Since roughly puberty, one of my life’s struggles has been intermittent bouts of depression. Maybe it’s inherited, maybe it’s just my portion, or maybe it’s connected with long-time sleep issues. Whatever its source, in daily life, I work hard to counterbalance the onset of periods of low energy, negative thoughts, and aimlessness with contemplative practices, spiritual readings, exercise, music, family, and meaningful work. Or as much meaningful work as I can muster.
These keep me in rhythm, aware, grateful, at peace.
But when I slip out of this delicate rhythm my well-being can slide pretty fast. If family issues come up, or a sickness, or even a vacation or a family visit, the amount of sleep, contemplative practice, and exercise routine all suffer.
And then it’s back. An empty feeling. And by empty I don’t mean the empty fullness of the Eastern Mystics. I don’t mean a sense of the Tao or tehom or the Holy Spirit. I mean something far closer to a profound sense of lack. For most of my life, in churches or out, this has pretty much been my default state. In a bad stretch, it’s just depression, plain and simple.
The Voice in the Head
In a recent bout a light version of the thought patterns goes something like this: “it took long enough for you write that manuscript, are you slow? and you’ve never been very good at selling yourself; I bet no one publishes it; what a waste of time and energy, again; and your son seems to be acting out a lot lately; maybe if he had a stronger male figure in his life; you’ve always been pretty weak on discipline, pretty weak in general; maybe if you were any good at anything else you could at least distract yourself from being a lousy husband and weak father with a pointless job, but oh well, looks like you’re stuck with you,” and so on.
But isn’t this a kind of failure? I just finished a manuscript for a spiritual formation guidebook about walking a mythical journey toward wholeness, purpose, and vitality. Isn’t this a delicious kind of irony? Isn’t the spiritual path about transcending this kind of stuff? Shouldn’t a pursuit of spiritual maturity be characterized by passion, enthusiasm, and purpose?
Before Enlightenment, After Enlightenment
Anthony De Mello writes about a master who was asked by a student “how is life different after enlightenment?” The master answers, “Before enlightenment, I was depressed. After enlightenment, I continue to be depressed.” Strange answer.
De Mello clarifies. When we’re awake, we understand that we have thoughts and emotions, but we no longer have to identify with them. We understand that all things are transient, including the negative tapes that play in our heads. There is a vast backdrop against which these habitual dramas play out. We learn instead of “I am depressed” a better formulation is “depression is here.” There’s a difference between being trapped with a feeling of depression and being able to see one’s experience of depression as if from the outside, a transient visitor, even if this awareness only comes for brief moments at a time.
FaiLURE and The Contemplative Path
The contemplative life is not about achieving perfection. Growing up Evangelical we often had the verse “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” quoted to us as a reminder of the importance of making moral choices. Living by that impossible standard becomes exhausting, a kind of never-ending cycle of guilt, confession, alignment, confinement, and resentment. This understanding of the spiritual life had little to do with the genuine freedom of kingdom awareness.
Another translation of this very passage is “Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole.” In his teachings, Thomas Keating writes about the mirroring spirals of the contemplative life, as transcendent as your experience on the contemplative path may be, you can expect corresponding periods of downward trial or purification. Far from a sense of purely linear progression towards perfection, Keating’s version of the spiritual life is far more cyclical. To expand, we have to stretch.
Part of freedom is the permission to be where we are. If I’m depressed, then I can recognize it, sit with it, connect with it, allow it. In a state of lack of awareness, I might pretend I’m not depressed, or be so convinced that “spiritual people shouldn’t feel this way” and turn a blind eye to it myself. How much greater the temptation to that little white lie if we are in a position of visible leadership. I’m just a blogger, an Oz behind a curtain. What a temptation this must be for our visible leaders to pretend to be ok all the time, especially in our image-based society. Another temptation is to fight it, resist it, complain about it, wallow in a sense of victimhood.
Returning Awareness to The Body
One powerful way of connecting with this is to turn attention to the physical sensation in the body, rather than focusing on the negative thoughts and emotions themselves. Where is the tension? Where is the weight? Feel the tense abdomen, the chest, the neck. Don’t conceptualize it, or turn it into a story. Our bodies seem to store all of our experiences. Sometimes deeply painful ones can be triggered in the unconscious by things we’re not aware of. Bringing our awareness to the physical sensation before it turns into our favorite resentment can help the process of letting go.
Choosing a contemplative path is a kind of apprenticeship with reality itself as the master. It’s a commitment to opening oneself to ongoing transformation. It’s a commitment to opening oneself to the awareness of whatever is. At any given moment in time, though, whatever is might not be very flattering.
Choosing a contemplative path is experiencing the old depression, but seeing it, feeling it, naming it, even making space for it. Even with a dim understanding on the periphery of awareness: this, too, will pass. But we don’t have to force it to pass, or put on a face when it doesn’t.
Before the contemplative path, I was a failure. After the contemplative path, a sense of utter failure has come for a while. I can pull up a chair for it. The first statement is a hopeless finality. In the second, the sense of failure is held within a greater being, even when it doesn’t feel that way. To be a mystic is to have direct experience of the divine. To feel oneself a failure on this path seems like a double helping since, on top of the feeling itself, one’s awareness is on the self to the exclusion of all else, and nothing outside is felt, least of all God.Ironically, though, this may be precisely the kind of scraping of ego necessary to make some room.
Sufi poet Rumi put it this way:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Richard Rohr on Two Kinds of Darkness
Marc’s Book Dante’s Road: The Journey Home For The Modern Soul
Contemplative Light’s Mini Course A Radical Transformation: Dante, The Wound, & The Contemplative Journey (100% off with Gift Code DANTESROAD)
Very nice piece, thanks for sharing it. I have always taught as a therapist and as a minister the need to remind ourselves we are more than just one facet of what we think we are. People become hyper-spiritual or hyper-cognitive and therefore they believe the only way to heal from something like depression or anxiety is to correct how they think or how they pray. We are made holistically, body, mind, emotions, relational, and spiritual. Each impacts the other because we are integrated creatures. Only sin divides all of these from one another. To be healthy we must pay attention to all of these. Your piece touches on that to some degree. Thanks for sharing your thoughts http://www.dominickhankle.com
“To be healthy we must pay attention to all of these.” What a great summary of the path toward wholeness itself.
Your words are beautiful and resonate so much with how I often feel. Nice to feel connected with another contemplative soul this morning on my balcony in Manila.
Long distance warmth, hugs, and tenderness to one of my favorite souls.
Two things that struck me most powerfully.
Regarding depression and therapy, one of the world-wide cultural characteristics that makes it most hard to deal with any difficult state of mind is the idea that we are little islands of "me" (or to put it more simply, a "little me") and whatever psychological problems we have need to be looked at within the tiny little window of experience associated with the little me.
When 20% of the world population suffers from moderate to severe depression, it’s clear that something profound is going on here. The cognitive priesthood of modern times, the "sciences," presents the most profoundly nihilistic philosophy ever dreamed up by human beings. This is exemplified by the statement of Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, who says the more we learn about the universe the more we see it is pointless and meaningless (a most profoundly anti-scientific statement – but 26 years after making this statement, in the course of writing a NY Review of Books essay on the foundations of science, Weinberg revealed that he doesn’t’ even have the most basic undertanding of the foundations of science. Yet he and so many others feel compelled to tell us “science” shows us the pointlessness, the worthlessness of our lives. And one of the prime determinants of depression is the feeling of lack of control. And neuroscientists on a regular basis misinterpret experiments like that one of Libet as telling us we have no self-will, no possibility of control.
As far as “after enlightenment,” it is a terrible misfortune both for contemporary practitioners in the Asian tradition as well as Christians that we have accepted D T Suzuki’s term (enlightenment) which is profoundly misleading as to what happens along the spiritual path.
Finally, there are really no spiritual traditions in the post Vedic age (in the past 4000 years) that are so fully world-positive that they even conceive of the possibility of “being perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect,” apart from paying lip-service to it. It may be that with the sincerest aspiration to open to the power of the Holy Spirit – the Divine, feminine “Shakti” – a full and complete transformation of our minds and bodies may be possible (though most likely only over the course of numerous lifetimes).
This is one of the, if not the most, insightful comments we’ve had, with a depth of perspective, insight, and a subtle grasp of the dynamics in play and how they tend to be misperceived in our time, both inside and outside of faith traditions. Thank you Don!
Thanks for your honesty and insight Marc. This is very timely for me. I’m struggling (again) with depression, and it’s really kicking my butt this time. I’m going to meditate on some of the truth you wrote. Thanks again. As I said to a pastor friend, "I know God’s not freaking out [about how I’m dealing with my depression, which is less than stellar] and I’m not freaking out either. I can slide into self-loathing easily enough, but I know God loves me always, and stands in the wings to help me when I’m ready (at least sometimes I know that.) Bill