There is a Zen saying that I love:
“Before Enlightenment, chop wood carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”
This simple koan keeps popping up in my life, usually when I start getting on my own case about not being good enough or spiritual enough. There is a temptation–to which I am not immune–to see spirituality as a panacea for all your personal struggles, a magic cure-all that will finally make you happy, healthy, wealthy, and gorgeous.
Of course, spirituality is not a magic potion that makes all your troubles go away. It’s an aspect of life, a tool and a state of mind, subject to the tug of reality like any other tool or state of mind.
It’s easy to remember that when I’m doing well. But when the clinical depression I’ve lived with for the better part of forty years starts doing a flamenco dance on my emotions, Zen koans are not usually at the top of my mind.
Most of us on a spiritual path work very hard to learn, grow, and deal with our baggage. It’s wonderful to do a spiritual inventory and see how far you’ve come on your journey. It is a powerful affirmation to look at the psychic and emotional knots you’ve unraveled, sometimes through years of dedication and hard work.
But the reality is, no matter how far you get on your spiritual path, the car is going to break down sometimes. That bug going around is going to make its home in your nasal passages for a week or two. That promotion will go to your coworker, the job to your competitor–you get the picture.
I’ve struggled with depression since I was ten years old. For decades, I’ve fought the voices in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough, that life was not worth living, and that I’d be better off dead. For years, I fought that battle alone, with no armor, no weapons, and no understanding of what I was going through.
Fortunately, I found help through therapy and medication. As I grew in awareness and understanding, I increased the arsenal at my disposal. I was no longer being tossed around by depression–I could fight back.
Developing spiritually was another way I could learn to manage my depression. Meditation in a way did more for me than Prozac, and studying various philosophies and spiritual paths provided a context for my depression that allowed me to gain perspectives I couldn’t reach in therapy.
That being said, some days the depression wins. Some days all the meditation (or medication) in the world is not going to stop the voices in my head from trying to hurt me.
Further back on my spiritual path, this would have felt like failure. Now, it just feels like chopping wood and carrying water.
Life will never stop happening, no matter how spiritual you become. But spirituality can help you deal with the daily struggles in a healthier way.
If you struggle with depression or anxiety, please not go through it alone. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has resources on how to find help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a helpline that is toll-free, confidential, and available 24/7/365.