Tom Wootton’s Story: Finding Ecstasy and Equanimity in Depression

ecstasy through pain and depression

(Tom Wootton has been advocating a radical change in the way we think about depression and bipolar for several years. One the most challenging ideas he has put forward is that depression can be integrated into the comfort zone of living and even become a beautiful experience.

To elaborate on what he means by this, Tom recently published the following essay in his blog at Psychology Today. It describes his personal experience of finding ecstasy in depression as part of a lifelong spiritual search. He has given permission to reprint the post here as another in the Storied Mind series of Recovery Stories.)

I have been meditating for over 50 years. I started when I was five years old when I became fascinated with watching my breath go in and out. I intuitively knew that this and other meditative practices would bring me to a state of ecstasy. It didn’t take long before pursuing that state became the most important thing in my life.

Although I got incredibly close through my efforts in meditation, it wasn’t until I looked for ecstasy in depression that I truly found it. Once I found ecstasy in depression I found it everywhere. My hope is that sharing my experience might help others to find the same insights that I have.

As I watched my breath go in and out I found some dramatic changes in my state of consciousness. I would detach from my body and find myself floating above and looking down at myself sitting there. It was a very pleasurable state, but also very profound in how I viewed the world. I believed that part of me was untouched by the physical world; the part that I now call my soul.

It wasn’t long before my soul separations started encroaching on my waking states. I would often find myself turning the corner and suddenly being in a long tunnel with a light at the end of it. During those experiences time would stand still or at least slow down dramatically. I interpreted these experiences as seeing God.

By the time I was in my teens I knew that there were others who had experienced some of the same things. They called such moments ecstasy, bliss, Nirvana, Samadhi, superconsciousness, equanimity, “oneness with God,” and many other names. Although I recognized that there are many ways to reach such states, I started practicing Yoga since it was the most attractive to me of all of the different approaches to finding them. I was much less interested in the philosophies than how to experience ecstasy directly and Yoga offered a path that was geared toward direct experience.

In my twenties I realized that there were people who were experiencing things far beyond what I had and seemed to have a much deeper understanding of them than I. I met with as many as I could find and spent most of my time studying the lives of saints. This search for meaning dominated my thoughts as my meditation practices deepened.

By the time I was thirty I was living in a monastery and meditating anywhere from 8 to 24 hours a day. I had found a community of people who valued such experiences as much as myself and for the first time I felt completely at home. We meditated for hours together, but when the meditation ended I would keep at it because I thought that my next breath was going to be the one that gave me permanent bliss. By then I was able to travel down the tunnel and bask in the light at the end for what felt like a timeless eternity. I appeared to be so good at generating higher states of consciousness that fellow monks called me “Samadhi Tom.”

Right about the time that I thought I was about to reach the final realization of permanent ecstasy I fell into an incredibly deep depression that lasted several months. I had been depressed many times before, but nothing like this one. I was so debilitated that they had to move me into the building with the kitchen because I was unable to even walk across the courtyard to eat. I laid in bed crying all day and couldn’t even attend the meditations or practice in my room.
 
This was my first truly debilitating depression and it had extreme consequences. It took away the most important thing in my life. At the time I thought I had lost everything and life was devoid of all meaning. I left the monastery and floundered for several years.

I spent my forties lost in turmoil. I pursued a life of no purpose and allowed myself to become a person that I really hated. I made a lot of money, but said that I had rented my soul to the devil while allowing myself to stray the furthest I ever had from the only thing that really mattered.

The depressions and manias became much more frequent during this time. When they had gotten to the point that I was completely nonfunctional, I finally got diagnosed as Depressed and then more accurately as Bipolar . I saw it as a kind of a death sentence combined with a an explanation for so many of the things that happened throughout my life. I realized that my first full on manic episode happened when I was nine years old, for example, and that depression was at least a yearly occurrence.

Because of the diagnosis and the prevalence of delusional thinking being a part of it, I looked upon all of the experiences of my life as a sign of my mental illness instead of a sign that I was seeing God. I was devastated by the implications of it. My next “tunnel” experience left me crying in despair that I had been so foolish to think that such experiences meant anything other than that I was crazy.

In deep despair of having no meaningful existence whatsoever, I attempted suicide . Fortunately, I failed and subsequently set out to find meaning through my bipolar condition instead of trying to make it go away. At the time, and even today for most people, the idea is blasphemous to the paradigm that says it is impossible and one would be delusional to even try.

My fifties have been a time of great renewal. It is when my whole life started to make sense and everything came together. I wrote The Depression Advantage as an exploration of how others throughout history had gone through some of the same turmoils and achieved the goal I was seeking. I wrote chapters about the lives of saints who had experienced at least parts of my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pains and how they ultimately found that the goal they sought was actually within those experiences.
 
I was especially taken with the story of St. Teresa of Avila. Although she found her “oneness with God” through her experience of physical pain, I saw in her experience many insights that applied to my own battles with depression . For most of her life she assumed that she would not find her “oneness with God” unless she removed her physical pain, yet eventually found it in the pain itself.

Since I was searching for the same thing as St. Teresa through my depressive experiences, I found great meaning in her life. Once Teresa found her “oneness with God,” she tried to help others to achieve the same goal. She helped many people through her writings, but also found it hard to communicate her truth with those who could not fathom the apparent contradiction in saying pain could be blissful. One of the things she said in trying to explain it was, “The pain is still there. It bothers me so little now that I feel my soul is served by it.”

I was so moved by this statement that I found myself repeating it over and over again throughout the day. I found it so compelling that I continued repeating it no matter what I was outwardly doing. After two months of repeating Teresa’s quote I became very upset with her. I thought, “How can she say it bothered her so little when she was bedridden by the pain?” I now smile and think of her when people get upset with what I say.

Yet, motivated by my desire to figure out how she had found permanent ecstasy and why I had not, I kept repeating the phrase for many more months. In the meantime, I was experiencing the deepest depression I ever had. I was bedridden and in extreme pain: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Although I had the tools to make it go away and was in no danger of another suicide attempt, I allowed it to happen because I knew that the insight I was seeking was in my depression as it was in Teresa’s physical pain.

It finally dawned on me after about 10 months of repeating the quote and enduring the pain. When Teresa said, “It bothers me so little… ” she didn’t mean her body, but that part of her that I had touched in myself so long ago – her soul. In that moment I found the ecstasy that I had been seeking my entire life. This direct experience is completely different than the intellectual understanding that I had. It is real instead of imagined.

My life changed from that moment on. Like Teresa, I had been avoiding the very thing that would give me the ecstasy that I was looking for. Having found ecstasy in my depression, I realized that my failed attempts in my previous efforts were because I didn’t really understand what it truly meant to be in a state of bliss. I was mistaking the pleasurable feelings of highs for real equanimity which is beyond the likes and dislikes, pleasures and pains, or any of the dualities of life.

Now that I found ecstasy, I see it in every moment of my life no matter what the circumstance or state of mind. I prefer to call it equanimity instead of the other terms because that better describes it for me: All states are equally blissful and there is no need to change any of them to be in permanent equanimity. In equanimity I can see that depression is part of the bliss just as much as pleasure, happiness , and all other conditions. Equanimity is the essence of Yoga as described in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Be steadfast in yoga, devotee. Perform your duty without attachment , remaining equal to success or failure. Such equanimity of mind is called Yoga.” (Yogananda, Paramahansa: The Bhagavad Gita, translation, 2003, Self-Realization Fellowship, CA, 2:48)

Although I would never discount the power of meditation as I see what it did to prepare me for such a state, I realize now that many people pursue ecstasy thinking that it can only be found in the right conditions. My experience taught me that unless you can find it in all conditions you are deluding yourself into thinking that highs are the same thing as equanimity.

(As an expert in learning systems, Tom has created an effective course called Bipolar Advantage for applying his approach to dealing with the experiences of mania and depression. I’ve been working through the material and will post about it before long. It’s well worth checking out. You can follow his blog, Bipolar Advantage, and also read his books, Bipolar In Order, The Depression Advantage and The Bipolar Advantage.)

13 Responses to “Tom Wootton’s Story: Finding Ecstasy and Equanimity in Depression”

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  1. lightawake says:

    This reminds me of the way that my partner showed me how to deal with a painful thumb that I had cut. Instead of trying to reduce the pain, get away from the pain, or go against the pain in any way, he told me his technique was to actually going into the pain instead, and listening to its message. This was a form of accepting the pain without demanding that it be something else. An equanimous approach to the sensation of pain. The pain converted to a different and interesting sensation as long as I was really listening to it exactly as it was, and I find this a very effective approach. Sometimes I get a feeling for what needs to be done for the pain to ease.
    I have never tried this approach with depression, but suspect it might since reading Tom’s article above.

    I have also studied meditation, and can recommend Vipassana as an excellent international, donation-based meditation organisation, which helped me develop and understand the state of equanimity. I am not in any way in an equanimous state all the time, but according to my experience, the difference between a state of bliss/ecstasy and a state of equanimity is like comparing apples and desks. For equanimity, the point is not to aim for a particular state of being (like bliss or ecstasy, or even just feeling peaceful or relaxed) which is perceived as a ‘better’ or ‘best’ state of being. A lot of people aim for this, or are taught to. People aim for these ‘nicer’ states of being by meditating, then when they achieve it, try to stay feeling like that or aim for it again because it feels pleasant. You can do that, it can feel lovely, and will even have benefits too. However, just aiming for ‘nice’ states is not equanimity.
    The point of walking through life with an equanimous mind is to feel/acknowledge EVERY state of being that you are in as it comes, every moment – whether it’s pain, sadness, numbness, itchiness, irritability, bliss, peacefulness, hunger, anger, a busy mind, a sore foot, nothing – and accept it open-heartedly and unconditionally for what it is, without seeking to change it. (This is different to ‘enduring’ it – which involves an ‘I don’t like this’ reaction). The reaction to your current state of being should be simple acknowledgement, with NO OPINION OF ‘LIKE’ OR ‘DISLIKE’ EITHER WAY. That’s equanimity. When you stop perceiving anything as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘nice’ or ‘horrible’, ‘desirable’ or ‘undesirable’, any state of being at any time becomes acceptable for how THAT particular thing feels exactly in that moment. In other words, you train to stop disliking or trying to change your painful foot feel like an unpainful foot. Equanimity has nothing to do with feeling elated or blissful – though with equanimous, unconditional acceptance of every state, there will be a profound sense of ease and peace.

    I guess it can be a lot of training because in life we are often so conditioned into thinking that an overwhelming amount of things (including our feelings) is ultimately either something to like or to dislike. Think about how we were taught to respond to things as children: ‘oh that’s a lovely dress!’, ‘what a delicious banana!’, ‘oh that’s bad behaviour!’. Breathing and acknowledging the sensations equanimously in the body as we meditated, without getting attached to the pleasant sensations, or reacting with negativity to the unpleasant sensations was how I was taught. I also think that aside from meditation, it helps to be equanimous consciously – like noticing when I don’t like certain weather or something I see on the news, or craving a piece of cake, and looking at why I gravitate towards or against these things. Hope it might help.

  2. Thomas Jespersen says:

    You have written about ACT before. Isn’t what he describes a bit what ACT promotes? To accept your feelings unconditionally instead of struggling?

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Thomas –

      It is like that, but I’ve found the deep acceptance to be difficult and fleeting. Tom describes, here and in other posts, a state that lasts as long as the depression and in which he is fully functional. I’m working on a post now that explores my efforts to achieve this, but the path is different for me. I doubt Tom would be able to live with depression the way he does without his many years of meditation and contemplative practice.

      JOhn

  3. Evan says:

    The ecstasy-equanimity thing I call ‘elated calmness’. My big problem is with ‘you can have ecstasy-equanimity anywhere and therefore states are equal. Which may be unfair based on a brief article.

  4. Wow – what a great story! As I have said many times, in a world of 7billion people, there is no one size fits all, and who I am to tell someone else what their journey or path must be. I applaud him for finding his way in the world and sharing it with us, especially knowing the comments and negative responses he will get. Kudos!!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Michael –

      Tom has a few other posts at Psychology Today about this, and both there and on his LinkedIn discussion he does get a lot of questions. I wouldn’t call it heat so much as either skepticism or mistaking his meaning. But I agree, each person needs to find their own way. The arguments start when they expect that everyone else can or should do what they have done.

      Thanks for your comments.

      John

  5. Donna-1 says:

    Excuse me — it’s “Wootton” not “Wooten”!

  6. Donna-1 says:

    I think I would have to read the body of Wooten’s work before I could make a comment. Because I’m not sure I understand what he’s saying from this short passage.

    Perhaps I have already found pleasure in pain too often. But that’s not what he’s talking about.

    I know the agony. I know the ecstasy. Would there really be one without the other?

  7. Evan says:

    I have very mixed feelings about this piece.

    I do agree that we need to welcome all our experience. Including the painful. I also devalue pain – pleasure is comparatively better in my view. What can be learned painfully can usually be learnt pleasurably (apart from how to deal with the pain of course).

    Perhaps Tom deals elsewhere with the possibility that his dissociation from meditation contributed to his bipolarity (not sure if that’s a word).

    I think his point about embodyied understanding is different to only cerebral understanding is very well made. I think there are probably quicker ways to get there than just repeating a phrase that hooks us.

    I think Tom slips into the equation: ecstasy can be experienced in any condition – therefore all states are equal. I doubt he intends this but I find it appalling. Less pain is better (as long as it is not avoiding what it tells us), more equanimity, joy, bliss, even happiness, is better. Could you see yourself telling your child in pain, ‘No I won’t do anything to alleviate your pain, just cultivate equanimity.”?

    Looking forward to seeing what you make of Tom’s approach.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      It’s important to remember that Tom is talking about a lifetime of experience with meditation, decades of life with bipolar depression (which can be exceptionally severe) and a constant spiritual searching. Only after that does he reach the conclusions he describes about moving beyond the occasional state of ecstasy to being able to find a more permanent sort of beauty even in the depression that has been so painful and life-threatening in the past. In his course, he also emphasizes that you can only get to this condition of self-mastery and experience after several stages of learning skills and disciplines. Early on, you have to stabilize severe symptoms with medication or whatever other means might be necessary so that you can begin to work on making progress through recovery and beyond. He does conflate a lot of words in this piece, and I find it especially difficult to understand the linking of ecstasy and equanimity. Sometimes you have to respect the different origins and meanings of words or else they lose their usefulness. I have a lot more to learn about how his approach might work in practice for someone who does not share his background of spiritual discipline.

      John

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