Booming dunes, depression, and the freedom and poverty of Zen

the ascent

One January morning 12 years ago in Los Angeles, I was driving to the dump in a pickup truck with a friend, depressed. My rowdy friend was weary of my malaise. In between throwing emptied beer cans out the window, he suggested that rather than continue wallowing in suffering, that we might instead celebrate the fact that we were still alive and free to move around. “Don’t be such a chickenshit,” he said.”

Curious to experiment with this novel approach to my persistent blues, I suggested a trip to the Kelso Dunes.

The Kelso Dunes are one of seven North American dune fields that produce “booming dunes.” The cascades of sand that walkers dislodge set off vibrations that sound like low-flying planes, and feel like standing front and center at a Sunn O))) show. We began our ascent after dark under a waning gibbous moon, our heads percolating with fifth kingdom remedies. Six hundred feet of elevation gain in shifting sand and howling wind took us around two hours. We descended in a fraction of the time, hooting and hollering as we tumbled down the dune’s face. A cold night sleeping in the open desert under a sky rippling with shades of deep purple followed.

Adopting this approach to depression – staying mobile in spite of anxiety and unpleasant thoughts – has been a life-changing practice. Embracing impermanence and indulging in the fullness of the present moment didn’t solve any of my problems, and it led to a cold night sleeping in the open desert. Six months later it meant leaving my life as a writer in Los Angeles to become a medic with Marfa EMS in a remote region of Far West Texas. After a few wild years in the Big Bend, the path led to residential practice at the Indianapolis Zen Center, and now to a rich and comparatively quiet existence, happily married in East Central Indiana. I’m still depressed sometimes, but I’m better at taking care of the depression, and not seeing it as a barrier to life.

I wouldn’t have talked about it this way at the time, but in hindsight these photos remind me of one of my favorite Alan Watts lines, from The Spirit of Zen (1936): The freedom and poverty of Zen is to leave everything and “Walk on,” for this is what life itself does, and Zen is the religion of life.

Thanks, Dave.

self-portrait
summit contemplation 1

summit contemplation 2
the morning after

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