Depression as a Path to Liberation

It’s easy to lose the path to liberation. How can you ever find it again if you’re busy walking another path in a different direction? Luckily, some disturbances in our lives stop us in our tracks, prevent us from continuing down a path that we have learned to walk, but which will not lead us to becoming who we are here to become.

Almost nothing is more effective at stopping us in our tracks than depression. Depression removes all distractions and forces you to give everything you’ve got to the task of finding your way back. There is always one of life’s biggest questions that your depression is compelling you to pay attention to.

Depression gets you thinking, obsessively so. The wrong kind of thinking keeps you stuck, but the right kind of thinking gets you to try new things. Trying new things is necessary to answer the question that depression is forcing you to answer. Answering that question will bring you closer to your true self. With depression as your guide, you can find your way home.

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Depression as a Path to Liberation
Steve Bearman
July 30, 2012

I seem to have lost the path to liberation again where, uh, there it is. God it is so easy to lose the path to liberation, I mean you are living a life where you’ve have been encouraged your entire life to walk some other kind of path that doesn’t lead you to the ultimate expression of your true self, then how can you find the path to liberation? You are committed to going some other way entirely. Fortunately, there are some disturbances in our lives that stop us in our tracks, that make it almost impossible for us to continue to walk down a path that’s not fruitful for us, and there is almost nothing that is more helpful in this capacity than depression. Depression can be a path to liberation. It's like the kind of wilderness that you have to cross, sometimes a desert or a tundra or an urban wasteland to find your way back to the path that was your birthright to walk but that you lost. Depression can be something that really serves liberation in a couple of different ways. One of them is that if you are depressed, you may have access to some states that people engage in hardcore spiritual practices for many years in order to be able to attain. You may have the ability to kind of shed your sense of things being meaningful. Most of us get caught up in thinking things are meaningful that really aren’t so important and have become attached to those. Well, if you are depressed you may lose all that, you may lose all those conventions and distractions so that you can kind of see through to the true emptiness of absolute reality and that is something that if you experience it as a state can help bring you toward a state of spiritual attainment. So already if are depressed you got something going, that’s really valuable, you don’t want to lose out on it. It’s like Adyashanti talks about meditation as “doing nothing time” and when you are depressed you can often get a lot of do nothing time. There is just, nothing seems like it matters and this is the second important way in which depression can actually support liberation. If you are depressed you are required to try to solve life’s most important problems. We have evolved these mechanisms as human beings because as humans we face very complex problems usually of a social nature. And in order to make ourselves single-minded in the pursuit of solutions to these problems, we have this wonderful mechanism that removes all distractions and causes us to obsessively ruminate about what's wrong, we can just think and think on it, and we can do that because distractions are eliminated, things that use to see meaningful don’t. Our motivation for things that we use to do is low or gone. Our sense of pleasure and things that we use to take pleasure in is also gone. And so really there is nothing that you want to be doing and all you can do is think on things because you are trying to solve these problems, and the questions that you are trying to solve are life’s biggest questions. There are questions like, “what is life all about, what is this for, why are you here, what kind of person are you meant to be, what is love, what is family, what are relationships for,” you have to find out what is really worth waking up for in the morning. It reminds me of this practice that occurs in Judaism when someone dies, when a close family member or a romantic partner dies, there is a practice called ‘sitting shiva’ for at least a week where people stop and do nothing, they just stay at home, you cover up all the mirrors, people don’t shower, there is no vanity, people tend to sit on hard surfaces or on the ground instead of in comfortable places so that they are really forced to just think on what it is that they have lost, to focus on the loss instead of allowing their attention to stray away from it. And so it gives people a chance to really fully grieve. And in depression often there is something like this too, often there is something, there is some change that’s happened, there is some loss, something that needs to be grieved. But mostly I mean this as a metaphor, depression causes you to focus and obsessively ruminate, to try to find the solution and the solution is usually in finding out just what's missing. I mean you have to figure out what exactly is the problem that you are trying to solve, what is the problem that your depression is removing all distractions to allow you to solve and the solution ends up being something like a recognition of what is fundamentally missing in your life. Often it's that you have to find your path, the things that you are doing, your work, your education, maybe are not your path but they are connected to your identity and so it's hard to part ways with them to find out what are you really about, what do you want to be here for. Often what you have to do is not just find your path but find your people, you need to be able to somehow strip away all the pretense that guides most of our human relationships to be able to establish real intimacy that maybe deeply missing in your life. It maybe that there is some other kind of inhibition that you need to be able to get free of so that you can try new things and new ways of being and not be so constrained by your old identity. To be able to do this, you have got to think on the problem hard enough to find the solution but there are some kinds of thinking that help and some that don’t. Here is what helps. What helps is when you try to figure out: what's wrong now? When you focus on what's wrong now it means you can start to think about what now could you do differently that would make a difference and that will tend to get you in action and it will get you trying new things and that’s what ultimately moves you closer to the path you want to walk. The wrong kind of thinking is thinking about what went wrong in the past, what could you have done differently, it's what's called counter-factual thinking, if only I had done this then this bad thing wouldn’t have happened and I need to make sure not to do that again so bad things don’t ever happen to me again and that causes avoidance behavior, it stops us from doing things and keeps us stuck where we are so the right kind of thinking is about what's wrong now and what else could you do to change the way that you are being in the present. Ultimately that is what's required, you have to be able to do things differently. If you like to learn more about this you should Google the “analytical rumination hypothesis,” it’s a wonderful new theory about the evolutionary adaptive function of depression that I have just described. The goal here is not to feel better, feeling better may be a side effect of the goal, but for the time being the goal is often to feel bad enough that you have no choice but to change, unless you feel bad enough, you will keep doing the easy thing that you have learned to do, because you have developed an identity, an ego, a sense of who you are and who you are suppose to be, either one that was given to you by your family and by the world, they said this is who you should be or one that you developed as a strategy for getting by or surviving when you needed it. But in order to become who you are meant to be you have to be able to break that identity open to become free, to become who it is that you are here to be in this life. Let depression help guide you there so you can walk the path.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.