Treatment for anxiety will be a multi-billion dollar enterprise this year, up from previous years and expected to continue its rise for the foreseeable future. We want the inner peace of a relaxed body and calm mind, but we settle – actually we pay a lot – for feeling a little less anxious, if it can be managed.
If our anxiety can’t be managed, we are at risk of falling into depression, which is chasing the trendline of anxiety disorders like a dark demon, ready to swallow victims who can’t stay ahead of it.
The successful treatment of any malady begins in a proper understanding of its causes, conditions, and course of development, along with whether and to what extent it may be a compensatory or comorbid factor in a still larger system.
In the case of anxiety and depression, we know already that they typically coexist in a bipolar pattern: cramping up in nervous agitation, then crashing down into exhaustion where our thoughts circle the drain of hopelessness and despair. In treating one side of the pattern, symptoms often worsen on the other, drawing the patient into a web of medications, with added prescriptions aimed at mitigating the negative side-effects of the primary drugs.
And so on.
In this post I will offer a framework for understanding anxiety and depression from the perspective of wisdom spirituality. I don’t presume to diagnose my reader’s mental illness, nor am I recommending that anyone abandon their current treatment plan. It’s just a different way of looking at our pandemic of bipolar suffering, with the goal of understanding its place in the larger system of human experience, development, and transformation.
Wisdom spirituality identifies a polarity in human nature. Not the bipolar pattern of anxiety and depression, but a tension inherent to being human. One side, or pole, of this tension is represented by the path of development culminating in human fulfillment, in the actualization of our individual and species potential.
Such a quality of life can be compared analogously to the free flight of a butterfly that has emerged from its cocoon, and is known as spiritual liberty or the liberated life.
It is not a life that is trouble-free, gliding as it were above the labors and frustrations of a caterpillar’s existence.
Spiritual liberty is not about being always happy and never sad or afraid, but allows rather for a creative embrace – and release – of every sensation, feeling, and judgment. It is about being fully alive.
The path to spiritual liberty – again, not to immortality or world-escape, but to a fully awakened and liberated life – flows from an inner peace, through mindful presence, into the experience of communion with others and all things, ultimately finding wings in the fulfillment of our essential Self.
By essential Self (with the uppercase “S”) we mean not merely the soul in a body but the body-soul essence of a human being, the animal with a perhaps uniquely evolved capacity for contemplation, empathy, creativity, and self-transcendence.
This Self of our essential nature stands in paradoxical relation with a second nature, that of our conditioned self (with the lowercase “s”), whose path of development focuses on the formation of an executive center of self-conscious identity called ego.
As a product of social engineering, the design intention of our ego is to identify us with a tribe, as “one of us” who behaves and believes in a way that ensures group cohesion and sympathy with the herd.
As “one of us,” part of this project in ego formation serves to induce a sense of individuality that psychologically separates us from our body, which becomes increasingly an object of control, ornamentation, and sensuality. Ego also differentiates us from others who engage with us in role plays of social interaction that give our life meaning.
My diagram illustrates the two paths: the first, of our essential Self developing toward spiritual liberty; and a second, of our conditioned self differentiating an identity that provides access to a meaningful life in society.
This is where we can begin to appreciate a tension in the polarity of being human and becoming somebody.
The tension starts already as our essential aptitude for inner peace has to share space with a subjective insecurity (or anxiety) over the gradual separation into a centered identity of our own. Part of us wants to, and still can, release in faith to the provident ground of our existence. But this other part must follow the authoritative influence of a tribe that needs us to get in line and do our part.
It’s at this point that the polar tension of the two paths becomes impossible to ignore.
While our essential Self seeks to be present and open authentically to Reality, our conditioned self is already busy in the work of personation, referring to the somewhat anxious pursuit of identity by trying on masks (Greek personae) and stepping into roles that will qualify us for the social acceptance, approval, and recognition we crave.
With respect to our essential Self, personation is the process of covering over, even suppressing and denying, our authentic nature for the sake of becoming somebody who fits in and stands out.
Now, according to wisdom spirituality, the paradoxical relation of these two paths has evolved with the aim of bringing us to the place where we are empowered to surpass ego identity for a larger transpersonal experience. It is indeed a foundational insight that helps us understand the bipolar pattern of anxiety and depression, but more importantly helps us see our way through to spiritual liberty.
When our neurotic insecurity hides inside and behind masks of identity, an experience of communion – our participation in a dynamic web of higher wholeness – is foreclosed and we are locked down by the conceit of “me and mine.”
In the worldwide anthology of principles, parables, koans, and proverbs, wisdom spirituality often speaks of the necessity for a truth seeker to “die” as a caterpillar and shed their cocoon of identity, in order to find a New Life beyond the masks and roles, and even more importantly beyond the ego who is pretending to be somebody behind all those masks and roles.
But it’s hard to let go and leave behind our conditioned self, even for the promise of an experience we can hardly imagine, much less accept as a real possibility for us.
And because others of our tribe are equally insecure and attached to the pretense of identity, reinforced by generations of dogmatic orthodoxy dismissing or outright condemning spiritual liberty as rebellious, blasphemous, and sacrilegious, our conceit can get further impounded behind convictions that close our mind to everything outside the box.
What I’m calling “spiritual depression” is not a special subtype of the garden-variety clinical depression so prevalent today. It is not unique to religious folk or to those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Spiritual depression is the deep, dark place we find ourselves after we have pushed away (or withdrawn from) everything that doesn’t fit inside our box, along with anyone who suggests that most of what is real and true is outside our box and can’t be owned.*
This depression is spiritual because it signifies something more than a deficiency in the balance of neurotransmitters in our brain, or an autoimmune disorder of psychosomatic illness, or even a breakdown in our construction of meaning.
It is spiritual because it is our human spirit that languishes and slowly dies inside a cage that was forged, ironically, to “save” our life.
It should be obvious, then, how this bipolar cycling of anxiety and depression “works.” We are anxious because the process of becoming somebody requires us to separate ourselves to some extent from our own existential ground and from the others around us.
And while personation is developmentally about putting on an identity that conforms to the world of tribal values and concerns, our insecure conceit (or conceited insecurity), compounded by a repressive tribal morality, can drive us deeper into our cocoon – so deep, in fact, that we can’t find our way out.
How would wisdom spirituality counsel us at this point, if our current treatment protocols and intervention methodologies only keep us spinning in bipolar cycles between anxiety and depression, and back around again?
Relax. Set the mask aside for now. Open your wings and be free. If you’re not there yet, just keep going – all the way through.
It’s in our nature to fly.
*This explains the odd phenomenon where dogmatic Christians are forced to deny the real Jesus, who felt it was his mission to break open boxes and acknowledge God as a mystery beyond the constructs of theology and the convictions of believers.
2 thoughts on “All the Way Through”