Last week, I started a series on depression and suicide in Paganism. This week I’m going to carry on with a Pagan spiritual perspective on the issue and some suggested therapies grounded in Pagan practices to aid you if you are dealing with depression. Again, I must stress that these ideas are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. But they can work effectively in compliment, and they may be of help to you if Western medicine’s help has been limited.
I am not a medical doctor, nor am I a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I am a Pagan clergyperson with some experience in lay counselling. Above all I am a sister sufferer, once diagnosed with chronic depression, and now with Seasonal Affective Disorder and PTSD. So in many cases, my suggestions are grounded in therapies and changes in perspective that worked for me.
The Pagan Perspective
Many of us, especially those of us in initiatory traditions, often dig through the caverns of our subconscious minds in our quest for self-knowledge, and this leads not only to High Priestess’ Disease, but invites our buried issues to challenge us so that we can overcome them. The drawback of this is that sometimes we dig up more than we’re prepared to handle; which is why some teachers may suggest that you might not be ready for a particular challenge yet. The advantage is that once we have overcome those challenges, we are stronger and often better people.
I have found that the practice of Pagan spirituality is rich with tools to help deal with depression. None of them are quick and easy solutions, but all of them would fall under the category of what they call “cognitive therapy.”
Deepak Chopra is usually too New Age for me, but he came up with something I think is an excellent tangible measurement system which he called the “happiness formula” (there’s apparently a formula created now that predicts happiness accurately but that’s not what I’m talking about.) He said that happiness equals set point (a series of factors that express whether or not you are more inclined to view things positively or negatively, determined by genetics, chemistry, and trained ways of thinking), which is about 40% of your overall happiness level; plus conditions of living, which only determines about 10 to 15% of your happiness; plus voluntary choices, based on either making yourself happy or making the world a better place, which makes up 50 to 55% of your overall happiness. In his view, brief selfish choices (like retail therapy) only make you happy in the short term and it won’t last, while choices made with an eye towards improving the world for other people fill the bank for the long term.
I think this is a gross oversimplification of course; and it is evident to me that Dr. Chopra has never spent any time in a desperate state of survival-mode poverty; but the theory is not without merit. Some people find being happy easy, partially because of natural brain chemistry, but also because they had better examples of how to look at the world positively (I did not; I like to joke that I spent my twenties getting my mother’s voice out of my head telling me why everything wouldn’t work.) But it does mean that it is possible to improve your overall happiness, not just by improving your life circumstances (which might well be beyond your control) but by changing the way you think. By no means is this easy! It’s a gradual process at best. Start by practicing assertive rights and affirmations. Once it becomes habit, life might be easier to cope with.
Meditation has been proven to be effective in fighting depression. There are many forms of meditation, and casting circle or performing ritual are among them. Any altered state of consciousness can be good for you. And meditation or medication are the two most direct ways to change your set point.
We have numerous rituals. For instance, when we need to adjust to breaking free of someone who was harmful to us, we can use a handparting ritual or similar. Try using a daily Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram to clear negative energy. Ask the dark deities to help you with change, transformation and trauma. Some suggestions for gods to speak with include Hecate, Kali, Lilith (especially for female divorcees,) Herne, and any of the moon deities. If you need compassion, try Brighid or Kwan Yin; They were very helpful to me when I was grieving a miscarriage. If you are looking for a reminder of joy, try Krishna, the Blue God, Kokopelli, or the Star Goddess. Ask for Their help. After all, isn’t that what gods are for?
Symbolic death and rebirth rites in the Campbellian model can be incredibly helpful. Once you have been to the Underworld and re-emerged, you can shed all the burdens of your past and only pick up the ones you choose. You will still have to deal with traumas eventually, but often that happens in the Underworld anyway, and it can give you some needed distance if you are struggling. And you don’t have to actually die or cause yourself any harm at all to create this effect! Second degree initiation rites and shamanic journeywork can do this job just as well. Indeed, that is their purpose.
Sometimes, working with, and embracing, your Shadow-Self, the part of you that you’re not comfortable with and that feels and thinks and does things that you or the people around you find unacceptable, is incredibly healing and lifts the burden of depression almost completely. It certainly worked for me. If I can offer you some help with that, I’ve got a meditation that I printed in my book that you can also find on my YouTube channel.
Spells can help too. Try burning a black candle or making a Witch Bottle to get rid of bad luck. Try directing unbearable pain into a poppet, then toss the poppet into running water to clear the gathered negativity (but don’t do that too often; it won’t help you forever, especially if you use it as an avoidance tactic; this is emergency first aid.) Try smudging for emergency care! Even if it’s only psychological (which might be true when it comes to magick, but I’m a believer in “if it works, so what?”), sometimes just the thought that you might have some control over your circumstances can make them less difficult to deal with.
In recent years there have been a lot of books about something called codependence. You’ve probably heard of it. In the simplest terms, codependence is when you allow your happiness and sense of self-worth to be grounded in someone else’s approval. It’s a common ailment that plagues those who suffer from mental illness or addictions, or their families. Also, empathic people are especially subject to experiencing it, since they hate experiencing unhappiness in the people around them and often can’t endure it at all.
My mother is bipolar and was undiagnosed for most of my childhood. I am also a recover(ed) anorexic/bullemic. Her father was an alcoholic. Needless to say, I have spent most of my adult life trying to recover from my codependence.
If I might recommend some reading, I would suggest:
When I Say No I Feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith
Facing Codependence: What it Is, Where it Comes from, How it Sabotages Our Lives by Pia Mellody, Andrea Wells Miller and J. Keith Miller
The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings and Meditations on Crossing Over by Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare and Reclaiming
The most effective tool I have found in my life for dealing with it has been the self-realization work of Pagan mysticism. And the psychic shielding practice has not hurt either. Symbolic death and rebirth rites can also be helpful, which is one reason why baptisms are often so effective; remember, you are not the same person you were after your Underworld journey, so you can do anything, and be anyone, from that point.
As a recovering anorexic, I can tell you that you must simultaneously work on overcoming your addiction in order to recover from depression. There’s no easy way to do it. The system which has been proven to be most effective is still Twelve Steps, Twelve Traditions. This can be problematic for Pagans, largely because AA and similar groups tend to be so overwhelmingly Christian (and aggressively so!). Another issue is the theological aspect. Even understanding “God” to mean “Higher Power,” many Pagans are Pagan precisely because they seek self-empowerment. Thus, putting their lives completely in the hands of a Higher Power is antithetical to their basic spiritual beliefs.
In this case, if you cannot put your life in the hands of a Higher Power, then you must take your life completely in your own hands. That, I believe, is the nature of the Wiccan Rede for those who follow it, and it certainly is integral to the Nine Noble Virtues.
Which means, only you are responsible for your own behavior, be it good or ill! Not your abusive mother, not your skinflint boss, not your neglectful partner – you, and only you. Therefore, you and only you can take the blame for your own stuff (or the credit, for that matter). Addicts scapegoat other people for their actions (I have been no exception). Only you can choose to engage in your addiction; and only you can choose to stop. One choice at a time. One day at a time.
There’s a great blog here on Patheos for Pagans in recovery. You should read it.
Seeking the Council of the Gods
Divination is a very effective and often poorly utilized tool. As a professional Tarot reader, I believe that divination does two things. The first is that it gives you insight into the depths of your subconscious influences. The second is that it gives you a glimpse of the likely outcome of current events. Again, I’m not particularly concerned about whether you believe that it’s magick or psychology (I think the answer is yes,) but in either case, you can use it to help.
Try some of the following questions:
What is the root cause of my present depression?
What do I have to accomplish in order to alleviate the present cycle of my depression?
What do I need to do in order to put X event behind me?
What am I avoiding that is interfering with my ability to move on?
What happened to me in the period of my life that I don’t remember?
What do I need to do to improve my present life circumstances?
But here’s the kicker, folks: if you’re confident in your interpretation of the answer you were given, then you have to take that advice, even if it’s something complicated like moving, leaving a career or a marriage, or taking a risk that frightens you. It has been my observation that at least in my case, suicidal depression is enhanced by a feeling of powerlessness, and often that powerlessness has been linked to fear. Courage isn’t about not being afraid; courage is about facing the fear and doing it anyway. And that, more than anything else I have found in my life, is rife with hope.
The dark gods have Their mysteries too. I won’t go so far as to say that everything happens for a reason. It really doesn’t; sometimes bad things happen for no reason other than random chance. But as Pagans, we can choose to embrace our struggles as Underworld journeys from which we glean wisdom; even if that wisdom is only how to help others survive it.
I believe that if you keep your eyes open for them, the gods send you signs also. When my husband was in a major car accident and in the ICU for a month, the phrase “this too shall pass” continued to be sent to me. People would say it on the bus to me; I saw it tattooed on the wrist of one of the kinder nurses. You get the idea.
As Pagans, we generally believe in cycles and ebb and flow. For every ebb, there’s flow waiting. And that means that no matter how bad the current circumstances, they have to end sometime.
Next column: The Downward Spiral – Depression and Suicide in Paganism (Part Three)