Saturday, July 28, 2007

Desolation, Consolation and Depression

I identify myself as a Daoist, but I have learned a great deal from a variety of the world's religious traditions. For example, I spent several years meeting and talking with people from a local Jesuit retreat centre. They introduced me to a form of spiritual practice known as the Ignatian Exercises. These are a faily involved series of practices that are taught by the Jesuits and involve a process of detailed introspection. I never actually entered into the Ignatian exercises myself, either because of ego or because that is not my particular path, but I did gain a fair amount by entering into a conversation with people who teach using that tradition.

Primarily, I learned a great deal about the nature of depression, at least as it has manifested itself in my life. The way the Jesuits describe it, all of us are prey to "spirits", both good and bad, that constantly try to influence the choices we make in life. The best way to understand this is to think of the cartoons we often see of a little devil whispering in one ear and an angel in the other. The idea is that when we are depressed (or what the Jesuits would call "in a period of desolation"), the evil spirits predominate.

I certainly can say with certaintly that that is exactly what happens when I am depressed. It is as if a chorus of voices is constantly repeating in my ear "I wish I had a better job", "I wish I wasn't a fool", "I wish I wasn't single", "I wish I wasn't crazy", etc, etc. The thing I learned from talking to the spiritual advisors was that this is a very predictable syndrome that St. Ignatius has carefully analysed and spelled out in great detail. And the processes that we go through when we are in a period of desolation can be predicted and tactics can be mapped out for dealing with it. Some of these spiritual "rules of thumb" include things like not making any decisions, continuing or increasing one's meditational practices, and, reminding oneself that a time of desolation is usually followed by a deepening of one's wisdom. (For anyone who's interested, this link gives a Ignatian gameplan for surviving desolation.)

This last point is of greatest importance to me, as I have gotten to the point where I expect to gain some insight when I go through one of these periods of distress. Perhaps this will end up in retrospect as being some form of hubris, but it does seem to me that every time I have gone through one of these spiritual "troughs" I have found myself looking back on it and thinking that I have learned an important lesson. (The technical term for these gains in insight is "consolation".)

As I wrote this blog entry, I was going to make some sort of statement to the effect that what I am talking about is not clinical depression. But I'm not sure if that is correct. I have only gone through one period that would be described as such. It was awful. I felt miserable for weeks, lost a pile of weight, made all sorts of crazy statements, sought clinical help, and reached out to all my friends in wild desperation. But the end result was a real acceptance of a great many things that had niggled away at my soul for a very long time. Perhaps the problem with depression is not so much the desolation, but how individuals and society respond to it. Maybe some people get "stuck" in the middle of their desolation experience without finding some way through it to the wisdom it may give us.

I admit that I am not a psychologist, so I simply am not qualified to speak on clinical depression, but I wonder if I had been prescribed prosac if I would have made it through my period of extreme desolation to savour that little taste of serenity that came out the other side.


yar said...
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Cleveland said...
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Pat said...

For years I was told that I suffered from manic-dpression and I guess while I believed that I suffered than I did, even if I toonoticed great insights from periods of depression. But finally I began to realize that I wasn't broke and maybe God talked to me during the polar extremes when I shut out the worldly clamor. Now I find not only consolation from depressive episodes, but also from the manic. Furthermore, since accepting and then appreciating these extremes they have not caused me any pain or discomfit.