Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Way Will Open -- Or Not?

When Quakers engage in discernment, often we suggest to each other that if it's meant to be, "way will open." On the internet, I see that "way will open" is also cited as a "Zen proverb," but the full statement of this version is: "Move and way will open."

The experience of way opening is thrilling, affirming, and encouraging. We do feel reassured that we are on the right track when this happens.

But what does it mean when way doesn't open, at least not easily or immediately? It is tempting to take this as a sign that the path we are trying to take is really not the right one, but is this always the case? Social change is often met with resistance at first. If social activists took resistance as a sign that their vision for change is all wrong, nothing would ever change, because all change, being change, meets with at least some resistance. If you study historical examples of transitions from injustice to justice, you see that the resistance can be considerable, and the most successful movements are successful because the activists are prepared for resistance. They expect it, and have strategies for holding strong in the face of it.

So too in our personal lives, times of important discernment are times of personal change, and so some resistance (internal and external) is to be expected. These times of resistance can feel like way NOT opening, and so at these times, discernment can be especially difficult. Do we proceed? If so, how?

I do not have a comprehensive answer to this very important question. I can just speak from experience about one possible answer.

Sometimes if you push and nothing happens, and then push again, perhaps more hesitantly now, and still nothing happens, and then you push yet again, weakly, with growing uncertainty, and then start making token pushes out of habit, and then carefully reassess everything from the ground up all over again, and feel convinced that this really is the right path, and feel frustrated that the universe is not at all helping, and wonder what this all means, and wonder if the whole meaning of your life is going to end in pathetic frustration, and then you push again now fully expecting nothing to continue to happen...

Way still might suddenly open miraculously before your very eyes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lifting Oneself Up By One's Bootstraps

Continuing my theme from last time...

While the Catch-22 of Depression can feel as impossible as lifting oneself by one's bootstraps (absolutely impossible, according to the laws of physics), the real state of being is actually not so bad. The link I pointed out last time is really helpful, as is this website too.

The key is this concept: "for all the energy you put in to your depression recovery, you’ll get back much more in return" (from the second website linked above).

So if, with what little energy you have, you put that energy into action that is known to be helpful, you'll get back a little more energy than you put in, so that now you have even more to put into further healthy action, etc. The key is to be patient but persistent.

The actual effect made me think that the depressing power of depression actually operates according to an inverse-square law, like gravity. Initially it is very hard to escape. But if you hold steady in those initial efforts until you get far enough away, it gets easier. A lot easier. The force-field weakens significantly with distance. But you have to hold steady in your initial efforts. If you let yourself fall all the way back, you have to start over again, and it will be hard all over again.

The known ways to help alleviate depression are simple principles of a healthy life: sleep, good nutrition, exercise, building supportive relationships, minimize stress and develop healthy responses to the stress you cannot avoid, break bad habits of negative thinking, replacing the negative thinking with realistic-positive thinking, seek fulfilling experiences and let yourself enjoy them when you can, and increase awareness of your emotional states and their triggers.

Even if applying these principles does not address all of the causes of your depression, they can help you gain strength and energy to make whatever other changes you may need to make in your life. And, regarding those changes, a similar method of operation applies: take what steps you can. Start small. Making some progress will give you back positive energy that will help you take additional, perhaps harder, steps.

There are likely to be set-backs. There are two kinds of set-backs: (1) plummeting mood, and (2) falling back and losing ground. Often #1 leads to #2. So if you catch #1 in time and can talk yourself into just stopping in your tracks but not retreating, riding out the mood, you may prevent #2.

Becoming worried, anxious, fearful, doubting, sad, angry, etc. are normal in the midst of change. Don't let those moods scare you! Don't read cosmic significance in them. Don't make new decisions in the midst of these states of being. Just listen to them and see how long they last. Move into them; even perhaps precipitate their acceleration (by, e.g., letting yourself cry). While it is not fun to experience these emotions, they in themselves will not harm you. In fact, letting yourself experience them fully gives you strength. And they never last forever. They burn themselves out. Only after you are calm again are you allowed to reassess your plan of action (preferably with the help of trusted friends or guides).

But if #2 happens and you later regret it, all is not lost. Try again. Your awareness of your regret will help give you strength not to give in next time.

The difficulty of making major life changes is a topic I am going to address in an upcoming series of postings I will call, "Difficult Discernment."

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Catch-22 of Depression

Sometimes depression is situational. This means its cause is not internal and physical (e.g., brain chemistry). Instead, the cause is that there is something in the person's life that is not right.

The person can even know this, and know how to make the requisite changes in their life, but find it difficult, perhaps even impossible, because the depression then makes it hard for them to make big changes. This predicament -- life circumstances making a person so depressed they cannot change their life circumstances -- is what I think of as the Catch-22 of Depression.

The person may feel trapped under a boulder so heavy that they cannot get out from under it.

Here is my question: can this really happen? Or is there always a way out?

Can a person always find the strength himself or herself (e.g., if he or she prays enough)? Or is the help (or even intervention) of others sometimes required -- and if it doesn't come through, the person is doomed? Or, sometimes, is even good help from others not enough?

(My question is really a theological one -- it's a question about the exact nature of divine goodness.)

P.S. Apparently I am not the only one to conceptualize depression this way. Jon G. Allen wrote a book on the Catch-22 of Depression, called Coping with Depression, in 2006. Here is a summary. Very helpful!

Monday, July 06, 2009

On Being Disciplined About Blogging

Aware that I have not been blogging as much lately, for a lot of complex reasons (never mind the name of my blog! You'd think that would inspire me to use the blog to process said complexity!), I've wondered how much blogging should be subject to inspiration (being led by the spirit), and how much it should be a matter of discipline, intentionality, commitment. For example, I am inspired by the regularity of Johan Maurer's blog, ("published every Thursday (mostly)," as he says on his site).

So, I've started experimenting with being more disciplined about my own blogging -- not here, but on Bible Wonderings (a posting every Sunday), and a new blog I've created, A Query a Day (every day).

I haven't announced this yet here, until now, because I wanted to try it for a couple of weeks to see if I could really sustain it. I'm still not sure. But I am finding it interesting to try! A Query a Day seemed simple and excellent at first, and then I went through grave doubts for a few days, feeling a bit burdened and trying to avoid the temptation of becoming frantically random just to keep it up. Then suddenly during a late evening when I had almost forgotten to post something and was frantically looking for something (forcing myself nonetheless to follow all of my "rules" of the new posting not being too similar to the one before, and from a different Yearly Meeting, and yet reflecting authentically something meaningful to me in my own life at the moment), I realized that this was good for me. It was good for me to be honest with myself about what's real in my own life, and to try to take that from being just about me to presenting it in a way that maybe others might find value in as well. I have no idea whether anyone is reading that blog at all. It may not ever be something that would be meaningful to anyone else. But I love queries, and I realized in that moment that this has become a new and important spiritual discipline for me -- to consider and post one per day that helps me to keep focused in my life on the values and reflection-questions that matter most to me.

At Meeting yesterday I discerned that it was time for me to start writing my own queries. I'll still draw from the ones from various Yearly Meetings (and other Quakerly sources) I have collected as well. It still feels experimental to me. I feel led, at the moment, to continue to be disciplined about this! But if I should stop feeling so led, I will let this go.

Bible Wonderings is something I feel led to continue no matter how long it takes! Slowly I make my way through. I've started Kings now. The weekly discipline of this is good for me and interesting. Doing it weekly helps me not lose the thread and forget where we were. What sometimes stalls me is that I don't always know what to say. Sometimes I'm very dismayed by the stories. I'm certainly getting tired of all of the violence and all of God's anger, and how the rulers who should know better by now keep making the same mistakes. It's hard to keep track of who everyone is.

Yet, through all of that, I am actually utterly fascinated. I am in awe of the fact that we have access to these ancient documents. I am moved by the struggle of the authors to make sense of what to them must have been a bewildering history: a history never fully arriving at the state of peace and reverence that they expected, or at least not for very long. Reading straight through like this is giving me a new perspective on a tradition and a heritage that includes you and me but that I, for one, realize I hardly know at all. For all the difficulty of these writings, they have meant a lot to a lot of people and have shaped our ways of thinking much more profoundly than most of us realize. (Even those who do not identify themselves with these traditions cannot help but be affected by them at least to some extent in today's world.)

So, for now, I will try to keep a disciplined approach to blogging in those two blogs, but will save this one, Embracing Complexity, my very first, for what I feel moved to write, when I feel so moved.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

No Longer Chair

As of today, I am officially no longer the Chair of the Philosophy Department!

Surprisingly, I am feeling a bit blue about that.

But it is a good development in my life. It frees me to devote more time to my research and writing. After being chair longer than not being chair in my academic career so far, I have been ready to let it go for quite some time. And I'm in the wonderful situation of being very happy about who is now becoming chair.

I am still Program Coordinator of Peace Studies. So my administrative life is not over -- just more manageable, at last.

Despite the fact that I never wanted to be chair, I am glad I did it. I learned a lot, and even grew to like it in many ways. There were a lot of challenges. But there were also wonderful creative opportunities. I feel good about where the department is these days.

And I'm feeling ready to focus my energies more specifically and more fully in other directions now.