The ground of the soul is dark. – Meister Eckhart
God lives in the cloud of unknowing and that one has to be stripped of every idea, every intellectual conception, before one can approach the light which is surrounded by the darkness and utter confusion. – The Cloud of Unknowing.
Last week was dark. Depression came rolling in like an unexpected afternoon fog, and no matter how much I tried to shake it off, I couldn’t free myself from its merciless grip. As is often the case, I wanted to analyze my angst; to understand it so that I might be able to stand over it, rather than having it stand over me. But it is depression’s nature to resist being treated or cured. It requires that we go further downward until we are forced to come to a complete stop, blinded by its thickness, its muck, and its lack of differentiation. I was in the “impenetrable chaos”, which, as Jung writes, “is enveloped in a kind of fog, and this fully accords with the nature of the unconscious content: it is a ‘black blacker than black”. And so, I could no longer forge ahead with my work-ethic rigor, my never-ending “to do” lists and obligations. I was simply melted by my own tears.
On the other hand, I have discovered an antidote for depression, which, for me, is metaphor. Actually, it is not really a cure at all, but rather, a softening of perception and recognition that depression, like all psychological states, has a place in nature: dark seas, long nights, scavenging vultures, valleys of shadow and death. The use of metaphor is soothing to my soul.
I suppose it is no coincidence, therefore, that as I write this my thoughts shift toward landscapes of descent. And the landscape I know best that suits this is the Owens Valley, otherwise known as the “deepest valley”, located on HWY 395 in California. Although I have spent many warm and joyful days in this place, I also know its darkness, especially during the winter months when the towering Eastern Sierra prematurely steals away the afternoon sun. At such times a cold wind enters the valley from the north, bones chill and muscles contract restricting movement of mind and body. But, it is precisely this slowing motion that James Hillman refers to as “soul-making.” “Things slow down”, he writes, “There is a lot of sadness. You can’t see over the horizon”.
Like depression, the valley is a feminine landscape. Whereas, the mountainous masculine yang seeks to differentiate, promote understanding and action, the feminine yin brings us back to the low places of feeling and connection, encouraging the practice of passive receptivity. We meander in valleys, possibly sitting by a river under a cottonwood or a weeping willow watching fallen leaves float toward some collective destination. We cry, muse, ponder, ruminate and reflect. Cut off (no choice here) from the busyness of our goal-oriented lives, the ego loosens its grip. Everything becomes wet.
Speaking of the feminine, Jungian scholar, Helen Luke* writes about the conflict that beset many women who are unhinged by depression. According to Luke, women who are driven upward by the need for acceptance often do so at the expense of their feminine nature. In these cases, positions of prestige are accompanied by an extraordinary amount of anxiety and self-doubt. Such a woman may have forfeited her ability to listen to the creative feminine voice that resonates within her, that connects her to Earth and to her own instincts. Her life becomes dry and meaningless. In this case, a descent – a sacrifice of all that has been afforded to her by the masculine world – is necessary to facilitate a reunion with the life-connecting principle of Eros. Luke writes,
“In some form or other the break must be made – a defeat accepted – a loss of prestige endured, even if it is not recognized as such by others. I remember that Simone Weil wrote in one of her essays that an essential ingredient in the soul’s journey through affliction was the experience of social rejection – and that whether this was suffered neurotically (to use our language) through projection, or in outer fact was not important so long as the resulting affliction was fully accepted and endured”.
But, as Luke writes, it is also in this fallen state that we discover the light in the darkness, an ember of meaning that illuminates from our very own depths.
“She has then to learn to start from the receptive, the hidden, the goal-less aspect of Yin, and gradually the true light of the spirit will shine in the darkness, and the intellect too will be illuminated and come to its fruition”.
In many respects, to go into the valley’s shadow is an initiation into the feminine where we can reclaim the “receptive, the hidden, and goal-less aspects of Yin” that Luke refers to. And yet, according to the Tao Te Ching, it is within these depths that we also discover the Valley Spirit, which, like a river is both feminine and masculine, movement and passivity, action and non-action. Although the descent may demand great sacrifice it brings about wholeness – Psyche and Eros united.
The Valley Spirit never dies.
This is called the mysterious female.
The gateway of the mysterious female
Is called the root of heaven and earth.
Dimly visible, it seems as if it were there,
Yet use will never drain it.
— Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching
In retrospect, I can see how depression can be a gift. By its own severe gravity it temporarily prevents forward motion. There is no looking ahead, no false claim on the future. All that is is that which exists in the moment. In such a state the present becomes more real. No breath goes without notice. I am still breathing. I am still alive.
*Luke, H. M. (1990). Woman, earth and spirit. New York: Crossroad.