Friday, February 26, 2010

Regarding Andrew Koenig

Depression is one of the most insidious diseases there is. It recently took the life of former actor Andrew Koenig in Vancouver. He is the son of actor Walter Koenig, better known as Chekov of Star Trek fame. Andrew had some acting credits to his own name, specifically as a minor character in a television series about teenagers some time back. When you look at photos of him over the years, you see a chameleon-like visage that changes appearances quite radically every few years. It gives you a hint that he may have been a troubled soul.

We now know that Andrew faced a lifelong battle with depression, which he finally lost up in Vancouver last week.

I fortunately don't have experience with that kind of lifelong agony, but I have twice in my life had extended episodes of very serious clinical depression, the kind that required hospitalization. The first episode lasted almost two years, the second only a couple of months. It was many years in the past, but even now it's not something I talk about other than with very close friends, because mental illness in general, and depression in particular, makes people exceedingly uncomfortable. Some people make nervous fun of people suffering from emotional disorders, which I suppose is evidence of how frightening it is to them. In many respects, our attitudes toward mental illness have barely evolved at all from the days when we viewed it as a sign of demonic possession.

I remember once at a cocktail party, though, finally getting fed up with someone who was poking fun at depressed people, defining them as emotionally weak——the Prozac nation. First, I admitted that I had myself suffered from depression 20 years earlier.

"So, tell us about it," he said, blushing just slightly but not really honestly regretful of his arrogance. "What are we missing?" He gestured to some of his friends who were listening and trying not to smile at their buddy's wit.

"Well," I said, "Did you ever have one of those days where you just wake up on the wrong side of bed, where you're a little grumpy and just "off" for the whole day? Kind of like having that mental achiness that goes with a bad cold, but without the sniffles?"

He nodded, and there was a trace of a smug smile on his face. "Yeah, I know. That's what I mean. What's the big deal with being depressed. People should just get over it. You obviously did."

"Now, think for a minute about what it would feel like if that bad day lasted not for a day or two, but three or four months at a time. And if you started to think that maybe that's really how it was going to be forever."

He kept nodding, the smug smile softening only a little bit. "Well, yes," he said. "But plenty of people have real chronic health problems, arthritis for example, and they get by just fine. Life is tough all over."

"Right. But what I've described to you is a very, very mild depression. So mild you almost wouldn't even call it that. I mention it because its the only thing you might understand. But if you took that sensation I'm talking about, made it 100 times worse, so that it felt like you were wading in thick molasses up to your neck, extended it for years at a time, then you'd have some idea about what real depression feels like. You wake up with it, you eat with it, you go to your kids' soccer game with it, you work with it, you shower with it, you sleep with it, you dream with it. Then you wake up with it again. Day after day after day. Pretty soon, it seems clear that it will never, ever change. This is now your life."

His face blanched then, visibly, and he took a tentative sip of his scotch and water. "Well, if that really happened to me, just like you describe, I'd probably blow my brains out."

"Exactly," I said. "I wonder if you'd have the courage not to."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Heavy Stuff, but Interesting

I've been reading some pretty interesting material on the subject of Dzogchen buddhist practice recently.

Essentially, Dzogchen is a form of practice in which the subject for meditation isn't your breathing, or a mantra, or a candle, or anything at all like that. Instead, Dzogchen practice involves studying the nature of mind itself as the object of meditation. The concept suggests that careful, naked examination of the nature of mind-itself, all by itself, can lead to enlightenment. Here is where you come into phrases like "clear luminosity" to describe the essence of mind.

This is pretty heavy, estoteric stuff, with subtle nuances that go on, and on, and on. Dzogchen appears to be very, very old, dating back to the shamanistic days of the original Bon religion of Tibet. It was then adopted and modified by Buddhism when it migrated into Tibet from India.

The essence of the practice is that looking at the mind in a very detached, objective way allows you to see that thoughts and feelings all arise and are self liberated within the arena of mind-itself, with no real help from us, and not much burden. While all that arises in the mind is utterly temporary and without substance, the mind itself is timeless, in that it isn't born and doesn't die.

The practice is really about allowing yourself to relax into mind-itself, and simply allow thoughts and feelings to come and go as simple expressions of the mind, but without any more significance than that. As a common analogy goes, it's keeping the sky in mind, but not being distracted by the clouds.

In the context of this recent study, I came across an idea that struck me as very interesting. The commentator was observing that what we take as "reality" virtually always contains a large percentage of mental elaboration and modification. What we take to be "real" is actually merely an idea of what is real.

Life become much simpler and much pleasanter, if we keep in mind that that what we experience is almost always a large part mental ornamentation and imagination, and hence should be treated playfully.

Monday, February 22, 2010

We Are What We Eat (Oh, the Horror)

For several months last year, with my physician's warnings about rising blood sugar dangers ringing in my ears, I had cleaned up my act. I'd deleted a good many carbohydrates from my diet, saw my weight begin to drop, my blood sugar return to good levels. Felt good.

A trip to China and the Christmas holidays saw me regress a bit, and the evidence was clear. My waistline and blood sugar levels began to swell again, though I didn't return entirely to the previous ghastliness.

So I cleaned up my act again a few weeks ago, saw some real progress, and felt much, much better. I always do feel a lot better when I eat well and exercise well. Long walks, cross-country skiing, meals of vegetables and Rye Crisp, and once again, presto chango, I started feeling spry again.

But today at lunch, I happened by the cafeteria at the government center while running an errand, and a provocative cheeseburger reached out, grabbed me by the neck, and forced me to eat it. I felt quite helpless about it, with a mixture of carnivorous defiance and guilty pleasure. Meat has become lessen appealing in recent years, and beef in particular is now rather rare for me. But man, that cheeseburger had my number today.

Now, an occasional cheeseburger won't kill me, it's true. But I"m quite puzzled at this common human behavior--doing things we know are bad for us, that we know will make us feel bad——despite all evidence and logic that tells us to knock it off. I suppose nearly everyone has certain self-defeating, self-repeating habits, but I sure do wish I could throw this monkey off my shoulder for good.

I knew while eating it that the burger wouldn't sit too well in my stomach this afternoon, and sure enough, a once-familiar, after-lunch grogginess is already beginning to set in.

In the spiritual world, it's known as "digestive karma," and was first mentioned in one of the Buddha's lesser known sutras, known as the " Sutra of High-Density Lipo-Proteins"" Another lesson from that sutra reads:

"Verily I say to you, Ananda, he who hides the fresh onions with melted cheese will soon find himself reincarnated into another life, where he shall once again face the choice of cheddar vs whole grain. Choose wisely, Ananda."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reconsidering New Age

I was probably 12 years old when I started reading books about spirituality and mysticism. It started with an interest in yoga philosophy, and the first descriptions I read were in the scholarly writings of Colliers Encyclopedia. It wasn't too long before I was ordering books from our local bookstore. There was no Barnes & Noble, online or otherwise in those days, and so some of the things I special-ordered took many weeks to arrive to our small town in southern Minnesota.

It's no exaggeration to say that I've read many hundreds, perhaps even thousands of books on spiritual subjects over the years. Right from the start, though, I had a very healthy skepticism of anything that reeked of too much cultural popularity. These subjects weren't all that widespread in the 1960s and early 70s——no bookstore would have a "New Age" section, for example——but I still shied away from anything that was too highly touted by celebrities. When the Beatles traveled to India to study with the Maharishi in 1968 or so, I was already quite familiar with Hindu philosophy at the age of 13, but wanted no part of anything that the Maharishi, with his fleet of Rolls Royces, was preaching. Instead I read a bit of Patanjali, and some of Krishnamurti, but you couldn't get me to sit still for the Maharishi at all.

The 1960s were the era of transcendent psychodelia, and while I might read and agree with some of what Aldous Huxley wrote, I turned off the Don Juan stories of Castanado when I came upon that silliness about parallel universes of space aliens living among us.

It seemed to me that the quickest way for a spiritual mystic to lose all credibilty was to be widely praised by popular culture, and even more, to show an eagerness to make a lot of money from one's spiritual teachings.

What this means is that for the better part of 40 years, I've eschewed the Deepak Chopras, the Robert Blyes, and always opted for the source material from which many of these people freely, and sometimes dishonestly, borrowed. Even now, I find it almnost physically painful to browse New Age, whereas the Religion sections of my local bookstores have armchairs dedicated to my patronage.

And for this reason, it's only now, with a lifestime of reading under my belt, that I just now picked up Eckhart Tolle's book, The Power of Now.

For years I've had a quiet, arm's length distain for Tolle, based partially on the cottage industry that's grown up around him, and partly for his borrowing of the name of Meister Eckhart. I sincerely doubted that anyone among the disciples of Tolle even really knew who Meister Eckhart was, much less had read him, so how legitimate could this whole Eckhart Tolle phenomenon be, anyway?

And so it has come as quite a shock to recognize that a good deal of what Tolle says in this book has the strong ring of truth. I speak as somebody who has studied these subjects in a pretty academic and serious way for many years. Unlike most of these New Age celebrities, Tolle has me more often nodding in agreement than wincing in disbelief. If there is one criticism to be made, it might be that Tolle doesn't really credit the origins of some of this wisdom, or acknowledge that his insights were discovered long ago. For example, the idea of "Now", as espoused by Eckhart, is virtually the same concept as "suchness" or "isness" which the Tibetans were studying centuries ago.

But that's a fairly minor cricisism, as it seems entirely possible that Tolle legitimately saw some of these things afresh for himself, and didn't learn them from others. As I browse the book, I am finding myself again and again agreeing with things that I've seen for myself through years of study and meditation.

Is Tolle enlightened? Did he experience a sudden awakening that transformed his life?

I don't know for sure, but it's not something I can boldly discount, either. If it wasn't for the fact that Tolle has created enormous wealth for himself, I'd be even more likely to give his book a prominent place on my shelves.

God, I hope I'm not going to have to reconsider Carlos Castanada.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I ran across this over at Grumpy Lion, and thought I'd share it here——a wind generator losing its safety brake in a storm.

Citizens of 4F, Feb. 5, 2010

What has become of Donald, I wonder?

Donald has been a fixture of the morning 4F bus ride into downtown Minneapolis for nearly every single day of the last three years. He is a high-functioning adult with some form of developmental disability; a chronological age that appears to be 40-something, but a personal manner that makes him seem like 10 or 12 years of age. He carries an oversized lunch box and wears converse tennis shoes, sometimes covered with rubber over-boots. When it's cold he, wears either a Twins ball cap, or sometimes zips on the hood to his parka. Very often he plays a hand-held video game on the ride downtown. Twice, I've seen his cell phone ring during the bus ride, and it appears these calls are from some family member checking on his well-being. He is very deliberate and careful when he takes out his phone, and he talks loudly and clearly to someone who obviously knows him well.

Donald and I have never spoken. He sits near the front of the bus and has already boarded by the time I get on. There is never room for me to sit near the front, so Donald and I only meet eyes briefly in the morning as I pass by him. Though I have no specific knowledge of this, I have always imagined that Donald must be a participant in one of those social programs that pairs up people with disabilities with jobs that offer benefit to both the businesses and the workers. Minnesota is one of those places with a lot of these kinds of programs. Although our Republican governor has undermined some of these opportunities, Minnesota remains one of those places that offers many subsidies to improve life quality for people in need, and when I see these cheerful, slightly handicapped people working about town at various businesses, it always makes me optimistic for human civilization, or at least for the Minnesota version of it.

Once, I ran into Donald at the downtown Target store while running errands at lunch. He recognized me instantly from across two check-out lanes, and broke into a broad smile of recognition. His hand started to come up in a wave, but then he shyly edited himself and simply continued to grinned broadly. He was gone long before I made my way through my own line.

After two years of seeing Donald every day, I've not seen him at all the last two weeks. I wonder if the economy has taken his job, even here in compassionate, liberal Minnesota. Surely not even this economy could be that cruel. Or, perhaps is he sick, or hurt in some way. It's just not like him to miss the 4F bus.

I hope Donald is alright. I would feel much better if he were back on the bus.