Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Language of Depression


Picture: Abduction of Persephone, by Lorenzo Bernini


Our life is full of circumstances that lead to depressive states: the presence of chaos in society, the loss of someone, loneliness, an accident, an illness and other kinds of life ordeals. However, the cause of sorrow void has little to do with them, but rather with a way of living that barely scratches the surface of things, driving us to experience a deep void and dissatisfaction; a superficiality that implies cultivating blind habits such as self-pity, excess of self-importance or even self-deprecation. As the Buddha manifested, the main habit of human beings is “attached to suffering”. Humans get caught in behaviours that always lead to suffering, mainly because these are not understood from the root. Therefore, we need to look for understanding.


In the West there have been many attempts to shed light on the phenomenon of depression, although in general, this question remains insoluble, despite ancient teachers knew and taught its profound reason of being.

Romantic thinkers like Jean Paul Richter used the expression "pain of the world" (Weltschmerz) in reference to the sorrow and disappointment with life in general. For them physical reality doesn't satisfy the demands of the heart and is darkened by the presence of evil. Surprisingly, many romantic poets considered sorrow as a form of poetic inspiration; although most of them omitted the negative effects it can have in the psyche when its causes are not discovered. To give an illustrative example. The depressive melancholy and anxious precipitation that moved Søren Kierkegaard to write brought his engagement with Regina Olsen to an end. And he confessed that he didn't want to burden her with those depressive states he couldn't control. 

Kierkegaard referred to “existential anguish” as Angst, his favourite subject, to which he dedicated a book, The concept of Anxiety. Hence he is regarded as the first existentialist thinker, although “existentialism” as a stream of thought would not emerge with impetus until the period between the two World Wars. The harshness and atrocities of war agitated the dark bottom of the human psyche much more than any of the previous historical wars and existentialists focused on the idea that humans have no nature –unlike the animals– what makes us inherently disoriented and anguished. 

Some existential views adopted a terribly pessimistic view that made many lives more depressing. It is the case of Sartre's novel Nausea,  in which the uncertainty and cruelty humans experience in life can never be understood, only faced, feeling nausea.

Much more inspired was the view of Martin Heidegger, for whom the existential anguish arises in man because he feels "thrown into existence", forced to face death and the challenging responsibility of having to use his will in order to forge a nature of his own. As he said, every adult is responsible for choosing his actions, attitudes and life style, and the very act of choosing with courage a path, without being driven by external models, is living an "authentic life". Right at the end of his life, Heidegger started hinting that the "authentic life" and a new way of thinking can lead human beings to the “understanding of Being (Sein), the Divine nature of all things, which reveals itself in a state of “detachment” and “serenity” he called Gelassenheit.

Certainly, there is truth in his ideas, but something more than thinking is required to reconcile inner conflicts and fill the void. Only Love of Wisdom and inner-development can give a much richer understanding of ourselves, including depression.

The "language of Reality" indicates that anguish and depression play an important role, a function linked to particular stages in the path of spiritual evolution. Contrarily, society focuses on selfish comfort, happiness, light, success, pleasure and heavenly heights forgetting the role of darkness. A clear omission of what Wisdom has always taught through myths, legends and teachings: the Light can only be found at the bottom of the Cave, the Darkness of the Sacred Underworld. 

All the great mythological heros, from Gilgamesh to Orpheus and Odysseus traveled to the underworld in their quest for immortality and divine perfection. And later the Alchemists considered that the first step in the process of inner transformation is a state of putrefaction called nigredo.

This truth is also expressed in the Christian Gospels, where it is said that Jesus suffered temptation from evil in a desert –a psychological desert– and despair in Getsemani, that he reconciled evil by forgiving his enemies, accepting a terrible physical death at the cross, and that he finally descended into Hell before returning to the Father. A complete vision of spiritual development, integration of the animal nature and the spiritual nature, meant to be performed by each one of usI am the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14, 6).

These traditions teach that transformation can only take place when we consciously embrace what we don't like, seeing it as part of ourselves, the side that closes the circle of completeness.

All our difficult moments can be a direct way to inner growth if we face them with patience and mindfulness. They are an opportunity to become “authentic individuals”, instead of shadows. The  poet John Keats seemed well aware of that when he wrote in a letter: some say the world is a vale of tears, I say it is a vale of soul-making.

The moments of distress and apparent impasse are signs demanding our attention and openness. And every time we ignore the message of longing and the necessity of inner work, certain creative energies –Chthonic powers of the Earth– communicate by means of distress and sickness that something must be done, that a conscious contact with our soul, the feminine side of reality, must take place. In Greece this was expressed with the myth of the abduction of Persephone.

Depression is the fingers of Hades and Persephone reaching us –Peter Kingsley–.

Our heedlessness makes the divine in us very sad, and its laments are indeed our sorrow, void and anxiety. Yet, our unconscious procrastination compels hidden forces to drag us down into a hell of terrible sufferings. Moment in which humans think: "life is rubbish", "why am I so miserable?", "why is this happening to me?", "I don't want to live like this?", "I prefer to die". All an indication that something must die inside us. Although, without discernment, this impulse may be interpreted "literally", leading to suicidal thoughts. Hence we must understand the ancient maxim: die before you die. 

In this psychological death, one sees that we are more than the thoughts and emotions of our superficial personality. A realisation that puts us into conscious contact with our true infinite nature. 

By knowing ourselves we can be open enough to use our predicaments as catapults that push us towards the Plenitude of the All Embracing Father-Mother.

As soon as we dedicate more time to rest in the silent awareness of space and call into question the literalness of our thoughts and emotions, wonderful things start to happen. There is a Spanish saying: nothing is false, nothing is true, everything depends on the colour of the crystal you are looking through. Things are not what they seem to be.  Appearances can be that disgusting mythological being, Medusa-Gorgona –a beautiful woman under a spell of ugliness–, whose glance turned into stone everyone who dared to look at her eyes directly. So we need to be like Perseus, and use a shield as a mirror to avoid looking at her face directly. All we see, light or darkness, is truly a reflection of our nature, and it does not have more eyes than ours. 

Conflict only arises when what we see appears as “other”. And only by identifying the reflection could Perseus behead Medusa with the sword of will, obtaining Pegasus, the flying horse, the wings of our soul.

Perseus also had winged shoes received from Hermes, metaphor of the elevation of wise reflections, and the helmet of invisibility, given by Hades, to be Nobody, for egoism makes throws us outside of ourselves.

As we see, myths can be a really helpful to know ourselves and keep the mind focused on something better than negative thoughts.

Each one of us has a full range of potentialities waiting to be displayed without delay. And we can only discover them by listening to the logic of life and working day after day on the soil of our imperfections.  Sometimes it is necessary to be like Knights, taming the dragon of our egoism, with patience, strength, discernment, determination and equanimity, to endure pain and avoid mechanical habits. 

But there are also times in which we can do just one thing: surrender ourselves under the transformative power of Silence and Darkness. Peter Kingsley reminds us in his books Reality and In The Dark Places of Wisdom that in Ancient Greece this was even a practice, known as "incubation", lying down in sacred caves, temples or rooms (theme of another post).

All in all, our attitude must be that of service and gratitude. We are called to be "organs of perception" for the Endless Unmanifest so that darkness can be illumined, reconciled. This is how we become active participants in a Cosmic Drama where the Divine forgets and remembers itself forever, in Eternity. Only when we miss our mission we fall into depression.

© 2009

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