Personal Reflections

Depression, Zen, and barber shops

Reddish-black dyed hair

The last time I had a haircut was back in February. Since then I have cycled through various iterations of dyed hair: ginger, blonde, grey, blackish-blonde, reddish-black. I simply love the attention that I get from dyeing my hair after each episode – and from the general perception that people who know me get from it that I do “crazy, spontaneous things”. The truth is that it helps my self-image a lot to be perceived as outré.

I have a weird relationship with my self-image. I meticulously cultivate a persona that ensures that I get attention from others. I do genuinely like having a different taste in culture, although I do wonder whether at some point this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (I like different things because I like being different?) I go through intense phases of self-loathing despite outwardly denying this ever happens. There are times when I feel intense hatred towards my parents for what I feel was a lackadaisical attitude in parenting in my childhood, sometimes I feel indifferent towards them, and yet other times I feel a needy yearning for their approval. My relationship with my parents is another one of those things I am incredibly uncomfortable with because I don’t know myself where I stand. When I said in my last post that I could not decide whether to fly to India or not, this was partly the reason: I wasn’t sure whether I was ready to face my internal demons on where I really stand with respect to my parents. (I took the decision to solider on.)

Thus far I have shied away from ever mentioning this publicly, but you know what, fuck it: I suffer from depression. It’s become a fact-of-life that I have struggled with for years, along with associated problems such as behavioural and eating disorders. I consider cognitive behavioural therapy to be “for losers”, even though I rely on it – and medication – massively as a crutch to remain a functioning individual. I loathe how being on medication appears to make my emotions ‘flatline’ while generally keeping my mood stable in a way that I cannot without their help. Most of all, I hate the side effects that come with taking antidepressants – which have been various depending on the specific antidepressant that I’m on at any given time.

What has been hardest is that I’ve never let on that I suffer from depression, except to a handful of friends; although of late I’ve let more and more friends in on this ‘secret’. Acknowledging what I see as a ‘defect’ in myself simply did not sit well with my curated ‘public’ persona. My biggest worry with telling anyone about this has been that I don’t want to be pitied and, well, when I do tell friends what are they going to do about it anyway? Depression is, ultimately, a problem that I need to deal with myself. Still, I’m grateful for friends who over the years have lent an ear to me in my darkest hours.

The past few months have been incredibly harsh as I went through a major depressive episode. What really freaked me out is during this time I had thoughts of self-harm – and I usually haven’t been that ‘bad’ to have thoughts of harming myself or others. This was driven less by self-loathing and more by a lack of any kind of feeling during this phase, to the extent that I wanted to hurt myself just to experience ‘something’. One of the reasons why I started letting more friends know what I was going through is because I was incredibly scared of losing grip and actually doing something stupid. I put on a brave face regardless because I didn’t want my friends worrying about me, but it was nice to know that there were people who went out of their way to simply meet up with me and chat about what I was going through (and what was going on in their life).

Part of this self-image cultivation is my online identity. It crept up in a way that I didn’t even notice. I was timing posts on Twitter or Facebook so that I knew they got maximum exposure: craving for retweets, likes, and shares consumed me and I when I got them, I genuinely got a kick out of it (no matter how much I denied it). That’s what I was on about when I wanted to disconnect during my trip to Turkey.

Thus the cycle continues. I feel smug about how self-aware I am, feel smug about recognising my own feeling-smugness-of-my-self-awareness and so on as I take one step forward two steps backward on what I keep thinking is a path towards self-actualisation and personal epiphany. For all the noise that I make about changing as a person, I don’t know how much of it is just that – noise – and how much I’ve really changed.

My takeaway from being more open about what I’m going through has taught me one thing: that a lot more people than you think suffer from mental illnesses, from personal experiences that I found out when I told my own experiences. Am I wrong to feel somewhat comforted by this fact? I don’t know. What I do know is that mental illnesses are still an awkward topic, and there are people who look at you weirdly for it…but equally there are also a lot of people who are very supportive about. Still, the anxiety of not know which of these two camps someone falls in and the ‘shame’ of admitting a ‘defect’ in yourself are what makes it hard to be forthcoming about this.

When I started writing this blog post, I didn’t mean to be this candid. My initial draft was vague – my usual bullshit – but the more I thought of it, the less I was arsed about gently skirting around the issue. It feels cathartic to get this out – for better or worse.


Wookie Jesus...or Chewbacca Christ?
Wookie Jesus…or Chewbacca Christ?

I have considered myself to be a radical atheist for a long time. I started off with wishy-washy agnosticism because much of the worship done in my Hindu family didn’t make sense to me. What took me over the edge is the example of people such as Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens whom I look up to as idols. (The irony of using the word ‘idols’ in a discussion about atheism is not lost on me.) Dawkins’ The God Delusion truly cemented my belief – or should I say the lack thereof – in a higher deity.

Around the time I read The God Delusion, I read many religious texts and books on religion. Despite my then firmly cemented ‘belief’ in atheism, Zen Buddhism stood out for me because it appeared to me to be more of a philosophy rather than a religion. My appreciation of Zen in the beginning was primary from a literary standpoint (much like my appreciation of other Japanese literary forms). I loved how esoteric Zen koans were. How quaint!

Yet, I held back from seriously looking into Buddhism because my impression of it was spoiled by whatever little exposure I had to it within India or at school. The school of Buddhism that I was exposed to is known as Hinayana, which is rigidly structured as an old-school religion with rituals, idol worship, saints, et al – everything that I despise about religion in general. This impression was not improved during my travels around South-East Asia either, as the countries there primarily practice schools of Buddhism descended from Hinayana. While I acknowledged there were certain aspects of even this form of Buddhism that I found appealing, the negatives far outweighed the positives.

I took a closer look at religion during this year’s major depressive episode. (Yes, I really was that desperate.) What I discovered is that there is another major school of Buddhism called Mahayana that has significantly different attitudes towards ritual, i.e., many sects within this school do not indulge in the very things that had previously turned me off from Buddhism. Through a colleague I knew at my industrial placement year, I had heard of Sokka Gakai – a school that practices Nichiren Buddhism. I had misgivings about this because their Wikipedia entry painted them as a particularly radical sect which believed every other sect of Buddhism was wrong, a stand that I found laughable for a ‘compassionate’ religion like Buddhism to take.

The fundamental belief of Nichiren Buddhism is that every Buddhist text other than the Lotus Sutra is invalid. They express this faith in the Lotus Sutra by chanting a phrase – Nam myoho renge kyo (which roughly translates to “I dedicate my life to the Lotus Sutra”) – over and over.

I joined a session of Sokka Gakai to see for myself what it was like…and I hated the experience. To me, the whole premise of chanting a mantra and “giving yourself up to the Lotus Sutra” sounded much like how Alcoholics Anonymous asks you to admit that you’re powerless and give yourself up to a higher power. I tried chanting at home for a couple of days, and still didn’t enjoy the experience. It went against the very core of my beliefs, the rational side of me.

I planned to simply walk away from Sokka Gakai, because it just wasn’t for me. But the person who introduced me to the group – a lecturer at my university, actually – was such a nice person that I wanted to meet with him in person to tell him that it wasn’t for me. That was all I planned to say, but in that meeting I found myself being far more candid about how the rational part of me simply didn’t accept a practice such as theirs.

He advised me read a book which had helped him overcome his own doubts when he started chanting: The Buddha In Daily Life by Richard Causton. Again, I was sceptical whether this would help at all due to reservations I had against Nichiren Buddhism’s basic premise. I gave the book a try anyway, expecting that I would quickly find it to be something that I wouldn’t want to waste time on.

I was surprised to find that I quite enjoyed the book. Yes, it’s primarily about Nichiren Buddhism; yes, it is peppered throughout with references to nam myoho renge kyo; yes, I still did not agree with that part. What really stood out for me though is the first section of the book which is about Buddhist philosophy in general – and to date I haven’t read any book or come across any resource which explains this in a no-nonsense, pragmatic way like it does. The book first dispels commonly held impressions that people have about Buddhist concepts such as karma, reincarnation, nirvana et al are ‘supernatural’ in any way. Causton acknowledges that much of the core message of Buddhism has been lost into rituals and supernatural stories, because early forms of Buddhism used these as a method to ‘ease’ followers of Hinduism and other stricter religions into the concepts of Buddhism. He also reconciled scientific beliefs with concepts of Buddhism. Stripped down to its core concepts, Buddhism is a philosophy and a way of understanding the human psyche.

I still didn’t agree with the latter half of the book, which then goes on in a repetitive drone about how chanting their mantra is The One and The Only Way. However, the core concepts of Buddhism are so lucidly explained by Causton that when I revisited books on Zen (such as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh; I’m also currently reading The Way of Zen by Alan Watts) everything made so much more sense. The problem with these books on Zen – and Zen in general – is that they either throw a lot of righteous-sounding terms at you and/or are written in an obscure manner which can be quite daunting for a beginner. In a way this is to be expected, as Zen places a huge emphasis on direct teacher-to-student transmission, eschewing the written word. Still, once I had read the interpretation from Causton’s book, everything made so much sense. You know that moment when things just click and everything falls into place in your head? I had one of those moments.

I’ve started reading a lot more about Zen, and reading it more seriously. Zen Buddhism has helped me make an uneasy peace with this internal strife I have with my self-image. What I like about Zen is that it is so pure and abstract to the point that it’s just a philosophy and not a religion – a point that many Zen masters take an effort to stress. Much of its focus is on zazen (mindful sitting meditation) as a way of getting in touch with your “inner self”. Zen is very much about finding answers within yourself, living in the moment, and being comfortable with who you are.

I won’t lie: zazen is hard. Very hard. Sitting meditation – “just sit” – without doing anything else is such an anathema for anyone brought up with Western cultural values of rationalism that it feels like a waste of time. At first. I found myself saying that “Oh, I don’t have time for this” even to meditate for a couple of minutes a day.

Slowly, though, it has started making sense. I joined a meditation group that meets in our university called New Buddha Way. While this group doesn’t subscribe to any particular school of Buddhism, roughly it is aligned with Mahayana concepts. Getting into a weekly schedule by going for these meetings helped into getting on with a routine for meditating.

The deeper that I study Zen, the more convinced I am about this as a philosophy for life – primarily because it’s so open-ended and abstract. It’s hard to get a hang of but once you ‘get’ it, Zen feels incredibly refreshing. More importantly, it co-exists happily with my belief as a ‘radical atheist’. My advice to anyone to wants to take the plunge? Read Causton’s The Buddha In Daily Life first, but ignore the bits about Nichiren Buddhism. Then, read a book from any of the Zen masters mentioned in this list of beginners’ Zen books.


Barber shop in India 1
Photo credit: Taylor Sloan

When my mom asked me to get a haircut when I came back to Delhi, my first reaction was that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do it because much of my reddish-dyed hair were the tips / fringes, which had previously been blonde and thus retained the dye the most. Getting a haircut would mean much of what would be left behind would be my natural hair colour (black). I hated the prospect of losing a talking point among friends whom I’d inevitably meet on this trip.

I stumbled upon that barber shop quite serendipitously while on a quick trip to one of the local markets for some stationery. It was one of those old-school barber shops you find all across India. A slim, gaudily-painted door proclaimed they served “ladies and gentlemen” customers.

It looked just like my memories from childhood. The floor was littered with yet-unswept swathes of cut hair. There was a tattered cushioned bench on which a guy was waiting – probably for his turn – next to a stack of well-thumbed and newspapers and dog-eared magazines. The newspapers are invariably one of the Hindi language dailies – Hindustan, or Navbharat Times, or Dainik Jagran – and the magazines are invariably one of the Bollywood gossip mags – Filmfare, or Stardust. There was a small CRT television on a stand in near the ceiling in a corner playing a C-grade Bollywood film…the barbers in presence had one eye on the TV, and another on the task at hand. The air smelled of cheap shaving cream and talcum powder. And the walls were a weird hue of blue (just like in the picture below!).

Photo credit: Arti Sandhu
Photo credit: Arti Sandhu

Much of the upper-and-middle-class clientèle – in which I should count myself – migrated away to ‘classier’ barber shops that sprung up as vast sections of Indian economy moved up the ladder in the late 90s. I took a snap decision to get a haircut at this particular shop I was in. I wanted to relive that experience from childhood, self-image considerations be damned. And, just as I’d expected, I got a head massage when my barber was done. (It’s not as dirty as it sounds. Honestly. Look, just watch this ad…about 1:30 in.) You simply won’t find the same experience anywhere else other than India. That was 50 rupees well-spent – and I didn’t mind losing my dyed hair.

I realise that the link between this section and the previous ones is tenuous at best. My point is that I’m typically a person who obsesses about my personality and body image, how others perceive me, and what impact that has on my self-esteem. Through Zen, I have slowly – albeit tetchily – learned to let myself go and ‘be’. I am usually one ‘persona’ in public, and an almost-different person in private. Over time, I found these two identities to be increasingly at odds with each other as I tried to cope with depression and other behavioural / mental health issues. Perhaps because of what I see as a neglect towards my state-of-affairs from my parents I crave for attention from my peers instead. Perhaps my ‘issues’ are something else altogether and I don’t realise that.

This state of ‘being’ is something incredibly alien to me…that I still find myself fighting it. There are times when I find Zen incredibly stupid…and yet I’ve found myself grasping back at it as a way out of my cycle of medication and therapy. What I’ve realised is that change doesn’t come from wanting to change. As Zen teaches, it is less about seeking something and more about being more comfortable with who you are, understanding yourself better.

I don’t know whether Zen is finally this something that will help me long-term in being a more emotionally stable person – but I sure fucking hope it does.

11 replies on “Depression, Zen, and barber shops”

Thank you for sharing Ankur. As I was reading through your post I was screaming inside my head to tell you to try meditation, as it’s the only thing that helped me. I don’t even consider religion. Perhaps some aspect of spirituality comes into play, but meditation unattached to religion is what I practice. Zen sounds interesting though, I’ll have to have a read about it in more depth – I think I touched it briefly when I started meditating but then forgot about the reading.

Do you find it hard? Meditating, that is. There are times when I find it so hard to slow down, like “I could be doing something more useful”. Or, sometimes, annoyingly, I feel like listening to music when meditating (which would be counter-productive).

Thanks for sharing Ankur! It was a wonderful read and very insightful. I don’t know if it was planned or just what spilled from your brain, but it definately requires a careful read through and arouses some questions from me (such as does social media enable and therefore potentially hide certain behaviour or problems [Problems is not the right word, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it – I hope you understand my meaning]? Is this necessarily a bad thing?).

Hope to see you soon! It’s been a long time since Singapore now…

Most definitely spilled out! I sat down to write about what it felt like to go to an Indian barber shop, how memories jump back from a different time. But as I wrote the lede, I realised that it was sort of the self-image issue I obsess about. My initial draft didn’t mention depression specifically or go into detail about how I was trying to deal with it. It’s a discussion that I’ve had with my therapist too: why I shy away from discussing it. I guess it’s mostly about apprehension that people will act differently around me if they knew.

‘Problems’ is a correct enough word! 🙂 Um, the thing with social media is that if you have issues with self-image, it could end up acting as outlet of that. To give an example, some people with self-image issues may post ‘vague passive-aggressive’ or ’emo’ posts, expecting people in return to ask them what’s wrong. Or, in my case, social network ‘karma’ (likes, retweets, pluses, etc) became one of the ways in which I would try to get approval from my peers.

The point is not that if you’re sharing things / tweeting a lot / you use ’emo’ language, you have a ‘problem’. These aren’t symptoms. Rather, the ‘problem’ happens when in addition to an existing condition like depression or a behavioural / personality disorder, you add on things like the instant feedback of social networks. So, for instance, much like how smoking a cigarette or a drink can give you a buzz, I’d use social network karma to get a ‘buzz’ if I was feeling low.

Similarly, I obsess about body image too. There are times when I binge eat and then vomit out (because I feel guilty about consuming so many calories and that it would affect my weight) and then binge eat / vomit in a cycle. This in itself is a separate disorder altogether; in my case, it happens to be in conjunction with depression.

Depression brings in physiological changes, such as altering brain chemistry. Medication tries to stabilise this by suppressing or activating certain neurotransmitters (I may be wrong, I don’t know the exact mechanics of how this works). Along with that, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) teaches one to identify unhealthy behaviours. Like, in my case, I identified this social network ‘buzz’ as an unhealthy behaviour. CBT then basically asks you to call on a feat of willpower to stop yourself from doing that behaviour. In general, CBT teaches, in a sense, a heuristic way of identifying ‘unhealthy’ behaviours (even if it’s something you’ve never done before) and then stopping it.

The problem with CBT, at least, for me is that I find it patronising at times. (There has been a recent push towards computer-based CBT; an example online is MoodGYM.) Also, CBT typically asks you to avoid or change the behaviour itself, which to someone can feel losing one’s identity. This is the the other problem I had with CBT.

What some new CBT techniques try to suggest instead is that instead of trying to change a behaviour itself, to try to change the relationship of a person with a behaviour. So in my case an example of that would be disengaging the ‘buzz’ or ‘kick’ that I get out of participating in a social network. The problem is CBT doesn’t tell you how to change your relationship to a behaviour; it just tells you should. In actual practice, different approaches for the how work for different people, but one of the common ones is mindful meditation along with CBT. While the effectiveness of a technique which is widely-adopted in psychiatry (such as mindfulness or CBT) can be proven through clinical trials, it only works if the patient actually believes in it and practises it correctly. It is an act of faith for a patient like me to start believing when a therapist tells me “This will help you.”

Last week I had wished to go over this, but I really didn’t know how to begin. Your hyper ‘social’ activity has been a little worrisome to be honest. I am now assured that you are doing decently well. The fact that you realize and are willing will solve half your problems. May the force be with you!

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