Ever since reading about Bill Wilson’s struggle with alcohol and the role that religious experience played in his recovery, I’ve had hope that spirituality can also be decisive in undoing the impact of long-term depression. William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience was so important to Wilson and other founders of AA, wrote in that study that the world is divided into two broad classes of people as far as religion is concerned, the once-born and the twice-born. The once-born take the world as it is, sum up their problems and successes and move along in life with a core acceptance of themselves and the religious practice they were raised with. The twice-born, as you might suspect, run into problems. They long for and work hard at finding a second birth into a new life of spiritual fulfillment. James describes them as the “sick souls who need to be twice-born in order to be happy.” Hmm, wonder where I fit.
Sick soul? Now I’m not saying that depression is a spiritual sickness, but my search for a way to get beyond that condition at least coincides with another lifelong search, the driving need to understand spiritual life.
OK, red flag right there – “driving need” – that sounds too wrapped up in this world, unbalanced, not at all detached, perhaps even indicating that I’m under the influence of the undesirables and rejects of the spiritual world. All the mystical traditions agree that you don’t reach enlightenment or communion with God by the sweat of your brow or by your willing it. True, that world may open to you after you’ve cultivated a certain discipline, and that includes not taking worldly things and your less ruly emotions too seriously. But when it really happens, well, it just happens, ready or not, you are tapped and zapped. It’s a gift, however your tradition might define it. In the Christian/Catholic one I was raised in, it’s grace, God’s free gift to you. And after it’s over (because it won’t last all that long), you have to wait for its return. You can’t command, will or work it back. You can only plug at your daily practice to keep you in shape for the main event – if it ever comes your way again.
You certainly can’t go chasing a spiritual encounter simply to get rid of depression or any disease. So what’s the connection? Why do I keep thinking that one path to help me out of depression is spiritual? Step one is finding my own connection to spirituality as part of deep belief. After that, perhaps I can figure out, with help, the way that belief can lead to healing.
There are experiences I’ve had that convince me there is a spiritual world and that part of my well-being has to do with that world. Now I realize that the guardians of the mystical traditions – and there are people in every tradition who can guide and let you know when you’re kidding yourself and when something “real” is happening – would probably say I was simply suffering from illusions (distortions of reality) or, worse, delusions (completely unreal stuff). But even if that were so, what incredible illusions they are!
I’m including dreams in this category – in fact, I might be on safer ground if I just refer to all of them as dreams. After all, I’m writing in a mental health context here, and I wouldn’t want to have another tag added to my diagnosis. Perhaps I thought I was awake when some of these things occurred, but, of course, I must have been day-dreaming.
Here’s an example of one day-dream. This was not the transcendence of instant conversion – the flash of light, the mountain-top view or the voice of God. It was only a glimpse of a different world, yet one that filled me with a sense that there was a lot more to “reality” than I had been imagining.
I was listening to music – the most powerful evocation of spiritual creative forces bringing a world into being that I’ve ever heard. It was the orchestral opening of an opera that entranced me into a meditative state in which the buzz of thoughts and words and feelings disappeared completely. The rhythms, chords, melodies blended into a unified flow that carried me into a different state of mind. Suddenly, there was no room, no music, no thinking or feeling, hardly a “me” at all. I was immersed in a different medium that felt like a separate world, and I seemed to exist as part of a flowing consciousness in which everything was a part of everything else. As a part of this consciousness, I simply apprehended everything encountered there. Things were not solid, separate entities but flowed right into me so that I was taking part in what they were – knowing them completely, instantaneously, as if they were simply part of me. There was no need to think, identify something, place it in a context, wonder about its meaning – I just became one with it. There were trees, rocks, animals, people contained in this medium and sharing their essences with my own. I had the deepest conviction that I was glimpsing a part of reality hidden away from awareness most of the time but which was the other side of normal life – unity instead of division, wholeness instead of separateness.
This experience came to an end as I started to think about how it could be connected to everyday life. I realized that this special world I was seeing was somehow under or prior to my existence as a person. Struggling to imagine how to capture it in words, I envisioned in a flash that essence I was trying to represent and saw it rise up from a cellular level through all the systems of nerves, blood, the clumsy physicality of the body and the mind and try to merge with syllables, words, sentences, which then managed with great difficulty to emerge from my hand through the structure of a pencil onto a piece of paper. But what emerged was only the dead shadow of the essence I had started to try to capture, an essence that had been a part of me in that fluid world. Now it was just words on paper that could not begin to incorporate that different reality. And so that day dream ended. I felt thrilled to have discovered a different world, one that I could only think of as spiritual, and yet dismayed that in this physical world I did not have the means to grasp or portray more than a tiny sense of what it was like.
For a long time afterward, I tried to recreate that experience, but such things happen without your willing them – in unexpected ways. I thought then that the key to this life could be found on a spiritual plane, quite removed from normal reality, that spiritual knowledge or clairvoyance would dissolve any problem with depression or other life crisis. So I looked for, and sometimes found, more glimpses of that world, moments when a very different awareness took hold of me and brought me again to that feeling of wholeness and oneness with a world underlying the one we see. But whatever that place might be, it’s not the place I’m really living in and experiencing everything I go through.
It became clear to me that it had to be in this life and this reality that I would find a way of deal with illness – there would be no shortcut to being born again.
What these experiences left me with, though, was a deep belief not only that there is a spiritual dimension to life but also that this dimension is a part of dealing with struggles like depression. I’m still trying to grasp what that means and find a way of pulling this awareness into my life as part of a healing process.
I’m looking deeply into the spiritual traditions I’m linked to through my own history to see if I can undo years of disbelief to find a core of practice that will guide me. Like many, I have a fractured faith – a belief in spiritual reality, and in God as a kind of ultimate presence, but great distance from the organized structures of belief in religious institutions.
The sharing of stories about this effort is my way of learning, and I’m grateful for any you can tell. Do you have a spiritual belief and practice that really helps in healing or adapting to long-term depression?
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