My fifteenth year was the worst year of my life. A really messy break-up soon after my birthday caused me enough guilt to spend months and months depressed. I had always felt like the submissive one in a relationship, always the one loving more and getting hurt, so to break someone else’s heart split my own in two. It left me feeling too guilty to attempt to be happy, and things got worse and worse until I had forgotten what my original misery was about. My grades slipped (from a 95 to a 75 in English, my favorite subject) because I completely stopped doing homework in favor of staring at the wall. Then I stopped listening to music, because happy songs irritated me, and the sad ones only reminded me of what I had done to the boy I thought I’d loved. I couldn’t find any music I could relate to, because no one wrote songs about feeling like muddy gravel. I hated being with people, but I ached without them. Things got worse when I was purposely led on by someone I really liked, causing me to seek refuge with a friend who I had cared about, idolized, and maybe even deeply loved for years. The latter guy confessed during this time that he returned those feelings in some sense, and I didn’t trust myself enough to let anything grow from it. I was left confused, in pain, and without the last person who took the time to understand. I lost my faith in everyone I knew. When I was really irritated or lonely, my arms would itch from the inside, and I’d scratch them compulsively. I felt tiny inside myself, like I was Thumbelina peering out from behind my breastbone, and the rest of me was only made of muscle and noise. I was convinced I was going absolutely crazy.
Normal teenage whininess, you say. I’m cringing at your accusation of merely being “whiny,” but that’s not the point. I think my experience was a little different from most.
I had wanted to be a writer before I even knew how to write. My fondest moments as a toddler were when my mother read to me after a nap, and in Kindergarten I forced her into copying down a daily journal that I dictated. At age six I wrote and illustrated a booklet to teach my little brother how to use the potty. Then a year later, my jealousy for the stories my best friend wrote solidified this interest, and I left my ambition of being a Veterinarian (I was so proud that I knew the full word!) for the craft of writing. Words and their art are so entwined in my consciousness that I can’t imagine myself without a pen and paper.
So somehow my self-esteem and ambition managed to escape the scourge of my depression, and I remained creative throughout this period. Writing had always been important, but now that I had pushed away everyone close to me, it was the last thing I had left.
When I could rouse myself from my stupor, I wrote and I wrote, subconsciously obsessed with proving that there was something in life that didn’t suck, and desperate to relieve the itch spreading down from my elbows. My favorite writing time was my third period math class. I work best when I am half-asleep and therefore in touch with my dream-world, so it was early enough that I was not yet fully awake and sick of the day. I didn’t have to pay attention either, and I easily pulled off a 90. I would sit in the back of class and very blatantly cease taking notes and write poetry or snippets of prose instead. I started contemplating my craft itself, the marks of good description especially. I made up my own writing exercises, describing the light from the window shining off the hair of the girl in front of me, the sound that the class made as we worked on our math problems, the memory of a conversation I had had that morning… I learned to take my time by writing every detail, never rushing to the action when I could stick in a thought or an image.
Then, this started bleeding into everything. I first realized this when, in that same classroom, I almost started sobbing in my seat just from contemplating the beauty of the weave of the rainbow of colors underneath me—the rug. From then on, everything I looked at became a work of art. I especially loved grunginess, the utterly unique pattern of something with a story. I was completely uninterested in social interaction and despised all of my peers, but instead of hearing words when they talked, I heard a richly layered melody of groups and conversations and feelings and minute worries and it was beautiful. I could feel these sensations on my tongue like a peppermint. I would touch my fingers to my palm and the sensation would almost bring me to tears of wonder: "I can touch, I can feel, I've got a brain, I'm alive, I'm a being, I exist, things exist...!" I could continue in that thought process until I exhausted myself with all the new ideas. Beauty was reduced to its basest for me. I was not affected by a conventionally beautiful person or a perfect landscape; but these mundane miracles would hold my attention for hours on end. It all was so, so interesting I could not tear myself away.
I certainly wasn’t any happier because of all this, but I had something to take refuge in. Instead of feeling like a dot inside a chunk of meat, I felt like a tree immune to human emotions but whose roots touched everything. I didn’t know how much longer I could stand to be around, so I enjoyed what was left to me while I could.
I’m feeling better now, but I think that year of profound misery changed me for good. The feelings of synesthesia and ego death are common during LSD trips, but more important in my opinion is the connection to Eastern religion. This concept of beauty in every detail is my own personal Tao, and instead of striving toward the eradication of desire, my goal is the deep love and endless fascination I felt for every sensation. After months of being utterly numb from the inside out, it was a relief. I wouldn’t say it got me through this, but it certainly occupied my time.
The biggest influence this has had on me is that I know—no matter how miserable I get, no matter what anyone else does to me, and even if I don’t have my pen and my paper—this is something that no one can take away from me. Whatever happens, I will be able to find beauty in sidewalk cracks and burnt toast and the touch of my own skin. In my opinion, that’s the key to happiness.
Yen-Ping-Chung asked Kuan-Yi-Wu as to cherishing life. Kuan-Yi-Wu replied: “It suffices to give it its free course, neither checking nor obstructing it.”
Yen-Ping-Chung said, “And as to details?”
Kuan-Yi-Wu replied, “Allow the ear to hear what it likes, the eye to see what it likes, the nose to smell what it likes, the mouth to say what it likes, the body to enjoy the comforts it likes to have, and the mind to do what it likes. Now what the ear likes to hear is music, and the prohibition of it is what I call obstruction to the ear. What the eye likes to look at is beauty; and its not being permitted to regard this beauty I call obstruction of sight. What the nose likes to smell is perfume; and its not being permitted to smell I call obstruction to scent. What the mouth likes to talk about is right and wrong; and if it is not permitted to speak I call it obstruction of the understanding. The comforts the body enjoys to have are rich food and fine clothing; and if it is not permitted, then I call that obstruction of the senses of the body. What the mind likes is to be at peace, and its not being permitted rest I call obstruction of the mind’s nature. All these obstructions are a source of the most painful vexation. Morbidly to cultivate this vexation, unable to get rid of it, and so have a long but very sad life of a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand years, is not what I call cherishing life. But to check this source of obstruction and with calm enjoyment to await death for a day, a month, or a year or ten years, is what I understand by enjoying life. Since I have told you about cherishing life, please tell me how it is with the burial of the dead.”
Yen-Ping-Chung said: “Burying the dead is but of very little importance. What shall I tell you about it?”
Kuan-Yi-Wu replied: “I really wish to hear it.”
Yen-Ping-Chung answered: “What can I do when I am dead? They may burn my body, or cast it into deep water, or inter it, or leave it uninterred, or throw it wrapped up in a mat into some ditch, or cover it with princely apparel and embroidered garments and rest it in a stone sarcophagus. All that depends on mere chance.”
Kuan-Yi-Wu looked round at Pao-Shu-huang-tse and said to him, “Both of us have made some progress in the doctrine of life and death.”
This passage is from a Taoist text called Yang Chu's Garden of Pleasure. This is the chapter called "The Art of Life." If you are interested, it is in the public domain and you can find it at sacred-texts.com.