First of all I want to thank you for your online meditations. I try to participate in all evening practices. I am in some kind state of mind lately….that everything seems to have no meaning at all… the feeling is very close to depression, but it is different. I have a spark of ideas and intentions, but I don’t follow them. What is the meaning of doing something if it is emptiness in everything and everything will come to an end? Sometimes situations bother me, but I end up dropping them until the next time they arise again. I feel like I don’t touch the Earth with my feet. My mind still wants some clearness about what is going on…
Thank you very much for your note. It is good to hear from you. I am very glad that you are getting some benefit from the daily practice online. That is very wonderful!
It is a little bit difficult to reply to you, based only on one of these little Facebook messenger chat boxes. But what I can offer you is that many, many people these days are reporting to me a similar sense of “meaninglessness”, a “deadening“ of the senses and of the feeling and the excitement or hunger to do things or move forward on things.
This seems to be a universal symptom of the global lockdown. We don’t have social stimulation, which is so so so important for us “social animals“. Locked in our homes with the same people every day, prevented from engaging with new challenges and experiences, at one level we suffer from not being stimulated and rewarded by the neurochemical system which evolution has developed over eons and eons to “move us forward“. Our entire neurochemistry is wired to respond to social interactions – – all of our serotonin and dopamine and endorphins are, at bottom, merely incentivizing reward mechanisms urging us to move forward to new goals and achievements.
Put it very simply, we are just not having our neurochemical-signalling as stimulated as before. We are remaining inside our homes, tethered to computers. We don’t have wonderful meetings and gatherings and restaurants and activities to look forward to. So, the neurochemistry of the brain just becomes — yeah, well, the term would be “depressed“. It doesn’t mean emotional, psychological depression in the clinical sense: it’s just that the reward-mechanism that usually carries us from day to day, from week to week, is just not activated and “bringing us forward”. The neurochemistry we carry is actually a motivational network – – all striving and creating, etc., is fired by this neurochemical transfer. And when it is not regularly stimulated, we experience deflation, inertia, a lack of some motivation or purpose.
Just look at what happens with dogs or primates which are left in cages for long periods of time: their enthusiasm decreases, they are less responsive and take less interested in food. They actually become depressed, just like us! It happens, too, when we leave a pet alone for many hours every day, alone in the house, or our pet cannot interact regularly with others of its kind. We sometimes see these videos on social media of chimpanzees that are released from testing laboratories after spending many years in concrete enclosures or cages. When they are released into the sunlight, they emerge slowly, tentatively – – their senses are very, very dulled, and they are tentative and nervous. But soon, they recover their enthusiasm and their strength and their activity. They romp around ecstatically — their joy is palpable! We can actually observe them experiencing an ecstasy at being back in their natural environment. I’m sure if you took samples of their brain chemistry, you would find heightened levels of serotonin and dopamine and endorphins, all of which are associated with activity, discovery, encountering, social interaction, etc.
This is basically what is happening with so many people during this coronavirus lockdown, all over the place. A very close friend of mine who is a psychotherapist in New York, reports that so much of what his clients bring to the therapy meetings is these similar challenges as you are presenting — a sense of dreadful inertia, lack of meaning, heaviness, and lack of meaning. It is really clearly connected so much with the restriction of the lockdown situation. There is widely reported to be a sharp rise in domestic violence in Greek households since the beginning of the lockdown. Everyone is struggling through a heavy, unmotivated torpor, and they are becoming tense and lashing out at other people. Since they are not allowed to leave their homes, they lash out at the ones they feel trapped together with, day in and day out. And while there are definitely strong economic reasons why sometimes people protest the lockdowns, I would also argue that they are also craving some of that motivation, enervation, and stimulation which only comes from a good shot of dopamine, serotonin, or endorphins when human beings interact and cooperate socially. Nothing like a good protest to the neurchemical appetite, and the hope that these restrictions can be lifted, by force, if necessary. Evolutionary biologists have shown that our complex neurochemical system was designed, through evolution, to cause the kind of cooperative behaviour and inner-group/outer-group bonding that caused us to leave our merely limited kinship bonds. So it has always been vitally important for us to be stimulated by interaction with others, and with such extreme, prolonged “social distancing” — where the very action of social activity is considered one of the most dangerous vectors of this invisible disease — our incentivizing chemical structure is aborted at its root.
So, don’t worry too much about trying to understand or “figure out” this condition. There is nothing to really “understand” about it. In any event, there is really not much that we can do about it, anyway, in terms of re-establishing those social interactions which do stimulate such helpful neurotransmitters. I have heard that Germany, where I live, is probably going to enforce even stricter lockdown measures soon. There are these new, deadly variants of the virus that might stretch this whole experience out further and further into the future. And aspects of vaccine supply might push the attainment of herd immunity in populations into the next year!
So, instead of analysing it, you could find a way to increase your physical activity, either doing yoga or taking walks outside or bicycling, if your local area permits it. You are already practicing meditation – – that is wonderful, and truly one of the best medicines! Then with the technology of meditation, you can use this heaviness or deadening condition to look into the depth of your mind. “What am I?” There is nothing you need to “figure out“ – – this is currently in the hands of the scientists and the public health officials. Just be fully present with this experience you are having — good or bad — meanwhile interrogating into the nature of your mind: “What is experiencing this deadening?“ “Who is the witness?” “What am I?” This is our path, as Zen students.
There is nothing else to analyse or figure out – – it will not help you. Turn your energy from trying to “figure it out“ into just practicing. It will not completely “solve“ the issue – – that’s not what we use Zen meditation for! But it at least will help you to use this suffering to produce some deeper insight in your life.
Good luck with everything, and see you during the daily livestream.
Yours in the Dharma,