Written by Regina Gee of Wellspring Coaching
Pieces of my vocation include expanding the story of mental illness, for words make worlds and the stories we tell about human distress impact how we feel it. This series is a 3-part publication. This is the third installment, and it addresses ideas of spiritual care, spirituality, wholeness, and depression. My intention is to share my particular point of view and how I came to my way of seeing.
Finding Better Stories
There is a Lakota saying that, “Healing is the replacement of bad stories with good stories.” I learned that isolating the story of depression to the field of medicine was a bad story – it doesn’t leave enough room for a rich and complex world. Transforming my conceptual landscape from a medical problem relatively outside of my control, to a spiritual question reflecting problems of living, helped me to find ways to alleviate my distress and navigate the ebbs and flows of life. I found a better story to hold the complexity of my lived experience regarding depression.
In order to have this expanded story, I also had to expand my story of spirituality. I am longing for more words to distinguish between religion and spirituality. I see the ways the word ‘spirituality’ causes people to bristle. I am longing for more open space to talk about the ways we are connected. Spirituality is a word I have heard all of my life, and yet am constantly looking it up and trying to figure out what it means.
What does it mean to be “healthy?” What does it mean to be “whole?” What does it mean to live well? These are all spiritual questions, and they ask us to expand our preconceptions about what it means to be spiritual. Spirituality is a word that holds space for what matters – the values and qualities of a life that are vital and sacred.
In my quest to understand more about how we are connected, I found some definitions of spirituality that expanded the conceptual landscape for me:
C. Everett Koop says:
Spirituality is the vital center of a person; that which is held sacred.
Brené Brown writes:
Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.
For Christina Puchalski, Spirituality is the part of all human beings that searches for meaning, purpose, and connection to others.
And for Pico Iyer,
Spirituality is the story of our passionate affair with what is deepest inside us.
What these definitions show us is that spirituality is intimately involved in meaning, purpose, connection, resilience, and identity. It connects the depth within us to the depths outside of us, connective tissue of a divine sort.
Connection & Care
Connection is the energy that flows between two people when they feel seen, heard, and valued. Being able to see the ways attending to spirituality means attending to connection (to ourselves, to others, to the world), I was also able to see what this might mean for my depression.
Earlier I shared that I learned that depression is a form of disconnection. So, if depression is the result of disconnection, and spirituality is about attending to connection, then it makes sense to me that there is an intimate link between the two. I have been learning more spiritual language to help address this relationship. The word that really developed my understanding is of this link is “care.”
Care: An Art of Being Human
The dictionary defines care as: the provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something. I believe care is a word that is big enough to hold our longings; it is an invitation for a certain way of being in the world that is deeply respectful to ourselves and to all of our relations. Care is the practice of stewardship, skilled mastery, and respect that allows for wellbeing, wholeness, and connection.
I chased this idea of care around many books and quotes, and it was Ellen Davis’s concept of skilled mastery that illuminated the concept to me. Davis is a theologian and Old Testament Scholar. She talks about how traditionally, Genesis 1:26-28 weas called the dominion verses. The old translation says, “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
But Davis points out that the Hebrew word ‘dominion’ can also (or instead) be translated as skilled mastery. So instead of God instructing mankind “to have dominion over the earth,” God is saying be skilled masters of the earth. This difference in translation evokes more of a craft, an art of being human, of being a steward and caretaker of the earth.
If we understand God’s intentions for humans to be caretakers instead of domineers, we unlock a way of being in the world that is characterized by love instead of control. Transforming dominion into skilled mastery is an invitation to be closer to God in a different way.
Skilled Mastery & Wholeness
This idea of skilled mastery was connected with a gold string to my idea of wholeness. Importantly, contemplating skilled mastery was an in roads to self-care for me and illuminated what it might mean to take care of my whole self, including my depression.
Parker Palmer writes, “By surviving passages of doubt and depression on the vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act. it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.”
Self-care is good stewardship. It isn’t selfish because it means taking good care of the deepest parts of me – it penetrates the shallow levels and goes to the core, to the place inside of us that houses our aliveness. Parker Palmer taught me that taking good care of myself is how I am able to access my gifts and offer them to the world.
This deep stewardship is what I call skilled mastery, and I can extend it out from myself to the rest of the world. Practicing skilled mastery means tending to my gifts and working to bring them into the world in a way that doesn’t distort who I am or my integrity.
Self-Care: Gifts & Limits
Parker Palmer also taught me that in addition to taking care of my gifts, self-care is respecting my limits. He writes, “My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.”
Getting to wholeness means I am also tending and respecting my limits. It was a homecoming for me when it finally clicked that having limits doesn’t mean I am bad or broken, it simply reflects that I am a human. A human with needs, just like every other human.
I am chasing after wholeness (another slippery word I am collecting definitions for). My favorite definition for wholeness is the integrity that comes from being what you are. For me, being what I am also means attending to and learning from my depression.
Listening to Depression
Johann Hari writes, “Depression and anxiety are a signal saying – you shouldn’t have to live this way, and if you aren’t helped to find a better path, you will be missing out on so much that is best about being human.”
I am learning to listen to my depression, to hear what it is telling me about my unmet needs and how the way I am living may not be reflecting my values, my soul, or my calling. My depression asks me to look at my life. It asks me to see if I am creating a life that makes it possible to succeed at my intrinsic values. And if I am not, it asks me to make different choices and tell better stories.
Learning to listen to my depression is a practice of self-care, and it has been one of my greatest antidepressants. In the west, we see antidepressants as drugs used to alleviate depression. Johann Hari argues for an expanded definition of anti-depressants – he wants us to see the ways that depression can be alleviated beyond the medical story. He asks: “What if changing the way we live – in specific, targeted, evidence-based ways – could be seen as an antidepressant too?” What if shaping my life to reflect what is important to me is an antidepressant? For me, it was one that worked well.
I learned that self-care was a powerful tool for stewardship of my depression. Tending to my gifts and limits helps to connect me to my aliveness, my vital center, to what I hold sacred. Encouraging the vital and sacred is spiritual care, another piece of language that helped me see the connections of the world.
Vitality & Spiritual Care
The root word for “vitality” is aliveness; ideas of vitality have to do with the times when people feel alive and are living fully. Brené Brown refers to this as Wholehearted Living. Sacred is that which is regarded with great respect and reverence, it is deeper than what it is simply important.
People draw upon spiritual values, practices, and relationships for support and direction every day. Taking care of spirit is all about asking: who is this person and what really matters to them? Who am I and what really matters to me? It is about encouraging the parts of me that are searching for meaning.
Providing spiritual care is about helping people connect with what matters to them, especially helping ourselves to connect with what matters to us. People who maintain this relationship with purpose and meaning tend to be healthier and have an understanding of what life well lived means to them. I have a healthier relationship with depression when I am able to see the ways it is connected to becoming rather than something that is arbitrary.
Brené Brown believes that connection is why we are here; that connection is what brings meaning and purpose to our lives, and in the absence of relationship there is suffering. Depression is this suffering in the absence of relationships: from self, from meaningful work, from nature, from other people, from respect, from a secure future. Healing and learning from depression isn’t about dealing with the distress of disconnection better, it is about finding a way to reconnection.
When I am depressed, it is a signal telling me that I am profoundly disconnected in some way. And practicing skilled mastery in this situation is about taking care of this fact, respecting my limitations, and working towards reconnection. I had the major depression when returning from India, and I also experience seasons of smaller depressions, the little deaths and rebirths that come along with awakenings and growth.
Braving the Wilderness
In her book When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions Sue Monk Kidd talks of the Dark Night of the Soul. She talks about this idea of waiting – a mystical time where the soul contracts to bring something new into the world. She refers to the waiting in her book as the cocoon, a metaphor that did not fall on more ready ears.
The semester after India, I was in the midst of contracting to bring something new into the world. I was in the depths of my perseverance place, choosing to become more, and to be present through the small, exhale-so-you-can-squeeze-through-the-rocks contraction of my inward spelunking. I once read that the spiritual journey is one of becoming more real, and the experiences in India and my return forged me into the most authentic women I had ever been up to that point.
My depression showed me the need I had to navigate my inner world and reflect it in my outer world. It helped me understand how to access what is deepest inside of me. I am working every day on what Brené Brown calls braving the wilderness. She says, “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”
Seasons: Expansions & Contractions
Not only has my pendulation and cycle of contraction and expansion created a bravely authentic human, but it is teaching me how to be the wilderness, how to become more, and how to settle into the cycle. The wilderness is a place of courage, authenticity, uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism. It is a place about showing up and being real.
It takes grit & courage to move between my biggest, alive, and wildly capable self into my chrysalis, to the self that is gathering, small, and intensely vulnerable. It takes a certain type of bravery to sit in the small, dark, collapsing spaces of yourself and to do the work that needs to be done. It is when we collapse and proceed to armor ourselves that we become stuck, that we stifle the growth process, and live in profound pain because of it.
I learned that my contraction and collapse inward was part of my process of becoming. Not that I have to be depressed to grow, but that I am a seasonal being who goes through different types of presence. I learned that waking up and waking up some more happens through seasons of contraction and expansion, that the two are as necessary as the inhale and the exhale, the two wings on a bird, that it is only through both that we have a chance at wholeness. I learned that depression wasn’t random or inherently distrustful, but that it was telling me to go deeper.
My experience of depression gave me insight into self-care, spirituality and spiritual care, and my vocation. Parker Palmer talks about this idea of vocation. He writes, “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”
My depression showed me that I needed to learn how to listen to my life. In that learning, I discovered this calling to explore mental illness and expand the stories we tell. I learned that I am here to ask questions like what is wholeness? What is care? How do we hold space for connection?
Krista Tippett says, “The world right now needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster.” My work is to contribute to the transformative universe of depression, human distress, and wellbeing. I am mustering the words that make space for the complex, for the things that resist standardization, that need to be held openly and lovingly. I am building bridges, connecting paradigms, critiquing foundations, and searching for the deeper rivers.
In the Hebrew tradition, the task of tikkum olam is the quest to restore the innate wholeness of the world, and it is done by finding the scattered pieces of light that are deeply hidden in all events and all people and lifting them up and making this light visible once again.
I believe the way we make this light visible again is through metabolizing our lives, through looking inward, listening, cultivating insight, and then working to bring out what we find at our center. And for me, this task is partnered by seasons of depressions.
Being able to do this work took me listening to my experience, wanting to learn from it, and expanding the story to get to the place I am now. Katherine May talks about this idea of ‘wintering’ – the name for the season of contraction, of collapse, of going inward, of hibernating and getting smaller. She says, “Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out.”
I found wisdom in my winter, and this presentation, the articles I write, the coaching sessions I have, and the content I publish are all ways I am passing along the wisdom I found. It is how I am working to bring what is sacred inside of me to the life of the world.
- What does ‘care’ mean to you?
- What comes up for you when you hear the word spirituality?
- What are some bad stories you have internalized about yourself and your wellbeing? Good ones?
- How do you practice skilled mastery?
- What wisdom have you found in your winter?