Examining the understanding of heat in Vajrayana gives insight into tantra’s somewhat different embrace of classical Buddhist imagery. From this perspective, the experience of mental burning is indeed the central suffering of our lives. It is the experiential dimension of the intensity of our obscurations, whether emotional, conceptual, or habitual. But rather than attempting to put out the flames with meditation methods, it is important to allow the burning to occur during practice. Certainly in the foundational stages of the path we must learn not to become engulfed in the flames, to tame the wild mind and emotions, and to train ourselves to open further to experience. Finally, however, through Vajrayana practice under the guidance of a guru, the burning we experience becomes a great teacher and a great blessing.
In some respects, depression could be characterized as “mental burning.” The incessant and insidious rumination consumes our time, our energy, our mood, and threatens to literally destroy us. And, it is true that “the experience of mental burning is indeed the central suffering of our lives.” But is the answer to do whatever it takes to eliminate the rumination; extinguish the mental burning at all cost?
Both Tibetan dharma and Jungian psychology say no. “It is important to allow the burning to occur during practice” and Jung said, “depression should therefore be regarded as an unconscious compensation whose content must be made conscious if it is to be fully effective” 1. As with most things in life, eschewing the negative, the painful, the unwanted usually leads to more pain struggle, and sorrow. Ignoring the pain associated with a burst appendix has dire consequences. Treating headaches with pain relievers can result in the underlying cause getting worse and worse. The ultimate avoidance, I think, is that of death. We do the craziest shit to avoid even the appearance of death. But look at the results of too much cosmetic surgery, the toll on our minds and bodies from un-experienced grief, or the acts of a health-care system fostering and profiting from our outright detestation and absolute terror of death.
The key, of course, is to not “become engulfed in the flames” but to “train ourselves to open further to experience.” I think our main objection to this is that it just takes too damn long! It’s like work! I want a pill that I can take once a day which does it for me because I’m just too damn busy.
Now, I’m not criticizing, I’m empathizing. Since it takes me forever to get the simplest thing done, I often don’t feel that I have any time for self-work. This is not even in the same universe as easy. But if you’re in this for the self-knowledge and self-power and not for the painlessness of it all, there’s no other way. The promise is –from both Jung and the dharma–”the burning we experience becomes a great teacher and a great blessing.”
Jung would have the depressed individual let go of his conscious efforts and fall into the unconscious, where the exuberant power of imagination lies latent. Only the experience of soul. Only the discovery that I “have” a soul and can even “become” my soul offers any solution for the depressed condition. 2
In our modern culture we have forgotten–learned to ignore is perhaps more precise–the wisdom that our bodies and psyches possess. We try to stay awake longer and sleep less in order to be more productive. No wonder our bodies revolt and we get sick and overly fatigued and need more and more caffeine to keep going. Our bodies have a natural rhythm–the circadian rhythm–which governs the production and release of melatonin which is what makes us sleepy at night. The melatonin producer sits just above the optic nerve so a lessening of light triggers the release which means we get tired at night at not at mid-day. So, what do you think happens when you work at your computer until 2am or watch TV right before going to sleep or read in bed with a bright light? You are convincing your body that it’s not time to go to sleep.
Many years ago when I was living alone and working at home 95% of the time (I’d have one meeting a week in the office) I tried an experiment. I didn’t set an alarm clock. I didn’t pay much attention to the time. I went to bed when I was tired and got up when I woke up. The result was a pretty regular 8 hours of sleep at night and I felt the best I’d felt in years. I’ve always had trouble waking up in the morning (my parents would have to wake me up on Christmas Day!). The only downside was that my body wanted a 25-hour day, so my bedtime started getting later and later and soon I was gong to bed at 5am. This made it difficult to make my 11am meetings so I had to stop the experiment.
But the point is that the body does have a wisdom and does know what it needs and what it doesn’t. Our modern culture has all but eliminated our bodies’ having any input whatsoever into what we do. No wonder it revolts and breaks down! And, no wonder it often times refuses to respond to external stimuli “designed” to correct an imbalance. Of course I’m mainly referring to “drug cocktails” that some doctors give their patients–one drug trying to correct the harm resulting from another drug’s side effects and a third drug to correct the second and so on. Of course, science and medicine have made unimaginable progress in helping the body when the body alone isn’t enough. But we’ve moved too far to the side of science and medicine–we no longer give the body a chance. “My kid has a 100° temperature so I’ve got to give him Motrin to bring down the fever!” Well, no, you don’t. The body is fighting off something and raising the body temperature makes things move along more quickly. You are actually undermining the body’s efforts by medicating too quickly. Of course, if the temperature goes much higher then it is time to step in and help with medication.
This is the point that I take away from the dharma quote and the Jungian psychology quotes: we’ve become too one-sided; we want to circumvent anything we feel stands in our way of progress. But “rather than attempting to put out the flames with meditation methods” we need to allow the flames to do their work. A balance point needs to be sought at which the flames are allowed to teach but not consume; a point at which we can “let go of [our] conscious efforts and fall into the unconscious” without becoming overwhelmed by it.
I am seeking this balance point but it’s an incredible struggle. Without medication my mood goes so deep that it is impossible to even think about doing anything. With the medication I have a little more energy, a little more focus but I often don’t feel like I’m making any progress. It seems to take so long to get done the things that must be done now that there’s no time and energy for anything else. I keep waiting for the “lesson” my depression is trying to teach me but it hasn’t come yet … or I’ve completely missed it. This blog definitely helps by giving me something to focus on. As I write these posts, I’m reminded of the work I need to do–to make time for–and I’m encouraged because I am focusing. And this, what I’m writing right now, in a way, IS the work.
Thank you for reading. I hope this work that I’m doing here can help or inspire–even just a little–someone else.