What is Depression?

We have been told that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.  The bad news is that there’s something wrong with your head.  The good news is that we can fix you.  Just take this $15-billion pill.

It’s not just the pharmaceutical industry that profits from this myth.  The fact is that an epidemic of depression has coincided with an epidemic of unemployment, of government lying and suppressed information, with a paucity of ways that people can contribute meaningfully to their community and widespread doubt whether our traditional institutions are worthy of our participation.  Treating depression as an individual disease is part of a climate of denial that allows the ongoing rape of democracy by capital.  If we weren’t taking Prozac, we’d be marching in the streets.

Depression is a mismatch between people’s legitimate expectation that modes of fulfilling participation and cooperation be the mainstay of their lives, and the collapse of society’s ability to provide opportunities for fulfilling participation.



(The above is my opinion in my language (JJM).  Here is an article by Olivia Goldhill writing in Quartz last week.)


Liberation from self-forcing

(This essay is adapted from a podcast by Charles Eisenstein, part of his course, Dietary Transformation from the Inside Out.  The ideas are mostly Eisenstein’s; the words are mostly my own —JJM)

As a way to change behavior in the long run, willpower is problematic.  It’s also perfectly consonant with our dominant cultural model, which seeks wellbeing through control.

Our culture tells us that nature is random, soul-less—maybe even hostile, because we live in a world of competition, both biological and economic.  If you believe that, then control is the safest course.

Our habit of seeking control is modeled on a hostile external world.  But “self-control” is a problematic concept, when you think about it.  Imagine clamping your jaw closed with your hand to prevent your mouth from eating too much!  We don’t do that, but what we do is akin to setting up a war within ourselves.  We seek to use the surface mind, the conscious and “rational” part to hold in check the impulses that run below the surface.


Implicit in this program is the assumption that our rational minds know better.  Our instincts are crude—honed for survival in a long-ago world.  Our instincts were programmed into us by natural selection at a time when food was scarce and the everyday world held lethal threats.  No wonder we eat too much!  No wonder we are liable to chronic anxiety!



How do we assert self-control?  We can learn about this by looking at the way we control others.  Rarely do we do this with overwhelming physical force.  More often, we try to control the people around us by offering and withholding affection—threats and promises.  Or we do it by moral suasion—manipulation by triggering socially-conditioned emotions, now within all our heads.  We may attempt to raise feelings in another person that say, “I am a bad person if I do this.”

“Self-forcing” is the use of these same techniques on the self.  We offer ourselves strokes, internally, if we do the desired thing.  We tell ourselves, “I am bad, bad, bad” if we do the forbidden thing.

Underlying all these ways of maniipulating others and manipulating the self is fear.  Fear of withheld affection, fear of ostracism or shunning.  If this sounds like a stretch, remember the experience that all of us had coming into the world.  Our mothers were our lifeline to protection, nutrition, and comfort.  We were utterly dependent on a loving mother to provide for our survival, and most of us had mothers who leveraged that dependence to control our behavior, to socialize us, to keep us quiet and out of the way.  Or worse, in some cases.

Conditional approval in our childhood becomes internalized as conditional self-approval in the adult.  Contrast this model with the ideal of unconditional love.  If we were loved unconditionally (by our mothers, by ourselves), would we then behave irresponsibly, constantly stepping on each others’ toes in a campaign to get more, more more?

That is certainly the model of human behavior on which our control methods are based.  It comes from a 17th-century British philosophical tradition of Locke and Hobbes.  But it is not in line with contemporary ideas of how most humans work.

It is the people who were most effectively manipulated by parental guilt when they were young who become selfish adults.  “Spoiled” children are not those who are given everything they want, but rather those who are given toys and candy as substitutes for unavailable love.  Children raised with unconditional love tend to become unconditionally loving adults.  Both our experience and modern psychological studies tell us this.

It’s not too late.  Try treating yourself the way you wish you had been treated by an unconditionally loving mother.  Have patience if you run to excesses of undisciplined behavior for awhile. Give the program a chance.  Trust that if you swing out, you will swing back to a more grounded, more stable equilibrium.  Relax all self-forcing.

Nature is not a random, indifferent world, but an innate intelligence, a holistic order.  You can trust your instincts to take care of you, once you cease the internal warfare and become your own best friend.

If Aaron Copland were Russian

Aaron Copland wrote archetypically American music with depth, originality and an immediate popular appeal.  Dmitri Kabalevsky did the equivalent for Russia.  Listen to the First Cello Concerto once.  It’s fun and easy to love.  Listen to the Second Cello Concerto twice.  It requires more concentration and rewards your attention amply.

Дмитрий Кабалевский composed for theater and for movies.  He wrote piano pieces for children and music to laugh with and music to cry over.  Today is his birthday. 47c5b58d-img-03


Lest the answers eclipse the questions…

When you penetrate a mystery, it doesn’t become less mysterious.

The way of the Buddha is a living response to a living question. Yet whenever it has become institutionalized, its vital response has become a well formulated answer. The seemingly important task of preserving a particular set of answers often causes the very questions which gave rise to the answers to be forgotten. Then the lucid answers Buddhism provides are cut off from the stammering voice that asks the questions.

Just as Christianity has struggled to account for how an essentially good and loving God could create a world with so much suffering, injustice and horror, so buddhism has struggled to account for the presence of joy, delight and enchantment in a world that is supposedly nothing but a veil of tears.

Lawn Chair Balloonist

An individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Secular Buddhism is something to do, not something to believe in.  It’s creating the conditions whereby we can embark on a way of life that is not dictated by our instinctive reactivity, our habits, our fears, and so forth and so on, but stems from an openness, an inner openness, that is unconditioned by those forces, and that allows the freedom to think differently, to act differently, to respond more fully. And in doing so, to allow the human person to flourish. To realize more fully the potentials that each one of us has.

All the above is from an interview with Stephen Batchelor by Krista Tippett


The source of philosophy is wonder.
— Socrates


Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future — and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.

— Rebecca Solnit

Three Views of Truth

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite, for man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.

— William Blake

Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.

— R.W. Emerson

I gave up writing — there is already too much truth in the world — an over-production which apparently cannot be consumed!
— Otto Rank


How you came to be here

Once upon a time a great tribe of people lived in a world far away from ours. Whether far away in space, or in time, or even outside of time, we do not know. They lived in a state of enchantment and joy that few of us today dare to believe could exist, except in those exceptional peak experiences when we glimpse the true potential of life and mind.

One day the elders of the tribe called a meeting. They gathered around, and one of them spoke very solemnly. “My friends,” she said, “there is a world that needs our help. It is called Earth, and its fate hangs in the balance. Its humans have reached a critical point in their collective birthing, the same point our own planet was at one million years ago, and they will be stillborn without our help. Who would like to volunteer for a mission to this time and place, and render service to humanity?”

“Tell us more about this mission,” they asked.

“It is no small thing. Our shaman will put you into a deep, deep trance, so complete that you will forget who you are. You will live a human life, and in the beginning you will completely forget your origins. You will forget even our language and your own true name. You will be separated from the wonder and beauty of our world, and from the love that bathes us all. You will miss it deeply, yet you will be unable to name what you are missing. You will remember the love and beauty that we know to be normal only as a longing in your heart. Your memory will take the form of an intuitive knowledge, as you plunge into the painfully marred Earth, that a more beautiful world is possible.

“As you grow up in that world, your knowledge will be under constant assault. You will be told in a million ways that a world of destruction, violence, drudgery, anxiety, and degradation is normal. You may go through a time when you are completely alone, with no allies to affirm your knowledge of a more beautiful world. You may plunge into a depth of despair that we, in our world of light, cannot imagine. But no matter what, a spark of knowledge will never leave you. A memory of your true origin will be encoded in your DNA. That spark will lie within you, inextinguishable, until one day it is awakened.

“You see, even though you will feel, for a time, utterly alone, you will not be alone. We will send you assistance, help that you will experience as miraculous, experiences that you will describe as transcendent. These will fan that spark into a flame. For a few moments or hours or days, you will reawaken to the beauty and the joy that is meant to be. You will see it on Earth, for even though the planet and its people are deeply wounded, there is beauty there still, projected from past and future onto the present as a promise of what is possible and a reminder of what is real.

“After that glimpse, the flame may die down into an ember again as the routines of normal life there swallow you up. But after each awakening, they will seem less normal, and the story of that world will seem less real. The ember will glow brighter. When enough embers do that, they will all burst into flame together and sustain each other.

“Because remember, you will not be there alone. As you begin to awaken to your mission you will meet others of our tribe. You will recognize them by your common purpose, values, and intuitions, and by the similarity of the paths you have walked. As the condition of the planet Earth reaches crisis proportions, your paths will cross more and more. The time of loneliness, the time of thinking you might be crazy, will be over.

“You will find the people of your tribe all over the Earth, and become aware of them through the long-distance communication technologies used on that planet. But the real shift, the real quickening, will happen in face-to-face gatherings in special places. When many of you gather together you will launch a new stage on your journey, a journey that, I assure you, will end where it begins right now. Then, the mission that lay unconscious within you will flower into consciousness. Your intuitive rebellion against the world presented to you as normal will become an explicit quest to create a more beautiful one.”

A woman said, “Tell us more about the time of loneliness, that we might prepare for it.”

The elder said, “In the time of loneliness, you will always be seeking to reassure yourself that you are not crazy. You will do that by telling people all about what is wrong with the world, and you will feel a sense of betrayal when they don’t listen to you. You might hunger for stories of wrongness, atrocity, and ecological destruction, all of which confirm the validity of your intuition that a more beautiful world exists. But after you have fully received the help we will send you, and the quickening of your gatherings, you will no longer need to do that. Because you will know. Your energy will thereafter turn toward actively creating that more beautiful world.”


A tribeswoman asked, “How do you know this will work? Are you sure our shaman’s powers are great enough to send us on such a journey?”

The elder replied, “I know it will work because he has done it many times before. Many have already been sent to Earth, to live human lives, and to lay the groundwork for the mission you will undertake now. He’s been practicing! The only difference now is that many of you will venture there at once. What is new in the time you will live in, is that you will gather in critical mass, and each awaken the other to your mission. The heat you will generate will kindle the same spark that lies in every human being, for in truth, each one is from a tribe like ours. The whole galaxy and beyond is converging on Earth, for never before has a planet journeyed so far into Separation and made it back again. Those of you who go will be part of a new step in cosmic evolution.”

A tribesman asked, “Is there a danger we will become lost in that world, and never wake up from the shamanic trance? Is there a danger that the despair, the cynicism, the pain of separation will be so great that it will extinguish the spark of hope, the spark of our true selves and origin, and that we will be separated from our beloved ones forever?”

The elder replied, “That is impossible. The more deeply you get lost, the more powerful the help we will send you. You might experience it at the time as a collapse of your personal world, the loss of everything important to you. Later you will recognize the gift within it. We will never abandon you.”

Another man asked, “Is it possible that our mission will fail, and that this planet, Earth, will perish?”

The elder replied, “I will answer your question with a paradox. It is impossible that your mission will fail. Yet, its success hangs on your own actions. The fate of the world is in your hands. The key to this paradox lies within you, in the feeling you carry that each of your actions, even your personal, secret struggles, has cosmic significance. You will know then, as you know now, that everything you do matters.”

There were no more questions. The volunteers gathered in a circle, and the shaman went to each one. The last thing you were aware of was the shaman blowing smoke in your face. You entered a deep trance and dreamed yourself into the world where we find ourselves today.

— Charles Eisenstein