What is it?
There are a set of somewhat standard symptoms that make up the constellation that is depression: sadness, apathy, inability to experience pleasure, concentration/sleep disturbance, low energy, flat-lined emotional experience, harmfully negative intrusive thoughts, feelings of guilt or emptiness, etc..
More generally, however, depression can range from a ferocious self-contempt to a profoundly aimless vacuum.
It can be sudden and shocking like being pushed off of a bridge into a rushing river;
It can be like walking through a dense fog: you don’t realize until you’re well into it how drenched you are in the thick, clinging moisture of sadness.
Whatever depression is like for you, it is likely that you know it when you see it (and, rather than “depression”, you may know it as something like sadness, loneliness, worthlessness, pointlessness, numbness, etc.). It is also likely that you aren’t always quite sure what to do about this nasty condition.
I wonder what you have tried? Does forcing yourself to be busy help? Do you feel better when others are around? Will participating in acts of service turn your mood around? Whatever works for you, I’d suggest you continue doing it… assuming it is healthy and sustainable for you and others around you. But, what does it mean for something to “work” with depression?
Most often, I think people feel like something “works” if it gets rid of whatever doesn’t feel good. I think this makes a lot of sense — if it hurts to keep touching a hot stove… stop touching it!
Interestingly though (and somewhat cruelly), it seems to be the case that directly trying to rid ourselves of emotional experience often tends to embed it more deeply in our experience. Trying to “get rid of” something like depression is like trying to flatten the ripples of water with a hot iron: the more you try, the more stirred up the ripples become (do it with too hot an iron, and it may even boil).
What to do with it? [Part A: Letting-Be & Letting-Go]
For something to “work” in dealing with depression (and other “heavy” emotional states), it may require the paradoxical skill of letting-be. “Skills” are things (responses, behaviors, attitudes, patterns, habits) that can be learned and subsequently practiced and, ultimately, optimized. This is good news because letting things be just as they are when they hurt badly can often seem like an impossibility; so the fact that letting-be it is a skill gives us the chance to trust the incremental process of developing it.
Letting-be means to give full permission for what is occurring to occur. What is there, is there; and you are affirming that fact. Sadness? There it is. Negative thoughts? There they are. Extreme heaviness in the body? There it is. In that hair’s width of a moment between “Oh, I’m feeling sadness right now” and “I can’t stand that I feel this way!!!” is the space where the skill of letting-be is strengthened. Stretch out the simple quality of “Oh, there it is…” and do your best to observe things as they are rather than focusing on the commentary that the mind gladly offers up as criticism of what “should” or “shouldn’t” be felt.
Another strange skill that depression may call us to explore is the skill of letting-go. While letting-be allows us to observe without automatic reaction and without launching off into a self-perpetuating story about how bad things are; Letting-go aims to allow all that is noticed to continue to roll right along unhindered after it is acknowledged. But, WHY WOULD I WANT IT TO “ROLL RIGHT ALONG”? I WANT IT TO STOP! I hear you, but think of how you might respond to a child who reeeeally wants to tell you something… if you scream “Be quiet!” over your shoulder, she may actually hush for a while; but she still has something to say. Instead, pausing to give her permission to be seen, heard, and felt can allow her to “roll right along” with her day… and you with yours.
Letting-go does what it sounds like; it ungrasps. Once the ruminative commentary of depression begins, we typically do an amazingly effective (and typically unconscious) job of feeding and fueling the negative stories that keep depression fat and happy. Letting-go is the antidote to that incessant problem, and it, like letting-be, is a skill to be learned, practiced, and optimized through artful repetition.
A favorite author of mine, Martin Laird describes the process of letting-be & letting-go (which he calls “Receiving-and-Releasing”) as being like what the bank of a river does all the time: it welcomes the onrushing waters without resistance, and it simultaneously frees those same waters without clinging or pushing away. We are to be like the bottom of the river: fully affirming ourselves by quickly and deeply saying “YES” to the thoughts and feelings we notice (without giving them control of our actions).
Taking on this attitude sets the stage for deeper self-understanding and requires less of a straining effort than fighting off all the negative feelings that sadness brings with it.
The Possible Functions of Depression
What points to the brokenness within ourselves that needs to be tended to?
What relativizes that which we usually find so important by forcing us to face the possibility of nihilistic emptiness?
What makes us stop… and be still (even if it is painful)?
These types of investigations are important to get a “pulse-check” on depression. They also point to something that is not obvious: depression might actually be trying to protect you.
This is likely the catalyst for a profound eye-roll for anyone who has experienced the forlorn darkness that is found within deep sorrow.
What if, however, depression was treated like a teacher? What would happen if grief were welcomed like a friend bringing invaluable (albeit tragic) news? How could you be transformed by fully saying “YES” to the emotional information that is stamped into us by the messages of apathy and sadness?
To be clear, I DO NOT mean to imply that we should follow or even believe all that depression has to share with us… this is how the activity of negative thoughts (“I am no good and I never will be”) turn to the thoughts of negative action (self-harm/sabotage or suicidal ideation). Our job is to learn from depression, not to be controlled by it.
What you learn from depression about yourself and your world is not something I could comment on — that will likely require your own experimentation with observing what happens when the skills of letting-be and letting-go are exercised. After all, your experience is what we are talking about here, not mine.
What to do with it? [Part B: Surrender & “Single Taste”]
So, as you attend to the signs and symptoms of depression without immediately hating them and while fully affirming them to completion, you may be faced with the uncomfortable realization that you are sometimes (maybe often) not at all in control of the content of your thinking and feeling. What I mean is that you likely notice that there are WAY more thoughts and feelings that you do not choose to think or feel than those that you do.
This may be a familiar feeling: when racked with anxiety, you probably wouldn’t intentionally heap on more worry if you could help it; you probably don’t ever write “lose your temper and say a bunch of things you don’t mean” in your calendar. Thoughts and emotions seem to have a will of their own. We get into trouble when we leave that fact unacknowledged as we get lost in the fruitless fight with ourselves over what thoughts or feelings we will allow to be present within our experience.
There is a lot to be said for replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones (and this is another skill of its own), but when drowning in the flood of negativity, sometimes we just don’t have that option.
“Surrender” is a tricky word. It may be heard to mean something like submission to the will of another. In this case, however, what I am suggesting is that we experiment with surrendering to our own humility rather than to the content of thought and feeling. (And it is worth noting at this point that Humility is typically… well… humiliating.)
Surrendering to the content of our thoughts and feelings can lead us down a dark road. The path of surrendering to our own limitations, by contrast, can open us up to the Path of an empowering self-knowledge. Humility, after all, isn’t just about recognizing our limits; it is also a clear honesty with our very selves about what we are made up of.
And I think you and I and everyone else is capable of living in a harmonious way with all that make us up. We have a relationship with ourselves just like we do with others, after all; and you certainly can’t hate someone else’s pain away, so why try with your own? Surrendering (i.e. fully acknowledging and allowing) to the fact that a friend has a broken leg does not mean to kick him in the location of the fracture. It does not mean to scream at his leg in anger for having been broken. What it does mean is to accept and care for the state of your loved one including the entirety of what they are… brokenness and all.
Seeing and taking our whole selves as including the entirety of what we are involves a loving of the unlovable parts of ourselves. Humility is the way we can clearly understand what those parts may be.
As this wholeness of self-affirmation is deepened, one can begin to see the sameness of happy and horrible, honorable and onerous, deft and derelict, potent and pathetic, motivated and miserable, light and dark… all of these are parts of yourself; and your “Self” is what loves you (and all parts of you) into existence and into completion — IF YOU ALLOW IT.
Letting-be and letting-go is good practice.
Knowing and acknowledging yourself is humility.
Learning and loving through depression is the Path.