Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be used for personal medical or psychological diagnosis/treatment. If you or somebody know has experienced any symptoms of depression, please contact your primary care physician or a therapist for consultation, treatment or further guidance.
My friends say that they are happy, and for the most part, they appear so. But in private moments, they have confided in me: One friend often felt cold and empty and lost, and they didn’t know why. Another, sometimes, out of nowhere, would be struck with a sense of the meaninglessness and “emptiness” of everything. Yet another would randomly recall a painful or embarrassing memory from childhood, and only after minutes had passed, awoke to the self-shaming spiral they had caught themselves in over that one little thing. Another had seemingly inexplicable physical pains – a clenching of the jaw, a soreness in the arms and back – whenever faced with something emotionally unsettling. There were no seemingly biological bases for these issues, and many shrugged it off by saying, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. It’s not really a big deal. I’ll get over it.”
And isn’t that what we always say when confronted by uncomfortable feelings – feelings that might signal depression?
Depression became the shadowcreature sighted in the periphery of my vision, a dark presence I almost could see if I turned my head quick enough. In fleeting moments, it appeared without mask nor disguise in the faces of my friends.
Depression had something to say to me, and through my friends, it was calling to be known.
My loved ones – your loved ones – who are depressed are not only the lonely, sad-looking, “I’d rather stay in for the night”-types. They are the high-achievers, despairing, handsome, ugly, beautiful, insightful, self-conscious, funny, delightful, motivated: they can be all or none of these things. We pretend that depression only exists in times of socially-accepted grief (e.g. at the death of a loved one), in colddarkplaces, where we can avoid it and choose to not see it. The depressed are the weak ones. We treat it this same way – if any semblance of depression comes up in ourselves, we deny it, avoid it, and distract ourselves from it. Jung calls this oft-ignored dark place within all of us “The Shadow” — it follows us everywhere, and for as long as we ignore its existence, it is bound to us and affects us in ways we do not consciously notice. I am calling for a different approach to how we deal with our Shadow.
Depression has something to say. It is a call for growth through surrender, a place where power can be developed outside of the need for control over one’s mental state. It allows the individual to see the places that are hurting the most and heal them, rather than ignore them. Engaging with our Shadow, rather than repressing or avoiding it, can be a healing experience. Through a dharma-based understanding, especially when we understand Kali, the divine embodiment of Nothingness, we can also come to a more holistic view of what depression is and how loneliness heals.
The symptoms of depression as per NIMH are:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Changes in sleeping patterns: Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Changes in eating: Overeating, or appetite loss
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.
The number of symptoms present determines whether major depression, minor depression, or another related disorder (e.g. bipolar disorder) is present. While five or more are thought to constitute major depression, the presence of any few of these symptoms persistently is still a cause for concern.
However, many psychologists today who work in the clinical setting may admit that while disordered classifications are useful in research or in dealing with insurance companies, they may refuse to label their patients as “depressed,” “anxious,” etc. By this model, the number of symptoms present isn’t necessary to figure out, as one isn’t trying to come to one diagnostic label for a client. A therapist might instead say, “From what you have told me, it seems like you have a tendency to dissociate, you have trouble sleeping at night, you have some obsessive behaviors, you tend to be perfectionistic, you might be depressed sometimes.”
This is an important distinction to make. Most of us will not see ourselves as fitting five or more symptoms of clinical depression; however, one or two of those symptoms may be a part of our life to the point that we consider it to be “normal,” when really, they are signs from the unconscious mind that there is something within that we need to face.
I would prefer to understand the presence of these symptoms not as disordered behavior, but as a normal human experience that is intended to help us grow psychologically. The presence of depression or any depressive symptoms does not mean that we are “broken,” it means that we are well enough to recognize that there is something wrong that needs to be seen and healed.
We tend to blame these symptoms on other things happening in life – school, work, family issues – or “unfixable conditions” (e.g. chemical imbalances), but that does not detract from the fact that these symptoms are interfering with one’s physical, mental, and emotional functioning and therefore should be addressed. For example, even though it may be the case that following a break up of a long-term relationship, an individual experiences persistent sad feelings, that does not mean that it is “normal” insofar as it should be left to happen without engaging with it in a meaningful way. Perhaps the break-up, argument, or grieving experience did not create depression, but it triggered feelings of worthlessness, meaninglessness, and emptiness that were unseen, but already there. “Oh, I forgot about how lonely I feel.”
In other words, depression is an experience which brings us into contact with a darker side of ourselves that we usually refuse to see, or unconsciously ignore. However, by paying attention to what depression is saying by speaking through the language of the body, we can see how depression can shed light on areas of our psyche that need healing.
Misconceptions: What Doesn’t Help
Before going on, I suggest you take a look at this brilliant comic that sums up most of the problems with how we on how we deal with depression in others (by B. Patrick of Akimbo Comics).
What we usually might do when we find ourselves feeling suddenly, inexplicably lonely is to distract ourselves through exercise, television, social media (which can often make us feel more alone, despite being a vehicle for social activity), sex, drugs. None of these things are bad in themselves. It is how we use them that can be harmful. For example, engaging sexually with another person or masturbating has been shown to be one of the most popular ways that people assuage feelings of depression. (Also, we sexualize that which causes us anxiety – make it sexy so it’s easier to deal with.) However, usually after engaging in these activities, though we may gain a bit of mental clarity, we often use the pleasure generated by these activities not to face our fears, but to continue ignoring and pushing the problem down. And the same issues come up again later, for which we use the same distractors. This is not to say that sex is bad – sex can also be used to educate a person on issues in power/control, intimacy, abandonment fears, etc. if one engages in sexuality with awareness. The point here is that while yes, what we use to distract us often can help us gain a deeper meaning into our own issues, we seldom use them in that way.
Another way we misengage with depression is how we treat our friends who may find it appropriate to express their own depression to us. For example, there are times when I feel utterly alone, and I feel that I am incapable of being understood and seen for who I really am. Of course, I know that this simply is not true, but that does not make those cold, empty feelings any less valid. They are there to be felt for a reason. However, I know that if I were to make these feelings known to most of my friends, they would say, “Oh no! That isn’t true. Please do not think that about yourself.” Though my friends are well-meaning, usually this is not what a person who would be experiencing depression would need in that moment. A more appropriate response would be something like, “Tell me more about how that feels (sensations, emotionally).” Or “Could you describe a time to me when you may have felt like this before, maybe as a child? How did you feel then?” Your friend would have to feel safe enough around you to explore these feelings, but usually denying them that space would be more harmful than offering them a chance to be present with what is coming up. The main thing to keep in mind is that your role is to mediate, facilitate, and provide a container for whatever they feel needs to come out at that moment. Your role is not to “make them feel better.” Only they can heal themselves; you just play a role in that process.
Probably the most prominent way of denying ourselves healing is denying that there are feelings of anguish, suffering, and anger in the first place. We tell ourselves that “caring is a weakness,” that emotions “keep us from thinking clearly.” We tell ourselves that we are very happy people, and that anger does not exist within us. There is not much to say about this point, because understanding the strength that comes from vulnerability and admitting that one can feel anger or depression from time to time comes through experience, not necessarily through thinking things through. A lot of the energy we use repressing feelings is actually what makes us tired; giving them a chance to come up and just “be” actually makes other areas of our lives a whole lot easier. We can logically understand why we may be feeling a certain way, but long-lasting impact only comes with feeling – and feeling is a very scary thing to do.
Imagine letting out those unshed tears – the ones you could not show your parents or other loved ones because they would think less of you if you cried. (Or maybe the tears you would not let yourself shed – we often are our own toughest critics.) Much easier to say, “I’m a better person today because of how strict my parentage/self-discipline was – I would not be as successful in my career if I was not so hard on myself!” Discipline is necessary, this is true. But why is it that rather than crying and feeling out our hurt, we believe it is a lot easier to, on some late nights or early mornings, lie sleepless on your stomach, under sheets which suddenly feel too hot, wondering why despite your otherwise successful life, you feel so utterly alone?
The way forward is through vulnerability – going through our problems rather than around them. There is strength in staying in that burning-place; it is tapas (fire, or penance).
(For those of you thrown off by my comment about revisiting childhood, this TEDTalk by Liz Mullinar should give you a primer on how effective it can be to revisit one’s childhood as a part of therapy. This is not to say that we all had a violently traumatic childhood [though you may be surprised to hear what some of your loved ones have gone through]. But what breaks our hearts are a series of tiny little paper cuts, little chronic losses of love, not necessarily one big trauma. Most of us do not actually remember what these little losses were until we are given therapeutic space by a loved one, or until they come up on their own by going within [e.g. during meditation].)
Engaging with Depression
Psychologist Esther Harding compares depression to “the Wilderness,” or a desert: “a feeling of being lost, lost in an inhospitable region, so lost that one is in a state of despair. For the wilderness or desert is of course a place where there is no water. Life is precarious, human life almost impossible. A human being in the wilderness is alone, isolated, his life in great danger…Heaven and Earth seem to have forgotten their children.”
Frequently, in many other traditions as well, water represents the feeling-self. There is an important distinction to be made between feeling and emotion. Feeling is, quite literally, that-which-is-felt. Anger and depression are not feelings, but emotional states. Examples of feelings are “cold, tense, warm, itchy, tight,” etc. Feelings are grounded in the body. One may note that numbness is a symptom of depression. This includes numbness of a physical and emotional nature. When a depressed person sits down to meditate, for example, they may notice within the first few minutes, when they finally give attention to their body, that they do not feel much of anything. Not cold, not warm; the mind has lost touch with the body’s language, i.e. feeling. They feel numbness. However, as more space is given for the body to say what it must, feelings like coldness, tightness, fidgetiness, or perhaps burning or prickly sensations might come up. Feeling these sensations and sitting with them is the first step in engaging fruitfully with depression.
Very often, when constricted, tight, or uncomfortable sensations come up, we distract ourselves from them. Many recommend exercise, changing one’s diet, mind-stimulation (to challenge the brain and get it moving again) or mind-relaxation (spiritual bypassing can be a part of this) to get rid of depression. However, these things may serve just to distract one temporarily from depression, or may cause what is at the source of the depression to express itself in a different way – lashing out at others, feeling like others hate us or we hate others for seemingly no reason, or projecting our unhappiness onto those around us (“Everyone I know is miserable, stupid, and vapid.”). We blame others for how we feel, and pick at others’ weaknesses to make us feel better temporarily – as Pema Chodron notes, “there is nothing quite as delicious as finding fault in another person.”
These “positive” distractions are often not of lasting help. While a change in scenery or company offers temporary relief, the same issues will resurface again with the new group of people if our inner issues behind the depression are not faced. Physical symptoms that stem from emotional issues can worsen.
However, these feelings are telling us of mental states – the mind is feeling constricted, tight, held in, inhibited in some capacity. Feelings tell us which emotions are not being given voice. For example, a continued tightness in the jaw might mean that we are holding ourselves back from communicating something – a tightness and reining back in speaking. Continued burning and acidic sensations in the stomach, the “emotional cauldron,” tell us that the emotion being repressed might be anger. (Numerous medical studies can be referenced here on the connection between carrying tension within and contraction of the stomach, GERD, etc.) Allergies may indicate an irritation to something else in life, or a repressed feeling of insecurity. Asthma may be a feeling of “smothering love” (usually from a female figure), suppressed life, and suppressed tears, as the feelings of suffocation that come with asthma tell us. Fat is a natural cushioning for the body; overweight due to fat represents [a fear or feeling of] insecurity. Through pain in the back and lumbar spine, the body shows us the fault in believing that we must be rigid and stiff in order to survive. There is by no means a definitive guide; this wisdom and understanding of what the body is saying comes from your own experience and intuition. (Recommended reading for case studies and additional information on psychological bases of physical illness: The Body Never Lies by Alice Miller, Heal Your Body by Louise Hay.)
A common “condition” is a sort of involuntary daydreaming about horrible things happening to oneself. For example, for no reason, while crossing the street, you may imagine yourself being hit by an oncoming car. These parasuicidal fantasies can be an indication of repressed rage or hatred against the self.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Developing the capacity to yield to body and mind as uncomfortable feelings come up is very uncomfortable and scary. They will also frequently be illogical. For example, you may find yourself hating a person that died and being angry at them for leaving you. While it is illogical to suggest that the person should not have died, and that they should have stayed behind for you, and of course, we know that they are “better where they are,” there is great growth to be had in giving these feelings voice, while understanding that you can feel these things while also knowing that everything is just as it needs to be.
Welcoming depression helps the self develop a new sense of power that is feminine-based: power-from-surrender, rather from power-from-control (masculine-based power). In modern society, we don’t see how there can even be power without control. Learning to sit with depression teaches us how power and growth can come from vulnerability, yielding, and opening, as much as it can come from control and logic.
Whether depression is caused by an external event – death, trauma, loss – or unconscious internal event, where sometimes otherwise happy and amicable people are inexplicably pulled into an isolated, empty state, depression is a call to bring an internal, unconscious pain to conscious awareness. It is a call to feel something which we have avoided feeling, either because it is scary, because it seems illogical to feel that way, or because we know it is there and actively are avoiding seeing it because it seems too “negative”.
“Moisten the dry earth with its own moisture. Whatever the cause of one’s depression may be, contact with the earth – either the inner ground of one’s being or the outer earth of our marvelous world – such a contact often has a healing effect,” Harding says. This is where the word “humiliation” comes from: contact with humus, or the earth. Psychologist Robert A. Johnson notes, “dissolving into tears is a humiliating experience, [i.e. that which brings you closer to the inner ground].” For a person that values calm and composure as part of their self-image, rage, too, can be deeply humiliating. But as long as rage is felt and expressed within the context of knowing that “despite these feelings, everything is all right,” it will be a healing experience, albeit destructive. The earth is feminine, body-centered, brings us out of a thinking-place and into a feeling-place. Contact with the deep shame, hurt, and pain we carry inside is where the healing lies. Giving ourselves space to feel these things without self-judgment is where healing can begin.
Most importantly, learning to find meaning in our experiences is where depression does the most healing.
Coming into Contact with Nothing
The deepest stage of confronting depression is one that many people will not come to, and that is perfectly all right. It is better to make sure one has figured out how to start feeling again before deeper stages are reached. The most important part of healing from any mental disturbance is learning how to feel the emotions as sensations in the body, and release their hold on you that way. Re-experiencing that which was repressed is the key factor in growing from depression, anxiety, etc.
The next step, for those who see themselves at that point, is learning how to deal with the Nothingness. There is a deep sense of nothingness, emptiness, and isolation that comes with depression. We feel that we are Nothing. But who else is this Nothing but Ma, the adorable and terrible Shadow-Mother?
Kali is often regarded as “pregnant nothingness.” The center of the mandala and yantra, the spiritual diagram of the universe-as-self/self-as-universe, is the bindu, the empty point. Nothing lies at the center of everything. This emptiness we feel during depression is completely full, and this is a fullness we can feel if we give the emptiness a chance to be. Rather than repressing loneliness and emptiness, what if we saw those experiences as sacred as we see the Goddess? Hafiz says it best: “Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut you more deep. Let it ferment and season you as few humans and even divine ingredients can.”
Most importantly, in surrendering to the Emptiness, we also realize that the Emptiness is completely full. It seems paradoxical, and like Kali, it certainly is a divine paradox. She devours us, she destroys all, and is the embodiment of absolute bliss. This emptiness is a holding-emptiness, like the hollow womb. It supports us completely in its vast Nothing. While we can feel completely empty, we feel that emptiness within a loving, holding, and unconditionally-there space.
Esoteric as it sounds, one may be able to sense a familiarity in the healing power of that which pains us the most. Depression will bind us as long as we remain in fear of the emptiness – but opening to that emptiness and learning the power of compassion for the self can heal us more than love from another. We become strong in surrendering to an inner softness, rather than defending against that which we fear with the guise of a hard emotional exterior. We become less dependent on external strategies for “managing feeling,” and are able to open to the vast strength that resides inside – a strength which tells us that we need no armor at all. We can allow the Mother inside to show us how to produce life out of Nothingness.