There is an excellent article in the New York Times right now discussing the melancholy spirituality of Soren Kierkegaard, and how no one today “believes that a person can be of troubled mind and healthy spirit.”
One of the hardest parts of developing spiritually is letting go of the dreams and illusions that allow us to hide from the misery and despair that often lurks within us at a deeper level.
There is abundant chatter today about “being spiritual” but scarcely anyone believes that a person can be of troubled mind and healthy spirit. Nor can we fathom the idea that the happy wanderer, who is all smiles and has accomplished everything on his or her self-fulfillment list, is, in fact, a case of despair. But while Kierkegaard would have agreed that happiness and melancholy are mutually exclusive, he warns, “Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.”
There is an interesting article on Beliefnet’s blog, Beyond Blue: A spiritual journey to mental health, in which Terese J. Borchard attempts to draw a line between the experience of loss and spiritual dryness which John of the Cross described as the Dark Night of the Soul and clinical depression.
This is difficult in many ways, especially given that, as Borchard notes, one can experience both at the same time. Her argument amounts to the fact that a religious person in the dark night is well aware of the trial that they are undergoing and may even be invigorated by the spiritual trial, while someone who is depressed simply seems depressed.
However that may be, even a casual reading of The Dark Night of the Soul, reveals an almost unending list of sufferings–physical, emotional, and spiritual–that seem a lot like depression, and, in terms of the symptoms, are indistinguishable.
My argument would be that Saint John’s path is a way of using deep depression to find God and to refine one’s spirituality. Any depression has the potential to become a Dark Night of the Soul if and when a person ceases to run from depression and accepts it as revealing a truth about the emptiness of self and the difference between the self and God.
From a psychoanalytic point of view, the best work on this is Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun, a work which links and compares mysticism and depression.
Like Borchard and Kristeva, I do believe that medication can be invaluable for the treatment of depression. I simply also would argue that depression can teach us deep truths about the universe.
A recent study from the University of Maryland shows an inverse correlation between the amount of time one spends watching television and one’s personal sense of happiness. In other words, one can detect how miserable a person is by measuring how much television they watch.
On the other hand, there is a positive correlation between church going, socializing, and reading and happiness. Those who spend more time in these activities are more likely to claim to be happy.
Does this mean that television makes us miserable?
Not so fast. Perhaps television does make us miserable, but it is equally likely that people use television as a means of escape from an unhappy or alienated life.
My guess is that television is one activity that holds no potential for making us less unhappy. Retreating into the often repetitive lives of television characters contains none of the potential for growth and discovery that most other activities hold. By distracting us, television may serve to relieve pain, but it only treats the symptoms, rarely offering us genuine hope for change.
I first became interested in the Tarot deck after reading the graphic novel, Promethea, by Alan Moore while studying religion and mysticism at Harvard Divinity School.
Where before, I had had the idea that the primary purpose of Tarot was divination (or foretelling the future), I now came to understand that the deck could be used as a spiritual tool and was loaded with powerful symbolism borrowed from the Jewish Kabbalah and alchemical medicine.
When the cards are laid out on the table, one engages in an act that can be described in psychoanalytic terms as “projection.” A client will take one look at the Emperor and say “that is my ex-husband” or one look at the nine of coins and say “that is the life that I want to live.”
The cards become, as it were, a mirror of the psyche that can reveal connections between parts of ourselves that we do not wish to see. Reading tarot accurately is not so much a supernatural science as one that involves opening up a space in which projection can occur and aiding the client in understanding what he or she has projected, why he or she have projected it, and how one’s projections will govern, shape, and control one’s life if one is unaware of them.
There is an interesting article in Slate Magazine today about an English group called the School of Life, which offers “meticulously art directed” classes that include learning the arts of conversation and how to live one’s life–and even to work–in a manner that is more creative, literate and fulfilling.
So many therapies and workshops aim simply at “healing” and making one functional. It is encouraging, then, to read about classes that focus on making life more rich and dense with creativity, culture, and thought.
There is a certain amount of pain, suffering, and misery that is intrinsic to life (which inevitably involves sickness, loss, and death). But it is life’s rich pleasures that sit on the other side of the scale making life worth the experience.
In seeking out the practices that enrich life, we should aim at adopting not only techniques that are simple and effective, but also those that hold the most meaning, the deepest wealth of ideas, the most color and beauty.
Jesus said, “Wretched is the body that depends on a body, and wretched is the soul that depends upon these two.”
———–Gospel of Thomas (Logion 87)
The spiritual life demands an entirely new orientation. We’ve been looking at our feet. We’ve been obsessing over what we are going to do in the coming months. But if we want to enter into the spiritual life, we need to stop and look up. We need to attempt to take in the big picture and to understand where we came from and where we are headed.
So where did we come from? Where are we headed? This passage warns us not to answer these questions in a facile manner. On one hand, “we are what we eat” and a baby comes forth from the body of its mother. Our bodies depend upon an entire chain of complex causes,––there is a horizontal line of bodies that we can trace back, and through this chain of causes we can explain everything.
But the spiritual life demands a different type of understanding. More….
What if you could meditate only during the time between hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock and getting up in the morning? And what if this meditation was certain to be more powerful and deep that any of your standard “insight” meditations?
In fact, the Tibetan Buddhists have numerous practices that follow along these lines. The goal of many of these practices is to reach a state in which one can observe the “natural light” of the mind free from thoughts and attachments. The time before you have fully come into wakefulness is also a time before you have resumed all the trappings of selfhood.
One simple method is to focus on a symbol, say an “X”, as resting right on the inside of your forehead. This will help you stay half-awake and half-asleep letting you persist in a dream-like state while alert enough to observe the nature of the mind.
You can use this practice either first thing in the morning (which I recommend), during a nap, or at night when you go to bed. The result is a feeling of freedom, peace, and detatchment. One simply feels less constrained, having seen first hand a limitless and infinite space.
For more information on these techniques read How to Practice by the Dalai Lama or Dream Yogaand the Practice of Natural Light by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu.
With all the talk lately about “The Secret” and the “power of positive thinking,” I thought that I would offer up this quote from Austin Osman Spare:
“A bat first grew wings and of the proper kind, by its desire being organic enough to reach the sub-consciousness. If its desire had been conscious, it would have had to wait until it could have done so by the same means as ourselves, i.e., by machinery”
If the description of evolution seems somewhat fanciful, the sentiment expressed is nonetheless accurate.
Conscious positive thinking only makes us more self-conscious. If we tell ourselves that we are smart and successful, another voice tells us that we are stupid failures.
To really change, to evolve, it is necessary to reach deeper parts of ourselves, whether through symbolism (as Spare recommends) or through some other technique that deeply affects the senses and emotions.
We are just in the process of setting up the blog portion of the site, but expect short articles on spirituality, psychoanalysis, coaching, philosophy, well-being, mysticism, gnosis, prayer, meditation and numerous other topics as well as commentary on everything else that is happening on the web in these arenas.