I was born in May, but the spiritual weather that day must have been bone cold. Depression’s an old buddy of mine, and many mornings I wake to find myself in a frosty mood, fog-bound, and the first creative task of the day is to route myself out of the winter dregs. There aren’t that many things I know about, but I can speak with confidence about getting from a dark start to a brighter middle, and those of us who struggle with some form of daily blues can use all the tools we can get.
GETTING PAST THE EARLY DARK
The tools have changed over the years, but for me, there are some constants, footholds I return to over and over. My list isn’t magic. It’s just what I use to get me up and running when up and running is the last thing I want to be.
Connect to the Mystery
For certain kinds of Christians and other religious and spiritual folk, this is a staple, though the forms it takes are many and varied. I meditate — might be closer to ruminate — on the staggering immensity of things, and after a time, pray simply, honestly, and without fanfare, much as I’d talk to you if we were having coffee. If you believe in a God who knows you, what’s the point in putting on airs? I have coffee and faith every morning, but don’t be impressed — it’s more habit than piety. Even in unbelieving seasons, I talk to Him about it.
Some fifteen or twenty years ago, I stumbled onto a thankfulness practice, and it changed my life. There’s an old hymn that challenges us to count our blessings. I took it literally, and began a daily list. After months of being wowed by the sheer numbers, life looked better. Martin Seligman’s work has also helped me. His “three things that went well yesterday, and why” exercise works. Finally, I cultivate awareness that everything is grace. I didn’t ask to be born, and I’ll leave the planet on a timetable not of my making. In between those events, I control a bit, but not much. It’s all grace.
Input matters. I can’t help but be curious about the world. I read books in spirituality, psychology, social science, physics, art, fiction, and poetry — what have you. Again, it’s not about any personal virtue — I was born with a hunger to learn. Danger zone: If I can’t make sense of what I’m reading, or make it cohere with my personal meta-narrative, darkness reasserts itself. However, I’ve learned to hold the need to understand how everything fits more lightly. These days, I let real-time fascination and curiosity run the show, and trust the Mystery with the rest.
Limit Mulling and Rumination
I adore thinking about thinking, and given my desperate need for coherence, I can ruminate my way into a depressed cul-de-sac as fast as anyone. To mull in a thought like spices in wine is one of my finer, least helpful talents. If I must mull, I’ll give it a deadline, and kicking and screaming, cut it off.
For me, there is no better way to assault dark moods than just getting out the door to the gym. The space between my writing chair and the front door is a war zone. If I win 80% of the time, I’m good.
Somewhere in my morning process of fighting up through whatever weighty mood I have that day, my wife’s brilliant, constant smile finds me. This one isn’t fair, because you don’t get to see that smile. But connection with another human being is the point, and it’s all the better if it’s someone who loves to see you coming: spouse, friend, new guy you met yesterday. If mood is a one-to-ten scale, ten being the place of highest wellbeing, that smile in the morning bumps me up a couple of points instantaneously. It’s nearly the same (not quite) with my friends. Smiles, hugs, laughter and five minutes of sharing what’s really going on can do wonders.
Listen to Music
Background music while I exercise helps some, sure, but it’s the more concentrated listening that makes the light climb higher still. If I can hear violins, guitars, and voices trading phrases like old friends swapping memories, my inner weather brightens.
Seek and Experience Beauty
This is connecting to the Mystery again. Natural and artistic expressions of beauty are first loves of mine, and one of the great upsides of our digital age is that through the Internet, beauty is delivered to my office front window on demand. Here’s an unexpected thing for mid-fifties dude: I’m a Pinteresthound. I use Pinterest to explore beauty across all categories of human endeavor. Hunting the awe from paintings to mosques to fashion to faces and everything in between, I cruise avenues of wonder, amazement, and beauty. Now the sun really starts to climb.
My go-to, my danger zone. I make something every day. It’s coded in my DNA somewhere. It’s the final hurdle as well, though, because in the making of a song, a poem, a scone, or conversation, there can be both soaring and collapse. Even so, the beginning of making is often the launch of something beyond just beating back depression.
My strategies for getting out of the depressive swamp don’t always work, but let’s assume on any given morning I successfully ran that maze and escaped.
Now I need more.
I need inspiration.
Here’s what I’ve come to believe.
Inspiration is not a feeling. It’s a practice.
The daily journey up from depression has taught me that our beings are always trembling with some tendril of life. It doesn’t feel that way, of course — inertia and entropy and yesterday’s failure do their best to convince us we’re empty nothings. But somewhere in the early morning journey of reaching out to the Mystery by means of prayer, beauty, connection, and muscular effort, I almost always find one thread to grasp that gives me a glimmer of hope for the days’ work. I follow that one thread until I find the next thread. I follow that one to the next and the next and the next. Soon, a weaving takes shape that two hours before, I would not have thought possible.
The practice of inspiration is largely one of getting to the table and beginning.
It’s accepting the nudge, the impulse, the thought that presents itself, in faith, and following. If it’s dance, it’s an urge of muscle. If it’s writing, it’s a word. If it’s music, it’s a beat or a note. If it’s paint, it’s a color or a stroke or a subject.
For me, it’s a word. The word that comes first is the one breath I need. I take it, breathe it in, say thank you, and start writing down the words trailing behind the first one. Some poets talk of picking poems from the air fully formed. For me, it’s welcoming friends in a long invisible line, all traveling my direction from a world I was born for.
Writing is a house big enough to welcome them all.
When I open my eyes in the morning, my faith tells me if I can make the first move, chances are that Mystery and grace will meet me, offering me what I need.
Inspiration, even if I’m depressed.