What follows is something I should have addressed long ago. A personal foray into the topic of mental illness is something I have refrained from discussing, partly due to my own confusion and uncertainty on the subject. However, I feel as if I have finally reached a point where my thoughts on the matter might do some good to those who are interested. My journey is never ending, and I cannot claim to be a perfect authority. But I hope I can bring some insight and wisdom to the suffering we all endure.
Being one of those unlucky individuals with probable depression, I have often wondered why I have been cursed with such a plight. The unfairness of the world weighs heavy as I contemplate the darkened state of my mind. Why do these successive patterns of negative thinking have no end? Why can I not look upon people and the world with joy and optimism? I feel that looking into my past, and my reactions to past events, is the best place to start this inquiry. There was a time when the child within me reveled in every delight. There was a time when I felt nothing but curiosity and adventure upon thinking about the world. Those bygone times have since faded into obscurity and dull memory. But why?
I can remember the day, after my parent’s divorce, when my mom told me we were moving to Kansas City. I recall the thought of leaving my family and friends behind, of switching schools and starting my life anew. At that moment, my heart was imbued with more excitement than anything else. I had yet to experience the harsh reality of my entire world being turned upside down and ripped to shreds.
My eagerness and bright-eyed wonderment lasted quite awhile. In my new environment, surrounded by new and strange people, I managed the culture-shock seemingly beautifully. It was an undercurrent of resentment, personal failure, and disenchantment with society that ultimately led to my embitterment. I feel as if I squandered the last of my energy in high school, with no future intake to supplement it. By the time college rolled around, I was running on existential fumes. It’s amazing how long I was able to deny to myself the full extent of the problem.
Life is comprised of cycles and tidal movements of energy. For a successive period of years, we can live with forward momentum, our sheer force of will and passion carrying us onward. But in a brief moment, all of this enthusiasm can change for the worse. The forward momentum gives way to spiritual friction, or resistance. This can commonly arise from some form of trauma, but in my case it also happened to be a procession of existential realizations. It may be a controversial claim, but this is the beginning of a natural process.
I suffered one of these traumatic realizations without recognizing what was happening. The act of my world turning upside down destroyed my momentum and instigated the friction. Looking back, I see how unavoidable this process was. I was indeed on the doorstep of a personal “dark night of the soul.” This was something that garnered the scorn of my subconscious. This was something that I could not accept on a truly innate level, and I therefore made it infinitely worse. I wish I could have realized my folly sooner, but alas, I could not.
One of my biggest flaws has always been misguided idealism toward the people in my life. With my cursed ability to see the potential of humanity, I unfairly hold others to unattainable standards. I see the possible greatness in everyone, but often at the expense of not accepting their imperfections. When I finally started to see that the people I loved were not living up to my idea of them, a painful and bewildering dissonance befell my soul. This comprised the gist of my existential realization. In hindsight, much of this mental shift could have arisen from simply growing up. But I believe the combination of a major life change and an evolution of my awareness created the situation.
So many of us fall into depression at some point in life without recognizing the process for what it truly is. With a healthcare industry that puts emphasis on the material and chemical, we are often left in the dark to depression’s true meaning. While we treat our symptoms in order to remain functional members of society, the underlying causes of our inner darkness are left unaddressed. According to Buddhist teachings, life itself is suffering. But the growing pandemic of mental illness highlights the singular nature of this moment in time. It is indeed a repressed spiritual nature and an ignorance of the natural cycles of the soul that are grievously dampening our wellbeing.
As younger generations become increasingly unfulfilled and lost in this materialistic society, they are taught the wrongness of depression. The dark night of the soul is a time where old concepts and attachments die. With proper guidance and understanding, it can lead to a state of renewal that is necessary for spiritual growth. The metaphor of a phoenix rising from its ashes embodies this rebirth philosophy. We all have the shadow of depression in us, but sweeping it under the rug and denying its existence lets the darkness fester and eventually consume the soul. So many of us never receive the direction we need to traverse our shadow.
Depression settles on me now, and I feel the icy clutches of nihilism reaching out. How do I combat the dark insights my tainted intuition conjures up? Am I failing, or am I working through a process that is a natural part of my spiritual development? These are the questions I ask myself on the most difficult of days. The disappointment I have toward society mirrors the disappointment I have toward myself. Hate for others is rooted in a fundamental hate for oneself.
All of my introspection has led me to the simple conviction that love is the answer. The part of our soul that lies in obscurity and depression is just as worthy of love as the part we take pride in. Only by having compassion for our inner darkness can we transcend the breaking down of tired concepts and attachments. Only by recognizing and accepting our shadow can we eliminate the power we give it through denial. Only through true love for ourselves can we fulfill our spiritual destiny.
Note: Dipping my toes into the world of podcasting, I thought it wise to play around with possible formats. This simple narration was easy for me, and it provided the experience I needed to create a better workflow in the future. I have ambitious plans for Head Junk, and I can’t wait to divulge more in my official introductory episode, which is coming soon. For now you can find my episodes on Anchor, but they will soon be available on most streaming platforms (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc). Thank you for all of the interest and support, my dear friends.
I present a short musing that marks my hopefully triumphant return from the annals of writer’s block and apathy. It’s been too long since I’ve felt proud of a single sentence in anything I’ve written, including this. But how can I better perfect myself without even trying? Anyway, I digress. It’s time to purge this nihilism from my system.
The briefness of life is akin to a single breath of air. An inhale, an exhale, and then it’s over. The effects and memory of our meager existence in the universe are left to disperse and decay. I realize that I will not be upon this earth forever, for in fact my essence is as transitory as weather in the midwest. *chuckle* In this existence, my body is merely a shell that I must maintain in order to continue experiencing the perception of this particular state of reality. But this is a highly metaphysical, somewhat dry perspective.
The simple, unalterable, absolute truth is that I’m going to die.
I’m going to be rendered obsolete, wiped clean from the collective body of society, and ultimately eliminated from the engorged pool of humanity. It’s a frightening thought, but one I’m learning to embrace. Because embracing the inevitable is the best reality check. It frames your existence within a new context. It teaches you to see the aspects of life that matter on a true and profound scale. It unveils how many years you’ve wasted on trivial pursuits of material intention.But most importantly, it’s humbling as hell.
To cope with the realization of my looming annihilation, I have searched for a greater purpose. As if in rebellion against the void, I’ve analyzed the patterns of causes and effects underlying every event, looking for some meaning. This has led to a greater awareness of actions and reactions on both a micro (personal) and macro (universal) scale. Perceiving the inherent interconnectedness of everything and everyone, with no exceptions, has not been a forthcoming achievement. I realize that my way of thinking and priorities in life are not in line with convention, which has culminated in a self-centered yearning to be understood that I struggle to overcome. It’s spiritually inhibiting.
Liberation from spiritual death is understanding that the distinction between your individuality and the rest of the universe is not absolute. At best, it’s an illusion crafted by the limited awareness and material grip of this state of reality. The intrinsic and interconnected nature of life proves that we can not exist without sending ripples of effects out into the universe. And we are most certainly not immune to being affected by the ripples around us. It is indeed a metaphysical ocean we live in, and an unstoppable force that binds us all.
I meditate on this realization when the absurdity of existence takes its toll. What lies after death may not be possible to know with certainty. It may not even be within my capabilities, for all the speculating books and Sanskrit translations I’ve slogged through. But it’s my newfound understanding that this knowledge isn’t necessary. Realizing how inherently interwoven I am with the workings of the universe gives me a place and a calling. Spirituality frames the narrow truths of nihilism within a grander, far nobler context of divine purpose.
Death is but one side of the great balancing act of the universe. The story is so much larger than any individual soul. By striving to develop a perception of our interconnectedness, we can be inspired to live in a state of unconditional compassion, liberated understanding, and servitude toward our fellow man.
The smell of rain permeates the air as I kick at the dust on the side of an old country road. I see where the early drops have already fallen, leaving specks of slightly darkened soil. A man sits on the curb across from where I’m standing, looking at the rusted heap of metal that was previously a bike. I can see his age in the wrinkles of his hands and the riddled liver spots adorning his lined face. I can feel the age of his soul in the bright understanding and gentle humor of the situation in his eyes. The raindrops fall with increasing intensity as I stand and observe. The dust on my shoes is wiped away and I feel the matted hair sticking to my brow. I have an umbrella in my hands, and I raise it up to shield myself. The mechanism sticks and I struggle to pull it open as a gust overtakes me. The old man looks to the heavens pensively as if thanking the clouds for their life-giving gift.
Without even a glance to the ruined bike, he stands to his feet with more balance than I would expect. Embracing the inevitability of the situation, he raises his arms to better feel the rain. He remains there, enjoying the forces that which he cannot control and finds peace in the moment. I look to him curiously and cease my struggles with the ill-fated umbrella. I let it fall to the ground and look up, feeling each drop caress my cheeks and run down my arms in gentle rivulets. I give in to the unchangeable tidal forces of all that is, and effectively, to the forces in my life that are better accepted than opposed. And in that moment, I am the world.
In life, we will confront obstacles. They will be seemingly unmovable, impermeable obtrusions that bring about stress and dissatisfaction. A perfect situation is all we can hope for, yet perfection is a level that will never be achieved. Circumstances will always be riddled with inadequacies and tidbits that are less than desirable. It is the inherent nature of mankind to oppose the forces in life that we cannot control. It is the nature of humanity to fear that which does not fall into our dominion. In other words, shit happens. It’s going to hurt, and possibly alter your life, but it’s going to happen nevertheless. Life is multi-faceted, meaning that nothing we encounter is ever simple, black, or white. This is the nature of suffering, the immutable strife we incur internally.
Amidst this conscious strife, there is a beauty and bliss in simply accepting the shit life throws in our direction. This does not mean we couldn’t or shouldn’t alter our circumstances for the better, but sometimes the option doesn’t exist. Sometimes the best we can do is realize that suffering is an integral part of the journey. Suffering is an inherent aspect of our spiritual growing up, you could say. Like the old man who embraced the rain because he was unable to escape it, so should we embrace the hard times that persist outside our control. Within this acceptance, we will find an unexpected bliss. I guess what I’m trying to impart is that sometimes it’s foolish to resist the winds of life.
Sometimes it’s best to fly alongside.
Special thanks to my friend Topher Otake for inspiring me.
It has recently been my pleasure to make the acquaintance of Myosen Marcia Olsen, a Zen Buddhist Priest and author of Experiencing God Through Zen Insight. Through this intriguing book, Myosen endeavors to shed light on the often misunderstood practices of Zen Buddhism. Through her own personal experiences and realizations, the author appeals to readers on a personal level. I was compelled to take her thoughts into account with an unbiased perspective, as all should. I would also like to thank Myosen for this beautiful interview. She has worked diligently on answering my every question, for which I am sincerely grateful. I will be posting my official review of Experiencing God Through Zen Insight in due time, but for now, here is our dialogue:
Ty: Myosen Osho, you are a Zen Buddhist osho, which is nearly synonymous with a priest. Could you please elaborate on what this entails? How has your history and past experiences shaped you into the person you are today? Out of these experiences, which have most enabled you to become an Osho?
Myosen: Buddha invited people to come and experience for themselves. He did not want anyone to believe blindly and expressly said so. I wish to mirror that sentiment.
Perhaps if I talk about my experiences, people will be able to relate to my experiences at least to some degree. I have not reached mastery, but I have had both experience at practice as well as enlightening experiences. I know the value of practice and where it leads.
Regarding your question about becoming an osho, here is a list of some things a student does to further his practice and help others: Practicing in intense, formal ways; meditating in moderate but consistent ways daily; practicing in everyday life; studying the master’s teaching and sutras; experiencing truth; and having a willingness to teach others are all a part of becoming osho. I studied Zen twenty-one years with a very high-level master before I became an osho. Practice involves both physical and mental efforts in tandem with the use of one’s will. Some people have become oshos in a shorter period of time. I became osho in 1989 after having supported and functioned within our own center, Joshu Zen Temple, for nineteen years along with my husband. Each person’s situation is different. Capacities, needs, and limitations vary from person to person. There are different aspects and levels of practice. Each person does what he can to practice.
Regarding what has shaped me in this life, in general I think it is partly experiences in one’s life that shape a person, but a big part of it is a person’s innate personality. People are born with greatly varying personalities which include strengths, weakness, and tendencies. I’ve had a very challenging life, but I also have a tenacious spirit. I think my tenacious and somewhat optimistic spirit helped me continue with my Zen practice.
There were a lot of good things that happened in my early life, but the bad things that happened might have broken a weaker person. Perhaps the good things helped keep me stronger, but there’s also an intangible element involved, something deeper. I think kids need all the love, moral support, and guidance they can get without dominating or squelching their inherent personalities—especially in today’s world. They also need some discipline, structure, and need to learn to handle disappointment. However, one’s character usually shines through it all.
I’ve always been drawn to the religious and spiritual. Christianity gave me some satisfaction when I was growing up, but I reached a point where it no longer served my needs. Our family life began falling apart when I was thirteen or fourteen. The family relationships became more corrosive and toxic. I found that without a happy, supportive, and cohesive family life and without happiness in life in general, my religion did nothing to soothe or bring me happiness.
I did not realize it then, but I was searching for happiness that was not dependent upon things like family happiness or worldly happiness.
When I found Joshu Roshi, I was impressed with the form of practice and the teaching of Rinzai Zen as done by him. The Roshi helped me progress. He was very refined and skilled. He was and is powerfully spiritual. The experiences I’ve had in Zen practice have been remarkable. The master also helped my husband and many others. Thanks to my practice and my master, I experienced things I could have never anticipated. I always doubted that I could do it, but I did eventually have some profound breakthoughs.
Perhaps a person must feel drawn to practice. I would say it is pretty rare that anyone could be pushed into developing an interest. On the other hand, our master was put into Zen practice by his family as part of the Japanese custom. The custom was that older sons would inherit the family property, and the younger sons would often go into a temple or monastery as a Zen monk. I believe something similar happened with the famous master, Ikkyu, who entered a Zen temple at five years of age. The Japanese culture supported and encouraged this. So you can see that masters have come forth from such a culture.
In our organization, a person who has studied Zen sincerely and long enough with our master and has put forth the effort to help others through establishing a Zen center and thereby teaching others will usually be ordained an osho. When one becomes osho, he is given formal authority to speak and expound about Zen practice. However, an osho who has not been ordained a master is not a master. We have about twenty-five oshos in our overall organization, none of whom has become a master. There have been thousands of Zen students who have come and gone.
Ty: Throughout your book, it was mentioned several times that words are not the way, but merely guide posts along the way. If the ultimate goal is to experience Dharmakaya, do you believe that Experiencing God Through Zen Insight could be a helpful source for students of Zen?
Myosen: Some of my friends who are experienced Zen students and oshos liked my book very much. The book may inspire people who are seekers or who are open in general or who are inclined to go in this direction. Some who find their lives are unsatisfactory may be interested. There is the possibility that the book could motivate someone to practice Zen. It may help an interested person to get an idea of what to expect. It might also provide an interested person who reads the book a little bit of background from which to begin asking questions. I never knew what questions to ask; I just delved into practice. I began reading books on Zen when I was around fifteen or sixteen, but I did not begin Zen practice until age nineteen. There was a famous master who did not start until age sixty.
Ty: You experienced a Christian Upbringing. Do you feel that this has allowed you to approach others of varying religions with Zen concepts, keeping in mind that all spiritual paths share core values?
Myosen: I believe the book gives people educated in the Western culture and Western way of looking at religion something about Zen to get their teeth into and maybe provides a starting place to be able to relate, just a tad, to the Zen mind. I firmly believe that the teachings of Buddha and Christ are much closer than people realize. The book provides some fairly strong correlations from a very different perspective. Human beings tend to pigeon-hole and categorize everything into neat little boxes, all of which are rigidly separate from one another.
Ty: There is a point in your book where you discuss two forces of the universe: expansion and contraction, or masculine and feminine. What have you deduced about homosexuality? It is quite possible that humans are inherently attached to being male or female. Although, perhaps love can transcend gender. What is the difference between spiritual love and attachment?
Myosen: Spiritual love occurs spontaneously when one has dissolved self. A whole new world opens up. Spiritual love does not move from one object to another. One experiences infinite love. Human love is more attached love coming from the particular mind and heart of an individual. Both kinds of love are good, but when we practice Zen sincerely, human love becomes more balanced, less conditional, and less selfishly attached—happier and freer.
I have known many homosexuals, most of whom have been wonderful people—industrious, very intelligent, congenial, energetic, and productive. I like them just fine. Homosexuals have the same spiritual capability as everyone does. We human beings should not expect the world to change for us. It is more spiritually productive to look at oneself and work to find happiness that goes beyond the human world. Everyone experiences some kind of rejection or prejudice. I’ve had plenty of that in my life. I’ve worked around it and have meditated through it. It is actually conducive to one’s spiritual growth.
Ty: We both know that theorizing and idealizing will not provide results in the ultimate attainment of Dharmakaya. However, you discussed something called Mahayana Democracy. Could you elaborate on this? What is the usefulness in conceptualizing if we know that the world is inherently imperfect and always will be?
Myosen: Even though Zen practice focuses on the individual, it is possible for mankind to evolve as a whole, with many beings making efforts to evolve spiritually and intellectually, thereby uplifting the culture. Some countries have been examples of this, even though they never reached “perfection”, there is an intangible perfection.
I think it is instructive to examine ourselves and our ideals and longings as human beings. I think it also illustrates what is possible, even though highly improbable. I think there is value in expressing our ideals about a perfect world, even if it is futile. Then we must throw it away completely and not attach to it. That is important.
This painful world is our spiritual growing ground—just as it is. Even though the world is imperfect and we are imperfect, we can realize and experience perfection—right in this imperfect world. I personally would love to see all the people of the world work toward a higher level of spiritual attainment and stop enslaving and hurting one another in so many ways. But then, it would be immature of me to expect the world to change to suit my personal desires. I can change myself. I can attain happiness that goes beyond the world and is not dependent upon any particular worldly conditions or manifestations, not dependent upon people smiling at me and affirming me.
Ty: Suffering is an intrinsic aspect of life. Everybody carries the burden of an overflowing chalice. Our minds are ridden with worry, anxiety, fear, and attachment. Many are skeptical that Zen practice can make a difference, and many believe that there is no time for such “idleness” in their lives. How can we incorporate mindfulness in our every day actions? How can simple endeavors such as washing dishes become spiritual practices?
Myosen: It is up to the individual, of course. Everyone is different. There are different avenues for different people. Some may consider Zen practice as “idleness”, but many appreciate the dimension it has added to their lives. I have found it indispensable.
Yes, the human mind is full of worry, anxiety, fear, and attachment. When we are feeling those things, that means we are experiencing just that—the human mind. We naturally want to experience something greater, the Absolute Mind, to rise above suffering. After experiencing the Absolute, we come back to the human experience feeling revived, invigorated, and more balanced, more at peace. The cycle continues, going deeper and deeper with practice, depending upon the individual. It is a struggle, a worthwhile struggle. It is a struggle that leads in an upward spiral, not a downward struggle to despair, even though it may get difficult.
In Zen practice it is important to unify with our everyday activities such as washing dishes, sweeping the floor or cooking dinner. We utterly dissolve into those activities. That is all that exists for that moment. Then we go on to the next activity.
Zen practice has helped to keep me grounded. It helps me to cope with life. Zen practice has helped me counter stress. My practice has helped me in many ways, from dealing with stress and emotional problems—all the way to having wonderful, spiritual experiences at times. It depends upon each individual, how his particular situation unfolds, and how much consistency, patience, and energy he can put into his practice.
I am an ordinary person. I have used it in my life and have proven it for myself. There is no magic bullet that will wipe away all suffering in one fell swoop. There are some things in our lives that must unfold and with which we must deal. The question is: How does one deal with the good times and the bad times and stay in balance—not attaching to the good and only seeking the good or exciting things in life? One can thoroughly enjoy the most mundane things in life. This is the way to maturity.
Ty: For those who are curious about Zen, what knowledge would you impart before they embark upon this journey?
Myosen: One cannot be dependent upon society, the group, or “group think”. One cannot attach to that way of thinking in Zen practice. One must free himself from society, culture, and his upbringing in order to discover his True Nature or True Self. One can function more happily in society and culture—just as it is—when he has freed himself from it.
Zen practice is an individual endeavor. Progress takes place within the individual. We do help students via the structured discipline and the teaching, but the Zen student must make his own efforts. The student gets help from the “outside”, but he must apply himself to change himself on the “inside”. That’s why it is said that the practice is an individual endeavor.
If you enjoyed this interview, you can learn more about Myosen Marcia Olsen here, and purchase Experiencing God Through Zen Insight at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Crisp, Ty (2013) Interview with Myosen Marcia Olsen
I was surrounded by a thicket so dense I could almost feel the rhythmic throbbing of hearts in every tree. The needles beneath my feet padded every footstep, and my tread was silent. I could hear the birds chirping their songs of joy and sweet content, careening through the skies like angels patrolling the heavens. Dawning bright and glorious, sunlight crept through the branches. I reveled in these sporadic windows of light and warmth. I felt the thrum of life in every direction, and it was invigorating. Good morning Serenity, I thought to myself.
There was a friend hiding somewhere in this forest of cedar trees. My friend and your friend; a friend to us all. Sometimes I could hear her calling from a limb above my head. Or maybe she was whispering from just behind my back. Every time I looked up or turned around, her kind cajoling ceased to invite me. Her presence wavered in and out of my consciousness elusively, like a guttering candle in the wind. I danced on the threshold of frustration, and somehow I felt that this would be the greatest impediment to my quest. Most could never find their friend in the forest. Some searched, but always in the wrong direction. This friend did not like to hide, for it was not her nature. The wanderers of the forest had merely forgotten how to look.
My passage through the thicket was halted when I met a wounded tree in my path. This broad cedar bore an impressive girth and towered above its neighbors. How lucky I was to witness this goliath; still a King of the Wood however marred his flesh had become. I gazed upon a charcoal wound spanning the diameter of his trunk, stretching from the base to several feet above my head. The King had been a victim of fire, in similarity to how the wanderers had been victimized by life. I had garnered many scars of my own throughout this search for a friend. The forest had dealt its blow in numerous ways, and I grew wary of the endless suffering. Deciding to break from the pain and momentarily renounce my title of seeker, I sat down beneath the cedar tree. Crossing my legs, I thought: There is no place like here and now.
A lesson can be found within the needles and bark of trees, like the one I was leaning my back upon at that moment. These envoys of wisdom toil with the natural forces of the greater wood, collecting garish wounds in the process. However, they do not suffer from such adornments. The King at my back lived on, healing ever so slowly with lasting remnants of his scar. Yet he did not fight back, for all trees know that scars are inevitable. This unconditional acceptance was captivating and held me in sway. This compliance with the whimsical and unpredictable nature of life was compelling. In an act of capitulation, I turned inwards and yielded to the throes of existence. It was then that I found my friend. She had never been hiding, but merely resting below the surface of where I chose to search. My quest to seek the hand I wished to hold was over, and it ended under the cedar tree.