Some Rights Reserved by Elena Acin at Flickr
Insightful comments by Stephany and Jane are helping me get to another stage in dealing with depression. In a previous post I started wondering if there might be a very different way of imagining and experiencing this illness. Could there be a way of adapting that started with different assumptions about the condition than the purely negative ones I’ve always accepted? I wondered if depression, which I fight hard to get out of my life, and creativity, which I embrace and cultivate, might be different faces of a psychic force trying to take its place in my mind and the actions of my life? Jane mentioned Eckhart Tolle’s experience of depression as a step toward his experience of enlightenment, and Stephany wrote that “when we leave for a depression, I think we fear losing ourselves and not being able to return to what we considered good… .” She adds that we could look at this as a renewal process, that “we come back with more of ourself.” That’s a wonderful image of leaving for depression and returning with a sense of renewal, as if from a vacation.
So I’ve been asking myself: if I were less combative with depression, accepted it more like a step toward a higher knowledge of myself, would it make the whole experience of living with the condition something more positive? Could I come to see it, not like losing half my waking life, but like gaining ground on healing and spiritual insight? Like most people, I have had many powerful spiritual experiences, but I haven’t connected those with depression – until now. And in my typically associative way, these two things come together in a dream.
I’ve had many dreams that symbolize depression as a wandering through dark and threatening rooms of a vast building. This particular dream, one of several like this that I’ve had over a period of years, used the same building symbol but cast the experience in a positive light. I had this some years ago and recently looked back at the original journal description. A group of friends and I were searching for a way out of a huge sprawling school. What we were really looking for was a way to spiritual salvation.
We searched through a series of dizzying hallways, opening door after door but finding nothing. Finally we realized that we had come to the last room in the building. When we entered, though, a bearded man in a robe told us that we could not get out that way. There was another door to open from that last room, and I suddenly knew, despite what the man was telling us, that our search through the building had somehow given us the power to unlock this door. I pulled it open and we could see a “bloody paradise” as I said after getting a glimpse. It looked like Colorado mountains in the distance but nestled high up was a beautiful area of intense colors swirling about that clearly marked our destination. To get there we had to tromp through a dense wall of green growth with straight, high almost blade-like leaves. As I carefully pushed them aside to go through, I stepped into ever denser clusters of them and realized how dangerous this was. We had to stop, go back into the building and try to take a different route.
Back in the building we went from room to room again, and it turned out that each of us (I had two companions, a man and a woman, though I didn’t know exactly who they were) had to find our unique ways to get out of there. I got to one room where I could enter a kind of fluid in what looked like a glass container, and as I did so my body started to disappear, though its outlines remained visible and I was still conscious of everything. A voice I heard was explaining that I was not yet ready for that stage of spirituality and had to first go through other experiences. I realized that for me this meant having to re-enact something like the experiences of a MacBeth or Othello – and that filled me with sorrow.
I seemed able to enter only so far into the spiritual stages I was seeking. That “school” building turned out to be a strange training ground or introduction to higher levels of being. I knew I could get a certain way into the spiritual transformation I was seeking, but then had to go back. Each time, as before, my body started to disappear, or become translucent until it occurred to me this was not the real thing, just a sort of practice, and I would resume my normal appearance. The man and the woman with me also had this experience. At times when I was in the most advanced “practice” state I was no longer in the building but among the bare hills of the Jordan River Valley, that is, the holy land. I woke up in the midst of this going back and forth from one state to another. I felt wonderful, as if the dream had been a great breakthrough in my life, as many other dreams had been. But I could not understand at the time why I felt so good when the dream itself seemed inconclusive with all this testing but without getting me where I wanted to go.
Now that dream makes more sense in the context of trying to find a link between the suffering of depression (the endless wandering through dark buildings with no way out) and the spiritual insight and fulfillment of my nature – the process of integration or individuation that Jung describes. Part of me could recognize on a feeling level the breakthrough that making this connection represented – and that part felt deeply happy and resolved. But the rest of me (intellect, will?) was still too isolated to start working with this insight.
In Speaking of Sadness, David Karp talks about the ability of people with long-term illnesses to “refashion the meaning of their pain.” He points to the success of the 12-step program in AA as partly due to the ability of alcoholics to adopt a different perspective on life, a new identity. They recognize the role of a higher power and bring about a “symbolic transformation” of the meaning of the problem. He found that some of the depression sufferers he interviewed came to achieve an adaptation in which they saw a deepening of spiritual knowledge through depression. Or some saw the illness as the price they paid for reaching a place of spiritual understanding.
That is beginning to make more sense to me, not just as part of a potentially useful adaptation to depression, but as a way of connecting to an inner process that’s been going on for some time. Have you had that experience of suddenly catching up consciously to inner learning that’s been going on for a long time just below the surface of your awareness?