Suffering and Relief


What do you want?  What do you need?  Do you confuse the two?

Yesterday my wife and I spent a few wandering hours in the arboretum at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA  (  When you first enter the arboretum after a very cold and windy walk from the entry building you are literally smashed in the face with warm humid air that smells like spring rain.  In the midst of winter cold and dry and the feeling of a stinging face you feel spectacularly awake and back “in the moment.”  And there before you is this view:


I think visiting an arboretum in winter is a great antidepressant.  I felt like I was absorbing energy; it was like the chlorophyll in the plants had mercy on me and shared a bit of their abundance!  There’s a children’s garden there that’s a delight, and a vast collection of orchids.  And among all of the ornamental and somewhat exotic plants, there’s a section with garden plants!  What a delight it was to see tomatoes growing again, and to rub our hands on the various herbs (especially the rosemary) and get that delicious smell into our senses.

But I think the best part of the visit happened after we had been strolling about for two hours and sat down in the main atrium.  Here’s the picture I took from my seat:


I couldn’t help but notice how little the plants needed.  Sunlight, water, soil; the right climate.  That’s all, that’s everything.  The plants are present, asking for nothing but what they need, not really asking of course.  The “asking” is in our imagination, a way to give a bit of our own mindedness to the plants.  The plants grow and become what they are meant to become, and have no desire, no “wanting.”  They are content, again allowing for an injection of a human quality, to simply be, and be themselves as fully as their environment allows.  I think the Catholic monk/poet Thomas Merton captured this quality when he described the ancient carvings of the Buddha and his followers at Polonnaruwa in Ceylon.  Merton wrote about “…the silence of the extraordinary faces.  The great smiles.  Huge and yet subtle.  Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but (the peace) that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything.”  These plants, this arboretum, “knows” what it needs, and is perfect as a result.  It is only us, the spectator, who imagines that “it” wants anything else.  Of course “it” is not what the plants want, but rather our own desire to make the world in our own image and likeness, a heresy in any religion.

Do you know what you need?  Do you know what you want?  Do you know the difference?  If you do, then you know peace.  If you know this peace, then you are mindful, filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, rejecting nothing, not trying to discredit anyone or anything.



The quote from Thomas Merton can be found on page 233 of “The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton,” published by New Directions.


Clinging to Chocolate at Midnight

I had the pleasure of sharing lunch yesterday with a good friend who told me about her two year old daughter’s occasional “need” for chocolate at midnight.  Don’t worry; she made it clear that the little rascal does not actually get any chocolate at midnight, but who hasn’t had an absolutely insane need, like eating chocolate at midnight, at one time or another?  I believe we had plenty of those insane needs as two year olds, and I hope that we all had a parent as wise as my friend to make sure we didn’t get what we thought we needed.

I have to confess that I have the occasional insane need too.  Just the other day, after what seemed like the hundredth snowfall of this winter season, I actually looked at real estate listings in Florida!  Now, that might not seem like a terribly insane need but asking my wife to pack her bags and move to Florida would cause an awful lot of insanity in my life (“too many bugs and things that crawl in Florida” she says).  On top of that I have an active clinical practice, I teach in a Masters degree clinical education program that means the world to me, and I’m involved in a professional organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of Delawareans affected by mental illness.  And just a mile from my home is the edge of hundreds of acres of pristine forest known as the White Clay Creek State Park, where there are scores of trails for running and biking and contemplating.  In other words, I have a great life here in Delaware.  But in that moment, with a combination of snow, sleet, and freezing rain cascading across the windshield of my car, my feet frozen and my fingers a bit numb, moving to Florida seemed like an awfully good idea.

Did my friend’s little girl “need” chocolate at midnight?  Of course not, but in her two year old mind, in that moment, perhaps with an hungry belly, it sure seemed like it to her.  Did I “need” to move to Florida last week in the middle of that snowstorm?  Of course not, but in  my mind, in that moment, with a body hungry for warmth and comfort, it sure seemed like it to me.  Adults and children alike, we all have our moments of intense need.  The men and women of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have an acronym that can help us all to understand this phenomenon: HALT (“Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired”).  Our friends in AA have it right; when the human drive system, the part of our brain/body that “wants” is aroused, that “wanting” sure feels like a “needing” and it’s hard to resist.  Our brain/body creates a sensation that feels like an imperative.  It is as if the person is being dictated to, commanded to act in response to the brain/body’s arousal.  And when we acquiesce, when we feed the arousal of wanting we feel pleasure and relief.  If repeated often enough, the sequence of wanting, needing, feeding becomes conditioned, then habituated, and then a mindless routine leading to more pain, and more clinging.

I think that we all cling to some sort of chocolate at midnight.  It comes in many forms; for the person in a hurry, it’s the way people drive on the highway.  For the teenager with a secret crush, it’s the attention of that someone special.  For the person struggling to succeed, it might be a fantasy of wealth and excess.  The most difficult pieces of chocolate, at least for me, are those that involve losing something.  A beloved parent dies, and I argue to myself that it’s not fair, that he died before his time.  A therapy client relapses into his alcohol addiction, and I see myself as a failure, and that can’t be tolerated because I must always succeed, at least in my mind.  A dear friend’s situation changes and she has to move far away, and I want her to stay because it’s so good to have her near.  All of these things I want, all of these things I need in order to be happy.  But it’s not these things that are making me unhappy, it’s that I cling to them as if they were the conditions of happiness, and they’re not.

So instead I choose acceptance, I choose to ride a road that includes dying fathers, relapsing clients, and friends who move away.  It hurts to not have these pieces of chocolate, but the hurt soon fades, and in letting go I see new ways to honor my father, another pathway to help my client, and a thousand ways I can continue to enjoy my friendship, even at a distance.  It turns out there really wasn’t any chocolate at midnight to cling to, only my mind clinging to ideas of chocolate as if ideas were reality.  And breathing in I notice these ideas, breathing out I feel solid and stable, knowing I live and breathe as these thoughts and feelings and sensations pulse in and around me.  And that these thoughts and feelings and sensations come and go, wax and wane, are ephemeral.  There is nothing really there to cling to, just an illusion that I created by myself and can uncreate as soon as I practice acceptance.

What is your chocolate at midnight?  What ideas and feelings and sensations do you cling to?  What illusions do you have about the way things “must” be?  Don’t feel bad, we all have them.  A thousand pieces of chocolate may exist in your mind, and they may all be a source of pain for you, but in clinging to them that pain is transformed into suffering.  Let go, allow the clinging to dissolve into acceptance, and feel your suffering dissolve too.  You may still have pain, but pain comes and goes, waxes and wanes.  And in the accepting your mind becomes free to see other paths, other ways of being.



The Noonday Demon: Acedia

A friend and colleague recently used this quote from Albert Einstein in an address to students about to graduate with a Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling:

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us the “Universe, a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

Einstein is said to have responded with these words to a distraught father whose young son had recently died.  His words directed the father to turn his attention outward; to recognize that ALL persons are his closest and dearest relations, not just his son.  It is a delusion, he states, to see yourself as separate from humanity.  I am quite certain that this father experienced Einstein’s letter as a challenge, for the grief of a child’s death, one’s own child, overwhelms the soul.  Einstein’s directive to experience all living creatures and the whole of nature as equally deserving of our affection seems reasonable to do in good times, but so difficult when facing such a horror.

Such grief is not everyday grief, at least not for most of us.  All struggle with ordinary sadness, and some struggle with the torpor of acedia, the “noonday demon” depicted by ancient monks as the most troublesome of all evil thoughts.  When in the mental state of acedia one experiences a state of not caring, a sense of disconnectedness from the world, an apathy about one’s own needs and the needs of others.  Not quite depression, acedia saps spiritual joy from one’s demeanor, and leaves one in a downward spiral toward despair.  In his Summa Theologica Aquinas defined acedia as “sorrow of the world…sorrow about spiritual good” that leads to a person’s flight from the Divine good.  Acedia is in direct contrast to the spiritual joy of charity, of unconditional loving of our fellow man.

Ancient contemplatives knew this noonday demon well.  The Desert Fathers lived in seclusion, often as solitary hermits, where the temptation to become restless, bored, unable to either work or pray, can become beguiling.  Called to solitude in order to experience the living God, these ancient monks recognized that their prayer and meditation were in service of deepening their compassion for all human beings.  They were not called to isolation; they were called to experience the universality of our communion.  The greatest of these monks provided succor for the world, and left behind works of wisdom that demonstrate their profound connection to the Divine and to the world.  But at its worst this life in the desert could easily provoke spiritual lassitude, the state of acedia that all contemplative masters warn of.

Many people in our modern society experience isolation.  Though surrounded by means of communication that boggle one’s imagination, intimate human exchange is often cast aside in favor of the instantaneous rather than the emerging, the literal rather than the metaphorical, the cognitive rather than the affective, and the informative rather than the formative.  I believe that we accept this isolation mindlessly, seeking the pleasures of stimulation offered in our online age rather than waiting and watching for the satisfaction that comes from true and deep intimacy.  We are a restless people; we want more pleasure.  Should we be shocked, therefore, at our glut of gluttony, our addiction to distraction, and our need for a quick fix to our inner knowing that something just isn’t right with us?

Einstein was right; we’re delusional.  We believe we are separate from one another, and our information age reinforces this delusion with the illusions of connectedness it offers.  So we suffer, and call it depression but perhaps it’s something else, perhaps it is actually acedia. This acedia is, in some ways, deeper than depression.  It lingers, leading us to seek one stimulation after another, maybe in material goods, or in superficial relations, at times in the allure of casual sexuality, at other times in the pleasures of stimulating drugs and alcohol and the bright lights of the gambling hall, maybe to become fixated on the computer screen staring at images of light that divert our attention away from actual experiencing.  We run to the psychiatrist for a pill, and maybe it relieves for a time.  We seek out a therapist and hope for an answer, some wisdom that will make sense of it all.  Self help books, gurus, meditation halls, far flung retreats that promise answers; we forget to look within to our simple need for human connectedness, then to look outside of ourselves and offer compassion to a suffering world.  Einstein was right.  Our salvation lies with the realization that the circle of compassion must be as wide as the universe.  That we must strive to embrace all living creatures and nature in its beauty.  And that we will fail, and it will hurt at times, but the striving itself is the liberation, and that with this striving comes the foundation for inner security.

If you believe you are depressed, and find that your depression leaves you listless, not caring for your own well being, cut off from humanity, take heart in Einstein’s words.  Know that there is an answer for the delusion of separateness, for the spiritual isolation of acedia.  Reach within to find the compassion that you have, however much or little, and then reach out and allow whatever compassion you are capable of feeling to be experienced by the people around you who suffer.  In this you will find your relief.  And it will be a relief that takes enormous effort, and may be more painful than you can imagine at first as if forces you to shake off all of your illusions about disconnectedness and you see how superficial you have become.  But by finding deep connection, by coming to know that you are a part of the whole, not separate from the whole, all of your pain will make sense to you, and all of your suffering will begin to diminish.  Seek compassion, and finding all, find the ALL.

Our human compassion binds us to one another – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learned how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.



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