Can one respond to suffering the way a cat responds to falling off a roof? While meditating one night recently, I picked up a book near my cushion and asked for some words to help me understand recent events. I opened up to a random page in The Way of Liberation, by Alan Watts, where he retells a story by Chuang-tzu:
…one day Confucius was standing by a river near where there was a tremendous cataract plunging down. Suddenly he saw an old man coming out of the forest who fell into the river and disappeared into the cataract. So he said, “Oh, dear, too bad. Probably some old fellow tired of life wanted to put an end to it all.”
But in the next moment, way down the stream, the old man gets out of the water and starts bouncing along. Confucius is amazed!
He sends one of his disciples to catch this fellow before he disappears. On meeting him he says, “Sir, I was thinking that you were going to commit suicide and I suddenly find that you have come out of the cataract alive. Do you have some special method by which you did this?”
“No, I have no special method,” said the old man, “I just go in with a whirl and come out with a swirl. I do not resist the water, I entirely identify myself with it.” So here is this old man, utterly relaxed, rolling around in the current and not resisting in any way, and so he is preserved.
I stopped taking prescription drugs as a way of working with my emotional pain. Modern antidepressants actually do nothing to raise serotonin levels. Merely, they increase the amount of time that serotonin spends in the synaptic cleft, which may actually lower serotonin levels over time. (See Antidepressants and Natural Alternatives or Antidepressants: Progress or Promotion.)
I canceled my last appointment with my therapist, who offered good guidance but never delved very deeply into the underlying issues, which I’ve been processing on my own. Slowly, she wove a story around my grief that pathologized a journey I began to see as spiritually transformative. Intense emotional responses to loss, she said, are abnormal, and drugs can return those responses to a level “where everyone else is at.”
Where everyone else is at, because they take drugs? Or perhaps because their situation and past experiences are very different from mine. Witnessing strong emotions in others evokes an array of viewpoints. When we can see the storyline that led to the emotions, it is art. When we can’t see it, it’s pathology.
Whatever the case, I spent more than a decade contemplating the etiology and environmental context of emotional suffering and the various pathways to healing, and the medical model is the most insidious path to prolonged misery I have ever encountered. Stigma carves an ashen hole into the heart like a fresh cigar burn. In contrast, many cultures throughout history have responded to suffering with reverence for that chosen path, for the lessons it imparts, for how it makes us more loving and responsible people.
I went in with a whirl, but I went in kicking and screaming. Innumerable temper tantrums later, my resistence to profound grief has relaxed into surrender. Faced with dark elements of existence, I do put up a good fight. But my stubborn will has finally gone limp, and the swirling waters are funneling me out.