Stop doing that thing you keep doing

Our favorite analogy is the cork that bobs on the surface of the water. And when you hold it under the water, it is unnatural. It is natural for you to let go of it, and it is natural for it to bob. But when you take hold of a thought that does not feel good, and the negative emotion sweeps over you, you remain in an unnatural state for as long as you hold your attention upon it. – Abraham Hicks

I’ve been keeping a journal or notebook for a number of years now, where I write down the problems I’m dealing with and try to analyse them, look for solutions, or just get some perspective on them.

I’ve been doing this for a while but I wasn’t sure how long until today, when I found an old notebook from my Honours year in philosophy back in 2003, full of the kinds of personal musings and reflections that have since filled many notebooks and scraps of paper.

I opened it by chance to 19/03/2003 the exact day that I realised I was actually depressed, and had been for a long time. Up to that point I’d assumed everyone felt kinda the same way, and my personal struggles were just part of a bigger spiritual reality we all face.

The notes are so familiar. I wish I could say that they weren’t; yet the style and content barely changed in the 16 years that followed: analysing fears, worries, tension, hypervigilance, and trying to reconcile it all with the spiritual ideas that captivated me.

16 years of trying to work it all out, the frustration showing again and again but always returning to square one, as if I could make sense of it all…if only I could find the right question!

I get the feeling my life improved over those 16 years despite rather than because of my obsessive attempts to find an answer.

Because although every line of my past writing strives toward a satisfying conclusion that is never final, the truly lasting impression is in the tone.

It’s negative. Negatively framed, because I’m always trying to escape from misery and suffering; negatively directed because I’m unflinchingly self-critical lest I make the mistake of going easy on myself and shrinking from “hard truths”; and negatively realised because it never ever ended.

16 years of self-analysis and reflection didn’t arrive at an answer, but they did lend my negative thoughts powerful momentum.

Don’t go digging

One of the challenging messages of the Abraham Hicks material was that we aren’t well served by going digging for answers, focusing on our problems, or revisiting painful subjects.

This makes sense if you consider that our goal is to come into alignment with our inner being, the presence of God within us, and God doesn’t focus on unwanted conditions past, present, or future, real or only worried about.

Further, whatever we focus on becomes active in the filtering and creating of our reality. The more I focused on my suffering and misery, the more my suffering and misery persisted.

In the past year and a half I’ve been reading the Abraham Hicks material and using it to become less of a pessimist, and to actually enjoy my life. Yet my desire to “dig in” and analyse obstacles and problems persisted.

It’s slowly grown weaker, and finding this 16 year old notebook has given me the opportunity to see how little the analysis and “problem-solving” really contributed, other than to perpetuate itself.

The irony is that I don’t have better answers to the questions my past self was asking. I never did find the answers I was looking for. But I’ve quickly realised it wasn’t about the questions or the answers, but the awful and depressing thoughts I was so intently focused on.

Stop doing that thing you do

Abraham uses the analogy of a cork floating in the water to describe our emotional state. We would be bobbing happily at the surface, if only we didn’t focus on things that hold our cork under water.

If we aren’t finding alignment and appreciation in our lives, then we are doing something, maybe a couple of somethings, that keeps us from feeling better.

I’d often wondered what I was doing. I probably even wrote it down in hopes of finding the answer. I think I know now what it was!

So I’m going to set an intention to no longer repeat, rehearse, or reiterate problems and negative points of view, especially not to write them out and give them so much attention.

That in itself is a very encouraging and hopeful thought: that I have learned something after all. Not simply another run through the cycle of analysis and flawed conclusions, but a substantial change that brings relief and helps me feel better.

The Emotional Guidance Scale

One of the most useful tools in the Abraham Hicks material is the EGS or Emotional Guidance Scale.

The idea is that our emotions provide guidance as to how well aligned our thoughts are with the perspective of our inner being.

In Christian terms, if we accept that God is love and God’s providence rules all things, then we will find love, peace, and joy growing within us as we embrace God’s loving will in our lives.

The EGS

In the Abraham Hicks system, our emotions exist on a scale or spectrum from despair, depression, fear, at the bottom, to joy, love, and appreciation at the top.

So far so good, but what makes the EGS especially valuable is that it plots other points in unexpected ways.

For example, insecurity is one step higher than fear and depression. Jealousy is another step higher, hatred or rage is above that.

If you worked your way up the scale starting at fear, you might go through hatred, revenge, anger, blame, worry, doubt, disappointment, all the way up to boredom, before arriving at the tipping point of contentment.

This is significant because many of us have been taught that these negative emotions are bad or wrong. We often find ourselves feeling fear, but resisting the shift into jealousy, hatred, anger, or blame even though they are higher up the scale.

That’s not to say that blame is a good place to be, but it’s a much better place than hatred or depression. Blaming others when you are depressed feels like relief.

But too often we get to something like anger and immediately shut it down, telling ourselves that anger is wrong, that it’s better to be depressed than angry.

Of course you’re not meant to go out and act on your jealousy, anger, revenge, or hatred any more than you should act on your fear and depression.

It’s enough to recognise that these unpleasant emotions are nonetheless a step in the right direction. Allow yourself to feel anger if that brings relief, and know that it’s not permanent.

Working with the EGS

We can use the EGS to identify where we are on any given subject, and then find thoughts that feel like relief, noticing how that relief takes us up the scale towards the more aligned emotions.

For example, if you feel depressed and powerless on the subject of not having a job, it’s because your thoughts on this subject are out of alignment with the providential, loving perspective of your inner being.

You might be thinking something like “I’ll never amount to anything” while your inner being is thinking something like “everything is working out perfectly”.

But it’s not easy to go from thinking “I’m useless” every day for twenty years to then thinking “everything is perfect” consistently.

That’s a big leap and not easy to maintain.

Instead you might go just one step higher to a thought like “I have no idea what I’m going to do”.

It’s not a happy thought, but it’s a little better than “I’ll never amount to anything” because at least it admits uncertainty. So it might feel like insecurity rather than depression or despair.

With practice it’s possible to work up the scale quite quickly, though I have no idea how long it takes other people.

Our next thought that brings relief might be jealousy at all those people out there who have found their calling or easily arrived at enjoyable, fulfilling, or lucrative careers.

Don’t shoot down the jealousy. Accept it as a source of relief, of feeling “less bad” and then see if you can find another thought that brings further relief.

It won’t necessarily be hatred/rage, nor revenge. It’s okay to naturally skip some emotions.

Anger might be the next point of relief. You might find relief and energy in angry thoughts at the economy, the education system, your past choices. You might angrily think “this sucks, I hate this situation” and although it’s not a good feeling it’s already much better than insecurity or despair.

Blame

It feels good to blame others, but we’re frequently told it’s unhealthy and fruitless.

Well it is if we never move on from blame, but too often people never pass through blame on their own. They get to blame and then tell themselves (or are emphatically told) “stop blaming other people for your choices, take responsibility for your own life!”

But if you find some relief in blame, then blame your heart out. You could blame the economy for taking away your job or not offering more prospects. You can blame your education for not preparing you for the current workforce. You could blame your parents for undermining your youthful passions and hobbies. You could blame the government, blame your country, blame your third grade teacher, blame your family for holding you back.

Problems only arise when people act on blame, or when they refuse to take the next emotional step towards relief.

We’ve all met people who like to tell everyone about their blame. They blame their ex, their boss, their parents, their more-successful siblings and so on.

The problem isn’t the blame, the problem is that they refuse to move on.

What comes after blame?

It might be worry. Some people recount that after wallowing in blame for a while they realised that blaming others wasn’t making their life any better. Maybe they went into worry?

Or maybe we can move from blame into doubt? Doubting that it really was other people’s fault, doubting that we really know what made our life turn out the way it did, doubt that blaming people is getting you anywhere.

Again, moving from blame into doubt might seem counter-intuitive because blame offers certainty whereas doubt sounds very uncertain.

But that uncertainty is also more open to possibilities, less fixed in telling the same old story about how your evil step-sister screwed you out of your inheritance and that’s where your life took a wrong turn.

Or maybe even doubt that things are as bad as you thought. Maybe you meet people or hear of others in your exact circumstances who’ve made things work, or perhaps you notice that you have more to be thankful for than you first considered.

Follow relief, not the scale

In my opinion it’s not the best approach to try to feel everything on the scale. The whole point of the scale is to help us recognise that relief is taking us somewhere, and that is up the scale. It’s to reassure us that anger or jealousy or blame are not permanent locations but just a section of the path to appreciation and joy and feeling genuinely good.

If we keep looking for thoughts that bring relief we will eventually find ourselves closing the gap between how we see the world and the providential, loving perspective of our inner being.

At the heart of the Abraham Hicks material is the observation that whatever we desire, we desire it because we think we will feel better when we have it. But it is not having things that makes us feel better, it is alignment with our own inner being, God’s presence within us.

Yet life is not static, it is expanding. Our desires expand, and the perspective of our inner being expands with it. To stay in alignment is not an act of standing still or clinging to a single definitive answer.

If we find the answer, life will give us a new question. Alignment is therefore dynamic, and keeping up with it is the nature of the work.

Looking back at my own life, I thought alignment was static. I thought there was a single unchanging answer that I needed to find, and I grew despondent and discouraged as each time I found the answer turned out to be insufficient or temporary.

It’s like wanting to own the most powerful gaming computer available. You could do all your research, write down the specs, but if you wait too long before ordering it’ll no longer be cutting edge.

Our happiness is cutting edge, or leading edge in Abraham Hicks jargon. We have to keep up with it, and it’s said that the real satisfaction and joy lies precisely in the keeping up.

Alignment is a moving target, but hitting a moving target is more fun and more satisfying than hitting the same old target again and again.

 

Choosing how we feel

Having the attitude that “everything is perfect exactly as it is” feels good.

For melancholics in particular it may be an expression of providence: the knowledge that all things are working towards the good.

If all things are working towards the good, and we know it, then it follows that everything is perfect exactly as it is.

Not perfect in the sense that it is complete, but perfect in the sense that we are where we are meant to be, everything is as it is meant to be.

This isn’t a question of judgement or assessment, it’s about attitude and feeling.

If you have the attitude of recognising everything is perfect as it is, then you will feel that everything is perfect as it is.

And by contrast, if you don’t feel good, you must be thinking or believing that not everything is perfect.

We see this reflected in the story of the fall of man. Genesis tells us of everything God created “and God saw that it was good”.

Everything was good, and the first humans lived in paradise, right up until the moment they accepted the serpent’s contention that things were not perfect after all.

The first humans heeded the serpent’s doubt, and that was the cause of their fall.

False beliefs as choice

If we don’t feel good, then we must not be thinking that all is perfect as it is.

For years I sought to identify such thoughts and correct them. Talk myself out of my fears and worries and doubts.

But although it can be helpful to change such beliefs, it isn’t necessary to convince ourselves that they are false, or to try to work out the truth.

Otherwise there is potentially no end to all the little beliefs that would need correcting.

Instead we can view these bad-feeling thoughts not as the cause of our unhappiness but as reflections or elaborations of a bad-feeling focus.

For example, a depressed person can come up with many negative thoughts that match the feeling of depression and hopelessness.

These thoughts aren’t necessarily stored up in our heads, rather we uncover or create more and more of them to match our depressed focus.

Sometimes changing a belief or thought changes our focus as well, but it’s not always the most effective way to feel better.

By contrast a change in focus will always cause us to feel better (or worse depending on what we focus on).

It is possible to recognise that when we don’t feel good, we are harbouring an attitude of doubt or fear instead of an attitude that everything is perfect.

With practice we can actually change our focus from a bad feeling state to a good feeling one, without having to argue with or analyse or reprogram our thoughts.

Before thought

In the Abraham Hicks material, thought and “vibration” are used interchangably. They might just as well have used the word “spirit” but that it is too loaded with preconceptions.

Our verbalised thoughts and beliefs are expressions or elaborations of the “vibration” we are focused on. We translate this vibration into thought, and it is further reflected in our feelings and then our external circumstances.

An analogy from the Abraham Hicks material is that of a radio dial that controls the frequency our radio is tuned to. If you change the frequency (vibration) you receive different signals (thoughts).

Learning to control our focus in this way is superior to trying to argue with ourselves or debate our thoughts in hopes of shifting that dial. You could petition a classical station to play more jazz, but it’s more effective just to turn the dial until you find a station where jazz is already playing.

Choosing to feel good

I initially struggled with the idea of ignoring things that feel bad, or getting off difficult subjects.

My negative feelings were heavy and persistent, so I assumed I needed something equally firm and concrete to dislodge them.

But feeling good is light and easy. You don’t need to dislodge or destroy bad feelings, just stop focusing on them and they’ll dissipate.

I’m coming around to the idea that I don’t need to prove to myself (or others) that everything is perfect as it is, because this attitude just feels really really good.

I don’t need to logically or even illogically convince myself that fears and doubts are unwarranted, because I’ve gradually accepted through experience that it feels much better to feel good than to feel bad, and it seems that I can choose to focus in ways that feel good rather than feeling bad.

So whatever issue seems to conflict with “everything is perfect exactly as it is” can be deactivated. I can simply focus back on perfection and ease in the same way that I can relax a tense muscle.

We are the ones who determine the contents of our own minds by virtue of what we focus upon. For most of us this is only a theoretical control, but with practice it can become actual.

The ideal is to be able to feel good, find relief, soothe ourselves by choosing where we focus, and thereby create a happier and more fulfilling reality for ourselves and become part of a happier and more fulfilling reality for others.

Fixing a melancholic

Harry Potter is an excellent allegory for how a melancholic engages with the world.

The contrast between “normal” life and the melancholic search for meaning is wonderfully depicted in the revelation that a secret world of witches, wizards, and magic exists alongside, but carefully hidden from the muggles.

The quick derogatory explanation that Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin are muggles – that the whole of Harry’s small world up to that point is a muggle world – immediately validates Harry’s deep dissatisfaction with life.

Breaking a melancholic

Melancholics correspond to the MBTI types ENFP, INFP, INFJ, and ENFJ. The combination of intuition and feeling typifies the melancholic temperament.

For NFJs, feeling is externally oriented, seeking harmony with others. For NFPs, feeling is internally oriented – arguably the most mysterious and introverted of the cognitive functions.

INFPs have introverted Feeling (Fi) as our dominant function. It’s hard to describe, but imagine your feeling state dominating your conscious experience prior to, and seemingly independent of, any other aspect of experience.

Imagine watching a movie with an intense soundtrack that dominates and overwhelms everything else, including dialogue and visuals.

This soundtrack is inescapable.

The health of an INFP might be viewed as a function of the coherence between the soundtrack and the rest of the movie. If the two don’t match, there is dissonance that reverberates through the score, and the INFP is then caught in a feedback loop where the only option is to shut down, retreat, sleep it off.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to live “normally”, while the soundtrack plays heavy, leaden themes that wear me down. The thought of living a “normal” life….the thought that a normal life is all that there is, all that is possible, is deeply destructive.

The soundtrack of introverted feeling informs me constantly that this is not what I want. But through my formative experiences and my subsequent worldview I’ve persisted in this unwanted direction.

Suppressing the dominant function

A dominant function can’t be truly suppressed in the sense of eradicating it. But if a soundtrack continues long enough in monotonous tones of protest, you can learn to ignore it for the most part.

The functional stack of an INFP is introverted Feeling (Fi) , extroverted Intuition (Ne), introverted Sensing (Si), and extroverted Thinking (Te).

Learning to ignore my Fi, I turned to the lesser functions and tried to live through Ne, Si, and Te.

This matches the common experience of neglecting one’s dominant function in favour of the inferior function, a stage of life that IIRC corresponds to the 20s-30s.

My inferior function of extroverted Thinking is all about efficiency and goals. Te-dominant people revel in achievements and outcomes; but Te in the inferior position is a far more modest and limited version.

Ignoring my Fi, I tried to view life through the lens of Te. This translated into a very uneasy, irritable and stressful form of goal-directed motivation, and an intense, acute, but wearying analytical mindset.

I describe this as a “problem-solving” attitude to life. At one stage I even looked to problem-solving as a possible strength or “vocation” in life. But problem-solving didn’t leave me with any lasting solutions. I could critique and analyse and deconstruct, but it wasn’t fulfilling, and it wasn’t creative.

Rehabilitating introverted Feeling

What I’ve been working towards (now that there’s nowhere else to go) is the rehabilitation of Fi.

Positive-thinking has been instrumental and life-changing in this respect; it might be more accurate to call it “positive-feeling” since how I feel is the first indicator and measure of the thoughts I am thinking.

But the goal-oriented mindset has been deeply ingrained in me. I even approached “feeling better” from a goal-oriented, problem-solving perspective.

Yesterday I realised that like everything else, engaging in a problem-solving attitude doesn’t bring me lasting solutions, it just attunes me to further problems. If I really loved solving problems, the good news is that there is no end to the available problems to solve.

But since a problem-solving attitude is wearying and detrimental and ultimately unsatisfying, it’s time for me to find something else.

Enjoying life

You can try to enjoy life as the solution to a problem, or to achieve the goal of “feeling better”. But to really change, I have to stop trying to solve problems or achieve goals and instead start enjoying life for the sake of enjoyment.

The difference is profound. Seeking to enjoy life tunes me in to all the things I can enjoy. It lets me forget about “keeping score” with whatever problems I’ve been trying to solve or goals I’ve been trying to achieve.

I feel physically different, because ignoring Fi introduced unnecessary tension into my mind and body, and employing Te was an additional effort.

I can honestly say that in the past 20 or so years I haven’t “let go” of that problem-solving attitude except for occasional instances of revelry or relaxation.

20+ years of internal conflict, unnecessary effort, and unremitting tension come to an end when I choose to enjoy rather than solve, and appreciate rather than answer.

I feel rejuvenated, because I’m judging by different criteria now. The considerations and concerns of extroverted thinking don’t matter at all to introverted feeling. At most, they’re my fourth priority instead of my first.

Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

Enlightenment and Depression

So…if your sense of self is really just a bunch of thoughts and impressions created by your mind – or more profoundly: the mind, Buddha-nature, God, consciousness, Brahman – then doesn’t that mean experiences of negative mental states like anxiety and depression are also products of this same mind?

All thoughts and impressions come from the same place. So although on the relative level your depression can be viewed as your reaction to negative life-events, on the absolute level there is no difference between “you” and “your reaction”. Both are products of mind.

Which is pretty weird, if you think about it.

It’s as if you’re a character in a story, and you think the things that befall you are due to your beliefs and choices and actions. But in fact both you and all the circumstances in and around you are created by the author. You have no control, because “you” are just another part of what is being written.

So when “you” start thinking about this, it’s not as though “you” are exercising your autonomy and control over your thoughts and circumstances. It means the author has gone from writing “you – who doesn’t think about this stuff” to writing “you – now thinking about this stuff and realising how weird it is”.

Likewise, these mental states like depression and anxiety; it’s not that “you” suddenly become afflicted by anxiety or depression. There’s no central, coherent, unified “you” who suffers those states. Instead the author has gone from writing “you without depression” to writing “you with depression”. If the depression stops, it will be because the author is now writing “you with depression stopping and feeling relieved about it”.

So what’s going on? Is the author an arsehole? Why is he or it inflicting so much suffering on everyone?

Well, the weird thing is that there is no “everyone” on whom suffering is inflicted.

There are temporary thoughts and impressions, some of which contain the belief that there is an “everyone” who is suffering.

But there are other temporary thoughts and impressions that recognise all thoughts and impressions as coming from the same place.

The thoughts that are full of suffering only think they are full of suffering. They aren’t actually full of suffering.

In other words, if you are depressed, but you then recognise that all thoughts and impressions come from the same place, then it’s not that you would stop being depressed, but that the “you” who feels assailed by depression would no longer be a separate, distinct, enduring entity who can be assailed by things like depression.

If the author writes a character experiencing depression, it’s not as though he first writes the character and then assails them with depression. No, the author writes the character-with-depression as one thing. Then later he writes the character-after-depression as another thing. There’s no actual, continuous character who exists from beginning to end and is assailed by depression, then recovers from it.

Moment by moment, our thoughts and impressions are coming from the same place. They don’t linger. Like the frames in a movie. Some objects in a movie scene might appear to stay still while others, like the actors, move around. But in reality we are seeing continuous individual frames. The sequence is composed of individual frames, and for an object just to remain static in place it must still be reproduced one frame at a time in every frame.

On the relative level we all have individual reasons for the negative mental states we experience. But on the absolute level, our negative mental states are all due to one thing: we mistake the “self” of our thoughts and impressions for an actual entity.

But who commits that mistake? Isn’t it too a product of the same author?

This is why there is such ambivalence about the nature of delusion in Buddhism, and the nature of evil in Christianity. If God is all powerful, is he also responsible for the existence of evil?

One thing is clear: despite the ambivalence over causation, delusion will be overcome and evil will be vanquished. There is no ambivalence about the end. Delusion and enlightenment, evil and good, they are not viewed as equal and opposite pairs.

Depression is a horrible experience, but when we recognise that both the experience and the apparent subject of that experience are products of thoughts and impressions that arise from the same place, then both the suffering and the one who suffers are transcended. The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.

At the same time, there comes the realisation that even this realisation itself has come from the same place as all the other thoughts and impressions. The quality has changed, but not the source.

And at that moment there comes the realisation that this realisation too is coming from the same place – that the author is now writing himself into the story as the author. And everything it took to arrive at this point – all the suffering and confusion and striving and grasping and gradual realisation – that too was the author, writing everything.

And when it stops, when realisation is replaced with forgetfulness and the door closes once more and it feels like “you” have returned to normal…who do you think is doing that?

Low mood

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I’ve never been a fan of straightforward biological explanations for depression, but is anyone? I guess the idea that depression is “only” a result of neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain offers an immediate causal story for a bout of extremely low mood. Reading between the lines, maybe there has always been a certain clinical restraint in not saying to people “there’s probably an obvious or an overly convoluted cause, but it’s good enough for now if you treat it as purely bio-chemical.”

In the past I would have had no patience for such an approach. I would have wanted to identify the real-life causes as quickly and efficiently as possible. I don’t know if it is therefore a sign of maturity or simply a change in circumstances, but I now appreciate the merits of being able to identify this low mood as a discrete phenomenon worthy of some form of respect.

In other words, while I may indeed be able to trace the causative factors and do something to remedy them, I can also now recognise that the low mood itself is significant in its own right and deserves its own response. Knowing the causes – or that there are causes – does not negate the real symptoms of the low mood.

In Aquinas’ work, we can interpret depression as an extreme form of sorrow.  Sorrow is understood to be our natural response to a perceived evil. Evil in this case does not mean necessarily a moral or spiritual evil; it refers to anything the intellect interprets as bad, harmful, unwanted, and so on.

Aquinas’ discussion of the effects of sorrow show that “depression” is metaphorically apt as a kind of “pressing down” on the individual’s soul:

For a man is said to be depressed, through being hindered in his own movement by some weight. Now it is evident from what has been said above that sorrow is caused by a present evil: and this evil, from the very fact that it is repugnant to the movement of the will, depresses the soul, inasmuch as it hinders it from enjoying that which it wishes to enjoy. And if the evil which is the cause of sorrow be not so strong as to deprive one of the hope of avoiding it, although the soul be depressed in so far as, for the present, it fails to grasp that which it craves for; yet it retains the movement whereby to repulse that evil. If, on the other hand, the strength of the evil be such as to exclude the hope of evasion, then even the interior movement of the afflicted soul is absolutely hindered, so that it cannot turn aside either this way or that. Sometimes even the external movement of the body is paralyzed, so that a man becomes completely stupefied.

Aquinas held what we might now call a “holistic” view of mind and body, hence among his recommendations for the alleviation of sorrow we find both spiritual and physical remedies – contemplation of truth, warm baths, and wine.

But we also find in Aquinas the basic logic of modern psychological remedies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT teaches us to recognise negative thoughts that contribute to anxiety and depression, and to challenge those negative thoughts.

The experience of sorrow is dependent on the presence of some evil, and our perception of it.  CBT puts a greater emphasis on perception, armed with the knowledge that our perceptions of evil are often distorted, exaggerated, or overly pessimistic.  Aquinas was perhaps more focused on sorrow as a natural response to actual evils.

Either way, in my experience the causes of a low or depressed mood can be a mystery to the sufferer absent further self-examination. It might feel as though the low mood has come out of nowhere, but if one takes the opportunity to reflect on and summarise one’s circumstances, paying particular attention to one’s hopes and the sense of future options, the experience of debilitating sorrow might turn out to be quite natural and reasonable.

Nonetheless, I would not wish to imply that there are easy answers available. As Aquinas notes, this form of sorrow is particularly injurious and should not be taken lightly:

Of all the soul’s passions, sorrow is most harmful to the body. The reason of this is because sorrow is repugnant to man’s life in respect of the species of its movement, and not merely in respect of its measure or quantity, as is the case with the other passions of the soul. For man’s life consists in a certain movement, which flows from the heart to the other parts of the body: and this movement is befitting to human nature according to a certain fixed measure. Consequently if this movement goes beyond the right measure, it will be repugnant to man’s life in respect of the measure of quantity; but not in respect of its specific character: whereas if this movement be hindered in its progress, it will be repugnant to life in respect of its species.

What this means is that sorrow directly stifles our natural vigour. Where other afflictions might subvert or disturb us, sorrow crushes us to the very core.

In terms of remedies, then, Aquinas begins by quoting Aristotle:

“sorrow is driven forth by pleasure, both by a contrary pleasure and by any other, provided it be intense.”

I suspect this provides a rationale for various addictions: we seek a remedy in intense pleasures or distractions, even if they create other problems and renewed sorrows for us.

Aquinas goes on to examine weeping and tears as sources of relief:

Tears and groans naturally assuage sorrow: and this for two reasons. First, because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened. This is why men, burdened with sorrow, make outward show of their sorrow, by tears or groans or even by words, their sorrow is assuaged. Secondly, because an action, that befits a man according to his actual disposition, is always pleasant to him. Now tears and groans are actions befitting a man who is in sorrow or pain; and consequently they become pleasant to him. Since then, as stated above, every pleasure assuages sorrow or pain somewhat, it follows that sorrow is assuaged by weeping and groans.

“Secondly, because an action, that befits a man according to his actual disposition, is always pleasant to him.” I’m not really one for weeping and groans – heavy sighs perhaps? – but I have discovered that as a general rule if I am too depressed to write, I can always write about being depressed.

For his third remedy, Aquinas recommends the company of sympathetic friends:

When one is in pain, it is natural that the sympathy of a friend should afford consolation: whereof the Philosopher indicates a twofold reason (Ethic. ix, 11). The first is because, since sorrow has a depressing effect, it is like a weight whereof we strive to unburden ourselves: so that when a man sees others saddened by his own sorrow, it seems as though others were bearing the burden with him, striving, as it were, to lessen its weight; wherefore the load of sorrow becomes lighter for him: something like what occurs in the carrying of bodily burdens. The second and better reason is because when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure, as stated above. Consequently, since every pleasure assuages sorrow, as stated above, it follows that sorrow is mitigated by a sympathizing friend.

Not every depressed person has sympathetic friends available to them, which is in itself quite a depressing thought. However, there exist a plethora of online and real-life support groups and, in this country at least, government-subsidised counselling available to some extent. There are options if sympathetic friends are hard to come by.

For his fourth remedy, Aquinas recommends the contemplation of truth, quoting Augustine:

“It seemed to me that if the light of that truth were to dawn on our minds, either I should not feel that pain, or at least that pain would seem nothing to me.”

Contemplation of truth is a tricky one. As Aquinas notes, it is a pleasure with no corresponding sorrow. In fact it is considered the greatest pleasure for the connoisseur who develops a taste for it. At the same time, it is somewhat elusive and not easy for a beginner to find comfort in, especially while struggling with the other facets of depression.

And yet contemplation of truth is implicated in the kind of self-analysis that uncovers the causes of a person’s sorrow. Examining one’s life does lead to the consideration of the greater meaning and purpose to our existence, indeed to the very nature of our existence and hence to the kind of transcendent truths that Aquinas had in mind.

Ending on a softer note, Aquinas recommends sleep and baths – and by extension any physical restorative that can combat the depleting effects of sorrow.

It might seem a bit strange to put contemplation of truth neither first nor last in the list when it is clearly regarded as the supreme pleasure and greatest response to sorrow. This could be because contemplation is still an indirect response to sorrow, but I think it might also be because contemplation is such a difficult work in its own right, and Aquinas – perhaps being sensitive to the needs of the depressed individual – did not wish to utterly demoralise an already suffering and weakened person with a pious exhortation to a universal yet abstract remedy.

So he slips it in as the third of four remedies:

O sorrowful soul, have a bit of a cry, chat to a good friend, maybe consider the profound reality of existence, the transcendent metaphysical order, the incomprehensible mystery of divine love, or just skip ahead to a hot bath and a lie-down.

 

Creative dismay

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I would also have accepted ‘depression’ and ‘despair’, but dismay with its roots in the Latin exmagare “divest of power or ability” seems so much more fitting.

It’s a melancholic thing, I’m sure; and it goes in cycles: first the inspiration, striving to obtain the ideal. This effort is rewarded with success, and success is very pleasing but the ideal is still not obtained. Time passes and we feel the need to achieve success again in some small measure, but this time the effort is not inspired. All we can do is attempt to repeat the previous work as though following a formula, thinking “I’ve done it before, I can do it again”.

But it doesn’t work. You can’t repeat your success because you weren’t aiming for success in the first place, you were aiming for the ideal. Success for its own sake is no ideal. So there you are: both past success and inspiration fading away, increasingly desperate to resurrect some measure of that lost energy, and all you can do is create half-a-dozen scribbled ideas, attempts at writing that might seem plausible in theory but in practice only fill you with a sense of dismay – divested of power, inspiration, success, and the ideal.

The problem lies in trying to seize for ourselves the source of our creativity when in reality it cannot be controlled or held. Our work might be ‘creative’, but our role in the creative process is ultimately a receptive one. As the Yi Jing states:

There is a clearly defined hierarchic relationship between the two principles [Creative and Receptive]. In itself of course the Receptive is just as important as the Creative, but the attribute of devotion defines the place occupied by this primal power in relation to the Creative. For the Receptive must be activated and led by the Creative; then it is productive of good. Only when it abandons this position and tries to stand as an equal side by side with the Creative, does it become evil. The result then is opposition to and struggle against the Creative, which is productive of evil to both.

You can receive inspiration and follow ideals; you cannot create inspiration or lead an ideal. This creative dismay is a symptom of trying to lead the creative, to push and manipulate inspiration, typically in aid of some transient external goal. These transient external goals such as the desire to succeed, the fear of losing momentum in one’s work, the enjoyment of having one’s work published and read by an audience – they are ultimately vain and empty if there is nothing deeper to sustain them. To pursue success without ‘inner truth’ is a hopeless cause, as Confucius in his commentary on the Yi Jing notes:

The superior man abides in his room. If his words are well spoken, he meets with assent at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! If the superior man abides in his room and his words are not well spoken, he meets with contradiction at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! Words go forth from one’s own person and exert their influence on men. Deeds are born close at hand and become visible far away. Words and deeds are the hinge and bowspring of the superior man. As hinge and bowspring move, they bring honor or disgrace. Through words and deeds the superior man moves heaven and earth. Must one not, then, be cautious?

Dismay may signal the loss of creativity, but it also shows the path of return. By accepting the experience of dismay as a source of inspiration, we return to the role of the receptive principle, devoting ourselves once again to the role of the follower, devoted to the movements of creativity however it may lead.

Yet it is worth remembering how this whole lesson came about: through the superficial and ultimately vain desire to once again succeed at writing, coupled with the fear of losing momentum, becoming unproductive, and falling behind. These fears and desires have never before instigated success in my writing. Desperation has had little bearing on inspiration. It is important therefore to remain objective about writing: both the process and the prospects. To go two or three weeks without an article will not be the end of the world; at the same time a hurried and desperate composition might even detract from my existing body of work. At the same time, I should not ignore the deeper suspicion that the writing I am currently doing may not be the final direction of my work.

On this the opinion of the Yi could not be clearer:

The cock is dependable. It crows at dawn. But it cannot itself fly to heaven. It just crows. A man may count on mere words to awaken faith. This may succeed now and then, but if persisted in, it will have bad consequences.

What makes you happy?

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For melancholics happiness requires a reason.  We’re so used to circumstances not being right, not being favourable. We live in a habitual state of wary discontent as though things are not great, but they could get worse at any moment and we want to be prepared for when they do.

This habitual state of discontented wariness is so consistent that although it seems like a prudent response to one’s circumstances at any given moment, in reality it is just a default setting; a mood in search of a justification.If your mood remains unchanged despite the passage of years and unending variations in your circumstances, at some point you have to accept that the only constant is you; something in you or about you is determined to inhabit this mood and remain in it for your own, perhaps subconscious, reasons, or through the sheer inertia of past experience.

Either way, if you find over the course of years that you inhabit a negative mood regardless of circumstances, there is no real reason why you couldn’t instead train yourself to inhabit a more positive mood instead.  If you’re always feeling worried, independent of whatever is going on around you, then you might as well teach yourself to always feel relieved, since it clearly has no bearing on your actual circumstances or outcomes either way.

I know for a fact that when all my problems are solved, I’ll create new problems to worry about.  If I’m always looking for faults I’ll be sure to find them. But this experience of constant fault-finding is wearisome and unpleasant, and countless times in my life I’ve sworn I’ve had enough of it.

So in theory I’ve now had more than enough of it, yet it persists because I have never had the right combination of circumstances, motivation, and clarity to do something about it.  It is not sufficient to simply realise that there is something wrong with your attitude on such a deep level; the accretion of this attitude took many years and the retraining of it will likewise take consistent effort.

After all, your mood is more than just a state of mind, it is also deeply ingrained in your whole body.  Habitual muscular tension, poor posture, and a variety of biochemical processes interact with mood both passively and actively.  Depression might make you slouch, but slouching can also make you feel depressed.

Posture can be retrained, habitual tension can become habitual relaxation, so why can’t an habitually negative mood become an habitually positive one.  Ultimately if there is no real reason to feel bad, what more reason do you need to start learning to feel good – to feel happy for merely being alive, and to genuinely appreciate all the wonderful things in your life?

Vale, Robin Williams, Hollywood’s melancholy funnyman

MercatorNet.com has just published my article on Robin Williams’ comedic genius:

Robin Williams’ death moved me more than I had expected.

Which is a silly thing to say because I hadn’t expected him to die; I hadn’t even thought about it. It was nowhere on my mind, and hence a shock to wake up that morning and find that he had gone.

It’s very strange to find out this way that my life was in some small but significant measure dependent on the existence of a man I never met but whose movies and interviews – his persona – shaped me in a way I’d never credited. I feel like I knew him.

Some people think my father looks a lot like Robin Williams, perhaps that’s part of it; that, and hours spent as a family watching and re-watching his films, with the unanimous sense that this was a good guy, the real deal, a truly funny man.

But more than that, he was clearly inspired, electrified, with an exuberance that didn’t always translate into great comedy but often enough it did, and showed a man with an unusual gift that, on-camera at least, seemed to transform his own personality and overshadow everyone around him.

Read the full article here.