Depression, rumination and compassion

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.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Irisha Mooi Almgren
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 13:23:48

    Thank you for sharing this , Erica!

    I agree with Trungpa Rinpoche’s understanding of depression as something that can enrich our lives and have been through a couple of “dark nights of the soul” myself, in fact going through one right now but I would not call it “depression”. I guess it all depends how we define the term. I see it as a psycho-dynamic process signalling of the internal conflict and it is not to be fixed but to be learnt through. I am enjoying the journey and believe we can talk benefit by talking about it in the language that is more descriptive, powerful and meaningful to each of us.

    I find Parker Palmers writings and talks on the gifts of depression to be very empowering and inspiring.



  2. yunyi2009
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 17:17:53

    Great thought!
    However, I believe what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche talked about here can be consider as “constructive depression”, which is a blue state of mind, profound awareness of the bitterness of life. “Melancholy” might be the word for it. The depression defined by modern psychology is the kind that is “destructive”. I don’t remember the original words from a book a read, it defines depression as those sad feeling that bothers our daily life, prevents us from being happy and creative.
    Anyway, it is just what I understood. I too have been experiencing depression, both positive and negative, by my chronic health problems. So I did realize the difference of these two.
    Thanks again for sharing your experience and thoughts! I will come back often.


  3. determinedtoheal
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 10:53:26

    Hi and thanks for your comments. Irina, I remember reading some of Parker Palmer’s writings while I was at Naropa. They were quite inspiring. Let me know if you want to meet up sometime soon.

    Yuni, thanks again for sharing your opinion, which I respect greatly, though I don’t quite agree with it. I think that the fields of modern psychology and psychiatry have created a clinical construct of depression, but the experience of it lies deep in the human psyche and likely goes back to the beginning of human existence, which is probably why the evolutionary psychologists are interested in studying it. I don’t really see a difference between the clinical form of depression as constructed by western psychologists/psychiatrists and the depression that Trungpa described. He was an alcoholic. He likely experienced depressive states that would have qualified in the DSM as clinical depression. My episode of depression in 2001 (as described in the post) also met the criteria for clinical depression, as diagnosed by a physician and a psycho-therapist. Anyway, this is just my opinion, nothing more. Perhaps there is more of a line between these descriptions of depression than I acknowledge.

    I truly hope that you find something in the experience of depression that enhances your self-awareness and compassion. May you find peace of mind! Take good care!


  4. nothingprofound
    Oct 31, 2010 @ 16:57:30

    I personally have never experienced a deep depression, but I have deep grief, and that was definitely an experience that enriched my sense of compassion and connection not only to humanity but to all living things.


  5. Trackback: “Never give up” « Determined To Heal
  6. chris
    Jun 14, 2011 @ 17:48:21

    Good blog, Erica. As a professional writer as well as long-time spiritual seeker, I too have been trying to chronicle the extraordinary journey of chronic pain. At the depth of it I felt as though I was being crushed, rather like a peanut shell. But as I begin to feel better many of the old ego tropes reassert themselves in the more or less the same forms….


  7. Erica
    Jun 15, 2011 @ 09:31:03

    Chris, I know what you mean. I’ve been in remission for inflammatory bowel disease for six years now and it seems that many old habit energies have resurfaced. At first it was disconcerting, but now I try not to judge my habit energies anymore. I am curious about them. What can they tell me about my personal shadow? I want to know as much as possible about my personal shadow so that I can embrace it and integrate it into a larger sense of wholeness. I really like this piece by Pema Chödrön on “How we get hooked and how we get unhooked:” . Thanks much for your comment!


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