Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Changing the Conversation about Depression

painting by Zoltan Gabor
…The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. -

Rumi, "The Guest House "

Many people are coping with depression and anxiety these days. How painful! And what an opportunity for personal and collective transformation! This month I want to share some ideas with you for changing the conversation about depression.

This approach -- an ancient one -- looks at these painful states as “emergence” experiences rather than disorders. In the words of teacher and author Jean Houston in her book A Mythic Life, ancestral healers mythologized rather than pathologize depression, as we do. Rather than a state of deficiency, depression becomes in mythic story the ground of noble quest, a dignified and difficult journey toward healing and wholeness. No accident that emergence is the root word of emergency, for these crises in our personal and collective lives are calls to awakening to the fact that something new wants to come forth.

In story language, the dull pain in the gut, the spinning thoughts, inertia, and intense emotional anguish of depression are viewed as signs that we are at the threshold of becoming more fully who we are, if we are able to friend and not fight the beast we call depression. The creative images and language of myth, parable, and story enable us to safely contain, express, explore, and dissolve depression. Through these archetypal story forms, we can step outside of our biography, outside of ordinary and inadequate rational expression, and into a space of epic understanding and transformation.

A Caveat  

The creative approach I describe here served as my own path to recovery many years ago and has helped others as well. However, in no way do I suggest that it replace traditional forms of treatment, if they help. Working with metaphor gives access to the deepest places in our being, which can be out of reach to more cognitively-based approaches, and it provides a structure for remaking ourselves. But to be protected from inner overwhelm, I highly recommend an external integrating container, as in the safe structure provided by the ongoing relationship with a trusted psychotherapist or healer, 12 Step group, or formal meditation practice -- in other words, a compassionate, engaged witness, mentor, and story listener.


Depression as Call to Awakening

Jean Houston observes in A Mythic Life that the Arthurian legend of Parsifal is an appropriate metaphor for our difficult times, which she describes as the phase of necessary breakdown before breakthrough. 


Parsifal was a young and untested knight (the name Parsifal can be translated as fool or innocent) who finds himself in a wasteland where everything was crumbling and all living things were dying -- flowers no longer bloomed, the rivers had dried up, the animals and people were sick in body and spirit. This was the kingdom of the Fisher King, a monarch who suffered from an unknown illness caused by a wound in his leg; his illness had infected the land and no one knew how to cure it. 


Directed by an ailing man to a castle that suddenly manifested within a mist, that night Parsifal sees a magnificent chalice, glowing brighter than all the candles in the hall, being carried back and forth by a beautiful young woman. This chalice was the Holy Grail -- the vessel that had collected Christ's blood as it dripped from his wounds on the cross and that was found in his empty tomb three days later. Throughout the ages, the Grail became known as the container of the life force that healed all wounds. Parsifal vowed to find out the secret of the Grail the next day. But when he woke up the following morning, the castle was empty; there was not a soul around to ask. Seized with fear, Parsifal jumped on this horse and rode back across the drawbridge just as it was rising and the castle was becoming enshrouded in mist.


For many years after that, Parsifal wandered in a dark forest, trying to find his way back to the Grail castle by sorting through the tangled roots. During this time, he had many adventures, but he lived without passion, longing for the joy he had felt for one night, in what seemed to be a dream. But these years were not really about loss; they forced the knight to go on an inner journey as well as an outer one. What he lost was his innocence, naivete, and his unconsciousness. What he gained was simplicity, clarity, and maturity. Like a blade, he was sharpened in the fire of adversity. 


Finally, one day he asked a simple question: “Where is the grail? Whom should it serve?” With that question, life opened: the earth turned green, waters flowed, the drawbridge to the Grail Castle lowered, the ailing Fisher King was healed, and the kingdom too was restored to health. The Grail was brought out of the castle to serve the world.

Story -- especially the universal story plot that runs through all times, cultures, and places -- begins in wounding, confusion, despair, imbalance, loss of vitality. A land has been overtaken by darkness and from the sovereign to the people to the earth herself, there is withering, exhaustion, contraction, and spiritual death. In this archetypal plot, someone steps forth to do battle with this dark force and to claim the healing object or secret knowledge that will restore the kingdom. This protagonist struggles mightily with external and internal antagonists who guard the grail until he/she asks a question that opens the door, regenerates, and heals the land. In the process, the seeker has become someone new who is now capable of using this magical formula for the good of the whole kingdom. Heroes change the story.

Seen through a mythic lens, depression announces the beginning of a new story, a Call to the great adventure of change. Yet we are afraid; we resist; we grasp more tightly what we already know. Resistance in the face of the unknown is natural; we resist until the pain becomes worse than the fear of going forth. That resistance manifests in our life as depression, inertia, anxiety, and in somatic pain.

If we can stop running away from pain, put forth the simple question, "What is life asking of me now?" -- and pay attention to what shows up -- we too may find our world becoming green. “And this is why it is so important to be attentive when one is lonely, sad, or afraid," wrote the poet Ranier Maria Rilke, "because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us on the outside.” (Eighth letter, Letters to a Young Poet).

Working Creatively with Depression

1. How does the Parsifal myth translate in your experience? Rewrite the myth from the different perspectives of Parsifal, the ailing king, the Grail itself, and the land -- both in its dying time and in its rebirth. 

2. What does the question, ""Where is the grail?" sound like in your voice? In other words, what's the question you need to ask? Try a few and see where they lead.

3. Try writing it in first person, past tense. Or third person, present tense. Play!

4. Share it with someone who cares.

5. What do you take from this exercise? What is the Grail in your life? What is depression a metaphor for in your inner life? What needs to happen? What's the smallest, least difficult step you can take into the larger life?

All rights reserved, Juliet Bruce, 2012

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