I keep remembering those amazing moments, all too brief, when I had the sense of stepping out of time, schedules, worry, depression into a different kind of space that was free of all that. It was an opening to peacefulness, calm and a sense of being that I can only call spiritual. As Jill Bolte Taylor
put it, she achieved a state of utter peace and oneness with the universe after undergoing the most drastic experience imaginable, a stroke that took away much of her mental functioning and memory, left her unable even to move. But inwardly, she gained access to a world of being that still remains available to her after recovery. Thomas Merton focused himself on a life of contemplation to achieve a state of union with God, but to do this he withdrew from the everyday world into the silence and discipline of monastic life. These two can stand for the many who have found access to such states only after calamitous events or prolonged and demanding practice that involves a separation to some degree from the ordinary demands of living.
I count myself among the greater number who make do, if very lucky, with glimpses of such things that suddenly strike through all the worries about the big and small events that put us on a roller-coaster of feelings and imaginings. Dwelling on these moments now, I’m looking for what they might tell me about finding a way to a more lasting recovery from the long-term effects of major depression than I have yet been able to achieve. Here is one such moment.
I had been on a business trip to New York where I stayed at a friend’s house in the West Village. That first day I had been off to various appointments, walking about the city amid gentle showers, feeling good and alert to the pleasant side of everything I saw, even in that grit and glitter place of hard-driving people. In the evening, I caught a then new film, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. I had never seen anything like that before, a fable about good and evil wrapped in grotesque melodrama, and neither had the rest of the audience. At the end of the film, half the house hissed and booed loudly – and then, after a pause, the other half, including me, applauded and cheered. There was something about that strange, haunting film I connected with. It seemed to me a spiritual story underneath all the surface weirdness.
Back at my friend’s house, I was snacking on some fruit, still feeling moved by the film and generally happy about the day. I bit into a slice of bosc pear, looked at the remaining half of it in my fingers and thought, “What an amazing flavor that has…” Then everything changed. Suddenly, I was seeing what I sensed as the whole world opening before my inner eyes. The room I stood in faded into the background, making way for this different reality that had somehow appeared.
It’s a lot to say, but I felt that I was seeing, or, better, taking in with all my senses at once the wholeness and sacredness of life. The whole experience couldn’t have lasted more than a few moments – but time was irrelevant. I was full of profound peacefulness and simply understood that there was a complex structure to all of existence and that we all had our places within it.
Before me was a great living spiral of being, alive with movement and energy. I was overwhelmed with the vastness and detail, the ordering of physical, social, personal lives – great numbers of people busy in cities, whole societies, a part of the natural world of all other living thing. I saw there also myself and my family as part of the whole, at ease and loving in the spiritual order of things. And at the peak of the spiraling flow was the power of God and images I could make out of Christ and the Madonna. From that pinnacle flowed an energy that instilled a feeling at once of force and goodness. This was no passive sweet-pastures-of-heaven picture. It was a dynamic intertwining of everything in life, invisibly bonded through spiritual ties that I sensed like a flow of sunlight through a high window that lets you see the brownian movement of dust particles – except that here instead of dust there were tiny bursts of sparkling energy.
Partly, I was in awe at feeling that I was participating in this force-field at every level of mind, feeling, spirit, even as my more my skeptical self lingered on the Christ and Madonna and thought: Come on, you mean all that stuff is true? The quality of the experience was a feeling of being suffused with the energy of peacefulness. I was just one soul blending into this world with my wife and children. It was a deep relief, despite rocky times at home because of a raging depression at the time, to see that I was meant to be part of my family, at one with my wife, experiencing all this together. I was stepping back, though, thinking about that Christ and Madonna – that’s what I see because I grew up with those images – a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Lakota experience would be different. Thinking that way took me in a different direction.
Then I realized I was focused again on that half-eaten slice of pear. The opening in day to day life had closed up.. But I knew I wouldn’t be looking at things in the same old way.
The problem is that the immediacy of such experiences fades, and the tensions of life, and illnesses like depression, take over again. At times, I’m longing for another glimpse, another reassurance that all of this life includes a force toward an active peacefulness instead of destruction. The lasting effect of the experience has been a sense of centeredness, of knowledge that I am part of a vast whole, connected and not isolated, as the impact of depression would have me believe. That sense may fade out almost completely when I’m really down, but some spark of it remains even then.
What are the experiences that have given you an anchor to hold you to life while depression or other threats try to sweep you away?