’m smiling; I must be happy.” There has been considerable research on the smile/mood effect that confirms it.
Sometimes I find reason to smile in the very thoughts brought on by depression. It actually seems funny that I don’t like being in pain, or getting old, or having to take care of my body. I say to myself, “So, you don’t like being a human being? Did you suppose that you would always be young, energetic, pain-free, and desirable?” The aspiration to be superhuman can seem laughable, so ridiculous that my brain shifts out of depression. It also points out the problems that can be brought on by my imagination: I can imagine eternal youth in fairy gardens in the clouds, and then be disappointed that life doesn’t measure up to that.
Another approach that sometimes works is to realize that my personal history—with a liberal dose of media input—has given me a definition of what constitutes a happy life: The only way to really be happy, according to this myth, is to be independently wealthy and adored by the public, with an assortment of cars, houses, servants, and sex partners. This myth is promulgated because it keeps the consumption machine churning, but there is no way that everyone can get there, and most of us fall far short. Fortunately there are alternative views of success.
One of these is the notion that all judgements of success or failure are constructions of human society, and all of them can be dispensed with. That’s not to say that all judgements are unnecessary—I still need to know the difference between hot and cold, food and junk, safety and danger, and, as Jean Klein said, between a shoe and a hat. But the judgements of my worth and the value of my experience—the ones that make me unhappy—arise out of human history, and usually to the benefit of someone’s bottom line. Those judgements live in a particular part of my brain, and with practice I’ve learned to turn them off.
My favorite way to practice is just to pay attention to sensory input. I used to be so busy judging my life, trying to decide if I was having the right experiences by social standards—or trying to make them happen—that I lost sight of how amazing it is to have any experience at all.
For example, 3D vision is profoundly amazing, as this talk by Sue Barry demonstrates, and yet for most of my life I took it for granted, along with the rest of my natural abilities. I didn’t value it because society had me focused on the externals it wanted me to buy. Since I’ve learned to appreciate vision, along with hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling, I can become so engrossed by all that’s going on when I make a cup of coffee that there’s no room in my head for thoughts about how the Kardashians might feel about me.
Nothing works all the time, but something will, and usually fairly quickly, because I’ve learned not to take my depressed thoughts seriously, as the way things really are. They’re brought on by a temporary brain state, prompted by who-knows-what, and have always been replaced by something more pleasant, sooner or later.