(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.)