In Defense Of Trying
Today after lunch I grabbed my bag and headed out the door. "I'm going to vote," I said to my roommate.
"Why?" she asked.
It's a good question. I almost didn't. I had thought about this "why" question for a long time, and told my roommate that. I don't really like any of the presidential candidates, and I don't feel very informed. I also have pretty negative opinions about American democracy and imperialism that I don't think are adequately addressed through voting.
"Well," I said. "Because fatalism feels shittier than not-fatalism."
This is pretty much my reason for continuing to practice Buddhism as well as for continuing to not kill myself. I was first diagnosed with depression when I was nineteen years old, when I described to my therapist that I felt like my life was a car and I was lying in the dark in the backseat with someone else driving, unable to see or control where I was going, and too tired to care.
Depression is an ugly and difficult condition that is very hard to understand if you have not experienced it. I've started to think of depression as an excess of self-destructive delusion. The delusions of depression-- the thoughts the depressed brain tells you-- is that everything is hopeless and pointless, that your efforts don't matter, that nothing will ever change for the better. Objectively it's pretty easy to see that these ideas are delusions, but from the inside of delusion, the delusion seems very real. Depressive delusion is self-destructive because it makes you physically exhausted. My body feels heavy when I am depressed. I am tired all the time. I feel like I am walking on the bottom of the ocean.
One of the reasons I keep coming back to Zen practice is its emphasis on caring for mundane experience. In formal training we learn to care about food scraps, dust particles, which foot to use at which time, folding napkins, which direction to place a spoon on a table. We come to care about these things because these are small and mundane actions, and because we understand that life is made up of the small and mundane. As the abbess of Green Gulch said in a dharma talk recently, "The ultimate reality of ultimate reality is that it is mundane reality."
In the Tenzo Kyokun, Dogen wrote:
When ordinarily preparing ingredients, do not regard them with ordinary [deluded] eyes, or think of them with ordinary emotions. "Lifting a single blade of grass builds a shrine; entering a single mote of dust turns the great wheel of the dharma." Even when, for example, one makes a soup of the crudest greens, one should not give rise to a mind that loathes it or takes its lightly; and even when one makes a soup of the finest cream, one should not give rise to a mind that feels glad and rejoices in it. If one is at the outset free from preferences, how could one have any aversions? Even when confronted with poor ingredients, there is no negligence whatsoever; even when faced with scanty ingredients, one exerts oneself. Do not change your mind in accordance with things.
It is easy to interpret "not having preferences" as "not caring," but personally I think Dogen is invoking us to care very, very much-- to care about crude greens, single blades of grass, and one mote of dust. Kitchen work exemplifies the most difficult parts of Zen training. I spend all day in the kitchen chopping vegetables and my brain says horrible things to me: why are you spending all this effort making delicious vegetarian food for a bunch of entitled white people who won't appreciate it? Welcome to my brain, folks, it's a jungle in here.
But of course, the problem isn't just a Northern California monastery kitchen; this is life. No matter how delicious the food you make is, someone is going to complain. They will want more gluten-free or vegan or sugar-free or soy-free options. There will not be enough food or there will be too many leftovers. You will work long hard hours and then the meal will be done in a matter of minutes, and no one will say "thank you." This is the reality of both the kitchen and of life. Despite your best efforts: disappointment.
So why try? Given this inevitable disappointment, the choice becomes fatalism or engagement with the present moment for the joy and curiosity of engagement itself: hours of chopping celery, with dishes, with sweeping the floor. What are those hours? What is a body?
Recently I started watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer again. It's a terrific show about a young woman fighting vampires. In one episode, the town is cursed so that everyone starts singing in musical numbers, and then dance themselves to death. Buffy, who was recently brought back from the dead by her friends, is depressed and sings about how life isn't worth living since we all are going to die anyway. Her vampire boyfriend grabs her shoulders and sings:
Life's not a song.
Life isn't bliss.
Life is just this: it's living.
You'll get along. The pain that you feel, it only can heal by living.
You have to keep on living, so one of us is living.
I wrote recently that the hardest thing about practice for me is just continuing, and the same is true for living. The hardest thing about life for me is just living, and practice shows me all the ways I want to check out of life-- to fall asleep in the back seat of my own life and have someone else drive. I am grateful for when there is movement, for the moments when I know I want to drive because it feels better than sleeping. I don't want to be asleep in the backseat of my own life, and that's why I try: that's why I vote and chop endless vegetables and write silly blog posts about Zen and depression and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. They are small things that I can control. I can control myself far more easily than I can bring down the entire system of white supremacist capitalist patriarchal imperialism or end the cycle of birth and death. I can put my small, good intentions into small things and that feels better than checking out. I believe this is what life and practice is inviting us to do at all times.
In the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism there is a phrase, ichigo wo terasu, "to light a corner of the world," from which came the proverb, "A person who lights up a single corner is truly a national treasure." A corner is a small and narrow place. But it's our small, narrow place, and we can fill it with light and singing vampires. Yes. Singing vampires.