Charles Darwin’s depression left him “not able to do anything one day out of three,” choking on his “bitter mortification.” He despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family. “The ‘race is for the strong,’ ” Darwin wrote. “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”
New York Times
Recently, I noticed that I was lethargic, frequently irritated, and found most thoughts of the future unappealing. At first, I was sure the circumstances were the cause. If you look closely enough at any situation, flaws can be found and fears justified. Some studies have shown that people diagnosed as depressed do, in fact, see things more clearly.
Unfortunately, I was not reacting to better evidence. I noticed that I was waking up into this mood, that even pleasant experiences offered only brief distraction from the dark curtain of depression waiting to envelope me. The problem was not “out there;” it was something in me.
This was a frightening realization. I have lost a great deal of time to the conversation called “depression.” I thought I had left it far in my past but here it was, consuming my present. Was I returning to the abyss?
A steady state of this sort is an example of equilibrium. … equilibrium is not a situation in which nothing is happening, but rather a situation in which opposing reactions are taking place at the same rate, so as to result in no over-all change.
–Double Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling
in General Chemistry page 33
I tried exercising, relaxing with family, getting things done, organizing my desk, watching comedy (à la Norman Cousins), and writing for this blog. Nothing helped for long.
I called a close friend to ask for his help. He said, “I just finished teaching a yoga class, so I am dripping with sweat and eager to get into the shower. We can talk more later, but for now I’ll tell you something you know but need to hear:
What you resist persists.
“Yeah, I know that. What do I do with it?”
“Do you remember the exercise we did at the ashram, where you just sit with someone and ‘Report out’ what your experience is? The other person doesn’t try to fix or change anything, they just listen and ‘get’ what is going on with you.”
“Right, co-listening.” All the listener says is, “Tell me, please, what you are experiencing.” It’s a way to let yourself be the way you are, to answer the knock at the door instead of being quiet and pretending you are not at home until the unwelcome visitor goes away. Throw the door open, say, “Hello,” and invite them in. Otherwise, you never know when they’ll come back and start knocking again. “You have to speak to an actual person,” my friend reminded me. “I tried it with a tree, but it doesn’t work.”
“I know. There’s something magical in admitting truths about yourself to a person and having that person acknowledge them, without judgment. You have to get out of your own head. I always expect to be able to work things out myself, without ‘bothering’ anyone else. I’ve learned that the inside of my head is too small and there is definitely not enough light. I need to get stuff out so I can see it and have room to work.”
“I would be happy to listen but I can’t do it for a day or two. Let me know if you want to schedule something.”
I did not, of course, schedule a time. I was still too busy resisting being “depressed.”
I later telephoned a fellow coach and recounted this conversation. He said, “I’ve never heard of co-listening. How is it different from the ‘clearing conversations’ we did at Landmark Education?”
Always eager to articulate a distinction, I started to reply, then paused to consider. “It’s no different.”
“Well, okay! I can do that. Ready to clear?”
I adjusted my headset, turned away from the computer, and settled into my chair. I started to say I was “tired,” but recognized that as an assessment, a subjective opinion anchored in my personal evaluation of life experiences. What was the physical sensation that led me to adopt the label “tired?” “My eyelids feel heavy and want to close. My eyes are burning a little.”
He suggested, “Can you let your eyes close?”†
“OK,” I let my lids fall. I described the tension in my lower neck, the pain in my temples, the thoughts about work undone, contracts unsigned, projects incomplete. I spoke of fears and circumstances, misbehavior by others, regrets and losses. I scanned my body again and reported less of a headache, relaxed shoulders, and eyes comfortably open. I took some deep breaths. I talked about more concerns, repeating some and laughing at others. I got tired of my drama and felt more energy in my limbs. The lights in the room seemed brighter, the colors more appealing. I recognized that I had passed through another period of “depression.” I had been talking no more than five or ten minutes.
I went on to have a productive and happy day. I was energetic right until my head hit the pillow. The next few days were the same. It was as if all the energy and attention I had been putting into resisting the mood were reassigned to living my life.
I have had this experience of resistance and persistence followed by allowing and dissolving many times. Still, my automatic response is to push back, reject, and persevere “on top of” rather than let the emotion wash over me like a wave. Too often, I push back against the wave until the pressure is so great I must fall. I still need good people nearby to see me clearly, to listen, to coach me.
As do you.
Heat plus fuel results in either a warming fire or a destructive bomb. Burning fuel must expand. Any barriers to natural expansion contribute to the explosion.
Bigger barriers = bigger bomb.
The danger comes not from the contents, but from the resistance of the container.
It may seem that my listener was not honoring the process when he asked, “Can you let your eyes close?” The strict process is to keep an impassive expression and, if the speaker pauses too long, to ask again, “Tell me, please, what you are experiencing.” This is the simplest instruction and works best for untrained people pairing off in a workshop. More experienced coaches, as my friend is, remember that the role of the listener includes bringing the speaker back to their immediate experience. Helpful questions may include:
- Describe the pain.
- Is it sharp or dull?
- Where exactly is it?
- If it had a color what color would it be?
- If the pain were a container how much water would it hold?
- Is it larger now or smaller?
- Is it hot or cold?
Permission and encouragement can also be helpful:
- You can move if you like. Would you like to lie down?
- It’s okay to cry (scream, swear, pound the table, etc.). Let it out.
- I see. I know what you mean.
- You don’t have to do anything except keep talking.
- Stay with me.
The role of the listener, in a sentence, is to experience the speaker exactly as they are in the moment without attempting to change, repair, cure, or in any way judge him or her. This acceptance by the listener helps the speaker to accept his or her self.
The full experience of a negative emotion is the funeral pyre of that emotion.
Nothing above is intended to discount the value of therapy or psychiatric help; I’ve seen results from both over the years. Just don’t forget the power of simple human connection through generous listening.
See also The Irony of Positive Thinking on this blog for some fascinating Harvard research supporting this technique.