“I will be lost and unlost, over
and over again, relax love. You
were meant to be this glorious.
– Nayyirah Waheed
Ever felt a bit like Dante in his infamous Inferno –“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.”? – He doesn’t remember how he lost his true path but he’s wandered into a fearful place, a dark and tangled valley. As he attempts to climb up, out towards the light, a series of characters chase him back down into the wild, impenetrable wood. (It’s worth noting that Dante is about 35 years old at this juncture. You know, midlife.)
Maybe you can relate.
Acute existential depression (versus chronic or clinical depression) surfaces at various points in our lives as an angst, which isn’t “a bad thing to be cured.” Our feelings are to be felt, not solved. Feelings, even our most loud ones, have a lot of information. In a sense, feelings are messengers. This is especially so in periods of existential depression. When this form of depression finds you, you must ask yourself: what is the message, here for me now?
So often, our emotional literacy is tested in the times we find ourself in the dark and twisted woods, having lost our true path. What worked for us in the past, isn’t working for us now. Or, what we know might work, we can’t muster up the gumption to try. It’s a tough spot to find oneself in and one that we’d rather medicate, gloss over, or somehow erase due to the intensity of some less than good feelings. We fight it, failing to accept the dark cloud hanging over us, and failing to seek whatever silver lining may exist.
Our friend Parker Palmer, who shares his struggles with depression in his book Let Your Life Speak, tells us what his friend said to him when one of the dark seasons was moving in on his life: “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you,” his friend offered. “Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to the ground on which it is safe to stand?”
What if our existential depression is asking us to listen more closely to the nudges and whispers that we may have squashed or silenced in lieu of another, more assertive and reasonable voice? What if this dark and tangled wood is the place from which we reconnect with our true path? What if the message for us in the dark seasons is showing us what’s not working and what needs to change?
“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves,” Pema Chodron writes in When Things Fall Apart, “is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
To look at ourselves honestly and gently we can begin to see where we’re off track and where parts of ourselves are not aligned, where we’re out of integrity not only with others but primarily to ourselves. Sometimes, much like Dante’s adventure through the Inferno, this can feel like hell because we may have to look at some hard stuff in our life and psyche. To right ourselves means bringing our parts into alignment, to include the parts we’ve repressed, and welcome back parts we’ve abandoned. This includes our truest gifts and our essence, as well as the intense-feelings parts of our story that we’ve tried to splice off along the way.
“The opposite of play isn’t work,” asserts Stuart Brown, “It’s depression.”
And David Whyte tells us that sometimes, “The antidote to exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.”
Gabrielle Roth reminds us that “In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?”
What drags you down and drains your energy? What part of you keeps you from the thing you most want, and the thing that makes you feel most alive? What part of you has lost a sincere, unswerving commitment to your life? When did you stop laughing? How do you keep out the sweet territory of silence?
The turning begins when we true-up our inner and outer selves so as to live divided no more, as Jerry and Sally Spencer talk about in the most recent podcast conversation. Here, we become who we are meant to become, step by step, on the way of our true path. When we connect more deeply to ourselves and the quiet inner voice within. When we connect to our perceptible body more deeply. When we allow our whole self to show up completely, no matter what emotional weather pattern may be passing by.
When we lose our congruence within our self, we lose a connection not just to our inner world and our own presence, but we also lose the connection to the lifelines around us: our friends, relatives, community, the flora and fauna, the natural world. It’s as if the dark wood holds us down in a place that’s safe to stand, as wild and terrifying as it may have become, reminding us who we really are and what we’re here to do.
Like any great turning in our lives, we don’t know what it is until we’re past it. It’s a thing we find our way through by feeling our way into it. By getting quiet and listening to that still, inner voice, or the beatbeatwhisper of our heart, and trusting it. Or, perhaps like Dante, we can find a wise guide like Virgil to lead us through the Inferno. While these phases feel like rough patches we’d rather race through, busy ourselves through, or somehow forget, Sally Spencer notes from her own experience that sometimes you need to pause and get grounded, then ask what lessons are in front of you as you face struggles, feelings of helplessness, and existential experiences.
In those moments, how do we remember who we are is not what is happening to us, or where we are? There’s a still quiet voice who knows us and what we need and what we want. when we find ourselves lost in the dark woods, a key to our resiliency is to listen, closely, through the weather patterns. “You are the sky,” advises Pema Chodron. “Everything else is just the weather.”