After reading about the experiences of Tom Wootton and Will, the author of the great blog, WillSpirit, I’ve been exploring whether I could find a way, as they have, of turning depression into vitality or even bliss, something positive and fulfilling.
It’s been a stretch. I’ve usually thought of depression as a force that turns you against the most basic instinct of all – the instinct to survive and thrive in life. I’ve felt it not just as emotional pain but as a pressure pushing me toward deadness. Yet I have been making gradual progress in this new direction.
I should quickly add that Tom and Will have had very different experiences. As Tom describes it, he has cultivated the ability to experience ecstasy or equanimity whenever depression arises. Will, on the other hand, powerfully describes the much more occasional experiences of moving from depression to bliss as quite difficult to sustain, like walking on a narrow rocky ridge or a knife edge.
I’m finding a way to achieve something a little less precarious than what Will describes but far less integrated into my life than Tom’s experience. With considerable practice (I’m recalling Tom’s decades of meditation), perhaps this can become more common for me whenever depressed episodes seem to be returning.
I started with Will’s insight that you can learn to focus only on the sensation of depression without trying to interpret or evaluate the feelings. To attempt to do this, my years of learning to direct my attention through mindfulness have been essential. The focus is on the feeling of depression in my body without trying to name the state or accept all my usual beliefs and attitudes about its effects or symptoms.
When I can maintain this focus, avoiding all efforts to characterize my feelings, I can experience depression as a strangely intense and focused mental event. I say “strangely” because I am usually aware of depression as a state in which I lack energy, can’t focus my mind and have no motivation.
By this practice, I am learning to stop trying to identify the feelings and simply sense the energy that carries them. If I can focus on the intensity behind the usual feelings and beliefs rather than the identities I give them, the depression doesn’t feel like depression any more.
Instead, I feel a kind of giddiness and surprise as an energized peacefulness takes over. Evan Hadkins has a great phrase for this, elated calmness. The surprise comes from realizing that the liveliness, which I thought had deserted me, turns out to have been there all along but muffled and suppressed.
It’s like awakening to a part of me that I hadn’t been able to get in touch with before. This is quite different from the way I have usually kept depression at bay. My mindfulness practice has enabled me to notice depression without being bothered by it, or to dispel occasional symptoms of its return by using the assortment of skills I’ve learned over the years.
In that state, I can go about my life untroubled by the effects of depression, and that has been fine, more than I used to think I could ever hope for. But this more recent effort altogether changes the experience of depression. It disappears into a flow of vital energy the way it does when I’m absorbed in a creative activity like writing.
Perhaps the energy has always been there but in a form of pain rather than excitement. For me depression involves a struggle. Even when feeling listless and unable to move, I do not want to feel that way. I want to feel alive and motivated, and the pain comes from the anguish of being unable to throw off the torpor.
That is a struggle and makes me realize how it can be that stress hormones tend to be higher during depression – just the opposite of what you would think when you are dull to the usual sensations of life. There is a struggle going on.
It takes a lot of work to lie still, even as I’m imagining that I can’t lift a finger. I am actually in the midst of a fight, condemning myself for lying there when I want to be able to spring into action. On a grander level, I can think of that as a struggle between the wish to die and the will to live. It’s an internal fight of high stress that wears me out.
There are others sources of struggle and pain. Depression blocks a fundamental driver of life in the need to make meaning and feel purposeful in what I do. It undermines the values that are closest to me in terms of relationships and work. Everything seems pointless, but the despair I feel about the emptiness of my life is also an intense state.
The struggle is especially apparent when I am trying to deny that depression has returned. It’s then that it comes through in the aggression of anger, the flight from people when anxiety is extreme, the hostility of paranoia or the wild run of panic.
Something remarkable happens if I am able to suspend the labeling and characterizing of these experiences as good or bad. I’m left with the bare energy of living and simply feel it running through me. It is immediately calming. I feel released from the anguish of struggle and evaluation and judgment and can feel more fully alive.
I could call it transcendence or peacefulness or bliss or simply vitality. It is a sense of being in touch with the fundamental energies and needs of life. The once dominating drive of depression toward deadness is gone, and I can experience the core of aliveness that must be the basis for resilience, the ability to spring back from injury or loss or illness.
This practice will take a long time to unfold, and I’ll write more as I continue to explore it.
This is the most powerful and empowering article I’ve read about depression in a long time. Thank you for the ideas and the hope.
Noch Noch - Be me. Be natural. says
You describe it for my experience exactly! I feel the same. There is some sort of serenity amidst the pain
Michael Platania says
Not identifying the feelings but simply experiencing them is something I try often, especially when I am stuck or things are the most difficult. Then I stop and feel, just let myself feel. It’s sometimes a challenge, but always worth the effort.
John, the way you describe this makes it feel like more of a possibility than anything else I’ve read about it. It reminded me of how sometimes I can get anxious just thinking about maybe starting another depressive episode, but if I just plod through and even avoid talking about it with my husband, it’s almost easier. If I admit to feeling depressed, I think the word itself has an alarming connotation to him, so if I don’t say it and can still function, everything’s fine. I know that doesn’t exactly sound like honesty, but I really don’t WANT to alarm anyone else, or myself for that matter, so I guess I’m probably just treating it as an observation, maybe. I feel crappy – so what? As long as it’s not making me suicidal or crazy-acting, it’s just part of my emotional range. I guess I wouldn’t, at this point, call it bliss or ecstasy but I don’t care, really – I don’t think ecstasy is a realistic goal for an earth-bound human, at least for me. Besides, if my goal is to achieve that, does that mean I’m a failure if I don’t get there? I don’t think so. Maybe ecstasy is different things to different people. I don’t know if what I just said even makes sense, it’s late 🙂
Very much looking forward to following your exploration of this. Thanks for the mention too.
Thomas Jespersen says
Have you read Tom Wootton’s books? They are aimed at people with depression, I just wonder if the books describes the techniques in general or if the are specifically aimed at depressed people.
I don’t have depression myself but suffer from anxiety (due to trauma), and I think I might be able to use this.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Thomas –
I have read his book The Depression Advantage and have the others on order. The book gives an overview of the methods, but it’s really his course that spells it out in detail. You can get a sense of it from the introductory course (I believe it’s free) on his website – edu.bipolaradvantage.com/
Joanna Z. Weston says
Thank you for posting such a fascinating article! This is the second time I’ve read something about observing depression to turn it into a gift, and I think it’s time that I looked into it more closely. I have always been interested in mindfulness, but somehow I had never thought to make the connection quite this clearly!
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Johanna –
I’m glad this post helped you connect more with the idea of mindfulness. It’s a great connection to make and to deepen. Thanks for commenting.