Deep in my depression I say “no” … a lot. More than any other single thought or action, no keeps me in the gap, the dark empty space between spirit and body. I can say no without even thinking about it, without uttering the word, camouflaging it by saying yes to a crutch or coping mechanism.
On the flip side, “yes” pokes chinks in the walls, allowing little beams of light to pierce the darkness. Yes reconnects me to friends and family, engages me in activities I enjoy and which bring meaning into my life. So I try to say “yes” to social offerings from friends, family. When the thought comes, “go out for a walk, or a cycle, clean the dishes or my room, finally hang that picture, or just sit out on the grass, basking in the sun,” I push down the inevitable anxiety-ridden excuses which mean “no” and urge the word “yes” into my mind.
If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then the first step is yes. And every step thereafter, too.
In this darkness, That first step doesn’t come easily. Nor the ones thereafter. This post’s title is an ironic reference to an ill-fated anti-drug campaign from the ’80s, Just Say No. Saying yes is every bit as difficult for a person in the depths of depression as saying no to drugs is for an addict. No is my addiction. I’ve probably over-ruled no a thousand times while writing this post. (I’m not kidding! It’s taking me forever!) On the plus side, that’s a thousand times I’ve said yes.
I couldn’t have said yes a thousand times if I hadn’t been listening for the thousand nos.
Sometimes, it’s sufficient to simply acknowledge when I’m saying it. At this early stage in my journey, analyzing and attempting to understand why I want to say no is unnecessary and generally unwise. That kind of activity puts me back in my head, and for me, at least, in my head is the event horizon circling around the gap. Being in my head separates me from my body and my spirit, equivalent to a big miserable “NO!”
So far I’ve said yes to creating this blog. I said yes to writing this post — a thousand times yes! — and there will be hundreds more before it’s completed and posted. Saying yes to each of these words I’m typing (and retyping, paraphrasing, reorganising and editing) is a battle against the exasperating, exhausting and visceral anxiety of no. I’d really like to check my email, or see whether my sister’s posted a move in Scrabble, after which I’d likely scan my facebook newsfeed, and maybe share some of the better memes my friends have posted, and then maybe watch one of the shows I’ve recorded… Anything to distract myself from this anxiety. Seeking an answer to that question now could distract me enough to give up on writing this article by the default of no. Instead, I acknowledge the desire to say no. Accept it. Then say yes. (Acknowledge, accept, act — sounds like another blog post.)
There’s a partially completed post in the drafts folder, an important one, a foundation piece laying out core concepts for the blog. As much as I wanted it to be Mind the Dao’s second post, I just can’t finish it. The no, no, nos overwhelmed me to distraction. (On the positive side, I finally beat my sister in Scrabble.) So I’ve set it aside for now.
While scripting my play, Prisoners back in 2000, some scenes resisted being written no matter how many ways and how many times I tried to write them. I’d set the whole script aside in frustration, and tackle the scene ferociously again later, typically with the same result. Eventually, inspiration would come, and the words just seemed to cascade like a waterfall from my fingertips. After a while, I learned to set just the scene aside, gently revisiting it now and again between working on other parts of the script. If the words still didn’t flow, set the scene aside again until inspiration finally came. It always did, often with slap-my-forehead “eureka!” moments far away from the computer. I hadn’t been “blocked”. My intuition resisted following the wrong path.
Rather than beat myself against the little nos so hard they grow into a distressing NO — resulting in the inevitable escape to a coping mechanism — I let it go, for the moment. Let the will to act on one yes go, then choose a different yes to tackle in the meantime. Being mindful of the nos allows me to recognize the proper time to act on a yes, and provides the awareness to act on a positive alternative when the time is not right. Perhaps the resistance to acting on one yes is an indication of having jumped the gun. Perhaps another yes requires attention first.
People who aren’t depressed do this all the time. They call it “prioritizing objectives”. It’s perfectly reasonable to reorganize tasks and projects in the face of obstacles.
Deep in depression, I am flooded with nos making it difficult to be reasonable about them. I cannot trust myself with no, so I put my trust in yeswhere I can, gently, firmly, with patient discipline, and allow the true no to reveal itself.
An emphatic NO arose while writing this post. That sentence about the partially completed post, the important one, the foundation piece laying out core concepts for the blog, a flurry of nos leapt from it with every word typed. In the end, I could tap out the final words only by accepting the sentence’s falsehood, by finally agreeing with no. In that instant, without having to analyze or agonize over the question of why I kept feeling “no” and how to get past that feeling, it was apparent why that other post shouldn’t be written at all.
That post intended to explain some things about the Chinese concept of Dao , for the benefit of readers who aren’t familiar with it. But as I got stuck on that line, I realised this post was already doing a much better job of that than an explanation of foundational concepts could.
Saying yes embodies these.
- I remain soft by acknowledging how easily no comes right now, without negatively judging myself, or the no, when it comes.
- I am supple when confronted with no and do not question its reason or truth, or fret that it is there, all so I may listen for the positive, and be mindful for the yes which may be hidden within.
- I pull back from an overwhelming no, let it rest, and look for some alternative action which yields yes. That alternative yes may lead me to an understanding of the no, whereas forging ahead may have ruined the whole project.
Each of these elements appears in Chapter 62 of the Dao de Jing, the ancient Chinese manual on the art of living. I found this chapter while still stuck trying to write that “important foundational concepts” sentence. Needing a distraction, I half-remembered the “thousand miles begins with a single step” as being attributable to Laozi, author of the Dao de Jing, so I googled it. And there it was, in Chapter 62, the most relevant chapter for this blog entry. Reading it helped me understand why I couldn’t write that other post.
The more connections I see in all things, the easier it is to follow The Way. The more I listen for the Dao, the more I hear it. The more I say yes, the more it becomes an aspect of my being.
What is recent is easy to correct.
What is brittle is easy to break.
What is small is easy to scatter.
Prevent trouble before it arises.
Put things in order before they exist.
The giant pine tree
grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet.
Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.
Therefore the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains as calm
at the end as at the beginning.
He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.
What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.
He simply reminds people
of who they have always been.
He cares about nothing but the Tao.
Thus he can care for all things.
(Stephen Mitchell, trans.)