I feel ill-qualified to write a blogpost about depression this morning; there are hundreds of millions of articles on the internet about it, many of which are written by medical doctors who've been studying psychology for several years. Having depression doesn't necessarily qualify a person to write about it for two reasons.
First, while the author can easily list some strategies that make it more bearable, there's rarely insight into the deeper, more psychospiritual nature of the problem. A lot of readers want to get at the root of the problem so they can actually grow out of it, and most articles just focus on "finding the happy"- strengthening the ego, working within the construct of the illusion of our inner narrative, helping us become more functional within the hologram that the human ego presents us instead of peeling back the layers to get to our essential qualities of lightness, vitality, and equanimity. Modern psychologists' lack of understanding of the spiritual nature of human beings is so shallow, it's disheartening when you've done six sessions of talk therapy and they say, "So... are you... better now?" Humans are more complex than that.
Secondly, having depression doesn't mean you understand it from a systematic, objective point of view. Most authors who write about their own experience of depression are getting bounced around by it like the rest of us like a ball in a pinball machine, and through trial and error, have for example, figured out that writing about it helped them feel better. You want someone who's not only gotten into the bowels of depression, but understands the mechanics of human psychology, down to the atomic level to find the patterns and the practices that you can systemitize so you know you're doing what's right for your own personality's anatomy.
That's why I turn to the Enneagram, my go-to on any psychological topic. It's a personality typing system that's mind-blowingly profound because it illuminates the motives in the hidden unconscious that affect what we experience in the conscious realm, and it's personalized for nine different psychic structures (Enneagram is a Greek word made up of two smaller words- Ennea means nine, and gram means some kind of system).
Historically, the Enneagram is both a compendium of the three major Western religious traditions, and at the same time, transcendent of them. It's made up of bits and pieces of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but it's secular. It's an absolutely irreplaceable wisdom and self-knowledge tool for seekers.
So here are six things I've learned about depression from wise people who have crossed my path.
1. Enneagram writing and thinking took off in the 1970's when it was revealed to the Western world, mainly out of California. Out of that movement has emerged the Diamond Approach, an inner inquiry school led by A. H. Almaas. Almaas is credited with coming up with the theory of holes, a feeling of emptiness that's experienced as "an absence, a lack, a sense of something missing, and it literally feels like a hole." We attempt to fill these holes with excitement, food, drinking, drugs, or anything else we think will make the emptiness go away.
We're each born connected to essential qualities that made us feel whole and entirely at one with the world and everything in it, including our deepest selves. During cognitive development of the baby, we begin first to see then sense our separation from mother, quickly followed by everything else in our surroundings, and eventually, the rest of the world. We develop certain mental, emotional, and instinctual patterns to compensate for the inner lack we feel, the result of which is essentially our personality. Getting in touch with that hole as adults, and feeling around its edges in our meditation practice re-connects us to the gifts and qualities that were lost.
Seeing as each of the nine Enneagram personality types has a different kind of hole that they're trying to fill with a unique set of behavioral, thinking, and feeling patterns, depression is going to look slightly different for each of the types. The following points will hopefully help.
2. You don't need to know the Enneagram to keep your head above water psychologically if you have depression, but you need to know it if you want to thrive. Christianity or any other religion on its own doesn't cut it. Yes, that's harsh, but the best you can hope for with Christianity as a depressed person (I'll pick on Christianity because I know it best) is either to have God change your circumstances, which doesn't solve much because as soon as your circumstances change again, you're sinking again. Circumstantial happiness is pretty fleeting. The second thing you could hope for from God is a mountain-top experience, although if you get one, it inevitably ends in you trying desperately to sustain that feeling and extract all the juice out of it till there's nothing left. You may even erect a monument or open a convent, or start a movement in honor of that blissful experience you had, but the truth is, the moment is gone and you're just clamouring after it.
What "God" really needs to do is orchestrate a trip for you to a psychologist so you can learn about how your ego, superego, and the id function together to create your thought and feeling patterns. Getting out of depression requires detective work, and praying that God will heal you from depression without doing the necessary digging is like praying that you'll win the lottery without buying a lottery ticket. The Enneagram gives the best, most lucid and profound insight into the human psyche psychologists have seen so far, and learning it will massively improve your game.
That said, there are many people who find that their religious practice is enhanced with the Enneagram. Religion isn't everyone's cup of tea - just use whatever gives you meaning- a lot of people use spirituality or mysticism, and if you can't find anything, start by paying attention to coincidences and your dreams. You'll be in flow with a wider swath of life if you start paying attention to serendipitous moments- those are your personal sign posts. Follow them. Every religion and spirituality have some kind of narrative that explains how it's "the darkest before the dawn" that gives hope to people struggling with depression. They're all true. So get in flow with some kind of narrative that gives you hope, and seek out actual, sharp, effective tools for working with your inner practice like... the Enneagram.
3. Keep your three intelligence centres in balance. Humans have three "brains" according to the Enneagram- the literal brain in our head, which is most obvious and deals with intellect, objectivity, rationality; the heart brain, whose intelligence centers around empathy and regulating emotions; and finally, the gut brain (in Enneagram speak, we just call it the body)- but this has to do with listening to our instincts, getting in motion, connecting with our libidinal energy, action: the spark that provides life.
According to Enneagram teacher, George Gurdjieff, humans who are most balanced in their three brains are the most liberated from the egoic activity that keeps us imprisoned in self-defeating patterns. Unfortunately each one of us overrelies on one brain, kind of relies on a second, and totally under-utilizes a third. Amping up that third (bottom) one will bring the other two into balance with the third. If you don't know which brain you underutilize, find your Enneagram personality type. That will tell you. Anyway, if it's your gut that's underutlized, daily exercise is what you need. Getting your heart rate up and sweating is one of the best ways of getting your body in balance with your heart and head. If it's the brain that's underutilized, read every day. If it's the heart, try daily lovingkindness meditation. In all cases, working with a wise and trusted bodyworker can help (for example, Rolfing for an intense session, or Reiki for something mild). Our personalities create distinct tension patterns in our bodies that we unconsciously clench onto more and more throughout our lives. Becoming aware of the body is so essential to our spiritual development because as Don Riso says, it's the only part of us that's forced to stay in the present moment. Our thoughts can be in the past or future, but the body is the anchor that keeps us in the present. Attuning our mind to our body (Vipassana meditation) for a certain amount of time each day in meditation is powerful and healing.
4. I have a list of 6 daily strategies I use to to help me stay in balance:
a) Get your sunshine every day. First of all, if you're in the market, get a house or apartment with the biggest windows possible, where the light can just flood in. Don't settle for smaller windows because the place is cheaper (unless you have to). South and east facing windows are great, especially if you have plants, which also make people happy. Secondly, make sure you're getting enough vitamin D. A friend who's done quite a bit of research on this says doctors are satisfied when your vitamin D3 levels are between 30 and 80 nmol/L, but that's just average. Optimally, they should be over 100. If you're a woman, you should be taking Calcium/Magnesium/Vitamin D3 supplements for osteoperosis prevention anyway. FYI: vitamin D is at its most "concentrated" form in the sun when it's directly over our heads, so you only need a half-hour walk at noon to get your daily dose. If you go for a walk in the evening, it'll need to be longer, depending on the length of your shadow.
b) Eat your veggies. Thanks to Enneagram coach Michael Naylor for this one. If you're a Type Four especially, you need root veggies to keep you grounded so you don't float up too easily into your heart space. Think of the chakra system if that works for you. You want to flood whatever area is underserved (your ground, your heart space, or your head space) with energy. By the way, you don't need to be a Four to get benefits from vegetables. Several types can get cut off from their connection with that grounding quality that enables them to take up their space on the earth.
c) Find a passion, something you're good at, something that makes you excited, that makes you giggle with delight. Work at it in your off-time, and work regularly on it. If you hate your job, you're naturally going to feel shitty all the time. Having a side project or some kind of iron in the fire that gives you hope for the future, and that makes you feel good about yourself.
d) Meditate. It's so easy, yet we tend to resist this. After a certain amount of practice, though, you're going to realize you can't live a meaningful life without it and it will become a staple in your day. I'm such a big believer in meditation, and I've written a lot about its health benefits, but you can just google them. Set aside a certain amount of time each day, find a comfortable place to sit, close your eyes (or not), chant, do Vipassana, lovingkindness meditation, or some kind of focus meditation. There's a variety of approaches. My favorite is Vipassana- scanning the body for tension, and just noticing how tense the body is around that area, breathe... until it dissolves- exactly like what you do in corpse pose at the end of yoga. Afterwards, you'll feel relaxed, but coming back to the practice over and over again means you're also constantly "digging up" new tensions from the bedrock of your soul to relax. It can be really intense, but I find it very healing.
e) I mentioned exercise already, but I can't stress it enough for type Fours, Fives, and Nines, who are psychically most disconnected from the gut brain. Sweating, getting your heart rate up are so key to maintaining emotional balance and health. Do it daily. (Thanks to Michael Naylor and Orpheus Luckovich for this tip and for living by example).
f) Keep your finances in check. If lack of money is contributing to your depression, check in with your bank account on a regular basis and make sure you always have enough for your essentials. Read books about money management, pay off your credit cards rigorously, set money aside in savings and invest it. Build up some wealth for yourself so you have some stability for the future. Obviously, the same kind of thing could be said about your diet- if your weight is keeping you depressed, keep your calorie count in check and be rigorous about keeping a tally of what you eat. Get in shape at the gym.
g) Get enough sleep.
There are more strategies out there like... find something to take care of like a pet or a plant if you're alone... find ones that work for you. These seven are just pretty core. I'll mention another one for Fours here, given to me by Michael Naylor again- practice art and creativity daily. If you don't, he said, "your creativity will turn against you". That's such a profound line, and I'm still slowly working at understanding it.
5. Suicide isn't the answer, and I don't mean that in a pat way. I mean it in a technical way. If you're suicidal, you might contemplate how you might kill yourself. As you do this, notice how your body feels. Tune into the pain in your chest or throat, the crushing sensation weighing down on you, the desire to be hidden, any tightness or hardness you feel, whatever it is you feel in your body. Notice the temperature, what time it is, what day it is. If you're holding your breath, or if it's shallow, pay attention to that. See if you can deepen your breath a bit. Notice what it does in the body. Awareness of the breath and body can save us in those suicidal moments, but it's also what promises regeneration.
In ancient Greece, when philosophers went around measuring things and finding the golden ratios of everything, they were also interested in the spiritual properties of numbers. They believed the numbers 1-9 represented divine characteristics exhibited in physical form that had a spiritual, otherworldly principle attached to it. To them, the number Five was the number of life and regeneration, and its associated symbol, the pentad, was highly revered (that's the five-pointed star that people think is associated with the devil. Fortunately, teachers know what it really means- excellence and greatness :)).
Pentagonal symmetry is the supreme symbol of life. Many living forms, plant, animal, and human, display the clear geometry of the Pentad in their structure. The four elements supply the materials of their configuration, but the Pentad carries the flag of life. ... It links them with the mystery of the mathematical infinite, which is the mystery of life itself: the ability to regenerate" [A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe, Schneider, page 97].
So I'm not going to do this justice because I haven't gone into too much depth in the chapter of the number Five. Suffice to say that in the Western tradition, Five has been associated with the spark of new life through its associations with how seeds give rise to fruits and flowers, the Fibonacci sequence, fractal mathematics, the golden mean, the Archimedian spiral, vortex streets, and DNA among many other representations in nature and mathematics. Again, I haven't gone into depth with the science of all this, but I know that life, from its association with the number five and its corresponding shape of the five-pointed star, is meant to expand outward. Just like in da Vinci's Vetruvian man.
So when I feel darkness curling its edges around me, and I feel the sadness and despair wanting to make me feel small and contracted, I breathe into the clenching until it relaxes and gives way to expansion*. Life is meant to expand outward in spiral form, and as long as I'm breathing, it's my birthright to have moments of regeneration and expansion and growth outward and upward. (Read the book if you want to see how Five relates to spirals- the book is called The Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science. I've read chapters 1-4 and scanned the other chapters, and it's just phenomenal).
So I don't have to condemn the suicidal moment I'm in. I know that I'll probably "spiral" back here again in this depressive state, but as long as I can notice the tension tightening inward on me, sense into it, and follow along the outline of my awareness of the tightening with my breath, I'm creating an outward, virtuous spiral.
When I started writing about the number Five and got out this book, I realized I needed to sit down and read it and write a proper blog post about it. It looks so interesting. In the meantime, here's my last point:
6. Sometimes you just need sleep. We often get depressed at night. We might be alone or recovering from a miserable evening out. Perhaps we've overeaten, overpartied, or overdosed or we've been home all night- that's the problem- and we're paralyzed by the dark clouds. Go to bed and just like our parents used to say, "you'll feel better in the morning". OK that was a pat answer- sorry. I just really need to get to bed!
Blessings on you and your journey toward balance, vitality, and ultimately, an upward spiral toward mental health, clarity, and positive action. It is your birthright, not only just to be breathing, but to enjoy all of nature's promise of outward expansion and regeneration packed into the spiral hidden everywhere in your body- from your initial shape as an embryo, the spiral in your DNA and your fingerprints to the inner vortex of your personal development.
*Note: you can't force the expansion- expansion is the result of noticing the tension, not the driving force that leads the breath. I once did an exercise with a body worker that I regretted the next day. He asked me how I felt. I probably said something like "I feel small", so he had me imagine my frame expanding. I did this for a good 20 min, and the next day, I felt my frame pinching right back in on me even tighter than the day before. What I was neglecting was connecting with my feeling of smallness. That's what has to come first; expansion is just what happens naturally after that. If this is confusing, just remember to notice the tension in your body. That's all.