Depression or Dark Night?
- Our Friend John M. writes that he has observed that many spiritually advanced people seem to have gone through periods of depression. He asks: "Does depression serve any useful purpose whatsoever and if so, what might that purpose be?"
Yes John, Depression does serve a purpose. It is not obvious when you are enduring a spiritual and emotional drought but it has a purpose. If you could live forever in the grace of God, knowing that all is well you would have an easy time being spiritual. If you could be married to someone who never leaves you but is always there when you need them you never have to doubt either your partner or yourself. But when you are married to someone whose work or other obligations calls them away, perhaps to far countries for long periods of time you have to ask yourself , "How deep is your love?" Depression in spiritual seekers is often associated with what is known in Christian traditions as the Dark Night of the Soul. This is a period when someone who has been accustomed to feeling the presence of the Divine and engaging in satisfying prayer conversations suddenly feels alone. You wonder if God has abandoned you or maybe never existed at all. You wonder if you have somehow failed or weren't good enough or were just horribly mistaken. There is a huge gap between what you had come to expect and what you are now experiencing. It has been said that depression is anger turned inward, and while that is a simplistic explanation of depression it works pretty well in this situation. It is natural to feel angry at God or your guardians or the Spirit or the Source or the Force for abandoning you. You might feel that it is wrong to be angry at God and maybe not rational to be angry at something less anthropomorphized. So you might turn your anger on yourself. You might be angry at yourself for failing to live up to the standards you set for yourself or for not being as good as someone else you know who seems to be more dilligent in his spiritual practices and filled with bliss all the time. The most important thing depression can teach you is that you are not in control. True spirituality is not just a matter of following rules or practices. You can do everything as right as you possibly can and feel that your effort is unrewarded. Now is the time when you wait. And you search your soul. And you dig deep as if you were digging an artesian well. You might dig for months or even years before you finally reach the cool water you have been yearning for. And of course you might resent every minute of it. Dark Nights can last for years. Depressions can too. However it is possible to experience the apparent absence of the Divine without plunging into a full blown paralyzing depression where everything is gray and joyless and there seems to be no reason to get out of bed. The pilgrim needs to consider what his anger is focused on. He may not feel angry. He may be in denial about being angry. He may protest that there is no reason to be angry. He may feel that anger is unworthy of him and that he is too spiritually advanced to be angry. And he may be right. But anyone who is disappointed in love is likely to experience anger whether it is directed at the object of love or at himself or at something apparently unrelated. If he can't cop to anger, maybe he can admit there is disappointment. In any case the cure is forgiveness. And letting go. Forgive God, forgive yourself, forgive the universe, forgive your teachers. Then let go. Let go of your expectations. Let go of your need to experience a certain brand of enlightenment. Let go of your sense of failure for not being the saint that you were working so hard to become. Then you must love. If you can't love God or the All-there-is or the Infinite Possibilities love a bug. Or a rock. If you can't love the creator, love a creature. If you can't love ceaselessly, love for a few minutes. Gradually as you continue to forgive, and maybe find more people and things to forgive and more people and things to love and as you let go of your disappointment and your sense of how things should be, your dark veil may melt away and you may begin to feel like a human being again. You may die without ever feeling the presence of the One again. Or maybe not.