Depression as a Spiritual Journey: Parker J. Palmer on Finding Life-Changing Meaning Within Clinical Depression

Ansel Adams

Conventional wisdom presents us with several different — often contradictory — theories as to the causes of depression.  We may see depression alternately as a genetic predisposition, a faulty neurochemical mechanism in the brain, a response to childhood circumstances, or to current adverse life conditions.  Research has pointed the way to several effective approaches to alleviating depression, including psychotherapy, exercise, mindfulness meditation, and antidepressants (judiciously used).  But it seems as though little attention is paid to the idea of a meaning or a message buried within depression. 

One way to view depression is not as a disorder or disease, but rather as a symptom of our deeper needs going ignored and unaddressed.  Rather than attempting to medicate the depression away (even if medication is sometimes called for), one way to approach feeling better can be to pay attention to what our symptoms are “saying” to us.  Inner exploration can put us in touch with our needs and wants, our hurtful inner narratives, and based on that information, point the way to positive changes to our life circumstances and to the way we treat ourselves.  Our symptoms of depression, then, in some cases, can be an ally, potentially offering us a lifeline to deeper self-understanding and a happier future.  

Author, educator, and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, Parker J. Palmer’s account of his journey into and out of depression is one of the most profound and moving accounts of finding life-changing meaning in depression we’ve ever read (found in his book, Let Your Life Speak).*  

Despite a successful career in academia, a loving family, and an abundance of close friends, Palmer found himself mid-life “in the dark woods of clinical depression, a total eclipse of light and hope”:

Twice in my forties I spent endless months in the snake pit of the soul.  Hour by hour, day by day, I wrestled with the desire to die, sometimes so feeble in my resistance that I “practiced” ways of doing myself in. I could feel nothing except the burden of my own life and the exhaustion, the apparent futility, of trying to sustain it.  

He remains uncertain how he managed to make his first steps out of it, and why he was able to begin the journey out when others cannot.  He speaks of the importance of respecting a sense of mystery around depression, of the unknown buried in the deepest parts of ourselves, and our unacknowledged needs and wants.  He knows “What [he] did to survive and eventually, to thrive” but he can’t explain why he was able to do it before it was too late:

Depression demands that we reject simplistic answers, both “religious” and “scientific”, and learn to embrace mystery, something our culture resists. Mystery surrounds every deep experience of the human heart…  But our culture wants to turn mysteries into puzzles to be explained or problems to be solved, because maintaining the illusion that we can “straighten things out” makes us feel powerful. Yet mysteries never yield to solutions or fixes – and when we pretend that they do, life becomes not only more banal but also more hopeless, because the fixes never work.  

But even if the causes of depression are mysterious, belonging to the unknown, understanding how it is operating within requires an active engagement with the deeper parts of ourselves: 

Embracing the mystery of depression does not mean passivity or resignation.  It means moving into a field of forces that seems alien but is in fact one’s deepest self.  It means waiting, watching, listening, suffering, and gathering whatever self-knowledge one can – and then making choices based on that knowledge, no matter how difficult.  One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not. 

Palmer goes on to talk about how one of the most painful aspects of depression is a profound inability to feel close to others: “depression is the ultimate state of disconnection – it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.” He describes the people who came to visit him when he couldn’t leave his bed, and the person who helped him the most by mainly listening and quietly encouraging him, and in doing so,  “modeling the respect for me and my journey – and the courage to let it be – that I myself needed if I were to endure.” 

Parker initially resisted the idea of seeking professional help, as he felt it was a sign of weakness.  Nevertheless, after some exploration to secure treatment that fit with his world view, he eventually found a counselor who framed Parker’s depression as a spiritual journey:  

It was not the sort of spiritual journey I’d hoped to take one day, not an upward climb into rarefied realms of light…in fact, mine was a journey in the opposite direction: to the inner circle of hell and a face-to-face encounter with the monsters who live there.

After much careful listening, his counselor suggested a new way of looking at his inner story of depression: “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”

At first Parker found the image, in the midst of all his suffering, ”impossibly romantic, even insulting.” But an inner part of him began to see the metaphor of the ground as an image of wholeness, literally, of groundedness, and once he was able to accept it, it began to exert a healing force on his depression.  

In time, the metaphor of being pushed down onto ground on which it was safe to stand began to take on life for him.  He began to realize that he’d been living a life at what he describes as an unhealthy “high altitude”:  He tended to over-intellectualize, and although he was a spiritual leader, he  felt he lacked a connection to God, because his ideas were abstractions, not based on direct experience.  Moreover, he felt his was an “inflated ego that caused me to think more of myself than was warranted in order to mask my fear that I was less than I should have been.”  Eventually, he realized that he’d been holding himself to an impossibly high standard, living by a series of “oughts”, rather than by what was “true and possible and life-giving” for himself. He continually felt like a failure in relation to these oughts, and because they were unattainable, he was doomed to failure.  

Depression was, indeed, the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand – the ground of my own truth, my own nature, with its complex mix of limits and gifts, liabilities and assets, darkness and light.” 

Eventually, a new story about Parker’s depression began to take shape inside him.  He came to see it as though a lifelong inner friend had been – with increasing desperation – trying to get his attention.  Continually ignored, “after shouts and taps, stones and sticks, failed to do the trick, there was only one thing left: drop the nuclear bomb of depression …not with the intent to kill, but as a last ditch effort to get me to turn and answer the simple question, “what do you want”?”  When he was finally able to turn, and answer based on the self-knowledge that was available to him, he was able to begin to get well.  

He describes the calling figure as his “true self”, to be distinguished from an inflating (or deflating) ego self, or an intellectual self, “that wants to be above the mess of life in clear but ungrounded ideas”.   And that true self only ever wanted him to accept himself in his wholeness:

The underground is a dangerous but potentially life-giving place to which depression takes us; a place where we come to understand that the self is not set apart or special or superior but is a common mix of good and evil, darkness and light; a place where we can finally embrace the humanity we share with others. 

Years ago, someone told me that humility was central to the spiritual life…But this person did not tell me that the path to humility, for some of us at least, goes through humiliation, where we are brought low, rendered powerless, stripped of pretenses and defenses, and left feeling fraudulent, empty, and useless – a humiliation that allows us to re-grow our lives from the ground up, from the humus of common ground. 

I now know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light.  I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but embrace it all.  

In answer to critics who suggest that this embrace is narcissistic, self-absorbed, and at the expense of others, or that “embracing one’s wholeness” is a license to abandon one’s ethics, he asserts that his experience is to the contrary.  “To embrace weakness, liability, and darkness as part of who I am gives that part less sway over me, because all it ever wanted was to be acknowledged as part of my whole self.”  And once we accept our own humanity, including our fallibility, living is more, not less, demanding, because then we have to “live [our] whole life”.   To embrace our own humanity is to live it and forgive it in others.  

In closing, Palmer brings us back to mystery, a form of grace, that allowed him to make the journey back from an inner hell, and to tell his story for anyone who might benefit.  He takes no credit for any particular heroism, resolve, or will-power.  Instead, Palmer’s story is fundamentally about the healing power of the metaphor of the spiritual journey, a spiritual journey into the undiscovered depths, towards the ground: 

The spiritual journey is full of paradoxes.  One of them is that the humiliation that brings us down – down to ground on which it is safe to stand and to fall – eventually takes us to a firmer and fuller sense of self.  When people ask me how it felt to emerge from depression, I can give only one answer: I felt at home in my own skin, and at home on the face of the earth, for the first time.   

* Palmer begins his narrative with the important disclaimer that his experience is not universal: there are different kinds of depression, and some will be best helped with medication.  With that qualification, he offers his account in the hope that his experience with situational depression might prove helpful to others.

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