Five years ago, I decided to chant about the fact that I’ve always tended to wake up in a grumpy, grouchy mood. It was a fairly casual decision born of curiosity and no little guilt that my ‘low life-state’ often had a negative impact on people around me.
The chanting did make an immediate difference, but it didn’t quite follow the ‘script’ I expected. The first impact of chanting to wake up feeling cheerful was that I began feeling miserable until midday rather than just 10 o’clock. A week later and I was feeling blue all afternoon. By the end of the month I felt depressed all evening as well. In fact after six weeks chanting to have more cheerful mornings, such were my all-day feelings of despair that all I looked forward to was sleeping at night, because that was the only time I felt nothing at all – luckily I have never suffered from insomnia.
But seven hours of sleep seemed to pass in no time at all whereas the days seemed to go as slowly as a double-decker bus ploughing uphill through treacle. There was no evidence to believe the depression would ever lift. All I had was my faith. At some point in all this, I stumbled upon this famous quote from Nichiren Daishonin advising believers that when obstacles appear in life, “the wise will rejoice, while the foolish will retreat.”
Did I feel like ‘rejoicing’ rather than ‘retreating’, as Nichiren suggests? Did I heck. Did I feel angry, lethargic, panicky, fragile, tearful, irritable and bleak? Nearly all the time. Did I wonder why the hell I’d started chanting about my morning mood? Just a little bit (whilst also knowing there was no turning back…). Was I critical, distant from others and blaming them for my suffering? Absolutely. Did I feel that Buddhism was working? Er, no, not really, certainly not after fifteen months had gone by with only one or two occasional glimmers of progress. Did I carry on chanting? Only just, the mental anguish and pain was almost enough to stop me, but my supportive fellow Buddhists kept saying ‘keep going mate.’
And although I never quite felt suicidal I do remember one bright, sunny day driving down a motorway thinking that if my front tyre had a blow-out and I hit the next bridge at 80mph, oblivion would be fine, thank you very much. Embracing that warm black void would be easier than facing another moment alive, such was the depth of the despair I felt. I simply could not conceive of being happy (whereas now I struggle to recall those bleak feelings at all.)
Saying yes to the Buddha in you
It felt, as I chanted, as if my very soul was grinding on its axis. Then I gradually realised in my prayer that it would be less painful to change the depths of my life and my family’s karma of mental illness than to stay the same. As Anais Nin so eloquently wrote: “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
And a fellow Nichiren Buddhist who had been through a similar experience said: “Your rock bottom point is the crucial moment, this moment when you realise that your life is asking to grow and that you can either say ‘No’ and give up or say ‘Yes’ and carry on. When the negative forces have got you on your knees, they are paradoxically, exhausted and this is the very moment to strike back. The moment when you can find total determination within your utter hopelessness. You just need to say a resounding and definitive ‘Yes’ to your Buddhahood.”
Of course being a stubborn git, I said ‘No’, – to begin with anyway. And to be fair, I was dealing with years of bottled up anger and frustration – depression and mental illness are part of my family karma going back more than one generation. And so I remained stuck for a few more weeks in a coping rather than challenging mindset – see Kazuo Fujii’s brilliant guidance on this topic. I was very tempted to see my GP and get some Prozac (I know Buddhists who have done so and it was definitely the right thing to do) but in my prayer this never felt like the best way forward. Incidentally there was no major exterior ‘trigger’ for this depression.
Become a brilliant beacon
I also came across these encouraging words by Daisaku Ikeda: “Become a brilliant beacon, shining with joy and happiness and live your life with confidence and courage. When you shine with a radiant light, there can be no darkness in your life.”
When you realise that this is true, you stop desperately hoping for a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, because it finally dawns on you that you, yourself, are that light. And you are the light in the tunnel, not on some distant horizon. And you are a light that can illuminate other people’s lives when they feel desperate.
Very slowly I developed an attitude of “whatever it takes to become the person I need to become.” And little by little, almost in reverse to how the depression had started, I began to have the odd bright afternoon, hopeful morning or cheerful evening. Eventually I managed one whole day of the week feeling happy. Gradually one day became two and three and four. Now, five years later, I very rarely get a ‘blue day’ at all.
There is more to this story than I have room here to tell. And I am not saying that what I learned from this would be the same for everyone who chants Nam Myoho Renge Kyo – we all have our own unique karma and mission. And of course, Buddhism is not the only way to beat the blues – for example CBT, hypnotherapy and mindfulness can be effective tools.
It is deeply encouraging to see that here in the UK, it is becoming much more acceptable to talk about depression publicly. Even for men. Former footballers like Leon McKenzie and Darren Eadie have told inspiring tales of their own battles with ‘the black dog’ (as Churchill called it.) BTW, I highly recommend McKenzie’s book, My Fight with Life.
Last year in the UK parliament, three MPs – Kevan Jones, Charles Walker and Dr. Sarah Wollaston bravely stood up and shared their stories. As has Alastair Campbell, former adviser to Tony Blair, who’s written a brilliant little book called The Happy Depressive. Times journalist Robert Crampton and actor Stephen Fry have also opened up about depression.
I feel now that I went through that 18 month morass of despair because nothing less powerful could have made me understand so quickly the dignity of life and the depths of suffering to which people can sink. I am a wiser, less arrogant, more compassionate person because of the experience (most of the time anyway 🙂 ). I have learned that the longer the darkness and the deeper your negative karma, the more value you can create from it. I now get that life is precious. I am a better Life Coach than I was. I am more open to others and I am better at sharing stuff (especially with other men), rather than soldiering on alone. I even wake up feeling cheerful almost every day 🙂 . This depression was the one of the toughest experiences of my 28-year Buddhist practice, and I shall treasure it forever.