Integrating Depression and Spirituality: Resources for Pagans
Article ID: 8479
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,478
Times Read: 12,832
Author: B. T. Newberg
Posted: June 1st. 2004
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I became interested in the relationship between Paganism and depression when it began to dawn on me, after years of dealing with depression, that I had been deeply changed by it. The changes were not only psychological or emotional, but spiritual. My view of depression shifted from psychological disorder to spiritual teacher. From this perspective, I went from resenting my depression to accepting it, even seeing meaning and value in it. I began to wonder if other Pagans have attempted to integrate depression into their spiritual paths.
High and low I searched for the ways in which today's Pagans are endeavoring to understand and integrate their depression experiences. I rifled through library shelves, asked as many of my Pagan friends as I could, and scoured the Pagan's best friend - the Internet. What I found was that although Paganism has evolved no ubiquitous beliefs about depression, many Pagans are struggling with its relationship to spirituality in various ways. Further, a rich cache of resources are available to help individuals attempt to integrate their depression experiences. What I present in this article is a survey of the most interesting resources I've found to date.
Please note that the information that follows is meant only to help integrate the experience of depression, not to treat or alleviate it. In all cases, spirituality should not take the place of conventional medical help, but should complement, support, or enable it. Those with severe depression symptoms are encouraged to seek professional assistance.
This said, we commence our survey with a curious poll which inquired whether an Occult path might cause depression.
The Witchtower Poll:
In the forums of Wicca UK's web site, columnist Obsidiana recently posted a poll asking whether respondents who had experienced depression believed that beginning an Occult path instigated, improved, or had no effect on their depression. Obsidiana had observed many Occultists struggling with depression, and wondered if their chosen paths did not have something to do with it. Her hypothesis was that the self-reflection demanded by magical paths, through which people may discover dark sides they do not wish to see, may lead to depression. The results of her research were published in a recent issue of the Witchtower (#8, available for download at www.wiccauk.com).
By and large, Obsidiana found no evidence to indicate that people became depressed after finding an Occult path. On the contrary, evidence seemed to suggest that they generally got over depression more quickly. However, the results were admittedly inconclusive.
A major finding of Obsidiana's study was that depression seemed to result less from Occult practice and more from one's internal make-up. In other words, depression isn't a place on the Occult path so much as it is a basic human phenomenon that Occultists may experience. Although nothing indicates that Occult paths are not capable of triggering depressions, depression as such is certainly a wider phenomenon than a purely esoteric understanding would suggest. An attempt to integrate depression into Pagan spirituality may therefore do well to approach it as a fundamental experience, like joy, childbirth, or death, rather than as an Occult-derived experience like initiation, revelation, or communion.
Another important note made by Obsidiana was that there are many different varieties of depression, including atypical depression, bipolar disorder, bipolar II disorder, and more. It stands to reason that attempts to integrate depression ought to recognize and account for its many faces. Not all forms of depression may serve the same spiritual function. Attention should be given to the specific, perhaps even unique, manifestations of depression in a person's life. The authoritative source for disorders is the DSM-IV (the manual psychiatrists use to diagnose), of which a much-abridged version is available at www.psychologynet.org/dsm.html.
The findings of Obsidiana give us a direction in which to move our research. If depression is to be understood as a basic human experience, we can look not only for esoteric but also psychological understandings. We therefore turn to holistic practitioner Jonathan Zuess, who has recently published an understanding of depression in terms of vision-quest.
Jonathan Zuess and the Vision-Quest:
In his book The Wisdom of Depression, Jonathan Zuess, M.D., distinguishes between "major depressive disorder" and the "depressed response." Major depressive disorder is severe, with bouts that may drag on for years, and is likely to require medical treatment (Zuess discusses many alternative therapies in addition to medication). The depressed response, on the other hand, typically lasts no more than a week and should not be treated with medication. Why not? Because, says Zuess, the depressed response is nothing less than the body's natural impulse to go on a vision-quest. That is to say, depression signals a person's need to enter a new phase of spiritual fulfillment. Medication would only stifle a natural, inborn response.
In support of his theory, Zuess notes that many depression symptoms, including low appetite, desire to be alone, and preoccupation with inward contemplation, are analogous to time-honored techniques used by Shamanic seekers to bring on visions: fasting, isolation, and meditation. Depression, Zuess says, produces symptoms which encourage us toward vision-quests.
The "vision-quests" that Zuess has in mind seem to be confrontations of personal problems like overcoming attachment to a departed loved one or dealing with the loss of a job - struggles worthy of spiritual value in their own right - but the door is also left open to higher and deeper mystical revelations.
Zuess' theory of the depressed response as a natural vision-quest integrates depression into a larger realm of human experience. As a holistic theory, it is agreeable to many Pagan palates. It may provide the beginnings of a foundation for an integrated understanding of depression.
What Zuess's theory does not provide is a way to integrate the more severe form of major depressive disorder. If depression is a natural, more or less benign impulse toward vision-quest, it would seem that it has in major depressive patients gone horribly awry. These people remain locked for years in their own personal hells, and the problem- resolving vision, like a light at the end of the tunnel, is not forthcoming. Although Zuess devotes a full half of his book to describing alternative therapies for sufferers of major depressive disorder, he stumbles to integrate their experiences into a vision- based understanding.
To enrich our psychological view of depression, we go now to renowned psychotherapist Carl Jung.
Jung and Endogenous Depression:
In the view of Carl Jung, a distinction can be made between "reactive" and "endogenous" depressions. Reactive depressions are triggered by external events, such as losing a job or suffering the death of a loved one. Endogenous depressions, on the other hand, have no clear external trigger. They well up from within, and Jung associates them with a blockage in the "individuation process." In layman's terms, endogenous depressions have to do with frustrations in a person's path of personal development. Depression, in this view, is an obstacle or symptom of stagnation in personal development.
The Jungian understanding of depression is sophisticated far beyond what may be presented here. For a general introduction to Jung's writings, see The Portable Jung, edited by mythologist Joseph Campbell (1971).
Jung's theory is especially compatible with Pagan understandings for a number of reasons. First, the theory allows for a wide range of theological interpretation. The individuation process is a quest for the "Self," which is a semi-secular term for what other traditions might call Brahman, the Oversoul, or even God. On the other hand, the "Self" need not have theistic connotations at all. In this respect, the theory is pliable enough to accommodate varying Pagan paths. Second, the Jungian school has long showed an interest in the same myths which Pagans explore. Many of Jung's followers have attempted to correlate Classical myths with psychological experiences, including depression. In particular, Sylvia Brinton Perera has published an impressive reading of the myth of Inanna's journey to the underworld (Descent of the Goddess, 1981). Finally, Jung was himself deeply interested in Alchemy and other paths amenable to Pagan mindsets. Indeed, Jung's writings have influenced much Pagan thought. It therefore seems likely that Jungian theory may prove fruitful in the effort of integrating depression into Pagan spirituality.
With Jung we arrive at a rich psychological understanding of depression, an alternative to or complement of Zuess's vision-based understanding. Depression is, in Jung's view, integrated into the larger process of individuation, a quest which may very well be termed spiritual.
Psychology has thus far been helpful in our attempts to integrate depression and spirituality. For our next fare, we turn to a more specifically Pagan concern: magic.
One of the more widespread practices of Pagans is magic. Magic may be used to draw nearer to deity as well as to fetch much-needed cash, and some Pagans are even using magic to help deal with depression.
With depression relief, as with any magical undertaking, the metaphysical basis is assumed that all things are deeply inter-connected. Even where no causal or empirical relationship is apparent to the orthodox scientific eye, objects and phenomenon in the cosmos are related by a web of energy. Manipulation of connecting energies is the essence of magic. By tapping the appropriate energies, depression may be affected.
This understanding integrates depression into a worldview where all things are interrelated. While this theory does not single out depression as a spiritual experience (any more than any other experience), it offers a practical foundation from which depression may be approached. Since magic is for many Pagans deeply tied up with spirituality, depression acquires a spiritual dimension by default. In any case, once this theoretical foundation is accepted one may begin to take direct spiritual action in dealing with depression.
For those who find magic effective in dealing with emotions, published spells and rituals are available. Dorothy Morrison's book Everyday Magic provides a spell for depression relief and a spell against apathy. Many magical treatments for depression have also been posted online. A simple search for the keywords "ritual for banishing depression" will get you started.
It is worth noting that, rather than treat depression directly, it may be more effective to magically treat factors contributing to depression. For example, a person may conduct a ritual to explore issues of childhood neglect, loss of self-esteem, fear of success, or whatever other factors are tributaries to the river of depression. Rather than slashing at branches, this approach attacks the root. Depression is an extremely complex human phenomenon, and it would be well to treat it as such.
With magic we move from the realm of theory to that of action. For an alternative which combines both theory and action, we now take a look at the modern movement called Shamanism or Neo-Shamanism.
Shamanism and Soul Loss:
Since the seventies Shamanism has been increasingly influential in Pagan circles. It is almost unique among Pagan paths in that it offers a specific explanation for the cause of depression - soul loss. Like other illnesses, depression is caused by the departure of a part of a person's soul. It is the Shaman's task to retrieve the lost part so that the person may become whole again.
For Pagans with Shamanic sympathies, the soul-loss theory offers an appealing alternative to the conventional medical model. Depression is found to have a spiritual dimension, and the pain suffered acquires meaning as an experience of the path to reunion and wholeness. Indeed, many who have experienced soul retrievals report significant spiritual transformations. Thus, Shamanism is one Pagan path that is clearly capable of integrating the depression experience into a greater worldview and turning an otherwise painful ordeal into something of spiritual value.
On the other hand, one follower of Shamanism has noted that, "many who seriously follow a shamanic path find depression can become a constant companion" (www.shamanscave.com). The reasons for this are not entirely clear. It may be that this highly individualistic path may isolate a person from other people, with whom they can never fully share their ineffable other-world journeys or insights. It may be that "seriously" following the Shaman's way - that is, with greater than average zeal and determination - predisposes a person to suffer more as a necessary trade-off of accelerated spiritual advancement. Then again, it would be wise to recall from Obsidiana's study that intense self- discovery is not necessarily associated with increased depression.
All in all, Shamanism offers a workable foundation for an integrated Pagan valuation of depression. Shamanic thought is gradually infiltrating the greater Pagan community. At present, however, the metaphysics of soul loss and retrieval remain on the fringe. For accessible introductions to Shamanism and its way of healing, see Michael Harner's The Way of the Shaman and Sandra Ingerman's Soul Retrieval.
With Shamanism we come to the end of our published resources for integrating depression and spirituality. Before we conclude, however, I want to draw attention to a resource not accessible via the printed page: the wisdom of individual Pagans.
Since Paganism is not an organized religion but a movement of individuals, I wanted to take my research to the opinions of individual practitioners. I consulted as many of my Pagan friends as I could, and found a general trend. Most felt that depression and Paganism do not have any necessary or causal relation, but that depression may be incorporated into Pagan spirituality at least as well as any other life experience (consistent with Obsidiana's findings).
Some of my friends made other apt points regarding the relation of Paganism to depression. First, depression can be an impetus for spiritual exploration. Depressed feelings of emptiness or pain may goad a person to seek a higher meaning to life. Second, Pagans may be slightly more apt than the general population to find spiritual meaning in depression, if only because they come to Paganism by choice rather than inheritance - they are seekers by nature, and therefore likely to seek meaning in experiences such as depression. Finally, a handy five-point guide to dealing with depression might run as follows: 1) face it head-on; 2) find out what makes you happy and what makes you depressed; 3) realize that there is no quick fix; 4) be honest with yourself and others, and find someone to confide in; and 5) understand that it's okay to feel depressed - don't let anyone tell you that what you're feeling is wrong.
This essay has presented some of the most helpful information I could find relating to Paganism and depression. Obsidiana's Witchtower poll explored the question of whether Occult paths help or hinder struggles with depression. Jonathan Zuess' theory of the depressed response as a vision-quest offered a starting point for integrating the depression experience into a larger, holistic worldview. Carl Jung's theory of endogenous depression as a block in the quest for the Self gave a further basis for founding an integrated approach to depression. With the theory of magic, our approach moved from theory to direct action. The metaphysics of soul loss in contemporary Shamanism provided our first glimpse of a purely Pagan explanation of depression, combined with a practical treatment. In conclusion, these theories constitute a diverse store of resources to draw on in the effort of integration, but no commonly-shared beliefs about depression have yet evolved in the greater Pagan community. It falls to individuals to forge their own links between depression and their paths.
I would like to end this essay with a poignant quote from Lynna Landstreet:
Why some of us experience more than our share of darkness, I don't know. But it seems to disproportionately happen to creative, intelligent and/or spiritual people, and I tend to think that the capacity for depression is tied in with those qualities. People who are more conscious, more sensitive, more fully alive, experience the dark side of life with much greater intensity, because we have the capacity to experience everything with greater intensity! So it may in a strange way be as much a blessing as a curse- though I know it never feels like it at the time! (www.wildideas.net) Brandon
B. T. Newberg
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
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