Category Archives: psychology

My Story: Chapter 3 – Prednisone-induced visions

Prednisone-induced visions

Prednisone

[Read the whole story, to date, here.]

No, you have not missed the first 2 chapters. I’ve decided to not start at the beginning but with the beginning of my depression. I will probably go back to the beginning in later posts and fill in my history as it pertains to my story.

This is the first time that I’ve put these experiences “out there.” Only a few close friends know the full extent of what I am about to describe. A few other friends know some parts but not everything.

As I was looking over my journals the other day, it struck me that I’ve never “done” anything with these experiences. I’ve never really tried to understand them and integrate them and they need to be, they are begging to be understood (at least to some extent) and integrated (again, as best I can). I am now 7 years removed from them but their impact is still fresh in my body and mind and soul. As I make the decision to write about my depression and my life, I am compelled to start here, with these experiences, for they were the catalyst for everything that has happened since. I also get the feeling that by not working with these experiences, by ignoring them and keeping them hidden, I am doing myself not only a disservice but real harm.

With that brief introduction and your understanding that I’m not sure where this is leading, here is what happened:

In late 2007,  I was 43, married, with an 18 month old daughter. I had already been through a very mild depression due to, as I thought then, my unhappiness with my job. I was in the process of attempting a reconnection with religion which was, to say the least, a surprise because of my very strict Fundamentalist Christian upbringing and my subsequent disavowal of all things religious. It was in this mindset that I found myself reading Huston Smith, among others, and stumbling over Carl Jung whose “Answer to Job” made an immediate impact on me for here was a rational approach to religion, something I had not seen in all my 40+ years.

I started meditating. I tried several different ways: focusing on my breath, chanting, Holosync (binaural beats). Over the next 6 months, I had some interesting experiences with bodily sensations—mostly in my stomach—while meditating. I interpreted these sensations as something from the unconscious working its way into my consciousness and trying to be “born.” I was never fearful of what was happening and was content letting things run their course. It was a slow and gentle process, like something was seeping out from under the basement door.

Around this time, I was getting sick frequently. Nothing serious; the illnesses amounted to not much more than a drain on my physical and emotional energy accompanied by the not unexpected feelings of blah-ness. I was also preparing for my first ever program for the KC Friends of Jung—an introductory class on Jungian psychology.

I had been recording and working with my dreams (from a Jungian point of view) for almost 5 years at this point but in February and March 2008 I had 2 dreams that were “unusual” compared to my “normal” sort of dream.

[I’m not going to relate the dreams in much detail because a) I don’t think the details are that important and I want to keep the focus on the story as a whole and b) I don’t feel that I’ve worked with them enough to air them publicly. But they are important to mention because they foreshadow what is to come.]

In the February dream a physical object becomes invisible and then disappears, but only for me; everyone else in the room still sees the object. In the dream, I am convinced that the object’s not being there is reality and everyone else who sees the object is caught in an illusion.

The March dream occurred while I had bronchitis and was taking an antibiotic which was not working at all. In this dream, I am unable to fall asleep and “I” (my dream ego) start looking for the “I” that cannot fall asleep. After a very thorough, very deliberate, very directed search all “I” can find is energy. There is no “I” who wants to sleep. Essentially, in this dream, I have the realization of “no-self.”

I believe that the bronchitis was my father complex in full swing. It, with the full support of my other complexes, brought about the illness in an attempt to sabotage the class and give me a reason to cancel without losing face. After all, who was I to put myself out there as someone who knows anything about Jung?! I might make a mistake! I might get asked a question I cannot answer! I’m not qualified!

When the antibiotic didn’t cure the bronchitis, I started a second, different antibiotic but my complexes were too strong and I remained sick. So, my doctor pulled out the heavy artillery and, a week after the March dream, put me on Prednisone. To continue the analogy from above, the Prednisone proceeded to rip the basement door off its hinges and allow whatever was behind it to hit me like a tsunami. I was completely unnerved; I starting having the body sensations all the time and felt forced to meditate. I obeyed and experienced some incredibly deep meditations accompanied by … by what I can only call visions.

I’ve never before called these experiences visions. I hesitate using that word  because of the connotations it evokes in today’s scientific, über-rational world. Many, I’m sure, will say it was “all in my head,” it was “just the Prednisone talking” and, therefore, I should pay them no mind. And I’ve struggled with that viewpoint, too, but the circumstances around these experiences—the fact that I’d taken Prednisone before without any affect at all; my life circumstances with finding Jung, returning to religion, and being dissatisfied with my work; the fact that I was at mid-life, a point where many people experience drastic changes; the dreams that I had before taking the steroid—all point toward something of meaning and something that must be handled, worked, taken in, digested.

There were 2 kinds of visions. The first had to do with the nature of reality along the lines of the 2 dreams I mention above. Things we see and interpret as “reality” are suddenly torn away exposing the illusion of our assumptions. Reality is “created” by how we see things but the physical objects are not really there. We live in a world we take for concrete and real but which is, in fact, nothing but facades.

One very powerful dream image was a wide open, empty, frightening space. I woke up terrified of the utter emptiness. I’m reminded of something Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil: “And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

The second kind were visions of people: a woman (who was a comforter, guide, and sage) and two men (who were mysterious and I never interacted with them). Some of these visions had a very corporeal aspect to them.

These experiences literally blew my mind. I was nervous, anxious, unsteady, totally out of it. I wasn’t interested in anything that I normally did. I felt compelled to sit and meditate. I was a total wreck. Just by looking at me, people knew something was going on. My entire demeanor, the very way I looked was different. At the time, I had no idea what was going on nor what to do with it, let alone how to deal with it. Not long after this, I started going to a therapist and in mid-May I started my first antidepressant.

[Read the whole story, to date, here.]

Egocide: an update

iStock_000002243886XSmall(For background on egocide, check out this post.)

The oddest thought crossed my mind the other day. I was driving on the highway, listening to music (which I rarely do) and the thought crossed my mind: “I am happy.” Now this may not seem like an odd thought to many of you but, believe me, it definitely is one of the oddest thoughts I’ve had in the last five years.

Now, I pause here for a moment or two because I’ve learned a lesson about talking about how good things are. Take my allergies, for instance.

I’ve had allergies all my life and everywhere I’ve lived. About five years ago, I went to a Chinese herbalist who was very successful in treating them. However, no matter how long I am allergy free, if I talk to someone about how good I feel the very next day I have a massive allergy attack. It never fails. I seem to live in that middle zone of “even Steven.” I get a little extra money and without fail I have an unexpected bill. I have a great week at work and am extremely productive and the next week I’m useless. It never fails.

So, with great hesitation and much knocking on wood I continue with my story.

As I was saying, the thought entered my mind: “I am happy.” This was such a strange thought to have that it really took me by surprise. I began trying to figure out how I could possibly have had such a thought. Here’s what I came up with:

As I mentioned in my previous post on egocide, I’ve been thinking that “computer guy Ken” is the part of my ego that must die. And it seemed that the Universe agreed with me because I’ve had only a handful of working hours the past few months. The Universe, however, was not providing an alternate revenue source which, in my current position, is really quite crucial to my longevity. So, as you can imagine, I was quite discouraged and disillusioned with the whole “the Universe will provide” mantra.

Upon further contemplation, I realized that I had made some decisions recently which had great bearing on the question at hand. For a long time now:

  • I have been living a life defined by depression.
  • All my actions and reactions have been modulated by the idea that, “I have depression.”
  • I monitored myself so that I did not appear too happy because if I appeared happy then people would not know that I suffered from depression.
  • I so lamented my life situation—work, relationships, lack of energy, &c.—that it was impossible for me to be other than sad and depressed because I was allowing external circumstances to dictate my emotional state.

In short, I was using my depression as a “scarlet letter A” (I guess a “blue letter D” would be more appropriate) and proudly bearing the stigma in front of the entire world.

Recently, however, I decided that

  • This attitude is extremely detrimental to my health and wellbeing
  • Who says I have to be depressed all the time?
  • I deserve to smile and laugh and I should allow myself to do both
  • Yeah, a lot of things suck right now but that doesn’t mean I can’t smile and laugh

So, almost unconsciously, I decided that my attitude needed to change. Drastically change. Well, that and I had to drink less. A LOT less.

When the thought “I am happy” crossed my mind the other day, and I gave it some thought, I realized that the ego I thought needed to die was not the ego that needed to die. “Computer guy Ken” was not the part of me that needed to die. Even though it’s the part I wanted desperately to get rid of, it was not the part that needed to die. What needed to die was the prevailing attitude I maintained about myself. And, guess what. After that “decision” was made, I found out that I am getting a semi-shit load of work in 2014. Since I’m no longer trying to kill off “computer guy Ken” this work is very welcome—I’ll be able to eat and put gas in my car!

The lesson learned here is that egocide is subtle; it’s not what you think it is.  I wanted a certain part of me to die but that wasn’t the part that needed to die. It took me quite a while to figure that out. Yet, once I did figure it out, other things seemed to fall into place. And that makes it difficult to talk and think about. When I read David Rosen’s description of his egocide and the account of Buckminster Fuller’s egocide it all sounded quite simple. Pick something and let it die. What could be easier? Well, it’s not easy. Not easy at all. My unconscious is far smarter and far more informed than is my ego. Yet it is my ego which does my thinking and it is my ego which wants to be in control and to survive. Getting my megalomaniacal ego to step aside and giving the unconscious free reign to decide what really needs to die takes time and patience and dedication. It takes the willingness to be surprised by and subservient to the unconscious.

But, if you remember that the unconscious really does have your best interests in mind, then it’s no different than following the direction of a mentor or spiritual leader. They don’t always tell us to do what we want to do and it’s oftentimes quite uncomfortable and disconcerting to follow their direction. But, in the end, we will see that their way was the better way.

Mental Burning: Tibetan Buddhism and Jungian Psychology

Dakini’s Warm BreathThe August 26th Dharma Quote of the Week from Shambhala.com was from Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Simmer-Brown (on shambhala.com or amazon.com):

Examining the understanding of heat in Vajrayana gives insight into tantra’s somewhat different embrace of classical Buddhist imagery. From this perspective, the experience of mental burning is indeed the central suffering of our lives. It is the experiential dimension of the intensity of our obscurations, whether emotional, conceptual, or habitual. But rather than attempting to put out the flames with meditation methods, it is important to allow the burning to occur during practice. Certainly in the foundational stages of the path we must learn not to become engulfed in the flames, to tame the wild mind and emotions, and to train ourselves to open further to experience. Finally, however, through Vajrayana practice under the guidance of a guru, the burning we experience becomes a great teacher and a great blessing.

In some respects, depression could be characterized as “mental burning.” The incessant and insidious rumination consumes our time, our energy, our mood, and threatens to literally destroy us. And, it is true that “the experience of mental burning is indeed the central suffering of our lives.” But is the answer to do whatever it takes to eliminate the rumination; extinguish the mental burning at all cost?

Both Tibetan dharma and Jungian psychology say no. “It is important to allow the burning to occur during practice” and Jung said, “depression should therefore be regarded as an unconscious compensation whose content must be made conscious if it is to be fully effective” 1. As with most things in life, eschewing the negative, the painful, the unwanted usually leads to more pain struggle, and sorrow. Ignoring the pain associated with a burst appendix has dire consequences. Treating headaches with pain relievers can result in the underlying cause getting worse and worse. The ultimate avoidance, I think, is that of death. We do the craziest shit to avoid even the appearance of death. But look at the results of too much cosmetic surgery, the toll on our minds and bodies from un-experienced grief, or the acts of a health-care system fostering and profiting from our outright detestation and absolute terror of death.

The key, of course, is to not “become engulfed in the flames” but to “train ourselves to open further to experience.” I think our main objection to this is that it just takes too damn long! It’s like work! I want a pill that I can take once a day which does it for me because I’m just too damn busy.

Now, I’m not criticizing, I’m empathizing. Since it takes me forever to get the simplest thing done, I often don’t feel that I have any time for self-work. This is not even in the same universe as easy. But if you’re in this for the self-knowledge and self-power and not for the painlessness of it all, there’s no other way. The promise is –from both Jung and the dharma–”the burning we experience becomes a great teacher and a great blessing.”

Jung would have the depressed individual let go of his conscious efforts and fall into the unconscious, where the exuberant power of imagination lies latent. Only the experience of soul. Only the discovery that I “have” a soul and can even “become” my soul offers any solution for the depressed condition. 2

In our modern culture we have forgotten–learned to ignore is perhaps more precise–the wisdom that our bodies and psyches possess. We try to stay awake longer and sleep less in order to be more productive. No wonder our bodies revolt and we get sick and overly fatigued and need more and more caffeine to keep going. Our bodies have a natural rhythm–the circadian rhythm–which governs the production and release of melatonin which is what makes us sleepy at night. The melatonin producer sits just above the optic nerve so a lessening of light triggers the release which means we get tired at night at not at mid-day. So, what do you think happens when you work at your computer until 2am or watch TV right before going to sleep or read in bed with a bright light? You are convincing your body that it’s not time to go to sleep.

Many years ago when I was living alone and working at home 95% of the time (I’d have one meeting a week in the office) I tried an experiment. I didn’t set an alarm clock. I didn’t pay much attention to the time. I went to bed when I was tired and got up when I woke up. The result was a pretty regular 8 hours of sleep at night and I felt the best I’d felt in years. I’ve always had trouble waking up in the morning (my parents would have to wake me up on Christmas Day!). The only downside was that my body wanted a 25-hour day, so my bedtime started getting later and later and soon I was gong to bed at 5am. This made it difficult to make my 11am meetings so I had to stop the experiment.

But the point is that the body does have a wisdom and does know what it needs and what it doesn’t. Our modern culture has all but eliminated our bodies’ having any input whatsoever into what we do. No wonder it revolts and breaks down! And, no wonder it often times refuses to respond to external stimuli “designed” to correct an imbalance. Of course I’m mainly referring to “drug cocktails” that some doctors give their patients–one drug trying to correct the harm resulting from another drug’s side effects and a third drug to correct the second and so on. Of course, science and medicine have made unimaginable progress in helping the body when the body alone isn’t enough. But we’ve moved too far to the side of science and medicine–we no longer give the body a chance. “My kid has a 100° temperature so I’ve got to give him Motrin to bring down the fever!” Well, no, you don’t. The body is fighting off something and raising the body temperature makes things move along more quickly. You are actually undermining the body’s efforts by medicating too quickly. Of course, if the temperature goes much higher then it is time to step in and help with medication.

This is the point that I take away from the dharma quote and the Jungian psychology quotes: we’ve become too one-sided; we want to circumvent anything we feel stands in our way of progress. But “rather than attempting to put out the flames with meditation methods” we need to allow the flames to do their work. A balance point needs to be sought at which the flames are allowed to teach but not consume; a point at which we can “let go of [our] conscious efforts and fall into the unconscious” without becoming overwhelmed by it.

I am seeking this balance point but it’s an incredible struggle. Without medication my mood goes so deep that it is impossible to even think about doing anything. With the medication I have a little more energy, a little more focus but I often don’t feel like I’m making any progress. It seems to take so long to get done the things that must be done now that there’s no time and energy for anything else. I keep waiting for the “lesson” my depression is trying to teach me but it hasn’t come yet … or I’ve completely missed it. This blog definitely helps by giving me something to focus on. As I write these posts, I’m reminded of the work I need to do–to make time for–and I’m encouraged because I am focusing. And this, what I’m writing right now, in a way, IS the work.

Thank you for reading. I hope this work that I’m doing here can help or inspire–even just a little–someone else.

Notes:

  1. C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, CW vol 5, par 625
  2. Haule, John Ryan, ”Depression and Soul-Loss,” www.jrhaule.net

Egocide and suicide

egocide and suicideLately, I’ve been thinking about egocide. (Why does my autocorrect want to change that to “geocode”??) I’m at the end of my rope and climbing back up is not an option. I’ve got to change. Drastically change. Kill off the “Ken” I think I am and reinvent “Ken.” Killing off, or sacrificing, my concept of myself amounts to killing off my ego—egocide.

David Rosen, in his book Transforming Depression, describes egocide as “a symbolic killing of the ego that is experienced as ego death: a sacrifice of the ego to the Self, a higher principle.” Rosen went through this in his own life. “It was the ego-image [he] had of [himself] as a husband that was sacrificed. When [he] released that image, [he] found [he] could surrender to a higher power within [himself]—the Self.

The other day, as I was starting this post, I found a blog post about Buckminster Fuller’s egocide. The idea was that he would throw away his ego. He would not work for himself or for material gain but solely for the greater good. He trusted that his needs would be met. Apparently, trusting the universe to provide worked out pretty well for ol’ Bucky.

Then, I was watching the last episode of Top of the Lake (streaming on Netflix) and there was the following conversation between Robin, the protagonist, and GJ, a guru-type. Robin had just gotten some very bad news.

Robin: I don’t know how to keep living.

GJ: So, you’re on your knees? Good. Now die to yourself. To your idea of yourself. Everything you think you are, you’re not. What’s left? Find out. … Stop thinking.

Robin: I need to help Tui

GJ: You people all want to help someone. Help yourself first. Like the airplane. Put on your own mask first.

Robin: How do I help myself?

GJ: Why should I tell you when you don’t listen.

Robin: I’m listening.

GJ: No! All you hear are your own crazy thoughts like a river of shit on and on. See your thoughts for what they are. Stop your helping. Stop your planning. Give up. There is no way out. Not for others. Not for you.

Egocide is about death. And that’s why it is an alternative to suicide. When in a depression, there is no future and no past. Time doesn’t move. Therefore, nothing changes. I can’t envision a time when I wont be depressed. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t depressed. All I have is this moment. This overwhelming, oppressive moment. But things must change because they are intolerable as they are. If things can’t change with time then death is the only answer. Death is the only way to make things change. Something must die. If not the body then, perhaps, the ego can be a surrogate.

The real question is: what images of myself, exactly, do I need to sacrifice? I’ve been trying to let go of “Ken the computer guy” for a while but the problem is that he’s the only one making any money. But, perhaps it’s my feeling that way which is preventing all the other Ken’s from bringing home some bacon? Maybe there’s also the aspect of letting go of negative images—the “I’ll never be a real writer/painter.”

I don’t think there has to be something there to fill the gaping hole left by the sacrificed ego. That’s too much planning. If egocide is a surrogate for suicide then there can’t be a replacement already in the wings. Perhaps some people can transition from one stage to the next easily. They know in advance what they want to do before they get to the point of needing to terminate the old “them.” But, not everyone. I’ve known for a while now that something’s gotta change but I didn’t know what/how/when.

Well, I’ll keep you posted on what’s going on and how I see the imminent transformation shaping up. So, keep reading!

Jung’s Take on Depression

Depression should therefore be regarded as an unconscious compensation whose content must be made conscious if it is to be fully effective. This can only be done by consciously regressing along with the depressive tendency and integrating the memories so activated into the conscious mind—which was what the depression was aiming at in the first place.

—C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation,
CW vol 5, par 625.

I’ve been trying to understand Jung’s words for quite a while now in order to make some sense of my own depression. I get how depression is “an unconscious enforcement of introversion” 1 — I don’t even want to leave the house most days let alone interact with anyone. But my depression is characterized by such an incredible lethargy that even something as trivial sounding as “consciously regressing” seems too onerous to attempt.

Depression is an “unconscious compensation,” presumably, for a one-sided conscious attitude. That is, after all, what the unconscious does via dreams, creative expression, &c. It compensates for the conscious attitude. It tries to nudge us in a different direction. It attempts to initiate a course correction.

Unfortunately, my experience has been more in the arena of “loss of soul“:

“… a retrograde movement of the libido, a regression which threatens to reproduce the earlier, instinctual, and unconscious state. The danger lies in those well-known “perils of the soul”—a splitting of the personality (“loss of soul“) and reduction of consciousness, both of which automatically increase the power of the unconscious.

—C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation,
CW vol 5, par 248.

That’s what I experience. An “increase [of] the power of the unconscious” as I sleep till 3pm or watch TV all day or try to write and can’t focus enough to get down a single sentence.

What I need to do is make the content of the unconscious compensation conscious. Then the depression is “effective.” That’s a very interesting turn of phrase. An effective depression. A depression that has a goal, a purpose. Perhaps things are beginning to change, but depression has not, in general, been seen as something purposeful. Something teleological. Rather it’s been seen as something to alleviate.

And I’ve tried medications to get me going, to kick-start the process, so to speak. And they seem to work. For a while. I get more focus, more energy. For a while. But I don’t seem to accomplish anything with that added energy. I’m still trying to cope rather than making the content conscious.

Maybe that’s because I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to be making conscious!

Edinger includes the loss of a loved one in Jung’s definition and says the “enforced introversion” is the psyche’s requiring “the individual to withdraw the projection that the lost loved one carried … because … if the dead loved one is really carrying a large portion of your soul the deceased can suck you right down into the grave with them.” 2 So, maybe this provides a clue. Projections are, by definition, unconscious. So, withdrawing a projection is akin to “integrating … into the conscious mind.” However, at the moment I don’t see much correlation. When caught in a projection, a tell-tale sign is usually an over-reaction. My depression is, at best, a continual under-reaction. So it seems difficult to determine to what I am underreacting and, henceforth, what I need to integrate into my consciousness.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll try to formulate the ideas that came to me from the field of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) while reading The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Notes:

  1. Edward F. Edinger, Transformation of Libido: A Seminar on C. G. Jung’s Symbols of Transformation, p. 74
  2. Ibid.

Can anyone point me to the underworld?

St. John of the CrossI had a revelation today. I meditated using HeartMath’s Inner Balance Sensor and really focused on paced breathing for about 45 minutes. Then ended the session but continued sitting there, letting anything arise from the unconscious that wanted to arise, not directing my thoughts along any path. I began to repeat the question: “Where is my Soul?” Over and over and over like a mantra. A great heaviness came over me accompanied by great … was it sadness? sorrow? grief? I’m not sure. Maybe all three. Whatever it was, it was intense.

Then the thought arose: My Soul is depressed, too.

My Soul is deep in the unconscious, along with almost all of my energy. I’ve waited long enough for her to return on her own, bringing back my energy. It is now time for me to go and retrieve my Soul. It is (way past) time for me to act. So many parallels come to mind here. Orpheus going into the underworld to retrieve his love, Eurydice. Rafiki saying “It is time” and setting off into the desert to retrieve Simba. There are countless others, I’m sure, if I needed to go on.

But there’s a slight complication. My Soul is not sitting in the underworld waiting for me. No, she is affected by my depression, as well. Think about it this way: My Soul is inside a ball of clay and I am on the surface of the ball of clay. A giant thumb, a.k.a. my depression, is pressing down on me and pushing me into the clay. But the thumb is also pushing my Soul away from me! It’s going to take me longer to reach my Soul because I need to overtake her. This thought was disheartening, to say the least. It means that I am not yet fully into my nigredo, to borrow a term from alchemy. It is still not yet midnight during my “dark night of the soul.” I need to go deeper into my depression if I am to retrieve my Soul. God help me!

But then a hopeful thought arose amidst my anguish and self pity. This can be done psychologically! I don’t need to do this physically or physiologically or mentally. I have long been lamenting my lack of energy. I’ve been reading again and again that depression is the prelude to transformation, that our energy buried in the unconscious is undergoing a change, and every time I give a disgusted little snort and say, “If only! Doesn’t work that way for me!” I’ve been waiting for my energy, my Soul, to return to me as I sit and watch TV and lament my loss of energy, of Soul. True, I don’t have physical or mental energy but my meditation session today showed me that I do have enough psychological energy. I began this descent today and now I have an idea of what I need to do. Which is incredibly heartening and uplifting.

So, now I’m yelling up at that giant thumb saying, “Push harder, man! Push with all your might!” The faster I get to my true, psychological bottom, the faster I can see my Soul again and begin the journey back from the underworld.

The secret to life

The secret to life

St. Anne, the fresco from Faras (National Museum, Warsaw)

What would the “secret to life” look like if there actually was one? Would it be a way to always be happy and never sad? Not likely, unless it also included a way to avoid heartaches, senseless violence, and natural disasters.

Would it be a foolproof way of making money? While it’s tempting to think that just a little bit more money would make me happier and solve many of my problems, no one can really believe that money brings ultimate contentment.

Would it be the solution to world hunger, war, racism, and/or sexism? I doubt that these solutions exist because these problems are all caused by humans and, therefore, their solutions require large scale changes in human behavior. To quote Joseph Campbell:

When we talk about settling the world’s problems, we’re barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess. We are not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives. 1

No, the secret to life is not “out there.” The secret to life is within each of us — that’s the only place we have any pull. Buddhists call it “equanimity.” Jungians call it “holding the tension of the opposites.” Christians talk about being “no longer [like] children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”

This is the true secret to life. This is what anyone talks about who knows anything worth sharing. The secret to life is understanding that there is a winter for every summer, a tear for every laugh, an inhale for every exhale, a season for everything, and a time for every purpose. Clinging to one side, no matter which side that is, is not living an authentic life.

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.

“Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“We’ll see,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.

“How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“We’ll see,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“We’ll see,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“We’ll see” said the farmer.

Notes:

  1. Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion, p. 17

Personal development and complexes

I’m currently reading Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson. This is a wonderful book with practical information but also scientific details about how the brain works. I’m finding a lot of blog-worthy material that applies to depression. But for now, I want to draw a link between Hanson’s ideas and analytical psychology — the result of the ground breaking work of Carl Jung, the turn-of-the-century Swiss psychologist.

Hanson describes physical and mental discomforts as the “first darts” of existence. These are painful yet inevitable and arise simply because we are human with human emotions and human attachments. But where most of our suffering comes from are our reactions, the “second darts” we, ourselves, throw at ourselves. Second darts often trigger a chain reaction. We react to something and then react to our reaction! For example, we get angry and then feel guilty for getting angry. Or we react to a loved one who then reacts to our reaction and then we re-react and so on.

Jung would have called these second darts “complexes.” A complex is an emotionally charged group of ideas or images. A complex tends to form its own little personality. It has a physiological effect — it can upset the stomach, breathing, heart, &c. Whenever we “over react” we have, most likely, been hit by a “second dart” and “caught in a complex.”

Hanson describes four stages of personal development and growth through which we go as we work to tame our reactions to things and to throw our second darts less often and with less force.

Stage one — you’re caught in a second-dart reaction and don’t even realize it: your partner forgets to bring milk home and you complain angrily without seeing that your reaction is over the top.

Stage two — you realize you’ve been hijacked by greed or hatred (in the broadest sense), but cannot help yourself: internally you’re squirming, but you can’t stop grumbling bitterly about the milk.

Stage three — some aspect of the reaction arises, but you don’t act it out: you feel irritated but remind yourself that your partner does a lot for you already and getting cranky will just make things worse.

Stage four — the reaction doesn’t even come up, and sometimes you forget you ever had the issue: you understand that there’s no milk, and you calmly figure out what to do now with your partner.

I’m not sure I agree that stage four is actually attainable but the first three are spot on. Our complexes never go away completely. Our goal is to make them less “toxic.” In fact, Jung maintained that they shouldn’t go away because they are the drivers of all energy in our psyche.

One aspect of my father complex is “father is always right and is never questioned.” The most salient example for me is one day in junior high school I asked my dad to buy me some craft sticks (aka popsicle sticks) for a project. When he came home from work he told me the sticks were on the dining room table. I looked on the table and all I saw was a package of wooden clothes pins. I picked them up, walked into the kitchen where he was sitting, and thanked him profusely. He laughed and told me to look again. Sure enough, the craft sticks were there. Had he really bought me clothes pins, he would have been wrong — plain and simple. But I couldn’t bring myself to say that to him. Father knows best. Father is always right. Not because he is actually infallible but because he is beyond reproach.

Fast forward a few decades and I’ve become a student of Carl Jung. I look up to Jung as a father, an authority, someone I learn from. Because he is a father figure for me, criticism of him triggers my father complex. If someone says Jung is wrong, or mistaken, or should have done such and such, my father complex is triggered and I blindly, emphatically, and passionately defend him. Jung is beyond reproach, after all! I’m stuck in stage one.  I over react with neither knowledge nor understanding of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

As I grew and developed, learned what to look our for, and began to understand my father complex I began to catch my over reactions. I clearly remember one day during a reading group. Two women were commenting on Jung’s bias against women and expressing their unmet expectation that he should have been more progressive. I was instantly caught in stage one and began defending him as a “product of his times” and pointing out all his other very progressive ideas and going on about his not being a god but a man. I was quite animated. Suddenly, I switched into stage two. It was as if part of me was able to sit back and watch the other part of me over react. I couldn’t do anything about it at first but I was able to watch myself in the tirade and chuckle about how foolish I was being. “What an ass you are, Ken!” Slowly, I reigned myself in and quieted down and ceased my rant. Afterward, I apologized to the women and to the group and explained a little about my how my father complex “caught” me.

After that, I moved into stage three. I can quickly sense when my father complex is about to be triggered and I am able to keep my cool and react more appropriately. I still feel the irritation that Hanson describes but I remain in control. Sometimes I maintain silence and let the other person express their opinion without rebuttal. Other times I give a counter opinion but with a calm demeanor.

It feels really good to be in stage three with this particular aspect of my father complex. There are still other aspects that I’ve not quite tamed but I’ll get there. But now I have the advantage of being aware, of being able to monitor myself instead of flying off the handle. And this awareness extends into other areas of my life where my other complexes try to ambush me.

Hanson says that stage two is the hardest and the stage at which we most want to quit. I totally agree. It’s easy to over react without restraint. It’s easy to say, after the fact, “I don’t know what came over me” and go about my day without giving it another thought. It’s difficult to see myself as an ass but that’s what it takes. Stage two is extremely difficult, but, believe me, stage three feels really good. You’ll be happy and quite proud of yourself when you get there.

What is depression? … No future

No FutureWhat is depression?

Rollo May, an American psychologist, suggests that depression is “the inability to see or construct a future.” 1 This 8 word definition blew me away the first time I read it. He really nailed it! Think about it for a moment. If there is no future then there is no expiration date on my suffering. There is no painless tomorrow. There will never be another sun rise to blast away the darkness. This is why my depression is so intense and overpowering. It is eternal and in it’s eternity it is meaningless and hopeless. Depression is, in fact, hopelessness incarnate. And I use the word “incarnate” deliberately because the hopelessness is literally “embodied in the flesh.” It is felt with my whole body as well as my mind.

This goes a long way to explain why I have no will. After all:

will 2 |wil|
noun
1 [usu. in sing.] the faculty by which a person decides on and and initiates action

“Initiates” requires a future. “Action” requires a future. As a verb, will expresses the future tense. If there is no future, there is no will.

No Future / No PastI would also add to May’s statement that depression is the inability to reconstruct a past. When I am deep in a depression, there is nothing but right now. There never was a time when I wasn’t depressed and there never will be a time when I am not depressed. And this means that my suffering is timeless. All I have is the present, unchanging, never ending moment. All I have is right NOW! And in this NOW I’m struggling to find reasons to stay alive. This NOW is hell.

Notes:

  1. Rollo May, Love and Will, (1969) p. 243.