I have not been reading books lately because I’ve been depressed.
I’m hoping there’ll be some kind of liberation, in writing that phase: I have not been reading. I’ve been depressed.
There is ONE book I have been trying to get into, though. William T. Vollman’s Imperial didn’t cut it for me (too heavy, so I couldn’t really carry it around with me, unless I wanted to make my backpack significantly heavier and my shoulders significantly sorer). Re-reading Phillip K. Dick’s Valis hasn’t quite done it either.
Just look at the title and tell me that you don’t want to read this book:
I mean, doesn’t that sound GREAT? How can that possibly be something that anyone wouldn’t want to do? “Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life.” Sounds good to me.
It was given to me by a friend, and I’ve been slowly but surely working my way through it with a pencil, doing all of the exercises. It’s been a little hard going. I flipped ahead and apparently one of the exercises consists of keeping a Pain Diary, which quite frankly… doesn’t sound that appealing to me. But hey, maybe it will reveal something useful. But yeah, the exercises so far have been difficult. But maybe they’re only hard because they’re forcing me to be brutally, painfully honest with myself.
A lot of it is pretty similar stuff to what I’ve read in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. Accepting suffering as an inevitable part of life, instead of trying to run away from your pain and pretend that it isn’t there, do anything to distract yourself and avoid looking at the suffering. Developing compassion for yourself and mindfulness of your actions. The oh so important role of delicious, delicious meditation.
What’s also interesting about this book, though, is that it has a very cognitive therapy, this-is-the-way-your-brain works, psychology-based approach. It’s fascinating stuff, reading about how the brain fuctions and how humans think.
There’s a chapter about language that I found especially interesting, about how language inherently causes suffering in people (the chapter is called “Why Language Leads to Suffering”–ho-kay!). According to the book, the nature of language makes it so that humans thus “have the capacity to treat anything as a symbol for something else” due to what they call “relational frames,” or networks of mutual relations. These networks make it so that humans can learn without requiring direct experience (a fascinating idea, which reminds me, yet again, of my undergraduate thesis. BOO-YAH! I should seriously take a shot every time I mention it in this blog!). So basically what this means is that what it means to be human is to be able to arbitrarily relate objects in our environment to basically any other object. Thus Phillip K. Dick’s book Valis isn’t just a fun escapist science fiction book, but a reminder of the last time you read it, and all the memories that come attached to that. A sunset isn’t just something beautiful, but something sad, because it reminds you of a person you miss, who isn’t watching it with you. And so on. So basically people are CRAZY because they can turn things like sunsets and Valis into things that they totally are not!
So what does this oh so wise book advise about how to deal with this? Well first of all, it’s not something that we can just STOP, since thinking relationally is what makes us human: it’s what helps us problem-solve, develop tools and technology, and so on. Humans constantly seek out patterns, relationships, steps that connect things to other things. As the book puts it: “humans suffer, in part, because they are verbal creatures. If this is so, then here is the problem: the verbal skills that create misery are too useful and central to human functioning to stop operating. That means suffering is an unavoidable part of the human condition, at least until we know how to better manage the skills language itself has given us.” (24)
I like looking forward to learning about how to do the part in bold.
There were a lot of other things in the book that I liked, some of them hitting painfully close to the bone, so much so that it’s difficult to even retype them here. Like the definition and discussion of experiential avoidance: “You develop specific means by which you try to stop feeling the feelings you are feeling or thinking the thoughts you are thinking. You try to avoid the experience of painful thoughts or feelings by burying yourself in distracting activities, combating your thoughts with rationalizations, or trying to quash your feelings… If you are suffering, you may spend a lot of time performing these distracting coping techniques. Meanwhile, your life is not being lived.” (30) OUCH. “What you are left with are behaviors that have become deeply embedded in your day-to-day life due to their short-term effectiveness, but for long-term relief they are sadly lacking.” (31) More pain, more avoidance. The book has a really scary diagram of this, with MORE PAIN in a big black circle in the center, and then circles around it that say MORE PAIN and MORE AVOIDANCE. Ugh. I didn’t like doing the activities in this chapter…
But then I am heartened by passages such as this one: “To know what an experience is really like, you’ve got to experience it for yourself, not just think about it. To see what it’s like to jump off the mind-train, you have to actually do it. You do that by breaking some of the rules and conditions your mind sets for you… once you are off of the train with your feet on the ground, you will see whether you are in a better position to choose a direction and live accordingly to your values rather than simply riding the rails of your verbal conditioning.” (32) It sounds so nice, I wrote in light pencil in the margins.
It makes me think of that NY Times magazine story published a while back ago, “Depressions Upside,” also e-mailed to me recently by the same friend that lent me the book. I like two sentences in this article: “sadness, like happiness, has many functions” and “Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The darkness was a kind of light.”
I like thinking about depression as something useful, something with a purpose. It makes me think of that last sentence in that Amy Hempel story: How do we know that what happens to us isn’t good? That story also in turn makes me think of Voltaire’s “Candide.” Things happening for reasons is different than things happening because of goodness.
I also liked the discussion of the etymology behind words in this book. I liked learning how ‘symbol’ means ‘to throw back as the same.’ I also liked learning that the primary root of ‘suffering’ is the Latin word ferre, which means to “bear or to carry” (hence “ferry”!), and that the prefix “suf” is a version of “sub,” which means “from below, up (hence) away.” Or as the book puts it, “suffering [thus] doesn’t just involve having something to carry, it also involves moving away.”