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Depression and the Outdoors

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

I was standing in the shower and realized I was looking at a picture of myself. In this picture, I know there’s a world out there with the sun rising and all, but it’s heavily obscured by my state of being. I’m lost in what the Buddhists call “self-cherishing,” only able to feel how I feel — lost in my own pain, fatigue and listlessness.

And it burrows down through multiple layers, beginning with how terrible I feel, and ending with why. The million whys that constitute the house of my suffering. At some point, I couldn’t take it anymore. This was a pivotal moment. I could go way further down. Or I could just go outside.

The view (the very same one I was looking at from the upstairs shower) looked completely different. That’s because I had to go downstairs, open the slider, step outside and look up. Right away, the whole of the sky gave me its face. And I noticed a few things.

The massive trees stand where they stand. They reach up because that’s what they do, not because it’s worth it or because someone told them to or because they thought people would like them better if they did. They didn't reach up because "If you don't reach for it, you'll never get what you want." Their branches just go out and up.

Sometimes trimmers come along and cut them back. Sometimes they come with bigger machines and cut a whole tree down. But notice this: the trees next to it (next to the one that’s gone) — they don’t shrivel their branches inward for fear of what happened to their friend. They’re still there. They reach for the sky because that's what they do.

This is not to say I know what a real tree’s response is to loss. I don’t know that there isn’t a molecular grief traveling through the roots. Do they weep throughout the neighborhood, underground? Do they gossip? Do they say, “Nice haircut!” when the branches are trimmed? Or, “Congratulations!” when a new nest of robins shows up in their branches? I don’t know.

But I do know the branches of the remaining trees are still there, reaching, still sheltering birds, cradling the squirrel nests, still flowering toward the spring, greening for the summer, blazing out in the fall, and sleeping through the winter.

So I was out there in my pajamas, with my bare feet in the freezing hard grass, looking up. The air was cold and sunlit and there was a 10% off coupon’s worth of springtime in it. It was clean and it was mine for the breathing, free of charge.

It’s not like I’m happy all of a sudden. But I’m not alone anymore. I’m not cooped up with the one who only hates me, who only sees my failings. Now, I’m out in the community of plants and animals. Out in the gathering of entities that are alive, that stay alive however they do it, and never once wonder whether they’re doing it right.

It’s a thriving, active world out there and just for a moment (it’s cold!) I am part of it. I am no more or less important than any of the birds taking turns at the feeder or the squirrels speed-twirling around the tree trunks. They don’t accept or reject me any more than my hand could accept or reject my foot. I breathe this in.

I come back inside more alive. My heart is still heavy —no point in getting into why — but we have visited the World in my back yard, my heart and me. And I felt the reminder as I looked up into the sky through those branches: In the final scheme of things, none of what I’m thinking or feeling right now is all that important. And that’s both comforting and disconcerting.

Comforting because, I mean, who doesn’t want to put down the burden of grief for the world, for ourselves, for the mess we’ve made of things?

And disconcerting because, in a way, we love our trouble. It tethers us to a time and place. We locate ourselves by it. And we get attached to that location and call it our identity. Without it, we are unmoored, a solution in water dissolving into freedom we forgot was ours. This can feel freaky.

I say, fly that freak flag. Practice, maybe for just minutes, or even seconds at a time, loosening our death grip on suffering. Feel into who we might be without it.

Doing this even for a moment plants the seeds of joy. Doing it regularly creates rich, fertile soil…soil that will nourish all the branches we send up into the rest of our lives.

May all beings benefit.

(All photos: Tina Lear)


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