What was called melancholia up to the last centuries is today called depression. The term itself suggests the definition: a depressed patch of land is low, not as a hillside valley or low and moist meadow brightened by flowers but more qualitatively as a ditch that fills with dank water, filled with jagged rocks, a hollow or lowland that projects darkness and wariness.

A customary definition of depression is sadness that exceeds objective conditions, that is not justified by anything specific. From this general definition can be derived a distinction between a tragic sense of life and clinical depression that does not originate in philosophy. But there is much in the world and human condition that can give rise to depression, after all. One need not point to specific circumstances. The social norm for responding to doleful and cruel circumstances is anger, determination, and increasingly pitched aggression at apparent injustice or wrong. The norm is not resignation or a patterned inaction. The reactions are not born of sadness but are moral characterizations. Anger, cynicism, and violence projected outwardly against a perceived evil is not melancholia. Indeed, there is a latent optimism in such a person’s responses that reflects a will to power and a confidence in the ego.

Similarly, personalities oriented toward extroversion may experience restlessness and the desire for sociability when alone for a long time or without interpersonal exchanges. Their apparent sadness is desire, which cannot be described as depression because it deflects introspection and is focused on others. This focus does not simply preempt depression. Rather, the individual is not self-aware enough to be depressed. As with the angry and aggressive, the extrovert is less likely to be characterized as depressed because there is a confidence in self, in ego, as a potentially successful social tool that gives rise to optimism. There is an expectation of revived or restored conviviality to which solitude or even loneliness is viewed as an interruption.

When such a personality does collapse emotionally, then the facade of self-confidence is lost nd symptoms of true depression ensue. The state was probably always there, but society is quick to categorize and medicate. Biographies of melancholics of the past show this oscillation between sun and darkness, and were somehow able to ride out the darkness in an age when there were no pills. Today many psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies recommend preventive drugs, seeing in the social collapse around us the logically resulting despondency of many people. This neither addresses the causes of social collapse nor the necessity to find an understanding of how to cope.

Whole catalogs of depressed poets and artists have been assembled, such as this one at Wikipedia: ( The obvious fact is that many of the names on such lists are creative people: writers, painters, composers, poets. Did depression drive them to such avocations, or did the avocations, once pursued, drive them to depression? The indubitable fact seems to be that the insightful and sensitive nature of such individuals, and their depiction of what they see or experience of life, makes their art excruciatingly personal and intense. What the brain does with the depth of this experience is a medical and not an artistic issue. But the process even today is haphazardly addressed with pharmaceuticals and electroshock, the latter historically failing many by exacerbating their condition.


American novelist David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) once said in an interview:

Reading requires sitting alone by yourself in a quiet room. I have friends, intelligent friends, who don’t like to read because they get not just bored — there’s an almost dread that comes up I think, here [in the US], about having to be alone and in having to be quiet. You see that when you walk into most public spaces in America.It isn’t quiet anymore, they pipe music through. … It seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet, ever, any more.

Contemporary novelist Jonathan Franzen remembered David Foster Wallace when Franzen visited an obscure and solitary island off the coast of Chile. Franzen and Wallace, as fellow-novelists of similar age, were fast friends. On one of their last visits, Franzen busily admired the hummingbirds everywhere around the back patio of Wallace’s house, adding to his ornithological knowledge before an upcoming study trip to Ecuador. But Wallace could not appreciate the birds, or much else about nature or anything else at this point. Wallace suffered from depression. When he found his pharmaceutical no longer worked, he dropped it, didn’t follow up with a replacement, and committed suicide. Franzen visited Wallace’s widow before leaving for the Chile, and she unexpectedly gave him some of her husband’s cremation ashes to deposit on that lonely deserted island, thinking he would have liked that.

The island was named by the Chilean government Alejandro Selkirk, after the marooned sailor taken as the model of Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. But the locals still called the island by its original name, Masafuera, meaning “Farther Away.” The New Yorker essay of Franzen titled “Farther Away: Robinson Crusoe, David Foster Wallace, and the Island of Solitude,” makes for reflective reading about solitude, wilderness, friendship, and the origins of the novel.

None should disparage sufferers of depression. Melancholy reaches back to the most ancient of literary records. The tragic sense of life is often bottled up in single souls and leaks out like a poison until it consumes. Pharmaceuticals help many people today but research fails to serve them and conventional palliatives for depression are clearly still elusive when, for example, seasonal affective disorder can largely be addressed with full-spectrum lighting and vitamin D. If conditions and circumstances are the triggers of depression, then humanity would always be melancholy, yet clearly that is not the case. (Nor, necessarily, is heredity.) More immediate conditions and circumstances are clearly the case in the depression suffered by writers like Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, due not to nature’s aberration but to horrific electroshock treatments administered by arrogant technocrats. The fullness of solitude eludes the electrical and chemical mechanisms of brain and nervous system. The fullness of solitude eludes depression.


One of the great paradoxes is summarized in the Buddhist saying that, on the one hand, to be born as a human being is a great and rare event, and that one should use this precious happening wisely, and on the other hand, there is nothing special about anything, or, as Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido would say, we spend our whole life working diligently on the Path only to discover that there is No Path.

This paradox has it counterpart in our breath. On the one hand we inhale, and our whole body is animated, waiting, as it were, for the unique gift of air to nourish our being, to refresh every vitality. And then, on the other hand, we exhale, we dispose of what is now spent and useless, without a thought. There are other parallels: for example, we eagerly eat food prepared for many hours and presented in fine conviviality and fanfare, and then we digest and expel its remnant without much thought. But breath captures our attention because breath is celebrated and keenly appreciated by every physical art such as yoga and every meditation tradition, East and West.

Inhalation represents beginning, hope, expectation. The child in the womb is silent, reposed, and does not need breath because it does not (yet) partake of frail human necessities, blissfully unaware that it is growing, developing, and undergoing an irreversible trajectory. When the child is born, the shock of reality evokes a sharp cry. An old Arabic tradition says that a baby cries on birth because it sees the devil, lurking nearby. Or it sees death itself lurking in the shadows. Perhaps the baby cries because it must be born, because it is now thrown inexorably into existence, that existence so celebrated as unique by others but greeted by a cry of sorrow by the innocent.

Inhalation signals the beginning. What we take in, as breath or as experience, all that is environment, pain, pleasure, thought or words, all these events come to represent beginnings. Each inhalation is a sunrise, the beginning of a new episode, a commonality with what already exists. The body is a microcosm, each organ awaiting inhalation, awaiting its renewal, just as every creature on the earth awaits the sunrise to begin anew, to begin again. And the sun finds some youthful and new, others waning and dying, but all must acknowledge the newness that the sunrise represents, just as each organ sees each inhalation as a sign that life goes on, however youthful and healthy are the organs, or how weakened and failing they may be.

Exhalation, on the other hand, represents this terminus to all, like sunset and the coming of night, of silence, quiescence, diminishing, dissolution. Perhaps you have stood by the bedside of a dying person. In today’s modern circumstances, pain management makes the transition quiet and unobtrusive, but in the past, the dying person, unconscious in mind but not in organs or lungs, did not die quietly. Each breath was a loud and scraping, a gasping effort, the inhalation struggling to suck in air, the exhalation labored and spent. And then the pause, the horribly long pause between the last exhalation and another inhalation that will signify life, that trembling flame of a candle, that sadness of the whole body and organs remembering the obverse of this dying, remembering when that body emerged from the still, oceanic womb, into a new world, and its earliest struggle to conform to breathing after so long dormant. And upon dying, the reverse, the long path traversed only to end in No Path, only to end ignominiously, in a wretched noisy dying that only frightens those who watch or listen or remember a birth long ago and wonder.

In meditation, there is nothing but this inhalation and exhalation. We have cut through the intermediate, which is to say life. Thoughts, sounds, drifting dregs of a consciousness between sunrise and sunset, float up and float about like stale air to be expelled, or better, to be ignored until passing. Among thoughts there is no inhalation or exhalation — only living beings do this, unless the whole planet, the whole universe, breathes in and out. In meditation, we are bidden concentrate on breathing, perhaps counting or following the breath, until there is nothing else, no thoughts, no feelings, no awareness of anything else, even the coolness of the room, the degree of light, the hum of an appliance. Sometimes a bird’s cry startles, so without awareness of environment is the meditative state. Only inhalation and exhalation, as if to maintain the reality that we are a composite of body and mind. The breathing is autonomous and frees us to realize not thoughts and feelings but to reveal to us our nothingness, our absolute identity with everything else, everything else that exists. Inhale, exhale — we traverse the whole path from birth to death in that in-breath and out-breath.

The masters say that at a certain point we will find that sitting is what we like to do best, that we will look forward to it with an unexpected eagerness. Perhaps that is because we refresh our minds before another day or we relax a while from the stress of what lies ahead or what was behind us during the day. Or, perhaps it is because we get to know our breath, and therefore our selves, if we are willing to do so. If we have no thoughts, no distractions, and do not chase the clouds with our mind’s eye but sit quietly, then breath teaches us. Breath teaches us beginnings and ends, the cycle of life, the fullness of being and the mystery of coming to be and passing away.

Back to the sages

An earlier entry suggested that part of the modern philosophical and belief dilemma in the West is the discovery of a plethora of philosophical and religious traditions existing in history and other cultures, coupled with the exhaustion of traditional systems in the West.

This exhaustion is not simply out of boredom or chasing after novelty. It has been coming rapidly, since the 19th century especially. The crucial human questions have remained unanswered; solace has not provided by the traditional institutions. The disintegration of the West throughout the 20th century confirmed the lack of an exit. Yet, few have wanted to go back to the sages of antiquity through the world, instead either rejecting the existing historic structures without a replacement, or propping up the existing modern structures because they still serve the powerful and give a little comfort to the lowly.

Existentialism confirmed isolation, the alienation, without distinguishing from where it arose. While isolation is an alienation from institutions and culture, it is false to distinguish institutions and culture from actual human beings. This painful realization is, however, one that the solitary understands, and makes. It is the first step to liberation.

The solitary returns to the original strength of self. The solitary looks at those other selves or individuals in history who have faced similar cultural crises, and attempts to learn from them. One cannot look to structures, schools, and ossified traditions. Where were they when the sages began their quest? Their contemporary culture was in crisis, their contemporary institutions were crumbling, or were rigid structures without solace or advice. The sages, too, were solitaries.

Gautama Shakyamuni was not teaching “Buddhism” but sharing personal insights that he considered useful and commendable to others. Similarly, Jesus of Nazareth was not teaching “Christianity” but identifying where his contemporaries needed to go in order to rescue themselves from an ossified and exhausted culture. In the same sense, the sages of Advaita did not teach “Hinduism,” and Lao-tzu did not teach Taoism. A spiritual experience, an insight, an “enlightenment” took place in their lives, and their narratives shared the experience, that’s all.

The experience of the sages, it can be seen reflecting on a past tradition, moves us to a new place, to a new perspective, from which everything subsequent must begin, in effect leaving the past, however dutifully acknowledged the influence of its cultural milieu. We do not escape the past or try to; we merely begin from where we are. It is in this sense that Jesus says that anyone who follows the new path (new to us, at any rate) cannot look back.

Historically, new structures of religious and philosophical schools rose quickly to fill the vacuum that society and authority insists must be filled. The social and collective context of each new thought, each new insight, demands a rationalization, demands a justification. Sagacity must not float about, available to aspirants — such notions must be disciplined, brought under control, codified. So would authority argue. No sooner do sages pass away than their words, thoughts, examples, are sealed into an approved package that justifies a social and group entity.

Within such a stricture, the spirit of the sage suffocates and dies, so that what is transmitted is only what can be traded in the marketplace and subordinated to the ends of authority. However sincere, the practitioners then follow a regime that is second-hand, and without the impetus to listen to their own hearts, the sage’s teaching is absent. What to do? Quit the marketplace, go back to one’s room, practice and experiment, confirm that the spirit of the sage is still alive and vibrant and lives within us because it has bypassed the suffocating structures and speaks directly to us, heart to heart. This is very much a solitary process.

A solitary process does not mean self-assurance, less arrogance. The very nature of the search is a solitary process because consciousness resides in one person at a time. Of course there are pitfalls, as Shunryu Suzuki notes, referring to Buddhism. There is the danger of ignoring the totality of a sage’s teaching because, as Suzuki puts it, “if we take pride in our own understanding, we will lose the original characteristics of Buddha’s teaching, which includes all the various teachings.”

It is not the wariness of successors and structures but the realization that an attitude of pride will prevent us from understanding even the original teaching, let alone all of the nuances of a sage’s teachings that do reverberate through succeeding generations. We are obliged to acknowledge the human effort at retaining and imitating and explicating both the original teaching and the successors’ teachings, while at the same time understanding how the successors fall short, how they may distort and misconstrue those teachings, sometimes intentionally but also simply as local and subjective adaptations.

Historical circumstances arise organically from the specifics of time, space, events, and environments. The schools and heresies over centuries are engagements with the original thought that manifest human society and culture in their many turns of fate. One school arises because of the need to address a physical requirement in a specific location, a psychological characteristic in a given era, or a change in material conditions giving rise to a specific view of the original. It is a fascinating scholarly project, however frustrating it is to the search, however diverting, confusing, exasperating to clarity.

Over the centuries, and on a global scale, the cacophony of versions and sects leads to skepticism and despair. But this reaction is itself a way of responding and engaging the sages’ original thought. The obvious analogy is to plants arising and thriving chaotically as they will, in a given habitat or niche, and other plants adapting only slowly and cautiously to the same circumstances of soil and water and air and sunlight. While just a bit further over, a slightly different or even radically different environment may exist, a micro-climate of different circumstances, and therefore different responses by the plants that arise there.

Given this inevitability of circumstance, the unfruitful tangle of scholarship not merely in identifying the mind and heart of the sage but in making their insights resonate within a given observer. We necessarily become our own teacher and our own student or disciple. We learn by experimenting, by heeding the experiences and practices we undertake, by constantly testing, always with the sages at our side. Truly this is a solitary task. But integrity comes from one conscience at a time, not secondhand from a group wherein the minds of each individual are subordinated to a contrived presentation of what is neither here nor there, neither living nor dead, neither self nor other selves, a mere shell or husk, without fruit within. The safest path, the wisest one, is to place ourselves, our questions, our aspirations, before the archetype of original teachings, to go back to the sages.