terrible, dark, excruciating depressive, suicidal emotions

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[Update: Dignity and Love]

When my life and relationships are handled, when I feel secure in a positive trajectory, I feel good. When that’s not the case, when the future is not secure, I feel bad. And my feeling-state is a function of my entire life experience up to that point in time, but my feeling-state is especially a function of the contents of my working memory, and what’s happened to me in the past hour, if not the last five minutes.

Recent evidence is highly privileged. And recent evidence is interpreted with extreme prejudice.

You can get a conscious feel for that, the intense truth of “this is what just happened,” “this is what it means for me and about me,” “this is what is going to happen in five minutes and five years.”

I’m not saying that that that intense sense of truth is wrong. Your brain has been carefully integrating information, building a worldview, over however many years you’ve been alive. Your brain is brilliant. Of course, your brain was built for surviving toothy mammals and tiny tribes–not modern society. There’s going to be lots of twitchy weirdness in there. But, that pop evo psych thinking, that too, is yet another inaccurate, partial, contextual perspective.

My first point, summarizing all of that, is that your brain can present multiple truths at once, and you can inhabit them all simultaneously and ask for more. You don’t have to just listen to the loudest “truth” (though, interestingly, if you don’t listen to a truth, it’ll just get louder, so the best strategy is to listen fast and honor and integrate, so you can hear the other ones, too).

My second point is about emotions and emotional states. I’ve said before that meditation just makes me hungrier, increases my desire, increases the range, nuance, and complexity of my appetite for doing, being, feeling, giving, and having. This is likely not a recipe for happiness. When I solve one problem and acquire new skills, then I just move right to that bigger game, with its bigger, harder problems (better intimacy, better friendships, more freedom, more control, more authenticity).

It’s ok to say, “enough.” More, more, more is not likely a recipe for happiness. But it might (or might not) be a recipe for meaning, gratification, eudaimonia, etc.

Anyway, this is not actually my point, regarding emotion qua emotion, etc.

My point is about the utility of those emotions. There’s a great review article that discusses the demi-voluntary behavioral changes that can occur with strong negative emotions [1]. This was of interest to me, because I wanted to make constructive choices around the stronger and stronger emotions I was feeling, as I continued to meditate over years.

The larger and more abstract your goals are, the more likely you are to get “depressed” [2]. If you resist goal disengagement, you’re more likely to get “depressed” [3]. (I use quotes because “depression” is a label for a collection of symptoms with myriad causes.)

In some ways, I feel like I have less choices. For whatever reason, my goals have naturally(?) become larger and more abstract (and more exacting and intricate), as I’ve gotten older. And, I’ve become better able to stabilize my goals and work towards them, over long periods of time. And, regarding less choices, my goals seem less likely to let go of me.

In any case, great appetite and great hopelessness can arise concurrently. And, on the one hand, these are first-world problems, extended adolescence problems, ongoing tantrums originating in childhood slights. And we’re all gonna die, eventually, anyway, so what’s the big deal? On the other hand, these not-yet–possibly-not-ever–hopes, fears, dreams, and longings, they cut to the bone.

(Will you let them cut to the bone? Do you want to live like that? If you keep meditating, will you give up your choices about whether you’re going to be living like that or not?)

It’s odd: the tension of longing and lack cuts to the bone, but, perhaps it doesn’t cut to the soul. There’s a certain spaciousness. Perhaps, if you’re doing it right, if everything’s working correctly, you feel exactly as much and intensely as it’s safe to feel. (If something does go wrong, perhaps you have a manic episode or commit suicide.)

I want to be clear how upset I sometimes get, how genuinely, truly hopeless I sometimes feel. That’s utterly real as long as it lasts, even as I really, truly know, while it’s happening, that it’s not going to last. First-world problems.

So, anyway, here’s the main point I want to make:

Those negative emotional states are pure gold if you know what to do with them.

So you want the world to fuck off. Or you want to crawl into a cave and die. Or you need everyone to stop talking. Or you desperately need to be alone. Or even the slightest noise is a distraction. Or you don’t want to get out of bed. Or you can’t sleep at all. Or you keep pushing people away, even if they want to help you.

Some of that might be neo-ancestral monkey-brain idiocy. Mitigate the damage of that demi-voluntary lashing out.


“Long- term improvements in depression were associated with a peak in the frequency and intensity of processing and greater insight, while peak levels of avoidance were associated with poorer long-term outcomes (Hayes et al., 2005; Hayes, Feldman et al., 2007).” [1]

The entire article makes a case for the adaptiveness of negative emotional states.

Global emotional state, punctate emotions, associated changes in behavior, cognition, etc.–this is all marshaling tremendous, focused cognitive resources and supporting context to solve a deeply personal wicked problem.

If I want to watch twenty hours of TV (choose your poison), I don’t.

(Actually, I mean, sometimes I do! Maybe you should watch that hour of TV or eat the chocolate, because you really will feel better and really will put you in a better, healthier state of mind. But maybe deliberately choose.)

What I do most often, very often, is I close the door, hang a do-not-disturb sign, clean off a desk, put in earplugs (or undistracting music), turn off my phone, close email/facebook/twitter, sometimes leave internet up for intermittent searching, set a timer for four hours which I can look at whenever I want, plunk down some writing tools, and I give myself no escape.

You have to be willing to have no solution at the end of that one to four hours. Maybe you’ll have no solution for months. But you’d be surprised. It’s always a surprise. Because you don’t have a solution or next action or next experiment until you do, otherwise you’d already have it.

Sometimes it’ll hit you while you’re still sitting there. Sometimes it’ll hit you in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’ll hit you right as you wake up. Sometimes you’ll wake up disappointed you don’t have a solution, and then it hits you two hours after waking up. These all happen to me regularly.

It’s almost never this single, brilliant move that solves all your problems. And often your solution will have holes or be (initially or fundamentally) unworkable. Or risk, uncertainty, pain, two steps forward, one step back, leaving a local maximum without better maxima in view. Next steps are usually little things, little experiments, emails to send, short blog posts to write, google searches to try, little bets. But, you’re really, truly, finally unblocked. You have a way forward. For the next hour, the next day, the next month, or at least the next five minutes.

(Very, very often, you’ll just find yourself doing. You’re on the phone before you even realize you’re doing it. The email is half written before you realize you were typing. You’re deep into an iterative google search with fifty tabs open before you realize you had a keyword epiphany. You’ve found that person and given zir a hug and words are coming out of your mouth before you realize you’re speaking. It’s natural, it’s automatic, it might not have happened had you not turned off your phone and deliberately agonized, and it was more or less correct next step. Brains, man.)

And when your brilliant solution is ultimately unworkable, either you realize it in five seconds or five days. And then it hurts even more. So you have to close the door and go back into yourself again. And again. And again. Do you have that strength? Do you love yourself enough? Nobody’s going to solve your problems for you.

(But, oh man, lean on the people who love you, if you’ve got them, which you might not if you feel this bad in the first place, and be open to a little bit of input, even as you tell them to fuck off.)

When you embrace the intensity of your emotions, when you surf them down to their darkest depths, when you bring a lantern, writing materials… It never hurts any less. It usually hurts more and more, forever. And it never gets any easier, though paradoxically it does.

But your life and future might be waiting for you down there. Won’t you go and see?

*I am not a licensed mental health professional and this is not mental health advice. If you or someone else is in physical danger please call 911 or the equivalent in your country.

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[1] Andrews, Paul W., and J. Anderson Thomson Jr. “The bright side of being blue: depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.” Psychological review 116, no. 3 (2009): 620.

[2] Emmons, Robert A. “Abstract versus concrete goals: personal striving level, physical illness, and psychological well-being.” Journal of personality and social psychology 62, no. 2 (1992): 292.

[3] http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=goal+disengagement+depression


4 thoughts on “terrible, dark, excruciating depressive, suicidal emotions

  1. Pingback: Fucking Meditation, How Does it Work?: Or, what are you doing and why are you doing it? | @meditationstuff (Since 2013; 100+ posts; 50,000+ words and counting...)

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