Quaker Universalist Conversations

Melancholia, ego and compassionate life

As Richard Beck wrote in “Kenosis,”

I’m tired. Of myself.
Not sad. Not depressed. Not suicidal. Not dark.
Just tired.
Tired of being an ego. Having an ego.
I’m tired of filtering everything through myself.

Granted, as one of melancholy temperament, it is far too easy for my brain, when it notices the symptoms Beck describes, to seek reasons for sadness, depression, darkness…and to find them.

I wake up in the morning, I sit at my work desk. My brain scans tasks, responsibilities, which I know I should work on. They obligate me but they don’t interest me. I feel as if my “true self” is elsewhere.

"Geology I," by Mike Shell. Ocean Point coastal rock formations, East Boothbay, Maine (8/14/2014). Ha! “True self.” That’s a good one.

Drawing spurious boundaries across the boundless horizon of awareness, and preferring “that over there” to the landscape through which I move at the present moment.

There. There is the illusion of “self.”

That it has boundaries, and that those boundaries can exclude the passages we don’t desire to experience.

Just do it.

At 65, I look all the way back to my teens and recognize melancholia. I also recognize a number of difficult, undiagnosed periods of clinical depression over the decades.

It is always so easy to find real world “reasons” for feeling depressed. Even after 15 years as a clinical counselor, I didn’t recognize the neurobiological dimension of my depression until 2008, after my mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s meant we had to move her first to my sister’s care and then to mine. I had probably been clinically depressed for almost a year before I identified the symptoms and found treatment.

This is why I wrote: “It is far too easy for my brain, when it notices the symptoms Beck describes, to seek reasons for sadness, depression, darkness…and to find them.”

Our brains are storytellers. They help us to survive by making “meaning” out of what happens. However, emotions are always also chemical. They can be responses to actual events, to misleading stories we tell ourselves, to chemical imbalances, or to a mixture of all of these. To stay spiritually centered, I have to be mindful of the brain’s storytelling: circumstances may be objective realities, but the stories I tell myself are at best interpretation and at worst self-deception.

I appreciate this comment from a friend on the Empty Path version of this post :

I’ve seldom been “tired of myself…tired of being an ego…having an ego….” [When] I become disheartened with life, especially with the horrors of religion and politics, etc., it seems that the self of each of us, at least the positive Dr. Jekyll side of our personality—that “self” or “ego” is one of the few good aspects of tragic human existence. The ego-negating, opposition to “becoming,” that defines some religious movements seems strange to me.

"Geology III," by Mike Shell. Ocean Point coastal rock formations, East Boothbay, Maine (8/14/2014). “Ego” or “self” is essential to human engagement with the world. The human brain’s capacity for conscious observation of experience and for imagining and choosing among possibilities gives us the potential to act independently of the consequences to ourselves. In other words, we are not driven only by survival instincts. We can act for (or against) others even when instinct demands otherwise. We can let moral judgment intrude.

I think that speaking of “ego-negation” is a Western misrepresentation of Buddhism’s psychological and ethical teachings. Similarly, I think traditional Christianity’s tying of self-sacrifice “in this life” to the rewarding of the soul “in the life to come” misrepresents what Jesus intended when he addressed the role of self in community.

I exist as a human animal. My brain constructs a necessary sense of self so that I can act independent of animal instinct. Yet when I draw a boundary around “myself” as opposed to others, I introduce a fiction. I tell myself a false story about a win-lose game. Buddha taught that the win-win lies in seeing that boundary of “ego” as a fiction, so that we can allow ego to suffer while still living compassionate lives. Jesus taught the same.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Comments

I’m torn, reading this, between gratitude and sadness.

The sadness first: Sitting here, as I am, on vacation, on a sunny day with nothing but time in the garden and puttering at my chores ahead of me, I feel such contentment, such a physical sense of well-being, that I wish that I could bottle it somehow, with words or in a talisman of some kind, and send it to you to lift your melancholia. But such things are beyond the scope of words or talismans, and I need to just accept that you have this experience. And all I can send you is my love, and my sense of being connected to you, another small awareness wrapped in a physical being.

But also, I am grateful: I’m deeply grateful that someone who takes spiritual practice seriously has written about the chemical dimensions of emotion. I know that the very first thing I need to do, when I am drawn to despair and disillusionment is to check how much sleep I have had lately. It is amazing how much depression and sleep deprivation seem the same to me. Of course, one is much easier to deal with than the other.

I’m not much given to depression, however. My besetting chemical disturbance is anger, and menopause has only heightened that. (Apologies to all the women for whom that is not true; in spite of being a stereotype, it IS true for me…)

I remember last year, attending a workshop given by a Buddhist nun who spent a long time talking about the illusory nature of our emotions. I asked her about anger, about how to cope with the physiological experience of anger when it arises. And she said all the usual things, about getting hold of my mind, non-attachment, and so on. Which is great for the part of my emotions that gets enacted in my brain—but does nothing for the physiological, chemical flashes of anger that I have to cope with right alongside my hot flashes.

I need to remember that I am a body and a soul (or mind) both, and that both create my experience of each moment. I hear that you struggle with this, too, and even if we have no answers, I am really grateful for the company.

Cat, I value your sadness on me behalf. In fact, I wrote this post out of a period of contentment; contentment made possible by the insights I share in the post.

My brother emailed me the same day you commented to tell me he was having similar thoughts. He and Hubby Jim and I seem to share the melancholic path (though in very different ways). I teased my brother that it’s “partly being old enough to be utterly tired of human fallibility, partly—perhaps—being ‘too educated and aware for our own goods’.”

You write:

[A] Buddhist nun who spent a long time talking about the illusory nature of our emotions. I asked her about anger,…[and] she said all the usual things…. Which is great for the part of my emotions that gets enacted in my brain—but does nothing for the physiological, chemical flashes of anger that I have to cope with….

My experience with depression changed once I understood its chemical dimension (Zoloft help).

I tend now to think in terms of “atmosphere” or “climate” (temperament) versus “weather” (depression, anger, etc.). This helps with discernment. I can ask myself, “Is this climate or is this weather?” I can’t stop the weather, but I can let it be part of the ever-changing flow.

And I am more likely to be able to protect others (and myself) by saying, “This isn’t about you (or me).”

Blessings,
Mike

Here is an example of my “melancholia faith and practice” in action:

I got to work this morning feeling overwhelmed by job expectations beyond my know-how or experience, and I was starting to feel the symptomatology of panic/depression.

Because my work partner wasn’t in yet, I walked to the bookstore-cafe next door for coffee. Small talk with the barista started to reconnect me with the present (partly because we were sharing our concern for the schizophrenic street people just outside).

Back in the library, chatting with Diane, I spilled coffee on my shirt, then dropped my ID in the toilet while I was rinsing out the shirt. We had a good laugh.

Mundane connection with people is THE greatest antidote to melancholia and depression. But one has to choose to seek rather than avoid that contact, when the melancholic impulse is to hide oneself.

When my solitude separates me from awareness of Spirit, connection restores that awareness.

Blessed Be,
Mike

Micah 6:8: He has showed you, O man, what is good? And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

It is easy to walk humbly with God when one has reached his or her limitation. Christian selflessness is to do the will of God while Buddhist selflessness has no known substitution. Goodness is universal but there is a difference between the egoist and Christian selflessness. All these bring us back to Quaker discernment of am I doing the will of God or the will of my ego.