Are There Two of Me?
Detail of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso.
Museum of Modern Art.
[ Note to reader: This is the third in a series of essays entitled "What is Psychosis and Depression?" Between October 2102 and December 2013 I experienced three psychotic episodes and two near-death experiences (see I Have No Pill for You). Following that I have experienced strong periods of depression in the last two years (see What is Depression?). All this was new in my life experience. My journey has been intense, sometimes mortifying and devastating, but also illuminating and fascinating too. Above all, my perspective on it all keeps changing, reconfiguring, evolving. This is my third attempt to put some of it into words, including additional perspectives on my Buddhist practice.]
Are There Two of Me?
Recently I was walking down Pine Street, taking in the just emerging narcissus and budding maple trees, when a thought occurred: Are there two of me?
The thought emerged from a dominant aspect of my experience for the last two years: I've felt either normal or moderately-to-intensely depressed. By "normal" I mean more or less like I've always felt, concurrent with what others typically feel: I appreciate the blue sky, the narcissus, the basic fact of being alive and my thought-stream is not particularly self-accusatory. Bipolar depressions (I've had about six cycles of them in the last two years), come on almost as suddenly as a waterfall on an otherwise calm river (and end just as suddenly, usually four to five weeks later). For no discernable reason, my mood shifts, appreciation drops off, and thoughts become frequently punitive. When depressed, for much of the day I feel enveloped in a kind of noxious film that moves back and forth, from the foreground to the background of consciousness, depending on what I'm doing and the time of day.
Thus I sometimes feel like two people, not in a schizophrenic sense of two differing people or personalities, but in the sense of the living and dying of a so-called single personality. The normal person lives for a month or three and then dies off - as suddenly as if shot - replaced by a nearly invisible-to-others depression-realm rebirth. I've come to see this as a curse... and blessing. A choicelessness and challenge. A process that could be of benefit to others as I share it. A process that I've had to take as a teacher.
In Buddhist terms, living normally for only a couple of months or so and then dying is a vivid experience of the second of the "four reminders": Death comes without warning. It is a vivid experience of egolessness, that no single, unified and independent "self" exists, the third of the three "marks of existence." It is also an experience of the "unborn and unchanging nature of awareness": there is a part of our being that knows but is unchanged by depression or any other conditional phenomena.
After I published What is Depression? I received almost fifty comments - way more than I'd ever received on a piece - thanking me for writing it and in many cases disclosing people's own experiences of depression, bi-polar disorder, OCD and ADHD, etc. Since that time I've corresponded with friends or friends-I've-just-met about these subjects. I've collected quotes, studied books and articles. I met for a year and a half with a therapist and am still meeting every few months with my psychiatrist. My initial sense of isolation has evolved into a sense of community and gradual ongoing, oncoming acceptance. Healing has occured and the journey is much smoother.
. . .
Chase Twitchell is a poet who has suffered from depression most of her adult life. In 2001, I read an article she published in Poet's & Writers called, "Toys in the Attic: An Ars Poetica Under the Influence." The article, a memoir of Twitchell's depression, was well-written and fascinating - though fifteen years ago I had no idea it would someday be about me. One of the things I've struggled with has been a question: Is clinical depression an affliction of spirit, if you will, or is it simply a chemical imbalance in the brain (or both)? Twitchell gave a succinc explication of the latter (though she also believes in the former):
Since taking or resuming medication has shifted my periods of depression more than once, I've come to believe that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. At the same time, my journey had told me - even being able to write this article has told me - that depression is a profound state of being, no matter how altered and painful, and deeply connected to spirit, thus an affliction of spirit. The word "profound'" in its earliest sense means "showing deep insight." From this larger perspective, depression is the death side of the coin of life (and not just a reminder that death comes without warning). A friend once asked me about suicidal ideations, the thought-stream depression inevitably unleashes. "What wants to die?" she asked.
Jeff Foster coined one of the more thought provoking statements on the subject of depression, one that argues in its intelligence that depression is a disease of the spirit, and also addresses the question, What wants to die?
This is an elegant statement and though I belive it, I also see the ever-so-inevitable punitive nature of describing depression as a psychological process: if one is exhausted by the weight of one's own identity then one is somehow at fault for previously creating the tiresome identity - and one is thus responsible for one's depression. If depression is chemically based we are no more responsible for it than a cancer or diabetes patient is for their disease... and yet we know lifestyles effect propensity to both diseases. From a Buddhist perspective we alone are responsible for our samsaric ignorance through countless lifetimes... and yet the teachings also stress that sentient beings are helpless in the face of samsara (at least without a path to follow). Subtleties and paradoxes abound. Depression is profound and many-sided facet of the human experience.
I have indeed wondered about the identity or identities that have exhausted me, but during depression the wondering takes the form of punishing, compulsive and microscopically focused life reviews. Just as one cannot see the sun at night, it's only after the depression passes that I can see clearly enough to trust my own insight. Everyone who suffers through depression knows the vast difference between the compulsive, punishing thinking and the clear-light of normalcy. My friend Melina put it this way:
. . .
I recently came upon this quote from my teacher, Chogyam Trungpa. From a Buddhist perspective, all confused experience is a "realm," a subtle or not-so-subtle fixation on what is happening to one. Thus depression is also a realm. The essence of the Mahayana Buddhist path is the journey from samsara, the state of fixation or duality, to nirvana, the non-dual state. Yet from a tantric perspective samsara and nirvana are inseparable - the very experience of fixation contains its own liberation. That is why this quote is so fascinating - it doesn't judge depression but makes a matter of fact statement about it, that it is a form of energy (entropic?) and like any other fixation we get "high" or maintain ourselves on it. But if we relate to the energy directly it becomes an experience of suchness, of things as they are. A student of Chogyam Trungpa once asked him if her ever got depressed. "Yes," he relied. "What do you do about it?" she asked. "I get more depressed." As Trungpa wrote in the book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism:
. . .
What if the Self is a fiction of the hypothalamus? - Chase Twitchell
Chase Twitchell is also a Buddhist. She writes, "Life is suffering. Full of craving, we try to cling to illusion, the flux. What we experience as our “self’ is a mental projection, a changeable idea; to see the world as it is, we must forget the self." Part of Twitchell's eduction in the mutability of self has been her very use of psychoactive drugs to treat her depression. Far from disqualifying her from being a bona fide practitioner, the drugs have given her the opportunity to shape-shift along with the shape-shifting properties of the drugs themselves.
Experiencing the freefall of shapeshifting is powerful bardo or "in between state", it is to experience the space between life and death, the place of groundlessness - and thus potential liberation from ego or self-clining.
. . .
Forget the smart drugs and supplements; put on your shorts and go exercise.
I'd like to speak to the power of meditation. Like the advice in the quote above (I forgot the source of it) directed to those who suffer depression, meditation is another just do it remedy. Not that every session of meditation necessarily relieves pain, but practice seems to always shift confusion toward clarity. Not only that, but meditation effects our chi, our life force. Chogyam Trungpa gave many lungta (Tibetan: lung means wind, or chi; ta mean horse, as in steady and grounded) practices, all forms of meditation or meditation-in-action that rouse chi. Esoterically it is understood that chi or lung rides on the nadis, the subtle channels of the body. This "subtle body" is itself a state of non-duality, free from depression. Meditation allows us experience of our subtle body. This, combined with the power of meditation to reveal the transparency of thoughts, provides a powerful contrast to the normal state of depression
"Meditation" has come to mean much more to me than what it used to. Among other things, it means not just sitting (and other forms of meditation) but yoga, qigong and other active body practices. My morning session is a bit like putting on my shorts and exercising. When I practice during cycles of depression - and I do practice - depression becomes transparent and non-existant, like clouds burned off by sun. This experience remains sometimes for a few hours, sometimes several, sometimes all day.
For me, meditation reveals that depression itself is two people. One is the Liar, the purveyor of severe and baseless self-criticisms and suicidal ideations. The other "person" is our ability in awareness to recognize depression for what it is, a challenging but non-toxic from of low-energy, something that is in fact true to life's inevitable cycles and is in itself intensely grounding. Inhabiting the latter person conques the first.
But even the Liar has a value: it has taught me to expand my range of compassion, to understand that I actually go through such painful moments, and so do millions of others.