Depression as a Spiritual Journey
by Stephanie Sorrell
O Books 2009 249pp
This helpful and original book is arranged in four parts: Part 1 Asking the Right Questions defines depression and provides the context for Sorrell's approach. Depression is likened to the archetypal quest in which the hero undergoes various trials and returns with new power and gifts to share with the community. We are introduced to the Greek myth of Persephone who descended to the Underworld, married Pluto and bore his child. Through her mother's intervention she is allowed to return for part of each year, bringing fertility back to the earth.
Part 2 Tools for the Journey looks at the use of medication and discusses different theoretical perspectives. There is also an account of the author's own experiences with depression and medication and the value she found in her training in psychosynthesis. Unlike many who emphasise a spiritual perspective, Sorrell is not against the use of medication and gives a balanced argument for treating the distress while still valuing the learning which depression can stimulate.
These two sections are more than half of the book but they are at times a little pedestrian and offer only the barest introduction to Sorrell's real purpose. Parts 3 and 4 are the most original and intriguing sections, showing real insights.
In Part 3 Going Deeper, Sorrell examines the spiritual concepts of Dark Night of the Senses and Dark Night of the Soul, adding Christian mystics St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila to the Persephone myth. Rather than 'kissing the joy as it flies' (Blake) we tend to become addicted to the glitter of the material world. Even a spiritual practice may be held to over-tightly or with pride. Withdrawal, either through a choice to surrender or through the painful loss of comforting objects and routines, leaves space to grow.
The Dark Night of the Spirit encompasses 'the feeling of being abandoned by God'. Disillusion may lead to giving up, but the initiate is being called to a deeper level. 'Finding long held beliefs that served us well and formed our worldview of reality are crumbling can be deeply unsettling.' (p.187) Sorrell gives the example of a tree 'where the growth of the tree is primarily downward before we can see it emerging through the soil'. That is, we need the roots to anchor us before growth bears fruit.
Sorrell clearly distinguishes between depression as an illness and the dark night as a spiritual trial, giving examples of each in a useful table. This is convincing in a way in which her attempt to do the same with psychosis and creativity is not. But for many, it will not be a case of whether they are experiencing depression or a spiritual trial but whether they can make constructive use of an experience which is thrust upon them.
Pain in the creative process comes from denying what longs to be birthed, and from fear of the unknown. Pain, and the 'necessity of frustration' can drive us on to rise to a challenge, forming a relationship with deeper aspects of ourselves. This is where the treasure lies.
Finally, in Part 4, Sorrell addresses ways in which we can support and be with a depressed or even suicidal person. She is compassionate and wise in this section. Useful questions guide the support person to address their own experiences of frustration or depression and find ways to be alongside without judging or trying to fix the depressed person.
Over all, this book offers original insights into depression and shows how to value the experience and grow through it. It is a vital message.
Depression as a Spiritual Journey