When Sadness Becomes Identity

I date a lot of depressed people. I am friends with a lot of depressed people. I used to be depressed people. Recently, in fact. This time last year, I was if not “depressed,” I was certainly in a depressive mind state.

I just got an email I wrote myself a year ago (courtesy of futureme.org.) Reading it now in hindsight, I can see the mechanisms of my mind that were trapping me in my own sadness but I couldn’t see them at the time.

I’ve published a lot of personal shit on this blog, but I gotta be honest — I find this email to be one of the more embarrassing. Perhaps other people won’t think it’s so bad, but reading it makes me squirm.

Hey Emma,

How are you doing? I’m writing you after my sesshin, full of emotions and pain and sadness and exhaustion.

I feel empty and sad. I’ve started to see how I’m living other people’s dreams and not my own, how my self expression and gender expression have been so constrained by my desire for love.

Have you created anything you loved?

What grew from the empty, open space I now feel in my heart?

Did you ever get that chest tattoo?

Are you at Tassajara, and unable to read this for months?

Do you still like the song my paradise is you?


(Edited to remove questions about my crushes & friend drama b/c that’s too much even for me to put up.)

I had a realization like, 6 months ago when I was meditating. Not the realization, just a standard one. My mind kept being drawn to an image of myself as some sort of “enlightened master” even though I tried to set my focus away from those images. I would see myself as this wise person, with students who adored me, and then I felt ashamed that what I wanted out of my practice was so crass. Ashamed that I cared so much about receiving adoration from other people, that to be loved was really my deeper motivation behind my supposed “spiritual” seeking.

Yet despite my embarrassment, my mind continued to be drawn in that direction. So, I asked myself “what is the ego you are hanging this accomplishment on?” and suddenly I went flat. The world went flat, actually, for a few days. I had seen people as these little “soul bubbles” who accumulated “accomplishments” that added to their greatness and beauty. We pulled life experience into our souls the way we pull beautiful objects into our houses, and I felt like if I adorned myself enough with beautiful accomplishment objects, then I’d be worthy of love.

If I accomplished the ultimate spiritual thing, if I became enlightened, then I could have students who adored me. Who loved me. Then, I would finally be worthy of love.

I had some un-articulated sense of what enlightenment might feel like too, which I guess was like a combination of “falling in love,” “getting into MIT” and “solving a really hard math problem” all at once. I was chasing that feeling which I imagined to be the delineator between me as an ordinary person and me as a “special” person.

But when everything went flat, I saw how foolish I was being. I didn’t have a soul bubble. That feeling I wanted would never come, because I could never transform myself into an enlightened being because there was nothing there to transform.

Seeing that the ego is empty is often described as a wonderful thing, but I found it horrifying. At the time, I was meditating about 3 times a day, and I immediately stopped. When I went out and looked at the world, the people around me looked flat. All the soul bubbles had been popped, and it seemed like the magic I had always seen in the world around me had been taken away. I hated it so much, I consciously made the decision to return to my delusions. I started playing video games more to give myself “little accomplishments” I could pull into my “soul bubble.” I wanted to recreate my ego even though I knew it was fake. I could forget that I knew it was fake. I had maybe always known it was fake anyway? Things could just go back to the way they had been.

However, one thing happened during this time that was very fortunate. I was reading the Genjokoan by Dogan for a class, and I got to this section:

When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass.

Genjokoan by Dogan, translation by Shohaku Okumura in Realizing Genjokoan

The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass.

For a fleeting second, it seemed to me that I’d gotten it backwards. I had imagined ourselves as little bubbles whose beauty was illuminated from the inside from the light of all the things we had pulled into ourselves. However, when I read that line, it seemed more like the entire vastness of the universe was reflected in our bodies.

I thought our souls were on the inside, I wrote a friend who was spending time as a monk at the Tassajara monastery, but now I think maybe our souls are on the outside.

I was too afraid to go further than that though. I stopped meditating. I told my friend about how scared I was, how I knew I probably should keep meditating but I wasn’t going to. My friend was so sweet. They told me that maybe one day, when I was ready, I could face these things on my own terms. Maybe one day I will, who knows.

My worldview basically returned to how it was before, but a few things changed. One thing that didn’t leave me was a sense of emptiness at accomplishment. Just today, I got a Tinder message from a guy who told me I was intimidating because I’d gone to MIT.

It is not possible for me to describe how meaningless my MIT degree is to me. I’m glad I went. I met some great friends, experienced some interesting things. I guess it helps me get hired. But, it doesn’t say anything about me. It doesn’t add to my light. It’s just something I did once a decade ago, when I was a completely different person.

Similarly, the idea of spiritual accomplishment has become hollow. I still fantasize about being some teacher with adoring students, but now I’ll usually ask myself the question “are you lonely?” As my Zen teacher told me, when we become preoccupied with thoughts of past or future, we are usually avoiding something in the present. To take the focus off the fantasy and into the now is to deprive the fantasy of its power.

When I re-read my email, when I talk to depressed friends, I see a commitment to the fantasy. Take, for instance, my question “What grew from the empty, open space I now feel in my heart?” To some degree, the “empty, open space” I felt was a type of “accomplishment” I wanted to pull into my soul bubble. Sure, it was a “bad” thing, but it was still something I believed would make me more beautiful in some way. You can tell from the question that I ultimately expected to get something, or to grow, something from it.

One of the hardest things about becoming happy was that I didn’t get anything for my sadness. My suffering didn’t earn me anything. Just, I stopped being sad, and then I was like that’s it? To be fair, I did actually learn many things from being sad, but what I really wanted was a big catharsis. I wanted some emotional high that would be so amazing it would make my suffering worthwhile. For a long time, I clung to my sadness because I wasn’t willing to give it up until that catharsis came, until I got what was owed me for my suffering. Unfortunately, nothing was owed me so I was just clinging to my sadness for a moment that would never come.

A type of emotional high many people seem to be seeking is the romantic high. I’ve met so many people who say what I had was so intense, and I’m worried I’ll never experience that intensity again.

I went on a Tinder date with a woman once who told me about her coming out story. She had been a married Christian who had fallen in love with a female coworker before having a passionate 2 week affair that ultimately led to her divorce. Ever since then, she’d been seeking that kind of high again, but failing. She was disappointed with our date, I could tell. I might have been nice, and fun, but I wasn’t marriage obliteratingly orgasmic.

I smiled at her anyway, and said “well, call me if you want.” She didn’t. To open herself to having a good time with me would have been to open herself up to rewriting her past.

I’ve had 3 men tell me that they loved me so much that clearly we were meant to be together, you know, “love of your life” kind of style. But I’m just like… the fact that there were 3 of you is really hurting your case. Sure, I felt passionately for those guys, but apparently I’m capable of passionate feelings for many men. Why aren’t they able to feel this for many women?

What I see, is that a lot of these men don’t really want to move on. You know the saying “better to have loved and lost than never loved at all”? We all want to be the recipients of an intense passionate love that “means” something. Well, a lot of people would rather imagine that they experienced this transcendental love and lost it than admit that maybe… that love wasn’t quite as transcendental as they remember.

The interesting thing about the 3 men who became obsessed with me is our relationships really weren’t that interesting. There was a lot of video game playing, and netflix and chill (or, “blockbuster and chill” since some were long ago.) I’ve noticed that, unlike me, they really romanticize a lot of the mundane shit we did and forget about the boring moments. We weren’t sitting around BLISSED OUT ON LOVE all the time. So, when they date someone new, they’re basically comparing the random moments of their new relationships to the emotional highs of ours. Which… yeah, is a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction.

Of course, for their first relationship, they had nothing to compare their current relationship to so they didn’t have this problem.

On some level, this is all about storytelling. Turning our lives into an “ad” for ourselves so that when we’re down, we can say “well, I might feel like shit now — but remember when I did that thing? That was really something.” It is so much safer to have lived intensely in retrospect. It is safer to have loved in retrospect. To pull our experiences in as soul-bubble accomplishments instead of letting life flow in the moment now. Rather than letting ourselves explore new feelings for someone new.

To open up to the beauty of the moment requires letting go of some of meaning we ascribe to our memories. It means we have to stop holding out for the feelings we wish we were having and being open to feeling the feelings we are actually having. Because you never know! Who knows what me and that woman would have done on our second date — certainly not her. She rejected me after 2 hours because I wasn’t someone else. Because the way she felt for me didn’t fit into the story she wanted her life to have.

She wanted a passionate intense romance with a fantasy beginning, not a tinder date. I didn’t affirm the identity she wanted, so she rejected me. When I do affirm the identity people want, they become obsessed with me.

Yet both mindsets lock us to unhappiness. To be open to new experience, we must hold our identities lightly. We must not say to ourselves “I don’t do that,” or “my love affair doesn’t start that way” because then it immediately becomes true. First loves are often the easiest because we haven’t come up with a list of reasons to reject people yet. We close ourselves to wonderful new experiences, and in our closedness, become depressed as our energy becomes stale.

“I could never love him.”

Why not?

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