My story is like most others. I started to meditate because I was in pain. I was 29 years old and in a relationship that kept me constantly off-balance and unsure of myself. It was a cold New England January. I was depressed, though I didn’t know much about depression at the time and didn’t recognize my own condition. My depression was energetic, rather than lethargic. I felt like I had coffee running through my veins, keeping me awake all hours of the night with only black thoughts for company.
My boyfriend flirted constantly with other women. I constantly pretended to be okay. He seemed unconcerned that I was often crying. Outside the sleet and cold continued.
By late March, my thoughts were still rushing, seemingly inexhaustible. I had had enough. I didn’t want to continue feeling the way I did. I called in sick to work and walked down to the river to make some sort of plan. It seemed like the sensible thing to do.
It was late morning. I reached the footbridge that crossed the river and hoisted myself onto the high concrete railing. I wasn’t going to jump, if that’s what you’re thinking. At least not then and there. It was just a place to think, with lots of sky overhead and hardly anyone around if you didn’t count the cars speeding by on either side of the river.
Wrapped in my charcoal grey coat and plaid scarf, I sat on the railing, dangling my feet over the edge. The day was warming, and for the first time that year, you could smell spring. I looked down at the frozen river, only it wasn’t completely frozen. The thaw had started. The ice was breaking into a mosaic of white sheets floating in dark water. It was beautiful.
For months, I hadn’t been enthralled with anything other than my own painful thoughts. The ice undid that, or started to. I sat there for a long time. The clichéd sun came out. I felt its warmth on my face. I unloosed my scarf. Needless to say, I didn’t kill myself.
The dark period ended, but I feared its return, never wanting to feel that way again. I’d read enough books about Zen to think that meditation might be a way to subdue my dangerous mind. Antidepressants weren’t part of the popular culture yet. If I’d known about them, I might not have taken the Buddhist route.
On January 1st of the following year, I read some instructions and started meditating. It was 1991. I didn’t know any other meditators. Back then, most people thought it was an odd thing to do, so I kept it to myself.
As a kid, I’d experienced occasional transcendent moments, always near the water. I was hoping meditation would allow me to conjure more of those moments. I believed I had a talent for transcendence, but as I tried to imagine my cushion as a raft in an ocean of bliss, it was all struggle. Most days, my meditation was a joyless 20 minutes—an unpleasant exercise I endured to keep away depression.
That autumn, I sat a day-long retreat just to see if I could. I found a nearby meditation center and sat among real meditators. They looked surprisingly like me, which was disappointing. The retreat was my way of testing myself, and I passed. I now felt like I had a weapon to brandish should the depression return. I’d also lost any illusion that meditation was fun or easy.
With a sense of relief, I stopped meditating that New Year’s Eve. For the next dozen years, I’d meditate on and off, but never with any real perseverance. My depression returned a couple of times in a milder form, but nothing like the dark weight of that awful winter. I tried Zoloft and it seemed to work, as did running along the river.
It wasn’t until everything fell apart in 2004 that I took up meditation again with a renewed urgency. This time, rather than using meditation to defend against pain, I was willing to experience my suffering, be overwhelmed by it, and, on the good days, to explore it.