So much is written about peak experience, the feeling of oneness, the effortless flow of energy as you feel yourself at one with what you are doing. I often struggle with myself to achieve these moments, but depression has its ways of blocking them.
If you’ve ever played a sport that involves hitting a ball, you know the rare feeling of the perfect swing, the perfect hit. There are a hundred things that can go wrong, and you’re constantly practicing to get them all right.
You work hard to master every aspect of stance, eye, judging the right moment to trigger action, applying just enough force, swinging through smoothly, hitting the ball in the right spot to control its arc, speed and distance. You get better and better but usually fall a little short.
Once in a great while, though, all the worries about each detail disappear, and there it is. You sweep away the ball without even feeling the impact, and it sails exactly where it needs to go. You know without a glance that you’ve done it.
There is no thought, no struggle, no conscious push to get it right, just the swing and an impact with no resistance. It’s a pure outflow of will through the grace of forgetting all you know.
It’s the effortless connecting that happens when you meet and bond at once with a special person. It’s in the flow of a dance movement, teaching a great class or even, as Csikszentmihalyi describes in Flow, the intense repetition of one action in an assembly line production (though I expect the eminent psychologist didn’t spend much time doing that sort of work).
There’s a freedom about it, a release into connecting but also a release from all the struggle, the fear about getting it right, the barrier of self-consciousness, the unspoken conviction that if I don’t get it right, I deserve to fail.
The Peak Becomes Everything
Depression had its own way of guiding me through these experiences. It didn’t always undermine them. Far from it. Often I could find their magic no matter what my mood. The catch was in the aftermath.
Feeling at one with a person, with work, with a spiritual presence became the goal of living. Short of those moments, I’d be lingering impatiently, hoping for the real thing to return. Nothing else would do, nothing else could satisfy my need, nothing else felt like me.
The disappointment of the ordinary fitted well with depression. I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t deserving, I couldn’t get it right. It was easy to spiral down. The peak experiences became the stuff of fantasy, escapist dreams of what life could be like if only I could get away from the life I was living.
The Peak Becomes Dangerous
The other side of depression kept the experience of flow beyond my reach. I could long for those moments, prepare for them as best I could, but stop in fear when they came too close.
I’ve tried learning to play musical instruments in the past but could never let my fingers fly over the stops of a horn or strings of a guitar. I would double-think each note or chord to ensure I was getting it right. But music isn’t one note after another. It’s phrases, cadences, whole movements of rhythm and melody. You have to release the hold on one note at a time, but letting go of the mechanics led only to anxiety.
In the same way, if you put me on rollers, blades or skis to slide along a smooth surface, I’d break the motion in fear of losing control and fall. There was always something dangerous in the release, even when releasing the tense grip was the only way to move.
Far more serious was stopping at an invisible boundary when approaching intimacy. I longed for that more than anything, but fear and tension spun a cocoon around me.
Letting out powerful feelings stirred an intolerable anxiety.
Self Becomes Self-Defeating
In those moments, I seemed to live inside a depressed self that cut me off from a fuller life. It tightly contained me for protection while at the same time caged me apart from what I most wanted.
Depression seemed to set so many boundaries, marking them out when I came too close.
It was after these boundaries began to disappear that I realized I was recovering. I didn’t feel so contained, so fearful of releasing my own feelings, so dominated by fantasies or dissatisfied with everyday life.
Have you been able to feel at one with the important events and people in your life? Can you accept those times as a fine part of living or do they become exaggerated, provoking fantasy or extreme anxiety?