Depression and Our Longing

"I have a melancholy of my own." (Shakespeare)

"The source of my grief and loneliness is deep in my breast: this is a disease no doctor can cure. Only union with the Friend can cure it." (Rabi'a)

In profound loss and grief - a passing, a parting, a depression - we are offered a stark moment of Grace, a dark gold gift. It is the gift of descrimination between that which is eternally present, and that which falls back into ashes and dust. Our depression may be a profoundly spiritual moment in life. Do we honor it? Do we name our depression spiritually, or merely diagnose it medically?

I do not suggest that your depression is a lack of faith, a sign that you should "get religion" and be saved. That would be an insult to your experience, and I would rather praise your experience. I am suggesting, on the contrary, that your depression may be the sign that you are already deeply engaged in spiritual work without knowing it. Saints have called it, "the dark night of the soul," the phase of the journey described by Dante at the opening of the Divine Comedy: "In the midst of our life's journey, I found me in a dark woods, lost." Dante honors his depression. He names it, not illness, but spiritual journey. I implore you to honor your depression as a valley in the landscape of your quest, far deeper along than you might have imagined....

The mythologist Joseph Campbell recognizes two kinds of mythic "heros." There is the hero who receives a clear call and consciously chooses the journey. But there is also the hero who is "thrown" into the quest unaware, awakening deep in the journey to discover that she has already entered the stream.

"Whither shall I flee from your Spirit? Even if I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there. If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me,' even the night shall be light about me! Darkness and light are both alike for you" (Psalm 139). This is a lament from the darkness of depression. The Biblical Psalmist speaks from a culture where that darkness is honored with a spiritual name. It is a terrible place, but a place where God may be discovered. How do you name your darkness?

Depression is a profound but unacknowledged longing, a longing so intimate, it is hidden even from ourselves. "Depth calleth unto depth" in a dialogue so deep within we may not hear it (Psalm 42). This longing is abysmal, a bottomless well sunk through our heart. We resist our longing because we are terrified to descend into this groundless place, where the Eternal waits like a secret Friend in purest darkness.

We may cover the dark well with sensations, addictions, the glittering debris of spending and busy-ness, the clutter of things we don't need for any other purpose but concealment. We disguise the hole in our hearts, which throbs and pulls at us, crying, "Come! Come away into a desert place and rest awhile." (Mark 6:31) When we deny that cry of the heart, we live in a state of estrangement from the world and the self. Beneath the compulsive enthusiasm and hyper-activity of American culture, there is profound depression.

Or we can choose to follow the longing. Follow the longing that pulls us out of the world of things toward the magnetic groundlessness inside. That groundlessness is, in the final analysis, our infinite capacity for self-awareness. Why do we call this path of longing a "spiritual" path? Longing is "spiritual" because it has no end, no destination. It is a plunge into the infinite. What we long for is "spiritual" precisely because it can never be an object, a thing.
What do we really long for? We long for the groundless radiance of our own subjectivity. We long for a Self.

Self-awakening means gazing into our groundlessness. Buddhists call this groundlessness, "bodhichitta." In Genesis 1, bodhichitta is described as "tohu wa bohu," "formless and void." It is the heart of the universe, the creative no-thing from which creation arises. In modern physics, we also discover this abysmal yet creative no-thing. Every material form is empty. The finest particle arises as a wave of the vacuum. The atom is pervaded by the vacuum. Is this not terrifying to a culture whose chief value lies in clinging to concrete forms?

"Vanity of vanities, sayeth the wise one, all is vanity." In this famous refrain from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the Hebrew word translated as "vanity" is "hebel," which literally means "empty." A precise translation of the text would reveal a Judaic version of Buddhism's Heart Sutra: "Emptiness of emptiness, all forms are empty." Those whose vision penetrates the real nature of the world must live a lie to survive in a culture so absorbed in the vanities and delusions of material form. They must live with a terrible secret: they have seen the vanity. They have penetrated the heart of emptiness. Carrying this spiritual secret in a culture of materialism may be the real meaning of "depression."

The world is not what it appears to be. We are uprooted from the comfort of things and cast into no-thingness. We fall into the void. But if we survive the fall, we discover something wonderful at the heart of loss: no-thingness is a divine gift. Embracing the formless abyss makes us selves rather than things. No-thing is our inwardness: it gives us Personhood.

I may smother my longing with medication, and set a clinical label over the well in my heart. But divine darkness calls me down, until I surrender to a Friend more inward than "I."

I may flee from the abyss into rigid systems of belief or compulsive patterns of activism: but then I condemn myself to a world without depth, without soul, a world of things. And those things may even be just and worthwhile political "causes." But they are still things in a soulless world. 

A soulless world has a future and a past, but no Presence. In such a world, I may become quite "religious" and quite "regular in my spiritual practice." But my practice is a technicality, my religion a flight from inwardness. American culture, including much American religion, worships the idols of distraction - idols of work, wealth and war - because it is a culture of flight from the pain and beauty of inwardness.

The Spirit is calling. She longs for me. And the Spirit's longing for me is my longing for a Self. She calls from my very heart. I flee. But I cannot escape from my inwardness. I cannot escape the perpetually unfathomed depth of my own Personhood.

1 comment:

Colleen Loehr said...

What a wallop from reading such clear and powerful words! I will print out this post and contemplate the startling truths that shines through this deep meditation on depression. Thank you.