Before I started Zen practice I was very familiar with despair. It’s a state of mind similar to depression, but without the numbness. Despair is intoxicating in that once you start to indulge in it, it affects your whole being and you find yourself inexorably pulled to indulge in even more of it. Despair is poisonous in that it kills off life, slowly sucking away your enthusiasm, creativity, energy, joy…
I’ve made a lot of progress in terms of living without despair, but it’s still where my mind goes when things get tough. The loss of loved ones reminds me of the fragility and impermanence of everything we hold dear. Stress about finances and health can make life seem like a losing battle to simply maintain a minimum standard of comfort. Challenges to my spiritual understanding – while a good thing in the sense of life being a journey of continuing education – shake my confidence and make we wonder whether all the positivity and liberation I’ve experienced is simply due to having adopted an arbitrarily optimistic worldview. And any view is relative and therefore changes over time and can be lost or shattered. If I’m just holding on to a view, I feel I have nothing helpful to offer others, and any liberation I experience is groundless.
If my experience of despair sounds a little dramatic, perhaps its because I karmically tend toward the delusion of nihilism (the universe is ultimately devoid of anything real or meaningful). However, I suspect that most people harbor some despair in their hearts, and that many of them just try to keep it locked in a little box so it doesn’t intoxicate and poison them.
When my despair starts to build, it affects my Journey of Conscience and my bodhisattva activity. I get preoccupied with my own well-being and feel pessimistic about my projects. (Please note that this is an honest confession of an experience I have sometimes, which I suspect I share with many people, not a plea for help.) It can feel like I am busily trying to put bandaids on a huge dam breach. The determination of the bodhisattva to work tirelessly to fulfill impossible vows (discussed in my post “The World Needs the Concept ‘Bodhisattva‘”) starts to look rather desperate – and, in any case, such determination seems inaccessible to me.
What then? Well, patience and acceptance first. “Okay, feeling kind of crappy,” I think. Sigh. Then I try to remember that all things pass. Many years of studying my own mind and heart have fortunately led me to a deep appreciation for how any view, including the despairing worldview, is just a view. It’s not that I have suddenly remembered the way things “really” are, which is what the despair likes to tell me.
Then I take care of some of the things related to my own well-being. But not for too long, because that’s a never-ending process. Like someone dragging themselves off the couch to take a walk because dammit, that’s the healthy thing to do, I get back into some bodhisattva activity whether I feel like it or not. I reach out to a friend who’s been through some difficulty lately. I pick up some projects again. I groom my dog so he looks less neglected and more loved. And pretty soon the despair starts to dissipate a little.
In terms of my spiritual practice I understand this phenomenon like this: True and lasting liberation, joy, and peace of mind do not come from holding on to an arbitrarily optimistic worldview. Sometimes I do that, and then cracks appear in the view and I get anxious or suffer. As I let go of a positive view, despair starts to creep in, claiming to bring with it perception of reality. Refusing to latch on to any view, I flounder for a while.
Then… I get back to the business of actually living, and consequently reconnect with what is real and true – the whole-being experience of naturally wanting to live and love, to wake up and act, to lovingly and wholeheartedly put bandaids on any dam breaches I find.