What Does Depression...Mean? (How Does/Should/Can One Think About It Non-Transactionally?)

Hi Everyone,

I recently saw the conversation from June '18 about men talking about depression and suicide in the wake of the death of Anthony Boudrain. I thought this was a fascinating and very important topic, and it chimed with me internally, because recently I’ve been struggling with a more minor depression, and wondering exactly what it means and how to manage it. The quick story is that my partner and I are separating, after three years together. I’ve been feeling sad and heartsick about that - we were each other’s main emotional support for three years- but also because I’m not sure what my relationship with her (my?) two sons will be, and I don’t know how she is framing the separation to the boys (I asked her about this, but she essentially said it wasn’t my business). I met both boys when they were four years old, and have helped raise them until today (they are seven); their biological father was a sperm donor, so I’ve been their Dad over these last three years, though this process of becoming Dadified happened slowly, over time. But I’m just feeling sad/down/heartsick mostly because I want to remain a presence in their lives, though I don’t know if my former partner will be in favor of this. (My partner is, among many other things, an observant modern Orthodox Jew, and over time I found I did not fit in with this lifestyle choice and the values it represented - this is a long story, and cannot really be summed up cursorily in a sentence. )

I guess it feels good to share this - I’m sort of reticent to discuss this too much with people I work with, for whatever reason, though I’ve told some people who I’m closer to, but it’s a rotten feeling to walk around with this loss/grief and not have much of an outlet for it, i.e. too many people to talk to, virtual or otherwise. I do not really think we are ultimately separate or alone, so favor dialogue and respectful disclosing over secretiveness and uncommunicativeness. I’m not really looking, I should say, for advice in posting this, but rather just interested in hearing how other people think about, experience, process depression. I"ve been in therapy in the past, but am not exactly looking to start again. I am seeing a couples counselor with my former partner, if not to get back together then at least for some closure, as well as (I’m hoping) some constructive talk about the boys. I keep thinking of that famous/notorious line in Eliot, “April is the cruelest month” - nothing related to April, but rather that feeling of being on the outside looking in, i.e. the world is in summer bloom, but the depression is a sort of blurry lens through which I see it a bit more fuzzily, less clearly.

So here’s the thing: how is one supposed to manage, or "deal with, " or even think about one’s depression, in a non-transactional, honest, embodied, hopefully (at least over time) helpful way? Sometimes I tell myself I should accept it (somehow), at least move towards acceptance, and live with it, and that over time I will heal. (I feel that I would be much happier if I knew I could have a relationship with the boys.) Other times I feel a resistance to the feeling of despair and sadness in my gut, as if there is something not “spiritual” about it, as if I am far away from God or Spirit or whatever. I guess I tend to think the first “strategy,” orientation, approach, is better than the latter, which strikes me as a mindfuck of sorts (the technical term). But there are really palpable differences when one does feel depressed - I definitely become a less good listener, and also more preoccupied with how I am feeling, so that I miss more what others are saying. There is also a slight “anhedonia,” i.e. the things that usually give me pleasure are not as pleasurable, whether that be at my job, or reading, or writing, or whatever else. Depression affects how I see myself, others and the world - there is a tendency to feel more cynical, or bitter, or constricted in a way, all of which I find ridiculous in many ways, but which still operates at some level, influencing my worldview.

I"ve heard people say depression is anger directed towards one’s self; I’m sure there is some truth to that. I’ve also always believed with Mr. Dylan that “they say the darkest hour is right before the dawn,” and that things like depression do have a purpose, and are a sort of an intelligence in a way. I listened to a wonderful audiobook some months back, by Marianne Williamson, called “Tears to Triumph: The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment” which I loved, and that book viewed depression as something that we can learn from, and something that is spiritual, though not in the sense mentioned above, as being separate from God or Spirit or what have you, which I think is a misunderstanding, i.e. mindfuck. (MW has had bouts of serious and clinical depression, and the book is in many ways her coming to terms, in a way I found very profound, with the meaning of those experiences.)

So, if people do have thoughts about this, how should one, does one, can one think about, “deal with” (non-transactionally) depression - major, minor, fleeting, more permanent? (This is probably drawing upon responses from the Bourdain thread, but I think that’s okay.) What do you think depression means? (Does it mean anything?) Are there “strategies” for living with depression that you find useful? Approaches? Modes of thinking about it? Do we just say “this too shall pass” and adopt a sort of patient stoicism? I’d love to hear from anyone about this.

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I am not the right fella to respond but I do feel the need to respond. Your presentation of the issue, your presence on this strangely relational site and your open-hearted questioning has me disliking the “transactional” “heart” icon for what it cannot do, which is share an embrace, allow you to see the reddening of my face with a certain emotional response, allow eye contact to do better work of “speaking” than the following typed words.
Maybe for now, before I carry on too far in some strange direction (and as you say… I am at work and I should probably be doing something…different :roll_eyes:), I will allow you a semi-transactional prescription of your own supply of medicinal wordings:

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Wow, thank you, Doug. I was eating my sad salad-in-a-bag in the library lunchroom, read your post, and teared up. The part that really moved me was actually hearing you describe the things you would normally do if this site was “analog,” i.e. the reddening of the face, eye contact, the voice of another human being, an embrace. What a beautiful response. (Interesting to think about how, even in reading those words on the screen, which were descriptions of a face-to-face encounter, there was a strong affective valence to them that I immediately felt and resonated with - “strangely relational” is spot on.)

It was weird and interesting to see my own words return to offer advice, techno-ghosts come back from the past (“return of the repressed”) to haunt me, or at least genuinely cheer me up. There is a passage, actually many passages, in A Course in Miracles about building relationships with others so that we each witness for the good, beauty, holiness, strength, in each other. I felt like your response was really that in a bold, loud, smart way: a form of helpful witnessing. So, thank you!

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Your post has not let me go since I first read it.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know who could have better responded to it than @Douggins did. Anything I have to say is at best a footnote.

There is a fine, oh, ever so fine, line between sadness and depression. I say that merely from decades of experience. I can’t remember when I wasn’t wrestling with the difference. From my vantage point now, it is safe to say that more often than not was actually was depression, but we’re not dealing with a difference that truly makes a makes a difference. Being sad long enough feels the same. Being depressed isn’t a happy time.

But, of all the things you said, this jumped out at me:

During a religious education program I went through many moons ago, we dealt extensively with the notion of “sin” (go figure … it was a Christian program). That’s always been a tough one for me. At any rate, it was asserted that one of the main terms used to characterize “sin” in the Tanakh (OT) was ChaTa’ (Cheth-Teth-Aleph). It was explained to us that this was something like “having your back turned to G-d”. To me, this was kind of a variation of Plato’s Cave: you’re sitting there facing the wall, watching the shadows, but G-d (the Light, the outside, the real world) was right behind you all the time; you were never not in G-d’s presence, so to speak. That was a helpful approach, I’ll admit.

Later, in my further pursuance of the notion and while trying to learn Biblical Hebrew, I found the word ChaTa’ actually has more to do with the thought of “missing the mark”. This reminded me of Herrigel’s _Zen and the Art of Archery _ which had also made a lasting impression upon me along the Way. “Sin”, if you will, wasn’t so much violating some precepts/laws/commandments of G-d, rather it was more a matter of trying and not quite succeeding … that is, the story of my life.

Gradually, I was feeling much more comfortable with my sinfulness, even if most of my family and friends believed I was simply pushing the pedal to the metal in my own self-imposed damnation. One consequence of that comfortableness was the fact that I came to realize, as you so aptly noted by quoting MW, that sadness, depression, missing-the-mark was in fact a spiritual experience. I was being sold a mindfuck, as you say, but in truth, there was much, much more to be gained here. Saints don’t become saints because they avoid the down-and-dirty but because they tackle it head-on.

OK, I’m not saint, and I’ll never be nominated for canonization, which is perfectly fine with me. But, I know nevertheless that engaging the down-and-dirty, which includes sadness over time and what is generally called depression, is just a normal, expected, almost everyday, part of life.

This is not to say that just anybody can handle their depressions on their own. Help is always welcome, if one is willing to seek it. But, there is depression and there is depression, just as there is sadness and there is sadness.

As an (I think) interesting side note to ChaTa’ (Cheth-Teth-Aleph): in one school of Kabbalistic thought, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is representative of (expresses) a particular “energy” (if not reality). Cheth is pure energy. Teth is a cell (any cell) or the archetypal female. Aleph is unthinkable Life-Death. In other words, we can “read” ChaTa’ as “unthinkable life-death is manifested in every living cell”. Since we don’t generally think in those terms, the consequence is that we’ll more often than not “miss the mark”. And … ?

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Ed, I really like that description of “sin” as “having your back turned to G-d.” I find that to be very profound. I’m also really happy that that was taught in your religious education program! As soon as I heard those three words ("religion, “education,” “program,”) along with “sin,” I admit I prepared myself for a sadly too-often heard story about Bible-thumping whomevers teaching about “original sin” and so on, i.e. GUILT and SACRIFICE, those two idiot twins that cause probably avoidable havoc in our confused world. So I was super happy that you actually had a positive and sane education in regards to the actual meaning of “sin.”

FWIW, my own education in the meaning of that beleaguered word is very similar: A Course in Miracles constantly emphasizes that sin is only “lack of love,” and nothing more. This idea - that sin is lack of love, that’s it - has really changed my thinking in a lot of ways. The gist of that book is “Nothing real can be threatened / Nothing unreal exists / herein lies the peace of God.” The first time I read this, I felt like my head was blown off. In the book, love is essentially God and the real, so in an interesting way the book is kind of arguing that sin (lack of love) is actually an illusion - super hard to wrap one’s head around, considering all the suffering in this world, but still, to me at least, kind of earth-shatteringly interesting and provocative. (The book is nominally Christian, hence the use of the God-word, as well as “the Holy Spirit,” though I find the concepts to be applicable in contexts outside Christianity, at least according to me, a weird kind of Jewish neoplatonist).

Since I find mentioning this irresistible, I have to say that I have always secretly liked the old hokey chestnut called the “Footprints” poem (I’m sure most people here are familiar with it?). Not the poem, exactly - but the idea behind it, which I actually find wonderfully consoling and maybe even true somehow, at least to me (i.e. being carried when we are suffering and can’t walk, that kind of thing). Sometime recently I read somewhere that “if we knew how much we were loved, we would never feel alone.” I interpret that as referring to God, and maybe as well the saints and yogis and sages and masters of the past, but, in lieu of your post, Ed, I’d say we could also treat it more secularly, as referring to our human community, solidarity, family, sangha, and what have you, as you so nicely and wonderfully embodied in your post/response.

I think this is true. I’ve experienced some very rather weird people in denial in my life (including myself in a former life/iteration), and I think if we avoid the down-and-dirty we wind up becoming dishonest and disingenuous, and probably also super fearful of pretty much everything, since we are then super fearful of our own selves essentially, and this ripples outwards. I’ve always taken a shine to the story of Milarepa, the Tibetan saint who actually murdered someone as a young man, then later found Buddhism and became a great master.

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our buddy Milarepa

At the risk of oversharing, I did meet with my partner today for a counseling session, and she clearly wants me to have a relationship with the boys, as do the boys themselves, let’s not forget that. So it’s really just a matter of figuring out logistics and that sort of thing. This news made me very happy and relieved! I feel like there is a reason why these kids were brought into my life, and I’m not interested in dodging this reason. So, I think we are on the right (or more right) route now. Onwards and upwards. Good to hear from you, @achronon.

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Dear Andrew, I feel so much but have so few words.
So here’s a strange and beautiful music in which classical and postmodern meet, resonating in and out of the key of …what? How wrenching it is to be
a human being. How joyous in sorrow, how lost, how lonesome, how full of courage and vision… all of it.

Forgive me, if in this music universe, I’ve chosen poorly for you. If you do feel like listening, I would say: wear your earphones, close your eyes…and breathe…

Music speaks from below,
offering water to every thirsting question,

Maia

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Thanks, Maia!! I’m excited to listen to this; I think I’ll have time tonight. Thank you for your lovely message.