From Breaststroke to Black Float: Dealing with Depression

One description of depression is that it is like the shapeless sagging of a rubber band that has been kept tight and taunt for too long. When feelings have been strong, stressed, unprocessed, or held captive over a period of time, we just stop feeling altogether. Persons and events no longer have the power to enliven us; we operate on a low level cruise control. Usually we keep functioning, but there is no positive or creative affect toward persons and things, and even less toward ourselves. We basically stop living our only life.

Many lawyers operate at this level, without even knowing that it is a kind of death. They have learned to take it as normative and unchangeable. Life is no longer enjoyable, and almost everything becomes another excuse to be upset, angry, aggressive, afraid or defensive. We all know many people who live at this level.

But I would also like to describe another common source of depression that is less often addressed: basic meaninglessness. Religion, philosophy, and culture are supposed to address that foundational need. But when religion or spirituality is largely in the head, mostly fear based, or merely moralistic, there is a huge vacuum in most people. The soul and the spirit are not fed at this level. I am afraid that it is the most common form of religion we now have in the West. Such people, often very smart, have no beginning, middle or end to their life story, unless they totally create it for themselves like some kind of Nietzschean “ubermensch”. This is inherently too big a task for one autonomous individual.


The “Is that all there is?” feeling overcomes most people in our culture somewhere in their mid to late forties, if they are at all typical. If you are riding a fast track of upward mobility, external success, and lots of control, you might be able to put it off for another decade. But it is hardly worth it, because then the patterns of avoidance, depression, splitting off, a basic non-intimacy with one’s deepest life, are so entrenched, that it is very hard to emotionally and intellectually change without a lot of grace – – and a lot of “grit your teeth” and try to bear it. We are largely unteachable at that point.

The grace, of course, will always be available, but often we have lost the recognition of it, the desire for it, the trust in it, and the ability to cooperate with it. We do not even know there is such a thing as grace (Acts 19:3), and it is indeed an “it” instead of a Presence, a power and a possibility. In fact, for an ego that has been in overdrive for forty years, the reception of grace will actually feel like a defeat, a humiliation, and a failure. If “I” have been doing it all along, any “we” experience of union and cooperation with Another will actually feel like a loss of control and a loss of self-importance. It will be like switching from an eager breast stroke to a back float, and still having to assume that I can still get there. That would be hard for any successful lawyer, and actually for any of us.

At this point, one’s overdeveloped faculties (rational mind, willpower and Yankee can do!) will have to give way to those that were left underdeveloped for the sake of what we call in men’s work “building our tower”. What do I mean by those “underdeveloped faculties”? Well, first of all, I should state that they are not just underdeveloped; they are actively rejected and denied as values at all. I think that is why religion tended to speak at this process as “conversion”. Because if it is authentic, it is a rather complete reversal (“convertere” in Latin) of previously held virtues and values. Probably also why authentic religious conversion is rather rare.

Okay, here goes. This is what changes. Things like admitted powerlessness begin to be admired over claims to power, unknowing over knowing, living without resolution over demanding closure, giving instead of taking, waiting instead of performing, listening instead of talking, letting go instead of collecting and hoarding, empathy with instead of domination over. The more traditional words that were used for these values were three: “Faith”, “hope”, and “charity”. What St. Paul says, “are the only things that last” (1 Corinthians 13:13). I am sure he is right. But, mind you, these are virtues that are only learned by many trials and many errors by the second half of life, at best. In the first half, they actually do not make sense. The trouble is that many lawyers in our secular world are not moving to the second half of life. They are becoming elderly but they are not elders.

We all know that one part of each of these equations had to be developed to be lawyers at all. You would not have built any kind of tower unless you were powerful in some sense, had your facts, moved towards closure, and were normally much better at talking than listening. You lived in one way, but you died in another. Eventually that unintended death catches up with you. There is a huge hole in the soul of manglers and it gnaws and longs to be filled. It is another form of depression, but potentially a life changing one. Please trust me when I say that this hole has immense energy and possibility hidden within it. Maybe it is even the necessary vacuum to hold a new Infilling.

At first you will not know where to turn, especially if you have a good mind, and you are used to explaining everything and determining your own direction. You have no practice at this different set of virtues. To be honest, only God can lead at this point. You had best give up, because all of your previous tools are useless and even counter- productive. This is exactly why Bill Wilson made the first necessary step of Alcoholics Anonymous the absolute admission of “powerlessness”. This is about as counter intuitive as you can get, or even seemingly non-rational (not irrational!).

So what am I proposing that you do? Really, not that much. I am first of all trusting in your ability to hear some of what I just tried to say. If you have persisted in reading this far, you are hearing me at some non-resistant level. We call this the “contemplative mind”, where you turn off the need to be right or wrong, agree or disagree, and just let something work on you at whatever level of truth there is. (Everything Belongs, Crossroad Press, 1999). The Eastern religions would call it non-dual thinking.

Secondly, I would encourage you not to try too hard, no self-assertion because that will only deepen your addiction to your own way of doing life. You will try to “convert” yourself by yourself, which is actually a oxymoron. If you try to be heroic and superior, you will only get more of the same, but now disguised with a religious or moral sugarcoating. Please trust me on this one, all great spirituality is about letting go. YOU cannot do it. IT is done unto you.” (Luke 1:38 and 28:43). You are always the allowing. Someone else is winning at this point, and you are getting your first lesson in creative losing.

Thirdly, I would like you to forgive yourself for your life’s mistakes. God never leads by guilt or by shaming people. Take that as an absolute. God always leads the soul by loving it at ever deeper levels, and if you want to be led, you absolutely must allow such unearned love. Like all grace, it will feel like losing, not gaining, surrendering not taking, trusting not achieving, allowing instead of “making the case.” Like all authentic conversion it will feel like dying (See John 12:24 or Old Adams’ Return, Crossroad, 2005), but it will really be living. Fully, for the first time. God does not love you if you change; God loves you so that you can change. God is not the rewarder and the punisher. God is the energy itself; more of a verb than a noun, according to the great mystics.

This is one case you are not going to be able to win. In fact, I am convinced that the Gospel of Jesus really is the hope of the world precisely because it totally levels the human playing field. Now we win by losing, and if we are honest, we all have lost, failed, and been untrue at some levels (Romans 5:12). That humiliating recognition is the hole in the soul that allows God to get in – – and ourselves to get out – – of ourselves. Don’t miss such an entrance or exit. It is the Big One.

Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest in New Mexico Province and author of several books including Hope Against Darkness and From Wild Men to Wise Men: Reflections on Male Spirituality. He is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.






Relax Like a Hunter-gatherer: Nine Activities For Lifelong Relaxation

We live in a society quite unable to relax. It’s not a human society; that is to say it’s not a society that humans are genetically programmed to cope with. I’m not going to go into how this mismatch between our genetics and our society took place, enough has been written about that already (including by myself and Alicia Fortinberry in our book Creating Optimism).

But here we are: over 20 percent of us are depressed; an equal, if not greater number, suffer from anxiety and this does not include those with related disorders such as manic depression (bipolar disorder), ADD/ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and so on. The rate of depression alone doubles every 20 years!

We’re told to relax, to take it easy, to live for the now, but none of these are possible unless we step back and ask: How are human beings genetically designed to relax? Some of the answers might surprise you.

The prominent Norwegian biologist Bjorn Grinde says that we know we’re doing what is in harmony with our genes when we feel joy. As he says, we’re actually designed to be happy most of the time, to be relaxed and in a “default good mood.”

To Grinde, and others, relaxation doesn’t mean doing nothing. It doesn’t even necessarily mean not working. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about being “in the flow” when you’re doing work that you can lose yourself in. In this state your mind actually slows down, you use less effort and what you do use is more concentrated and more productive. And you profoundly relax. It’s like a stone-age hunter stalking his prey: all the mental chatter and internal dialogue is gone, you’re in the moment, in the now. You’re not consciously thinking about what you’re doing, just doing.

We think of relaxing as “taking time off,” but paradoxically that can often be more stressful than working. More people suffer anxiety attacks or bouts of depression on holiday than at the office or in the classroom. Human beings were not designed to separate themselves from their routine, or from the office or school “tribe.” Rather we are creatures of stasis and tend get separation anxiety when taken out of our routine environment. One of our greatest social problems is the number of people who die, become depressed or get chronically ill shortly after retirement.

If you look at those things which our brains give us a neurochemical reward for doing you can come up with a pretty good list of ways to relax. The beauty of this list is that it won’t cost you a penny to do any of them! This isn’t surprising since we were genetically programmed long before money was invented. Try these steps to lifelong relaxation:

1. Walking with awareness. Walking is the ideal exercise for human beings, it’s what we were designed to do best. But we were designed not just to walk–just power walking around the park won’t crack it for long-term relaxation (though you may get a short-term endorphin high). We were designed to walk with awareness: awareness of our bodies, of changes to our surroundings, of the ground we walk on, of the animals and people we pass (a form of active Walking Meditation). Humans survived because of this ability to be acutely aware and because of this we get rewarded when we add this to our walking (or jogging if you must). The awareness takes us out of ourselves, puts us in the flow.

2. Connecting to your body. Somewhere along the line of our social civilization we lost the ability to be functionally connected to our bodies. It’s hard to relax if you walk in an injurious way, exercise in a way that gives you pain (pain was created as a warning signal), or envy other people’s bodies. Gentle, awareness provoking, exercises such as Feldenkrais Awareness Through MovementTM, certain kinds of yoga or our own Repatterning Movements TM can bring us back into connection to our bodies and can be therefore profoundly relaxing.

3. Studying things that interest you. We humans are the most naturally curious of all creatures, a genetic trait that accounts for much of the success of our success. When we are allowed to exercise this capacity in ways that are our own we get the relaxation reward.

4. Listening to or playing music. The association between homo sapiens (us) and music goes way back. We know that our near relatives the Neanderthals had musical instruments so presumably they, and we, got it from those hominids that came before us maybe up to 2,000,000 years ago. No wonder it’s in our genes and we get the feel-good reward from it.

5. Being in Nature. Our biology has given us the unique ability to appreciate the wonder and beauty of nature. We can lose ourselves in it, be at one with it. The natural world is our genetic home, not the city, or the suburb or even the farm. Recent research has shown that just by putting a potted plant in your office you can aid in relaxation. Kids who are allowed to play in or explore natural surroundings are much less likely to be depressed or be afflicted with ADHD. Stroking a cat or patting a dog has been shown to greatly reduce high blood pressure and stress.

6. Meditating. Perhaps the reason we find meditation so relaxing is that it originates in a natural response to immediate danger. The three possible responses to danger are to flee, to fight or to freeze. A baby deer will freeze, so will a possum (playing possum). This is a state of absolute stillness, absolute relaxation. In it all awareness of the self and of your surroundings (including the danger) is gone, like the deep meditator, you are literally “out of body.” In meditation we make use of that part of the brain, which also facilitates the freeze reaction-it, is literally our escape from the danger of being over-stressed.

7. Indulging in art. Art, like music is in our genes. Long before humans painted caves they painted themselves. When we create something artistic we can get into the flow. The chatter of our own dysfunctional programming and the anxiety of the world can be shut out. We can surrender to the process. With are it really is a case of the process being all-important and the end result immaterial. We are naturally process-orientated, not goal-orientated creatures. Relaxation is a matter of process.

8. Connecting to the divine. We are all wired for spirituality. We need to have a belief system–the Neanderthals had one, so presumably did our joint ancestors. We also have a genetic need for the other things that go with spirituality–prayer (even Buddhists who don’t believe in God pray), ritual, chanting and sense of purpose. The more we give ourselves over to these things the less stressed and the more relaxed we become.

9. Being with friends. Above all else we are a social species. As a ton of research has shown and as we demonstrate in the Uplift Program, our mood, our psychological well-being, and even our physical health, depends on the state of our relationships. If your relationships were strong and supportive in childhood (particularly with your parents) you are much less likely to be depressed and anxious now. The way to cure anxiety and depression in adulthood is through the cultivation of certain kinds of supportive relationships. Relaxation with good friends is therefore bound to give us the most powerful genetic reward of all. Other ways of relaxing–sex, shopping, gambling, drinking or taking drugs–are only fleetingly rewarding. As Professor Stephen Reiss of Ohio State University has shown, reliance on these for happiness or relaxation is, in the end, self-defeating and depressing. You don’t have to these activities in any particular order, but to really make relaxation a part of your life you need to bring as many of them as you can into your life. They cost nothing and can relax you for a lifetime.

Dr. Bob Murray is a bestselling author, relationship expert and psychologist who holds degrees in psychology from New York University and the University of Sydney. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly effective Uplift Program, and author of the acclaimed books Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

Built by Staple Creative