Finding reason to smile

backstorylogo5Very few people knew how far I had truly fallen and those who knew didn’t speak of it. By then I was well aware the depression was winning.

How had I gotten here?

Within a span of months, I graduated high school and left everything I knew, joining a government youth volunteer program, Katimavik.

I shared a house with a dozen teenagers in Nova Scotia, Alberta, and Quebec, and volunteered at non-profit organizations during my stay.

By chance, my first work-placement was a Tibetan Shambhala Buddhist retreat, outside of tiny rural Tatamagouche, N.S.
Surrounded by paintings and tapestries of the Buddha, lotus flowers, and dancing demons, my comrades meditated in silence. I sat in the front row on a double cushion, corrected posture, tucked my chin and loosed shoulders for the thousandth time. It felt unnatural, but then who was I to judge.

Corey Robichaud is now a journalism major at St. Thomas University (Jacqueline Gallant/AQ)
Corey Robichaud is now a journalism major at St. Thomas University (Jacqueline Gallant/AQ)

Of 12 participants, two comrades from Katimavik and I stared at the hardwood floor and attempted to focus solely on our breathing, wrestling with our thoughts. My eyes jumped from image to image like unchained dogs: incense, smoke trails, statues, vibrant colours and robed patrons.

I reminded myself and made a renewed effort to clear my mind…to let go….

Staring into space, I waged a battle beneath placid features. My mind fought with old nightmares. I countered, trivializing them as powerless thoughts and let them glance by.

You are taught that one’s personality, termed ego, accumulates habitual thought patterns to program one’s identity.
Beneath the layers of ego, beneath the void of my depression and in-between my thoughts, they say there supposedly exists peace of mind. The problem remained whether or not my mind was beyond repair.

I was fighting a war of attrition; inevitably my thoughts resurfaced and the waltz continued.

***

Prom represented the undeniable truth that nothing could make me happy.

In pictures I would never fail to notice my fake smile, in mocking contrast with my ex-girlfriend’s genuine one. I remember greeting both acquaintance and friends, somehow needing to question which was which.

The genuine happiness of others had come to make me feel sick with jealousy. Ashamed at how I felt and helpless, I resigned myself to defeated sadness.

Congratulations echoed everywhere and I could only respond by questioning their sincerity, observing their mannerisms parodied everywhere I looked. So I copied them. I was pretending. Wasn’t everyone pretending? Was I the only one who felt dirty?

I watched from my seat at a table, among side characters in my life, all acting as if we had always been best friends.

I had never even seen most of these people outside of school, I thought more than once – but wasn’t that my choice?

I held my mask all through the processions, the dancing and the conversing. I held it until it finally it broke.

I never went to the after-party. I knew that if I went, my anxiety, my anger, the whole knot of emotions would grow into full panic.

I was never quite sure, unable to trust my jaded memories.

I was not my own master, just a broken record, endlessly repeating the same note.

I felt guilty for being angry, embarrassed for feeling anything, and shame for taking what I had for granted. I could come to terms with own my self-loathing, but what truly frightened me was the concept of happiness. Distorted memories played over and over.

Why wasn’t I able to be happy? Had I ever been happy? I couldn’t think of a time, though I tried. Was I not able to? What’s wrong with me? Recognizing my weakness,’ helpless, I finally broke down.

…Just memories, just thoughts, I consoled myself…let go….

***

As a child I was bullied.

The first time, I remember, was in kindergarten during my first class. They harassed me out of boredom and instigated conflicts where I seemed to always take the blame. For reacting to taunts, for being weak, I was exiled.

Where I was socially inept and oversensitive, my bullies navigated elementary school like a sharks through bloodied-water – calm, lethal and always smiling.

I was the entertainment.

Eventually they grew bored of their games and I progressed from a target to an inconvenience. Eventually, I learned to respond to conflict with passivity and isolation.

Don’t escape…let go…

***

I remained with the same classmates until I finished high school.Subconsciously, I distanced myself from the people around me, the friends I had, numbing myself from the need to interact.

Routine escapism turned sour in my mouth over time. No longer enjoying anything, I had nowhere to run. Self-loathing won. Awake at night, awaiting sleep, my thoughts frightened me. Cynicism pierced my psyche deep into the night, perpetuating the cycle of depression, feeding itself like a living thing. I wanted to escape my own mind. My broken mind wanted to consume me.

stop struggling…let go…

***

One day, I was blessed with a one-on-one teaching session with the highest-ranking local Rinpoche, a Buddhist master, something all practitioners desired. It couldn’t be bought, only offered or earned.

He was a thin elderly man, dressed casually in thick sweater, with thin glasses suspended over lips pulled taught with a grin. He was my boss’s husband.

Having studied the fundamentals of Buddhism, I wasted no time. I asked him the hardest question I could: “What is love? Is it a biological necessity, a selfish desire; is it even an emotion? I no longer understand it.”

He looked at me as if I had suggested an absurdity and responded, “Love is mother of emotions – its seed is appreciation.

We nurture it through empathy and understanding. Still It’s nature is empty.”

Emptiness: they had mentioned it countless times, and it remained the only principle of their philosophy that frightened me.

“I don’t understand emptiness. I don’t want to feel empty. I don’t want to feel nothing.” I pleaded.

Emptiness, pointlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, all rooted in nothingness. I had fought emptiness so long, to accept it seemed suicide.

Again he looked puzzled, and somehow his smile grew wider.

“Emptiness,” he paused, choosing his words, “…is the hardest concept for practitioners to grasp, and rightly so.”

“The emptiness of the mind isn’t nothingness, but the emptiness of a bowl. The bowl like the mind is defined by its potential to hold and retain, not by its contents.”

If the bowl remains full when contents are added, it will overflow and can no longer function as a bowl. Like the bowl, our mind’s natural state is empty.”

I couldn’t think of another question. Had my answer been behind me this whole time? Was fullfillment and emptiness one and the same.

My mind was blank.

***

…Just my mind playing tricks on me, I reassured myself. Just thoughts? Still, though my thoughts were chaotic, they were linked.

Envisioning entwined threads, each pulling at my mind, I unstrung them, one by one and finally accepted them for what they were – experiences that had carried me to further understanding and further freeing myself.

I let myself go and found everything, anything and nothing.

In response, my smile was subtle, but genuine.

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