Initiation into transformation and service
Depression happens along a spectrum, with many different shades and dimensions. Sooner or later, nearly all of us encounter it on some level. Collectively, we tend to think of it in negative terms, as an unwanted and even shameful experience, and yet journeying with depression offers us the potential for some of the most radical positive transformation.
I first caught a glimpse of a relationship with depression in my ‘tween’ years. At age 11, after a year away in England with my family, I returned to my familiar school – except that somehow, it did not feel familiar anymore. Friend cliques had shifted, puberty was now a thing for many kids, and that year in England had really changed me. I didn’t know where I fit in anymore, and I couldn’t even remember my way around the large school building. At first, it was more an experience of disorientation than depression, but what followed was a many-year period in which my sense of not belonging grew increasingly uncomfortable. After the transfer to a bigger school for junior high, I became extremely quiet and serious at school, and appeared shy. I didn’t think I had much to contribute that others would find interesting, and frequently I would go through the entire school day hardly uttering a word. In high school, I took up partying wildly with a group of recklessly fun people because it could make me feel alive again, at least for a little while, and had a way of pulling me back (distracting me) from an edge I was afraid of.
By the time I was in college, my inability to meet my real feelings accumulated to the point of finding myself having frequent suicidal thoughts. The following quote does a good job of describing the experience I was in:
“One could say that depression is the felt sense of not-quite-successful emotional repression. As much as our shutting-down flattens us emotionally, it still leaves us feeling wretched enough to darken even the brightest day. Depression, except at its mildest, is a kind of hell and at the same time is a “solution” to a deeper hell, keeping us significantly removed from having to openly feel and be with what is really hurting us.” - Robert Augustus Masters
I worked intensively with a therapist my parents found for me, but I believe that my simultaneous discovery of yoga really gave me the most helpful life-skills, and in fact became a loving life-line for me. I was fortunate to land myself in a very compassionate studio. Yoga touched me where I so desperately needed to be touched. It enabled me to contact at least some of my feelings more, as well as my spiritual yearnings, through the relative comfort and safety of my body.
“Practicing yoga is an act of embracing all that arises with a developing sense of compassion and self-awareness. As we pay attention to sensation and breath, yoga teaches us to respond rather than to react to what is present.” - Amy Weintraub
By steadying my conscious breath, and bringing my curious, dispassionate attention to the sensations moving through my body, fear stepped out of the way for a few minutes at a time, and I was able to soften and relax my nervous system enough to simply feel, without a mental story. Without a story, feelings are just that – felt sensations in our body. This simplified things for me, and allowed me to feel safe making deeper contact with myself. I could be interested in the sensations moving through me, without an agenda to figure any of it out. With the support of compassionate teachers, I was opening up a more loving, more inviting and accommodating space for myself to inhabit. This felt really good, in a safe and reliable way.
My journey with depression was far from over, yet I had made a critical discovery. I could survive the discomfort of my feelings by leaning right into them, while dropping my stories about them, along with my agenda to be in control of them or have answers to explain them. I was able to realize that what was truly traumatizing me was my stories about the feelings, not the feelings themselves. Feelings are just physical sensations, constantly shifting and changing, and always survivable. Stories about them, on the other hand, can make them appear very frightening and even life-threatening.
“Depression is what happens when I fight sadness. Compassion is what happens when I don’t.” - Susan Piver
When I gave birth to my first child, I found myself transported to a brand new land in which my attention was absolutely captivated by the riveting presence of this incredible, magical, tiny and utterly innocent being in my arms, eyes of infinity gazing intently into mine - a being who was absolutely counting on my full presence in her new life. In fact, throughout all of my many years of birthing, nursing, and raising three children, it was clear that I had stepped into a true purpose that I did not question, and this very real and joyful focus seemed to keep depression at a distance. Divorce, when my youngest was not quite 5 years old, brought many really hard challenges, but knowing how much the kids needed a sane, capable and available mom kept me mostly right-side-up through it all. Years later though, an emotionally intense and rocky new romantic relationship triggered some giant curve-balls, and I met up with my shadow-self again in a frightening way.
This time, however, I had been on a fruit-based, raw vegan diet for about 10 years already, and emotions moved through me differently. The dull, unfeeling, terrifyingly stuck and hopeless feeling of the depression in my teens and twenties was replaced by a new, razor’s-edge kind of emotional intensity, which was equally dangerous when attached to story, though more fleeting. The ferocious power of the sensations my body could become flooded with were daunting. My body was clean and clear, and I was not using any toxic substances or cooked foods to dull or numb any of my emotional experience. I was meeting with ‘raw’ emotion now.
Over some time, I was able to observe that these seemingly unbearable sensations were very temporary - they would move through me quickly, often leaving me able to re-ground myself again within minutes or, at worst, a few hours. I just had to get my body moving, get out into nature, or get out my journal, and be willing to stay alert to not giving power to stories my mind wanted to invent about my feelings. I can usually get through emotional drama faster without indulging in talking about it with other people, since that tends to entice me into engaging with stories about the feelings, rather than daring to stay present to a more direct experience of them. I find that it is more helpful to just be with myself, and to talk about it later, if desired, after I have courageously faced my own inner battle and brought myself back up to a place of more equilibrium. I’m not suggesting that this is the best approach for everyone, but I was ready to engage my own self-sufficiency muscles, and it was deeply empowering to show myself that I knew how to move through the hard places – that I could rely on myself now.
“We are not falling apart for no good reason; we are falling apart so that we might come back together stronger in our broken-open places. As more and more people take their hit to the heart, however it presents itself, we serve as one another’s guides. We are the ones who can say, “I have been this way and there is a way through…..Sorrow is an initiation. Sorrow is a gateway into stamina….I know that touching the dark ooze of my own psyche was part of what I needed to know so that I was no longer afraid of it; respectful, yes, but not phobic, not avoidant. Touching down and swimming up, I can listen to you and not be afraid of your chaos; respectful, yes, but not phobic, not avoidant….We do not know what is coming. Life is beautiful anyway.” - Christina Baldwin
I still have a hard time showing strong emotions in the presence of people other than my life-partner, mostly, I imagine, because of my upbringing in a family context in which open expression of emotions was not encouraged. But I have achieved a great victory in learning to see the true nature of emotion more accurately, and thus becoming mostly unafraid of feelings, even the most intense ones. I live on an even keel the vast majority of the time now, and it’s an honest even keel. I am still always learning and refining my skills, and perhaps someday I will even feel comfortable to let emotions flow freely through me when I am in the presence of others. At least though, I am confident in my ability to navigate my emotional reactions behind the scenes.
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Today, I enjoy a calm sense of joy in the simple act of living each day. I surround myself with nature, eat simply of her magical fruits and plant them around my home, and make time to nurture relationships and express my creativity. I still have personal struggles I am working through, but by daring to face the toughest emotional challenges in my journey, and taking responsibility to bring my whole lifestyle into much healthier alignment, I have earned a real ability to help my fellow humans access the same kind of joyful equanimity that I have been able to connect with. This vibrational frequency does not demand that external circumstances be perfect, preferred, or even easy. Instead, it’s an internal confidence and competence to face what is, and move through it with love, courage, compassion, and grace.
“Joy is more about being on an even keel.” - Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche IX
“When you live life at altitude and then trip and fall – which we all do every day – you have a long way to fall and you may kill yourself. But if you’re standing on the ground, you can fall again and again and simply get up, dust yourself off, and take the next step.” - Parker J. Palmer
In the course of my spiritual seekings, in my twenties I connected deeply for a time with the Siddha Yoga lineage. I had a profoundly powerful and life-changing experience of what has been called a ‘kundalini awakening,’ which took place during a 2-day meditation intensive with Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, leading via satellite on a big screen (I have not yet actually met her in person). The power of what happened in me - or through me - energetically that day is something I will never, ever forget. I have not been a dedicated devotee of any one formalized spiritual path, yet I have deep gratitude for my contact with Gurumayi. Her exquisite radiance, and her words of love and wisdom comforted me through many a dark night of the soul. I love this from her:
“Become new from the inside out. With this newness, there is an incredible yearning to know your own Self, to experience tranquility, to merge into the inner Self. A person who maintains newness glows with a noticeable light.
Your attainment of spirituality does not come from how many years you’ve been on the spiritual path. Your attainment comes from how new you’ve made yourself as time has passed by.” - Swami Chidvilasananda
Becoming new is an inside job. Feeling God’s love through the beauty and bounty of Nature has inspired me to shed outworn skins in a kind of steady, love-infused purification process. The more connected I feel to nature, the more connected I feel to my Self, and to all of life – and it goes the other way, too. I have found the sense of belonging I was searching for. In ways I am immensely grateful for, this has made my life feel more easy and peaceful…and in some ways, it has made me more acutely aware of the incredible level of painful disconnect in our shared world.
As I do my best to let the light of eternal love shine through me, I see how important it is for me to continue to summon the courage to speak up, speak out, and be brave about being genuine in each moment, in each interaction. I am speaking of not shying away from the ‘macro’ issues happening on the world stage, but also about being brave on the ‘micro’ level, in all the little daily situations where daring to speak up honestly about my needs, cares and preferences is the kind of self-expression that cultivates inner peace. The more I express myself freely and authentically, without worrying about how others may respond, the less bothered I am after my interactions with other people.
The more I express, the less I suppress. And the less I suppress, the better I feel. So often I have suppressed feelings, needs and desires out of fear – either that I would become overwhelmed by my own feelings, needs, and desires, or that others would have a negative reaction which would damage our relationship or their image of me. What I have seen, however, is in fact the opposite: directly facing feelings, needs, and desires takes the overwhelm right out of them, and bringing unapologetic honesty to relationships helps them (and me) to flourish.
“And living wholeheartedly has brought me through the bottom of my pain and sadness into the well of all feeling, into the well of all spirit – to the common well where I don’t just touch into my own humanity, but I touch into everyone who has ever lived. Through expression, we connect with everything, we experience Oneness...So part of our challenge in a life of transformation is to open our hearts to all of it, not skipping over anything, because it’s the Wholeness of Life that is transforming.” - Mark Nepo