Depression and The Spiritual Journey …

This experience called “depression” is isolating to a greater extent than I imagined could be survivable, but I realize that this incredibly isolating experience ultimately reconnected me with the human community in a deeper, wider, and richer way.
— Parker J. Palmer from Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey Through Depression

The Mystery of Depression

Learn to embrace mystery

Twice, in my forties, I spent endless months in the snake pit of the soul. Hour by hour, day by day, I wrestled with the desire to die, sometimes so feeble in my resistance that I “practiced” ways of doing myself in. I could feel nothing except the burden of my own life and the exhaustion, the apparent futility, of trying to sustain it. I understand why some depressed people kill themselves: They need the rest. But I do not understand why others are able to find new life in the midst of a living death, though I am one of them. I can tell you what I did to survive, and eventually to thrive— but I cannot tell you why I was able to do those things before it was too late.

Because of my not-knowing, perhaps I have learned something about the relation of faith to depression, as this story may illustrate. I recently met a woman who had wrestled with depression for much of her adult life. Toward the end of a long and searching conversation, during which we talked about our shared Christian faith, she asked, in a voice full of misery, “Why do some people kill themselves while others get well?”

I knew that her question came from her own struggle to stay alive, so I wanted to answer her well. But I could come up with only one response.

“I have no idea. I really have no idea.”

After she left, I was haunted by regret. Couldn’t I have found something more hopeful to say, even if it were not true?

A few days later she sent me a letter saying that of all the things we had talked about the words that had stayed with her were I have no idea. My response had given her an alternative to the cruel “Christian explanations” common in the church to which she belonged— that people who take their lives lack faith, or good works, or some other redeeming virtue that might move God to rescue them. My not-knowing had freed her to stop judging herself for being depressed, and to stop believing that God was judging her. As a result, her depression had lifted a bit.

I draw two lessons from that experience. First, it is important to speak one’s truth to a depressed person. Had I offered wishful thinking, it would not have touched my visitor. In depression, the built-in bunk detector that we all possess is not only turned on but is set on “high.”

Second, depression demands that we reject simplistic answers, both “religious” and “scientific,” and learn to embrace mystery, something our culture resists. Mystery surrounds every deep experience of the human heart: The deeper we go into the heart’s darkness or its light, the closer we get to the ultimate mystery of God. But our culture wants to turn mysteries into problems to be solved or breakdowns to be fixed, because maintaining the illusion that we can “straighten things out” makes us feel powerful. Yet mysteries never yield to solutions or fixes— and when we pretend that they do, life not only becomes more banal but more hopeless, because the fixes never work.

Embracing the mystery of depression does not mean passivity or resignation. It means entering into a field of forces that seems alien but is in fact our deepest self. It means waiting, watching, listening, suffering, and gathering whatever self-knowledge we can — and then making choices base on that knowledge, no matter how difficult. We again the slow walk back to health by choosing each day that which enlivens our selfhood and resisting that which does not.

The knowledge I am talking about is not intellectual and analytic but integrative and of the heart, and the choices that lead to wholeness are not pragmatic and calculated, intended to achieve some goal, but simply and profoundly expressive of personal truth. It is a demanding path, for which no school prepares us. I know: I had to walk that path a second time because what I learned about myself the first time frightened me. I rejected my own knowing and refused to make the choices it required. The price was a second sojourn into hell.
Parker J. Palmer from All the Way Down

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.
― Brené Brown from I Thought It Was Just Me

People talk about the Harry Potter books as wizard wheezes but they have a pronounced dark side as well. The Dementors, for instance, are prison guards who track people by sensing their emotions. They disable their victims by sucking out all positive thoughts and with a kiss they can take a soul while leaving the body alive.  I do not think that these are just characters. I think they are a description of depression. “Yes. That is exactly what they are,” she says. “It was entirely conscious. And entirely from my own experience. Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced.”
J.K. Rowling (excerpt from author interview by Ann Treneman in The Times (UK) on  June 30, 2000).

When you’re lost in those woods, it sometimes takes you a while to realize that you are lost. For the longest time, you can convince yourself that you’ve just wandered off the path, that you’ll find your way back to the trailhead any moment now. Then night falls again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and it’s time to admit that you have bewildered yourself so far off the path that you don’t even know from which direction the sun rises anymore.
― Elizabeth Gilbert from Eat, Pray, Love

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
— Ellen Bass from Mules of Love

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.
Parker J. Palmer from The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice

All the Way Down

And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.
— Anne Lamott from Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year

When we know the pain of abandonment, loss, or rejection, there is hope for us as well . . .
We need patience and a deep respect for the time it takes to grieve our real losses and to own them as our own. We need lots of time and support to give us our expectation that someone can erase or change what actually happened that wounded us. We need to share and ask for support in our network of friends, of family, church, or community where people will not be scandalized when they hear that our once cherished relationships are complicated, difficult, less than perfect, or gone altogether. And gradually, when the time is right, we need encouragement to step through and beyond our grief into new and renewed relationships of trust, where we once again recover our ability to care for others
and our sense of humor.
Sue Mosteller, CSJ

“I felt ashamed.”
“But of what? Psyche, they hadn’t stripped you naked or anything?”
“No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal — of being a mortal.”
“But how could you help that?”
“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”
― C.S. Lewis from Till We Have Faces

Exhaustion, burnout, and depression are not signs that you are doing God’s will. God is gentle and loving. God desires to give you a deep sense of safety in God’s love. Once you have allowed yourself to experience that love fully, you will be better able to discern who you are being sent to in God’s name.
— Henri J.M. Nouwen from The Inner Voice of Love

From the Outside Looking In

Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”
— C.S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain

Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?” If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.
— Brené Brown from The Gifts of Imperfection

One thing you who had secure or happy childhoods should understand about those of us who did not. We who control our feelings, who avoid conflicts at all costs, or seem to seek them. Who are hypersensitive, self-critical, compulsive, workaholic, and above all survivors. We are not that way from perversity, and we cannot just relax and let it go. We’ve learned to cope in ways you never had to.
Piers Anthony

So often survivors have had their experiences denied, trivialized, or distorted. Writing is an important avenue for healing because it gives you the opportunity to define your own reality. You can say: This did happen to me. It was that bad. It was the fault & responsibility of the adult. I was—and am—innocent.
— Ellen Bass from The Courage to Heal

Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self … We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self. There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness….We can rise above this unreality and recover our hidden reality…. God Himself begins to live in me not only as my Creator but as my other and true self.
Thomas Merton from New Seeds of Contemplation

Two Solitudes

It is odd that some of my most vivid memories of depression involve the people who came to look in on me, since in the middle of the experience I was barely able to notice who was, or was not, there. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection— it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.

I do not like to speak ungratefully of my visitors. They all meant well, and they were among the few who did not avoid me altogether. But, despite their good intentions, most of them acted like Job’s comforters–the friends who came to Job in his misery and offered “sympathy” that led him deeper into despair.

Some visitors, in an effort to cheer me up, would say, “it’s a beautiful day. Why don’t you go out and soak up sunshine and look at the flowers? Surely that’ll make you feel better.”

But such advice only made me more depressed. Intellectually, I knew that the day was beautiful, but I was unable to experience that beauty through my senses, to feel it in my body. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between one’s mind and one’s feelings. To be reminded of that disconnection only deepened my despair.

Other people came to me and said, “But you’re such a good person, Parker. You teach and write so well, and you’ve helped so many people. Try to remember all the good you’ve done and you’ll surely feel better.”

This advice, too, left me more depressed, for it plunged me into the immense gap between my “good” persona and the “bad” person I then believed myself to be. When heard these words, I thought, Another person has been defrauded, has seen my image rather than my reality— and if they ever saw the real me, they would reject me in a flash. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, and between mind and heart, but between one’s self-image and public mask.

Then there were the visitors who began by saying, “I know exactly how you feel . . .” Whatever comfort or counsel these people may have been headed toward, I heard nothing beyond their opening words, because I knew those words were untrue: No one can fully experience another person another person’s mystery. Paradoxically, it was my friends’ empathetic attempt to identify with me that made me feel even more isolated, because it was over-identification. Disconnection may be hell, but it is better than false connections.

Having not only been “comforted” by friends, but having tried to comfort others that way myself, I think I understand what the syndrome is about: Avoidance and denial. One of the hardest things we must sometimes do is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to fix it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of his or her mystery—and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels, and our unconscious need as Job’s comforters is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.

In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me—not you— free. If you take my advice, you may get well, and if you don’t get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing I can do about it. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.

Blessedly, there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a man who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by late every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the only place in my body where I could still experience bodily feeling—and feel connected with the human race.

He rarely spoke a word, and when he did, he never gave advice but simply mirrored my condition. He would say, “I can sense your struggle today,” or, “It feels like you are getting stronger.” I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful: They reassured me that I could still be seen by at least on person, life-giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible. It is almost impossible to put into words what my friend’s ministry meant to me. Perhaps it is enough to say that I now understand the Biblical stories of Jesus and his foot washings at new depth.

The poet Rilke says, “Love … consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” That is the kind of love my friend offered. He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice, but simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey— and the courage to let it be— that I myself needed if I were to endure.

This kind of love does not reflect the “functional atheism” some of us practice— saying pious words about God’s presence in our lives but believing, on the contrary, that nothing good is going to happen unless we make it happen. Rilke describes a kind of love that neither avoids nor invades the soul’s suffering. It is a love in which we can represent God’s presence to a suffering person, a God who does not “fix” us but gives us strength by suffering with us. By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders of another’s solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper than any human being can give.

Amazingly, I was offered an unmediated sign of that love when, one sleepless night in the middle of my first depression, I heard a voice say simply and clearly, “I love you, Parker.” The words did not come audibly from without but silently from within: They could not have come from my ego, which was too consumed by self-hatred to utter them.

It was a moment of inexplicable grace—but so deep is the devastation of depression that I dismissed it. And yet, that moment made its mark: I realized that my rejection of such a remarkable gift was a measure of how badly I needed help.
Parker J. Palmer from All the Way Down

For a long time, the “oughts” had been the driving force in my life— and when I failed to live up to those oughts, I saw myself as weak and faithless person. I never stopped to ask, “How does such-and-such fit my God given nature?” or “Is such-and-such truly my gift and call?” As a result, important parts of the life I was living were not mine to live, and thus were bound to fail.

Depression was, indeed, the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand— the ground of my own truth, my own nature, with its complex mix of limits and gifts, liabilities and assets, darkness and light …

… Here is a remarkable image of the field of forces surrounding the experience of God, a dangerous but potentially life-giving place to which depression may take us. It is a place where we come to understand that the self is not set apart, special, or superior, but a common mix of good and evil, darkness and light— a place where we can finally embrace the humanity we share with others.
Parker J. Palmer from All the Way Down

In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.
— Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

When you come out of the grips of a depression there is an incredible relief, but not one you feel allowed to celebrate. Instead, the feeling of victory is replaced with anxiety that it will happen again, and with shame and vulnerability when you see how your illness affected your family, your work, everything left untouched while you struggled to survive. We come back to life thinner, paler, weaker … but as survivors. Survivors who don’t get pats on the back from coworkers who congratulate them on making it. Survivors who wake to more work than before because their friends and family are exhausted from helping them fight a battle they may not even understand. I hope to one day see a sea of people all wearing silver ribbons as a sign that they understand the secret battle, and as a celebration of the victories made each day as we individually pull ourselves up out of our foxholes to see our scars heal, and to remember what the sun looks like.
— Jenny Lawson from Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things

Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.
— Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet

Because where God wants you to be, God holds you safe and gives you peace, even when there is pain.
― Henri J.M. Nouwen from The Inner Voice of Love

Surfacing Through

This night will pass…
Then we have work to do…
Everything has to do
with loving and not loving…
– Rumi

Very often, when hurt or depressed or anxious, we encounter powerful feelings like ghosts without a body, trying to pour themselves into us, trying to dominate our lives. They seem to gather in the cave of our pain, stroking our wounds like stones in a fire that keeps them warm. After years of struggling to let my painful feelings out, I’m learning that the other side of this, which is just as essential to my well-being, is not to let the hurt or depression or anxiety set up camp inside me. I must confess it has taken me all this way to fully understand that the purpose of surfacing these powerful feelings is to continually empty my heart and mind of its sediment, so that new life can make its way into me. There are dangers to not letting such feelings out. But once felt, there are dangers as well to not letting such feelings move on through. For just as our lungs must stay clear for the next mouthful of air, our heart must stay unobstructed for the next feeling we encounter.
There is no freedom until we dance the ghosts from the chambers of our wounds, until we pile our wounds like stones at the mouth of our own quarries.
— Mark Nepo from The Book of Awakening

Just as we open and heal the body by sensing its rhythms and touching it with a deep and kind attention, so we can open and heal other dimensions of our being. The heart and the feelings go through a similar process of healing through the offering of our attention to their rhythms, nature, and needs. Most often, opening the heart begins by opening to a lifetime’s accumulation of unacknowledged sorrow, both our personal sorrows and the universal sorrows of warfare, hunger, old age, illness, and death. At times we may experience this sorrow physically, as contractions and barriers around our heart, but more often we feel the depth of our wounds, our abandonment, our pain, as unshed tears. The Buddhists describe this as an ocean of human tears larger than the four great oceans.

As we take the one seat and develop a meditative attention, the heart presents itself naturally for healing. The grief we have carried for so long, from pains and dashed expectations and hopes, arises. We grieve for our past traumas and present fears, for all of the feelings we never dared experience consciously. Whatever shame or unworthiness we have within us arises—much of our early childhood and family pain, the mother and father wounds we hold, the isolation, any past abuse, physical or sexual, are all stored in the heart. Jack Engler, a Buddhist teacher and psychologist at Harvard University, has described meditation practice as primarily a practice of grieving and of letting go. At most of the spiritual retreats I have been a part of, nearly half of the students are working with some level of grief: denial, anger, loss, or sorrow. Out of this grief work comes a deep renewal.

Many of us are taught that we shouldn’t be affected by grief and loss, but no one is exempt. One of the most experienced hospice directors in the country was surprised when he came to a retreat and grieved for his mother who had died the year before. “This grief,” he said, “is different from all the others I work with. It’s my mother.” Oscar Wilde wrote, “Hearts are meant to be broken.” As we heal through meditation, our hearts break open to feel fully. Powerful feelings, deep unspoken parts of ourselves arise, and our task in meditation is first to let them move through us, then to recognize them and allow them to sing their songs. A poem by Wendell Berry illustrates this beautifully.

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
Where I left them, asleep like cattle …

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
And the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

What we find as we listen to the songs of our rage or fear, loneliness or longing, is that they do not stay forever. Rage turns into sorrow; sorrow turns into tears; tears may fall for a long time, but then the sun comes out. A memory of old loss sings to us; our body shakes and relives the moment of loss; then the armoring around that loss gradually softens; and in the midst of the song of tremendous grieving, the pain of that loss finally finds release.
— Jack Kornfield from A Path With Heart

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.

— Anatole France

Depression, the secret we share — Andrew Solomon


depression1 depression2 depression3 depression4 depression5 depression6

See Also:

Online Resources


The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness

The Upward Spiral

The Depression Cure

Reasons to Stay Alive

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey Through Depression

Learning to Walk in the Dark

Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm