Would you travel alone halfway across the world to spend a few hours on a sacred mountain, not knowing whether the experience will heal you or break you? This is the unspoken question facing Diane Esguerra (aka Diane Southam) at the start of her memoir, Junkie Buddha. Her journey to Peru is a touching tribute to her treasured son Sacha, who has recently died from an accidental heroin overdose and whose ashes she plans to scatter on Machu Picchu. Along the way we discover that Sacha’s drug addiction and subsequent schizophrenia began in response to serious sexual abuse by a teacher at his boarding school.
In theory, I shouldn’t have liked this book. I don’t read biographies, I don’t read travel memoirs, and my simple brain doesn’t normally handle stories with flashbacks. Junkie Buddha crosses all three boxes. But knowing that the author was a Nichiren Buddhist and a trained psychotherapist, I decided to give the first chapter a go and see if it gripped me. It absolutely did and 230 pages later I’m so happy that I finished this entrancing tale. I loved every word of it.
A two-trip journey
The narrative takes you on two trips, an emotional journey of grief and healing and a cultural exploration of the Inca Trail. It is a physical and spiritual journey depicting the mountains and valleys of both. Along the
way we meet witches, shamans, dodgy hoteliers and unreliable coach drivers plus would-be suitors flirting with our intrepid narrator. The whole adventure is laced with humour, dashes of exotic South American cocktails and occasional Buddhist chanting.
The death this week of Robin Williams has put depression back in the headlines. The media coverage is welcome because by talking openly about mental health challenges we can create some good from a desperately tragic suicide. The rhetoric around a previously taboo topic has been changing rapidly in recent years, thanks in part to the courageous candour of celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alastair Campbell, Leon McKenzie, Graeme Fowler, Ruby Wax and of course, Robin Williams himself.
As a result, the ‘pull yourself together’ school of encouragement has mostly disappeared into the shadows, along with the ‘stiff upper lip’ brigade. Even the ‘what did he have to be depressed about?’ gang have been mercifully quiet. This more open and enlightened mindset now views depression as a recognised illness, which, like cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure, needs proper treatment.
But as I chant about Robin Williams’ suicide, I find myself wondering if ‘illness’ is always the most useful way to look at clinical depression. I ask myself whether Nichiren Buddhism, with its rich insights into the workings of the human mind, can bring a different perspective to the topic. And I think the answers are No and Yes. Let me explain…
Last week I had the good fortune to be training some teenagers from Southend in Essex, one of my favourite seaside towns. All of them had been excluded from mainstream schools and/or came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Luckily there are two people who believe in their potential, their teacher Rachael O’Brienand Stuart Long (of South Essex Homes), who have set up a Football Club for them, with funds they have fought long and hard to obtain. More info on Southend ATF (Achievement Through Football) here: http://achievementthroughfootball.org/
We had two marvellous days together, a mix of football plus the mindset and happiness stuff I teach on The Winning Edge personal development programme. This wonderful experience proved that with some warm but strict encouragement plus a more positive way of looking at themselves and the world, even kids who’ve had the toughest starts in life can discover a spark of hope, an inner resilience and a new sense of purpose. More about these lovely kids and their dreams at the end of this post.
I love this quote by SGI-UK Buddhist leader Kazuo Fujii (pictured here in 1993) who outlines the huge difference it makes when we learn to challenge ourselves instead of just coping with life’s difficulties:
“There are two ways of approaching life. The first is coping and the second is challenging to change a situation. The situation is the same but the results are different. Coping is linked to the past and our past knowledge and experiences. It is a conservative attitude, limited, restricted, passive, defensive, dependent. There is no vision and no hope. This is not Buddhism. Buddhism is about change. Changing ourselves, society and humanity for good. The way to change is determination based on wisdom. Change is a projection towards the future. It is positive, creative, independent, attacking and seeking. It is an attitude of great hope and vision. Coping is the past projecting to the present. Changing is the present projecting to the future. We can choose. The difference between ordinary and great lives is up to us.”
You may have seen the film, A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie. In this movie the Hollywood star plays the role of SGI Buddhist Mariane Pearl (right in the pic) who faced the deepest despair when in 2002 her journalist husband Danny was kidnapped and then beheaded by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan.
At the time Mariane was heavily pregnant with their only child. A Mighty Heart pays tribute to her husband. Mariane poignantly describes how, after news arrived of Danny’s decapitation, she resolves nevertheless to move forwards with hope:
What is the ‘tipping point’ that can cause a small lovers’ tiff to escalate into a huge no-holds-barred argument? There are two little words which cause more damage than most – and neither of them is an expletive. I am thinking of ‘never’ and ‘always.’
As in: “You never listen to me properly!” (Bet she has, at least once.) “You’re always rude to my friends.” (Bet he is polite, now and again.) In short, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that ‘always’ and ‘never’ are almost always never true.