It seems a good question. Depression has been a recurrent companion these last months. Given this frequency of appearance, it seems fair - perhaps even incumbent upon me - to ask, to put Chogyam Trungpa’s assertion to test with this painfully familiar experience. Is depression sacred?
I have to admit no immediate answer here. Is depression sacred? I just don’t know. What might that look like, sacred depression? What might this mean? To these questions also, no immediate answer is forthcoming.
Given this lack of ready replies, perhaps the place to start is the experience itself. What has depression been for me recently? How does it appear? What does it feel like and what are it’s effects on my days?
Just typing these questions is a curious experience. There is a feeling of foreignness to the exercise. I don’t normally do this - question depression. If anything, my relationship with this difficult company is characterized by the opposite - a distinct lack of questioning, inquisitiveness, engagement. An image arises in which I am straight-arming depression with one lifted hand. My head is turned the other way. My eyes are clamped shut. The effort put into this closing is made obvious by clenched cheeks and thin, twisted lips.
This image offers a fairly accurate representation of our usual relationship, depression and I. It pushing in, insisting; me doing everything I can to get away. To actually turn towards this? I have to pause for a moment. Let my hands rest at both sides. Loose a long, shaky breath. This is going to be more difficult than I had imagined.
For me, depression typically arrives with little notice. Heaviness sometimes soaks its way into my mood. Other times I find my energy spiraling downward. Either of these lasts only a few minutes, thirty or forty at most. And they provide only warning of what approaches. To this point, these signals have not allowed me to turn back or avert what is coming. There is no running to higher ground, no undoing the clouds gathering on the horizon. Escape seems impossible; I can only wait.
What I wait for, when it comes, has a definite physical character. It is not so much a state of mind as an expression of body. Without reaching for the over-dramatic, it feels as if a two-by-four is being hammered through one side of my skull. This usually comes from right to left: in the right temple, through my frontal lobe, and out the left side of my head. Unsurprisingly, the two-by-four sensation hurts. It feels as if my brain is being assaulted on a cellular level. This is not a headache, which for me tends toward a pinching sensation. It is a dull, blunt, violent assault.
Assault on what? Enthusiasm seems the most apparent casualty of this experience. My dictionary defines this word as “a lively interest”. Its roots lay in the Greek term ‘entheos’, which speaks to having a god within. For ancient Greeks, ‘entheos’ bears linguistic witness to the sense of being overcome with the spirit of a god.
Such liveliness certainly seems under attack in these episodes. Interest wains until it feels even the gods have abandoned me. Thus deserted I am left depleted and limp, unable to do much of anything, rouse much concern for this fact. Emails pass unanswered. Dishes go unwashed. Dinners become the most basic of affairs and any momentary inspiration passes unrealized. This last is fitting. ‘Inspiration’ digs its roots in the experience of being breathed upon by a god; when I am depressed, divine respiration gives every impression of having ceased.
It is cruel irony that, in these times when life force seems near non-existent, I find it difficult to sleep. Some nights I’ll stay up until heavy with fatigue. Dragging myself to bed around midnight, I’ll drop into quick slumber - only to awake for good three hours later. On other occasions, I alternate between bed and wandering our hallway until first light peeks at the day. Hearing birds begin to rise from their slumber, I tumble into my own for the two or three hours left me.
What is the effect of all this? How does this impact my life? Peering beneath the surface of my most reflexive response - depression just makes life miserable - I see at least a couple of replies to these questions. First and foremost, depression stops me in my tracks. Whatever plans I might hold, whatever hopes or intentions I aspire to, whatever duties or responsibilities lay in wait, when the experience of depression rises up and through, all these are washed away by a powerful and apparently merciless tsunami.
The only thing I can liken this to is raising a small child. Here is an example. One morning when Samantha was still an infant, she lay asleep on the floor as my wife and I discussed how our day was going to unfold. We each had intentions for the hours ahead. We each had things we had/wanted to get done.
With these ‘things’ as our building blocks the two of us carefully constructed a day, laying brick after brick upon the foundation assumption our daughter would continue to snooze for another sixty or so minutes. The moment our planning was done, I pushed against the arms of the chair in an effort to get up and on with the task of realizing our creation. Before my rear had left the seat, however, Samantha started to cry. My wife, characteristically quicker and more matter of fact on such occasions, rightfully observed, “Well, there goes that day.”
Such is the influence of depression in my life. It is a force that will not be negotiated. ‘Maybe if I sleep in,’ I sometimes think to myself. Translation? Maybe if I give the morning over to how I am feeling, I’ll be allowed to get something productive accomplished in the afternoon. The outcome of such efforts? Depression just does not function according to such reasonable terms of engagement. It is uninterested in mediated exchange. To repeat what has already been said, it is a force - untamed, uncivilized, completely unreasonable.
Here appears the second impact of this experience upon my life. Once stopped in my tracks, depression demands I pay attention to this. Not the ‘this’ I use to express my wants and desires - ‘This is what I will do today.’ - but it’s ‘this’. For in spite of any effort to the contrary, once this force has arrived, I can only engage whatever its demanding presence will allow.
What is allowed? As any sort of personal agenda - ‘This is what I will do today’ - vanishes in depression’s darkness, physical sensation emerges as the only landmark of any significance. Most regular among such sensations are heavy shoulders and an empty heart.
The weight on my shoulders feels an incumbrance, a burden I can no longer carry. Imagine a backpack swollen with rocks. The straps dig in, bruising my flesh. It becomes hard to breathe, impossible to straighten. It is difficult to maneuver with any lightness or fluidity. Each rock adds a distinct element to the weight. A quick reach inside and I find an expectation to meet, a response to offer, a way of being to maintain. Much of this burden, then, seems a life - or, more accurately, a style of living - I cannot support or maintain anymore; it is literally dragging me down, exhausting.
As for my heart, upon examination this reveals itself as far from vacant. It is dark. It is open. It certainly does seem bottomless. These qualities make the assumption of emptiness understandable, but my heart is not empty. When I keep looking, I see its depths contain a pervasive vulnerability, a thread of tenderness that winds its way through experience with astonishing consistency. There is a kind of sadness in this thread. Not our conventional ‘that’s too bad’ brand of sadness, but rather a rawness, an ache, a sense of being touched - maybe even overwhelmed - by life. It strikes me this might be well described as a somatic sense of awe.
All of this feels to lay near the core of the heart - the heart of the heart, if you will. As I look deeper, try to linger in this place, I am surprised to find I cannot. It is as if the heart itself will not let me rest here, not let me stay too long. I get the impression I am being cast out, perhaps in an effort to avoid drawing the mistaken conclusion that this raw vulnerability is all that awaits.
For there is even more in the apparently empty organ. Pushed out of its core, I am drawn toward the edges of the heart. Here I see a hint of light. A flicker as if dawn were rising on the distant horizon. There is a vibrancy in this, a sense of possibility that whispers something to me. These words I cannot make out, but my ear cannot let them go. I feel compelled to listen, to move closer in order to eventually hear.
Earlier I characterized depression as an assault on enthusiasm. Certainly this seems accurate in terms of “lively interest”; to say my interest is not very lively through such episodes is an understatement of considerable proportions. I also, however, evoked the Greek root of this term - ‘entheos’ - and equated depression with abandonment by the gods.
Now I am wondering if this is, in fact, correct. Have I actually been abandoned by the gods in those moments I am left limp on the floor of my life? When I am pinned beneath a persona I can no longer support, as alternating waves of sorrow and possibility wash through my heart, is the situation really suggesting I have been left behind?
It seems possible - and even likely - the exact opposite is true. Writing this, I am struck by the insight my experience of depression looks more like an expression of the presence of that ancient Greek notion of enthusiasm than its absence. Something larger and more powerful than the everyday sense of ‘Neil’ has shouldered its way into my life. A god, we might say, has pushed all else aside to insist with the force only divinity can muster, ‘You will attend to this!’ And what is ‘this’? An old life that cannot continue; a new life whispering of mystery on the flickering horizon.
So back to that question: Is depression sacred?
It seems, at the very least, depression is more than I thought it was when I started this piece. Much more, which is curious. I gave one of my occasional ‘What is meditation?’ talks in a class last week. “Meditation is an invitation to surprise,” I said. “When we meditate, our ideas about life settle like sediment to the river bed. The water about us relatively clear, we are able to see things that are typically obscured. This is often surprising.”
I sit here writing on a cloudy afternoon. I have placed my attention on the question ‘Is depression sacred?’ and rested here through much of the last hours. Again and again straight-armed aversion has risen up. Again and again I have responded by coming back to the object of this inquiry: Is depression sacred? Is depression sacred? Is depression sacred?
That there has been a settling quality in this practice is undeniable. Out of this settling has come some clarity. Through this clarity I have seen - and been surprised. Depression is certainly much, much more than I thought it was. Not only does this most difficult experience seem sacred now, as I wind up this writing I realize it is one of the more forceful expressions of life’s wise, caring enormity that I know.
NEIL MCKINLAY - MEDITATION | COACHING | INTUITION - WWW.NEILMCKINLAY.COM