bhapte16 January 20, 1990
So far we have talked about rational, planned-out tactics for battling against your depression. But some people's depressions--especially deep depressions--disappear suddenly and miraculously, without systematic battles and often with great drama. Such cures fit into the broad framework of Self- Comparisons Analysis.
The most dramatic cures are religious conversions, especially those of Christians and most especially of Protestants. The cases of John Bunyan, and of the Quaker founder, George Fox, are famous because they described their salvations in autobiographies.
William James analysed and described this phenomenon brilliantly. The process of religious conversion for a depressive appears to happen as follows: The person suffers and suffers and suffers some more, from a sense of unworthiness or sin or alcoholism or worldly failure. All the while the person strives with all his might to overcome the failures and the feeling of unworthiness, but with no success. Then finally the person gives up, because he or she comes to believe that the struggle cannot be won; emotional exhaustion accompanies the giving up. (James emphasizes the exhaustion.) Then after the person surrenders up hope and struggle, there suddenly occurs a process of relaxation and inner peace.
I felt this happen once, six months after depression hit me, a time when I was in constant and total despair. My wife and I went to the country to visit friends for a weekend, the first time we had been away since the crisis had begun, and we slept outside on the ground. When I woke in the morning I saw a shiny leaf and I heard a bird trill, the first time in half a year I had taken pleasure in a simple work of nature or humankind. I felt a radiant, delicious inner peace. The closest to this feeling in a more common context is the peace and gratitude one feels upon receiving news that a much-feared tragedy has not come to pass. One also feels a similar, though less intense, relaxation when one meditates after having been tense. For intellectual and other reasons, however, I was not a candidate for a religious conversion. Perhaps for that reasons, after a matter of hours, I was back in despair. Yet I had at least experienced the feeling of redemption.
As I understand it, a person who believes in the existence of an active personal God identifies the extraordinary experience of inner peace with the manifestation of God in the person's life and body. The feeling is "heavenly," and it seems reasonable to a believer that only God could create this amazing reversal of emotional fortune. Here are a few examples culled from the extraordinary collection by James, many of them taken in turn from Leuba. Here is the case of an alcoholic:
One Tuesday evening I sat in a saloon in Harlem, a homeless, friendless, dying drunkard. I had pawned or sold everything that would bring a drink. I could not sleep unless I was dead drunk. I had not eaten for days, and for four nights preceding I had suffered with delirium tremens, or the horrors, from midnight till morning. I had often said, "I will never be a tramp. I will never be cornered, for when that time comes, if ever it comes, I will find a home in the bottom of the river," But the Lord so ordered it that when that time did come I was not able to walk one quarter of the way to the river. As I sat there thinking, I seemed to feel some great and mighty presence. I did not know then what it was. I did learn afterwards that it was Jesus, the sinner's friend. I walked up to the bar and pounded it with my fist till I made the glasses rattle. Those who stood by drinking looked on with scornful curiosity. I said I would never take another drink, if I died on the street, and really I felt as though that would happen before morning. Some- thing said,"If you want to keep this promise, go and have yourself locked up." I went to the nearest stationhouse and had myself locked up.
I was placed in a narrow cell, and it seemed as though all the demons that could find room came in that place with me. This was not all the company I had either. No, praise the Lord; that dear Spirit that came to me in the saloon was present, and said, Pray. I did pray, and though I did not feel any great help, I kept on praying. As soon as I was able to leave my cell I was taken to the police court and remanded back to the cell. I was fin- ally released, and found my way to my brother's house, where every care was given me. While lying in bed the admonishing Spirit never left me, and when I arose the following Sabbath morning I felt that day would decide my fate, and toward evening it came into my head to go to Jerry M'Auley's Mission. I went. The house was packed, and with great difficulty I made my way to the space near the platform. There I saw the apostle to the drunkard and the outcast--that man of God, Jerry M'Auley. He rose, and amid deep silence told his experience. There was a sincerity about this man that carried conviction with it, and I found myself saying, "I wonder if God can save me?" I listened to the testimony of twenty-five or thirty persons, every one of whom had been saved from rum, and I made up my mind that I would be saved or die right there. When the invitation was given, I knelt down with a crowd of drunkards. Jerry made the first prayer. Then Mrs. M'Auley prayed fervently for us. Oh, what a conflict was going on for my poor soul. A blessed whisper said, "Come"; the devil said, "Be careful." I halted but a moment, and then, with a breaking heart, I said, "Dear Jesus, can you help me?" Never with mortal tongue can I describe that moment. Although up to that moment my soul had been filled with indescribable gloom, I felt the glorious brightness of the noonday sun shine into my heart. I felt I was a free man. Oh, the precious feeling of safe- ty, of freedom, of resting on Jesus! I felt that Christ with all his brightness and power had come into my life; that, indeed, old things had passed away and all things had become new.
From that moment till now I have never wanted a drink of whiskey, and I have never seen money enough to make me take one. I promised God that night that if he would take away the appetite for strong drink, I would work for him all my life. He has done his part, and I have been trying to do mine".1
Next is "the case of our friend Henry Alline...his report of the 26th of March, 1775, on which his poor divided mind became unified for good."
As I was about sunset wandering in the fields la- menting my miserable lost and undone condition, and almost ready to sink under my burden, I thought I was in such a miserable case as never any man was before. I returned to the house, and when I got to the door, just as I was stepping off the threshold, the following impressions came into my mind like a powerful but small still voice. You have been seeking, praying, reforming, laboring, reading, hearing, and meditating, and what have you done by it towards your salvation? Are you any nearer to con- version now than when you first began? Are you any more prepared for heaven, or fitter to appear before the im- partial bar of God, than when you first began to seek?
It brought such conviction on me that I was ob- liged to say that I did not think I was one step nearer than at first, but as much condemned, as much exposed, and as miserable as before. I cried out within myself, O Lord God, I am lost, and if thou, O Lord, doest not find out some new way, I know nothing of, I shall never be saved, for the ways and methods I have prescribed to myself have all failed me, and I am willing they should fail. O Lord, have mercy! O Lord, have mercy!
These discoveries continued until I went into the house and sat down. After I sat down, being all in con- fusion, like a drowning man that was just giving up to sink, and almost in an agony, I turned very suddenly round in my chair, and seeing part of an old Bible lying in one of the chairs, I caught hold of it in great haste; and opening it without any premeditation, cast my eyes on the 38th Psalm, which was the first time I ever saw the word of God: it took hold of me with such power that it seemed to go through my whole soul, so that it seemed as if God was praying in, with, and for me. About this time my father called the family to attend prayers; I attended, but paid no regard to what he said in his prayer, but continued praying in those words of the Psalm. O, help me, help me! cried I, thou Redeemer of souls, and save me, or I am gone forever; thou canst this night, if thou pleasest, with one drop of thy blood atone for my sins, and appease the wrath of an angry God. At that instant of time when I gave all up to him to do with me as he pleased, and was willing that God should rule over me at his pleasure, redeeming love broke into my soul with repeated scriptures, with such power that my whole soul seemed to be melted down with love; the burden of guilt and condemnation was gone, darkness was expelled, my heart humbled and filled with gratitude, and my whole soul, that was a few minutes ago groaning under mountains of death, and crying to an unknown God for help, was now filled with immortal love, soaring on the wings of faith, freed from the chains of death and darkness, and crying out, My Lord and my God; thou art my rock and my fortress, my shield and my high tower, my life, my joy, my present and my everlasting portion. Looking up, I thought I saw that same light [he had on more than one previous occasion seen sub- jectively a bright blaze of light], though it appeared different, and as soon as I saw it, the design was opened to me, according to his promise, and I was ob- liged to cry out: Enough, enough, O blessed God! The work of conversion, the change, and the manifes- tations of it are no more disputable than that light which I see, or anything that ever I saw.
In the midst of all my joys, in less than half an hour after my soul was set at liberty, the Lord dis- covered to me my labor in the ministry and call to preach the gospel. I cried out, Amen, Lord, I'll go; send me, send me. I spent the greatest part of the night in ec- stacies of joy, praising and adoring the Ancient of Days for his free and unbounded grace. After I had been so long in this transport and heavenly frame that my nature seemed to require sleep, I thought to close my eyes for a few moments; then the devil stepped in, and told me that if I went to sleep, I should lose it all, and when I should awake in the morning I would find it to be nothing but a fancy and delusion. I immediately cried out, O Lord God, if I am deceived, undeceive me.
I then closed my eyes for a few minutes, and seemed to be refreshed with sleep, and when I awoke, the first inquiry was, Where is my God? And in an in- stant of time, my soul seemed awake in and with God, and surrounded by the arms of everlasting love. About sunrise I arose with joy to relate to my parents what God had done for my soul, and declared to them the miracle of God's unbounded grace. I took a Bible to show them the words that were impressed by God on my soul the evening before; but when I came to open the Bible, it appeared all new to me.
I so longed to be useful in the cause of Christ, in preaching the gospel, that it seemed as if I could not rest any longer, but go I must and tell the wonders of redeeming love. I lost all taste for carnal pleasures, and carnal company, and was enabled to forsake them."2
Alcoholics Anonymous insists that having a belief in a "higher power" is necessary for its program to work. "If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take...you may be suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer".3 I have no data on the extent to which this is true, and the extent to which alcoholism is similar to depression in this respect. But in light of the vast experience of A. A., their opinion at least merits consideration. (It should be noted that in A. A., the "ideas" (their word) of faith, God, and spiritual experience are interpreted very broadly, seemingly to include almost everything beyond the mundane that elicits awe and wonder and mystery. Indeed, "belief in the A. A. group" to which one belongs apparently is a common form of such faith. 4
All this has a physiological and psychological connection to the forces at work in meditation. A major difference, however, is that meditation is a voluntarily induced state that one reaches most easily with various learned techniques of breathing, concentration, body position, chanting, and rhythmic movements, whereas religious conversion is more likely to be spontaneous.
Some Christian ministers and religious communities try to foster conversions by inculcating the belief in its possibility, and by providing the conditions of personal acceptance that make it more attractive.
General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, con- siders that the first vital step in saving outcasts consists in making them feel that some decent human being cares enough for them to take an interest in the question whether they are to rise or sink.5
And a person may increase the likelihood of conversion or salvation from depression by participating in such religious groups. But more than that the individual cannot do, except perhaps to try "surrendering" his or her striving so as to be open to the conversion experience.
Though religious conversion differs from other modes of fighting depression because one usually cannot induce a religious conversion by one's own will and efforts, one may make the process more likely to happen by steeping oneself in the religion of conversion, by reading and discussing, and by hoping that one will be saved by religious experience; these are the key tactics of Alcoholics Anonymous (which also relies on mutual support, and group discussion which point out distorted thinking process). Yet the process of conversion can only occur when one is not trying to be converted, or trying to do anything else. Conversion is one of those many processes--like remembering a forgotten word, or a man having an erection--where trying to produce the event only prevents its occurrence.6
After the conversion itself the person may continue to be "God-intoxicated," in religious terms. I take this phrase to mean that the person continues to hold the conversion experience and the idea of God in the conscious mind much of the time. The person perceives what seems to be the evidence of God in all aspects of the world about her. And almost anything--even, for example, the ugly bleeping sound of a warning device telling of a hole in the road as one walks by the way--can be heard as a reminder of God's presence in the world. In this manner, conversion can maintain a continuing barrier against negative self-comparisons and the consequent depression.
Some people's depressions--especially deep depressions-- disappear suddenly and miraculously, without systematic battles and often with great drama. Religious conversions are of this nature, but the phenomenon can occur without the intervention of theistic concepts, as Alcoholics Anonymous has proven.
There is an important similarity between religious conversion and meditation. The state of exhaustion that occurs prior to the radical religious conversions of some very depressed persons is, like meditation, a state of sudden relaxation from striving. It is a time when the person no longer has strength to strive, fight, or even flee, but rather simply falls into exhaustion. At such moments the mental processes of classification, evaluation, and comparison that lead to sadness for the depressive person cease to operate, and the person gets relief--which is then attributed to God, and a religious conversion takes place.