I’m grateful to Dr. Henry Emmons for introducing me to this concept. I think that it could as readily be applied to any type of emotionally difficult situation – an illness, a loss, a transition. I think it would be very worthwhile to think about how to put this into some type of conscious practice, so I’m sharing it whenever I have the opportunity.
Theologian Marcus Borg talks about the Celtic concept of thin places. Those are the times in life when the situations or places in which we find ourselves contrive to open us up so that the Divine might enter. It is when one becomes more permeable than usual, more open to the forces of love, enlightenment or spirit. Depression can be such a thin place.
In the more intense stages of depression, it is unlikely that one could notice something as subtle as this. When the pain is too strong, one tends to contract around it and there are few openings for the sacred to enter. But in the early stages of recovery, there can be such permeability. As the contraction releases, there is then the possibility of being able to receive light, even if it remains dark within. For them, it is as if the experience of depression has so shaken their foundation, so thoroughly emptied them, that perhaps there is no other way to respond but to open themselves anew.
What might be done to try to encourage this permeability? One thing is not to rush too quickly back to life as usual. Most of the time, it is life as usual that has played a role in creating the depression. This does not mean that one should stay depressed any longer than need be—that is unnecessary and unwise. But it may be wise just to pay attention to yourself, especially your heart, as you are recovering. You may find that there is a time of tenderness, as if you have been tenderized by the encounter with depression, and the heart has been softened and cracked open ever so slightly.
This would be an excellent time to practice loving-kindness toward yourself, both in meditation and through action. It is also a time to let others practice kindness towards you. Allow friends to call upon you, to give you expressions of love or caring, to be generous towards you. Accept it gratefully. Often, others don’t know what to do or how to respond to one who is depressed. If that is true in your life, think about it a bit, and be willing to tell them what you would like, what you would find most helpful. Author and educator Parker Palmer tells the story of a most helpful visitor who spoke little but sat with Parker during his depression and rubbed his feet. That gesture and the connecting power of touch did a great deal to keep Parker going through his darkest times.
This thin place is also a time to practice forgiveness—actively practice it—and to begin with yourself. Direct compassion toward yourself, and invite it and accept it from others. It is the natural and good response. The Divine expresses itself through the good hearts and actions of living beings, including you. Hold open the possibility that deep healing may come from the experience. This can be encouraged by practicing awareness, even awareness of pain or the need for healing. The soul is a tender and sensitive thing. Before coming out with new growth, it can feel raw and painful. But it may be ready to be unencumbered, unfettered. It may be readying you for joy.
If that is so, then depression can be a turning point. It can be stimulus for listening again, asking for help or guidance and then actually listening for an answer.
One of the most compelling images in the spiritual literature is that of one who has wandered in the desert but eventually finds the way home. The desert can be seen as a metaphor for suffering, and home a symbol of joy and belonging. Depression is surely a desert experience. But what is on the other side of it?
It is not perfection that we seek. It is fuller growth into who we truly are, and that is no goal at all, really. It simply ask us us to be here now, fully in this life in each moment, mind and heart aligned in wholeheartedness. It is so simple, really, what we are called to be and do. It is just as easy as being our Selves in every moment and every circumstance. It is to live, as fully and joyfully as we can, each moment capable of giving and receiving, loving and being loved, caring and being cared for, healing and being healed.
Do not fret or feel insufficient when you find that there are further lessons to learn, or when you develop an illness or misalignment that needs healing, or when you feel the need to be loved or cared for by another. This is a never-ending journey, for there is always more that you can be. Joyfulness is available to you at every step, not so much as a goal that you are moving toward, but as a pleasing companion along the journey.
Dr. Henry Emmons is the author of The Chemistry of Joy. He is the founder of the Resilience Training Program offered at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
I loved this interview with Parker Palmer, which was also referenced in Henry’s notes above. If you, or someone you love, has struggled with depression, this is definitely worth a listen.
Palmer draws on his own experience with clinical depression for his analyis. Parker believes depression, for a society and for an individual, presents an opportunity to find a workable reality:
I got tremendous help from a therapist at one point — in one of my depressions — who said to me, “Parker, you seem to keep treating this experience as if depression were the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to re-image depression as the hand of a friend trying to press you down to ground on which it’s safe to stand?” Well, those words didn’t mean much to me immediately because when you’re there, you can’t hear that kind of counsel. But they grew on me, those words did.
Link to Parker Palmer’s interview on the topic of depression, Krista Tippett (NPR’s Speaking of Faith)