Depression

“I want to read these wonderful words [from T.H. White’s A Once and Future King] which created a spark of light for me in the midst of that death-dealing episode of my life. Speaking to the young Arthur, Merlin says,

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies. You may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins. You may miss your only love. You may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it, then: To learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.

“‘Learning is the thing for you.’ I read those words, and I began to understand that in the midst of death, there is life in learning. I could not do much in the darkness of my depression. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t connect with other people. But I could start to learn what was in there. I could grope around in the darkness and learn what and who was there. And, of course, those of you who have been on that journey know that part of what I found and learned about there was what Thomas Merton calls true self.”

— Parker Palmer

The last few months have been really difficult for me. I broke up with my girlfriend and sometimes I’ve felt like one of the most pessimistic people on earth. I’m sure the negative attitude towards my love life was pulling down a few notches my contentment with other areas of life. I started holding everything to higher standards: if my friends and family and material security weren’t making me happy in spite of this, then I was unsatisfied with them as well. If the warm breeze and the sunshine and the experience of watching ice melt and float down the river couldn’t bring me joy than they just weren’t enough. So it’s easy to carry resentments over into other areas of life, and it’s hard to be grateful, but it helps to at least recognise that my perception isn’t entirely accurate: the same warm breeze and sunshine and ice floating down the river could be heaven, given a different state of mind. Still, that’s not where I am, and I should accept that.

So, what could a person who feels like his life is a mess, and has sometimes wondered over the past few months whether life is worth living, have to contribute to a blog called Sacred Awe? In my worst states of mind, probably not very much. The perspective and the energy required to muster a post like this can be hard to come by sometimes. If only I had such a healthy perspective on depression in the midst of it! If, as Merlin says, the best thing for being sad is to learn something (this should have inspired a song in Camelot), then we may find that awe may change form, but we can access it even in our worst despair. We can still find it in us to be curious about something in the world, even if that be our own psychology, as is often the case with me. Depression can be an opportunity to give up old patterns and try something new. Opportunity? Easy to say, hard to accept. I keep a dream journal, and in my happiest dream for the month of February, I find myself sitting in a pile of crap.

It’s a beautiful natural area and I’m just outside a wooded part of it. There are gorgeous purple or lavender flowers as well as purple birds flying around. I try to be still in hopes that a bird will come fly onto one of my arms or shoulders. I find a place where I can sit down, in the middle of these beautiful flowers and birds, and I see a sign there, that says I’m sitting in “Cow Dung.”

There is so much wisdom (and often humour) in dreams. In perspective, the cow dung provides the nutrients for these beautiful flowers to grow, and I have it to thank for the abundance around me. So I don’t seem to mind sitting in cow dung.

I try to practice mindfulness, but in the process, I become aware of how resistent I am to mindfulness. When I eat, though I want to eat mindfully, I stuff my mouth, an anodyne to the pain. It’s as though eating slowly and mindfully could be so frustrating as to actually bring on tears. Sometimes I feel this way when I’m alone with myself in the woods. “I have to do something,” I tell myself. “If I just sit here, alone with myself, it could overwhelm me.” When I walk, there’s an urgency in my steps, as though I don’t have time to walk slowly or enjoy the present moment. Even a step can reveal so much about one’s inner state, and the energy of mindfulness, as Thich Nhat Hanh frequently says, can bring about great healing and transformation. Of course, getting myself to want to practice mindfulness is a huge difficulty, but it’s a good practice. I know it’s a good practice because when I’m successful I feel peaceful and calm and happiness is abundant. I know it’s a good practice because there’s something I admire in those who practice mindfulness, a sense of peace and acceptance, and I want to be like them. I know it’s a good practice because many of my problems stem from not being mindful.

I’m a Type Four according to the Enneagram. I once read that Fours have a tendency to get self-absorbed because of some inner emergency that seems to require our attention. When something essential is lacking, or I’m going through a crisis, I have a hard time being patient, accepting of current circumstances, staying inwardly composed. Mindfulness is not easy for me, but it is good for me.

It may be true that those of us who are more attuned to qualities such as awe and joy and interconnection tend also to be likely, at times, to feel ennui, depression, alienation. Those who find life imbued with meaning may at times cease to find any meaning at all. Perhaps it’s openness to experience that allows us to sense so intensely both meaning and meaninglessness. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of the Jungian shadow. I don’t have an explanation for it. It’s the paradox of creative genius; the paradox of all of us who allow ourselves to feel deeply. I wish I had answers to make the path through darkness a bit easier. I wish I had answers for people who live with depression for so much of their lives and can’t seem to find a way out; and here I am, the idealist, thinking, there must be a way. Depression is too often dismissed as a chronic medical problem. What if the solution in many cases is not medication, but something else, and we just don’t see it? It’s what got me interested in healing arts: I want to give people hope, and nourishment, and help them climb out of the depths of despair. Sometimes, of course, I wonder how I can expect to help others overcome their despair when I haven’t necessarily found a way out of it myself.

It’s hard to maintain the perspective that this pain, this despair, this depression, won’t last forever. There’s a story I love. There are different versions of it. In the version I know, a king holds a contest, asking his subjects to find a magical object that will bring him happiness when he’s sad, and sadness when he’s happy. In the end the king is given a ring. When he sees the inscription he weeps with joy. It says: “This too shall pass.”

I’m reminded of Paul Hawken’s incredible speech from the 2006 Bioneers (which you can watch free here in quicktime or on your iPod.) Hawken said that, after Rosa Parks famously got on the bus, Martin Luther King gave a speech which began: “There comes a time.” He suggested that if King were alive today, in the midst of contemporary environmental and social crises, he would repeat these words: “There comes a time.” He paused for effect. “There comes a time… for all that is harmful to go away.” And a tear fell from my eyes. It hit me at such a deep level. We all need to hear such words, don’t we? Upon hearing these words, I became aware of the immense pressure I’m under, the pain and despair beneath the surface of consciousness, the pressure we’re all under, from so many directions, often without truly recognising it or realising its effect on us. “There comes a time.” It was a moment of embrace, a moment of recognising that these pressures are not permanent, but only here for a visit. The other day, I was listening to a recording of Thich Nhat Hanh (who is such a wonderful person to listen to, if you’ve never had the opportunity) and he reiterated: impermanence doesn’t have to be a sad thing. It can be a happy thing. A healing thing. Injustice, pollution, abuse, alienation, suffering. There comes a time when they, too, shall pass.

Sometimes life is so painful that none of this makes any sense: it’s where I am now that matters, and I’m in pain! It’s such deep pain. Words often aren’t enough to penetrate it. A few years ago, while in the midst of a painful breakup, I went to a professor of mine, and asked him, “Have you ever felt like just living through the next second is too painful?” He told me he had — for him it was a divorce — and he shared stories with me. He helped me feel grateful that this should be happening at a time of the abundant healing energy of springtime, and he suggested, “Hug a tree.” He also gave me this good advice from personal experience. Be aware, he told me, of when you’re living second to second, waiting for the next eternal minute to pass. You’ll notice that sometimes you’re actually living minute to minute waiting for the next eternal hour to pass. Sometimes you may even find yourself living hour to hour, trying to get through the next eternal day. You’ll notice the scale on which you’re living changes frequently throughout the day, so when you’re living second to second, you know it won’t last. You have a real sense of impermanence. Soon you’ll be living minute to minute, and that will give you some relief. Eventually you’ll be able to live day to day, week to week. Soon you may even start looking forward to your days again, so that you’re not living anything to anything, but just living.

There comes a time.

I’ll leave you with an episode of the Public Radio International show Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett: The Soul of Depression. Wonderful support and inspiration for people suffering from depression from Andrew Solomon (author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlast of Depression), psychologist and poet Anita Barrows, Quaker teacher and activist Parker Palmer, and some poems from Rilke. I hope you enjoy.

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~ by dewiniaeth on March 26, 2007.

2 Responses to “Depression”

  1. wonderful words. thank you for sharing so openly

  2. I understand how you feel, and I also try to listen to TNH and not water the seeds of anger and unhappiness. As he would say in paraphrase, we are each responsible for our own happiness and peace.

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