Lessons With The Dog

Recently, as I have written before, I’ve been through a rather difficult depressive stage, which has been like a lever that has twisted me round until either I changed something very quickly or I died. In the article I wrote I explained a bit in brief about what the experience of my kind of depression is like, mainly because I know astounding numbers of people with the same problem. Basically what has happened to me since then is a great deal of thinking and continuous reminders from the Dog that if I don’t change radically and very quickly, then he will bite me again and I’ll have to give up my life to making sure he doesn’t completely eat me, which is counterintuitive to say the least.

I should tell you here that I came absolutely nowhere near to explaining the actual depth and width of depression in that article, because there’s simply too much to it; in fact I don’t think it can be done. It’s too horrible and too complicated to explain satisfactorily, and it ought to be clear that I left a huge number of details out that shaped and punctuated the thing that I either couldn’t or was reluctant to write about.

So there’s that – but what’s the point of writing about it now? Well I suppose I want to show exactly where I’ve gone since getting out of the worst of it. I’ve changed quite a lot since I first realised I could end my life when I wanted, as I’m sure you can imagine, and actually I think I’m a much better person because of it.

The Dog has certainly forced a lot of thinking. Although he has not left me entirely yet, his continued presence constantly reminds me of the need to work on my mind, to be kinder, more considerate of the suffering of others and generally diligent. My understanding of suffering has reached levels I could barely have imagined before, and this perhaps more than other things has made me change what I want to do with my life. As I’m sure people from school will agree, I’ve always had an inclination to be a bit miserable. It’s difficult to say exactly why this is, but the fact is there. In every situation my mind would whirl to the point that I couldn’t properly engage with anything, and I’d constantly be thinking: ‘What’s the connotation of this? What’s bad about it? There must be something these people are missing, there must be someone who’s losing out.’ Although I definitely defend the sentiment, this kind of thinking can ruin your life if you don’t know how to turn it off. Needless to say I didn’t, and as a result I felt incredibly distant to everything because I felt like I couldn’t trust anything.

Trust is really the key word here. For whatever reason I did not trust the world. Everyone was an enemy, every institution was a system of oppression, every thought that went through my mind was irritating and a cause for self-hatred. When you cannot trust yourself, you cannot trust the world, and therefore you cannot form any kind of proper connection with anything. In another article I put up in November, I said that the meaning of life is connection, because being connected is the same thing as being happy and happiness, in my opinion, is the point of life. So to have this kind of restless mistrust inhabiting every corner of my being is devastating to say the least, and even more devastating is the knowledge that almost every single person in the world (certainly in the West) suffers from it to some degree. Our culture is one of self-criticism, so I can’t claim to be any kind of special case (though I do think it hurt me more severely than some).

So when the Dog began to bite and I was suffering more chronically than before, I had to think very quickly about where it might be coming from. I had actually suspected that I would become depressed at some point in my life, I just didn’t have a blind clue what to do about it. So I knew I was a very suspicious person already, and now I just had to find a way to remedy that.

Here, of course, is where meditation comes in, and my subsequent interest in Buddhism, the path to freedom from suffering. I’ve learnt more about happiness and suffering from meditating and reading about Buddhism than anything else, and even with the implementation of a few Buddhist techniques I could see through the Dog’s teeth. The more I learn about the mind and about the cultivation of positive emotions, the nature of the self (or non-self, as Buddhists have it) and the peace that always exists in the present moment and nowhere else, the more I edge towards a greater understanding of happiness. (It helps that the Bristol Buddhist Centre is a 10 minute cycle ride away from my house as well.)

One thing that I have realised since developing mindfulness, for example, is that I don’t want to be an actor, as I had previously thought I had. In fact I hadn’t wanted to be an actor for a very long time, and I just hadn’t realised it. Noticing the feelings of uncertainty and sometimes dread that would arise when I considered a life as an actor made me realise that it is actually not something I want to do, and instead I quite fancy the idea of being a writer. And that’s just one thing; I’ve also become much more aware of my habits (‘Habit-energy’ in Buddha-speak), and noticing habits allows you to break them. That really is the genius of practising mindfulness, that we can notice when things arise inside us and choose how to react to them. Therein lies the potential for what I suppose you’d call spiritual freedom. It is the acknowledgement that you are not fixed in any way, you have no consistent identity, and so you can really transform yourself into whatever you like (ideally someone nice). You have it in you to be happy, kind, loving, generous, secure and connected. Everyone has it; it’s just whether you realise it, and whether you do something about it.

So given this, my job as a writer has begun to outline itself rather nicely. My life would be best dedicated to the love and happiness of as many people as I can reach, including myself. My job is to resist, to question and to advise, and to never accept anything until it has been made clear how the greatest happiness can be gleaned from it.

I read somewhere recently that we all need to go through periods of confusion and difficulty in our life in order to find out where we need to change, though the danger of this assumption is to write off real depressive experiences as simply formative. It’s rather like the unbelievably arrogant and callous assumption that your teenage years simply will be full of confusion and misery, and you’ve just got to grind it out and eventually you will find your feet – even though we contradictorily all agree that no one every truly does. We ought to know really pretty damn well that an awful lot of people go through their entire lives without ever having a sense of ‘finding their feet’ or feeling as if they understand what is happening to them, or why they are here, or what they are supposed to do about it. This, in my opinion, is one of the great misdeeds of life that needs to be cured, as it certainly can be. Indeed, the assumption that we will inevitably encounter existential strife is one that is pervasive in our culture, and one that needs to be addressed. I simply cannot accept that life is suffering, that it is a weight too great for us to confront, or that you just have to buckle in and learn to live with inevitable dissatisfaction. Don’t even try to tell me that dissatisfaction is ‘just a fact of life’, or ‘the best you can do is smile and muddle through’, because that really is pathetic, isn’t it? That’s like saying: ‘This is a bit rubbish, better just sit back and wait to die!’

The message ought to be clear enough. The point of your life is to find the greatest happiness you can achieve, and part of that search is the realisation that great suffering can be turned into great happiness. So – basically – get to work!

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