I recently read an article in the New York Times about depression. The author, Johan Lehrer, discussed a new theory in which depression is thought to have an evolutionary purpose, gaining insight. The crux of the theory is that people who are depressed ruminate and rumination involves highly tuned analytical thinking. So even though some depressed people have a hard time functioning within society, they are hyper-focused on working something out, at least according to this theory. And eventually, they may come to some understanding about their situation or about themselves.
In 1973, the year I was born, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche gave a talk in which he talked about the energy of depression:
“Well, try to relate to the texture of the energy in the depression situation. Depression is not just a blank, it has all kinds of intelligent things happening within it. I mean, basically depression is extraordinarily interesting and a highly intelligent state of being. That is why you are depressed. Depression is an unsatisfied state of mind in which you feel that you have no outlet. So work with the dissatisfaction of that depression. Whatever is in it is extraordinarily powerful. It has all kinds of answers in it, but the answers are hidden. So, in fact I think depression is one of the most powerful of all energies. It is extraordinarily awake energy, although you might feel sleepy.”
If the evolutionary psychology researchers had just known about Trungpa Rinpoche’s wise understanding of depression, they might have developed their theory three decades ago! Further on in the talk, he stated:
“But, at the same time, you are experiencing tremendous texture, the texture of how the stagnation of samsara works, which is fantastic. You feel the texture of something. That entertainment didn’t work. This entertainment didn’t work. Referring back to the past didn’t work; projecting into the future didn’t work. Everything is made out of texture, so you could experience depression in a very intelligent way. You could relate with it completely, fully. And once you begin to relate with it as texture of some kind, as a real and solid situation which contains tremendous texture, tremendous smell, then depression becomes a beautiful walkway. We can’t discuss it really. We have to actually get into heavy depression and then feel about that.”
In 2001, I was deeply depressed. The depression was likely triggered by my body. I had been starved for two weeks in the hospital due to the severity of the Crohn’s colitis flare. I had taken high doses of corticosteroid medicines, which are known to trigger depressive states. And I was on disability, which meant I was outside of the norms of society and without a social identity other than as a patient. On top of that, I was still facing a long road of recovery and I was traumatized by the experiences of almost dying. The depression made me not care about the things that I used to care about. In a weird way, it got me through the post-traumatic stress disorder, because my anxiety dissolved into apathy. Some of my automatic fear-based behaviors completely stopped. In a bizarre way, depression was actually liberating.
Life slowed down when I was depressed. I was still practicing mindfulness. I often knew when I was ruminating, it was just hard to stop because the corticosteroids made my mind race. My mind certainly went in circles, and every so often, it went outside of the track. Usually that happened around 2am! And then, in those moments of clarity, I was wide awake and open to the world in a way that was quite different from my non-depressed awareness. I agree with Trungpa, there was an incredibly wakeful energy in depression, and it struck me in a distinctive way.
In those special moments of depression-wakefulness, it was as if some part of me acknowledged my own humanity. “Yes, this is human. This is pain. This is what is in this moment.” I felt my heart and its connection to all the other human hearts that were heavy and disconsolate. The poignancy of that feeling triggered my understanding of my experience as one submersed in a larger collective human experience of tenderness. And when I really opened to the uncomfortable nature of that melancholic tenderness, I found compassion.