DEPRESSION, alongside other inner struggles, is endemic. Here is the figure that seems to capture the magnitude of it: roughly one in four individuals suffers in these ways. That is a psychological poverty of life far more widespread than material poverty in developed countries. And yet, for all that prominent figures talk about it and the stigma around it may have somewhat reduced, there are no signs of its prevalence lessening.
The title of this book by the mental-health practitioner Jim Green captures what must, in large part, lie at the heart of the problem. For all its strengths, modern culture disallows the central element of transformation in many wisdom traditions, Christianity included. Jesus put it this way: “If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind; he must take up his cross and come with me.” After citing this text, Green adds: “This is what we are doing — men and women — when we sit down to meditate. We agree to lose ourselves on purpose.”
His book is psychologically and spiritually informed. In an easy, humane style, it weaves together personal experience and insights from various traditions and spiritual adepts, as well as practices to try out, coupled to advice.
Green knows that depression can’t always be addressed by meditation alone. Individuals wrestling with its mix of agitation and low mood, tunnel vision and despair, may need the assistance of a counsellor or psychotherapist. Not infrequently, at first, it is just not possible to sit still. Being with someone who can be still for you, vicariously, may be a crucial first step. Over time, the trust in life required to give up without giving up is transmitted.
The book also offers an introduction to forgotten elements of the Christian tradition. It does not shy from quoting Evagrius or discussing askesis. This is crucial because, in my view, the type of Christianity which dominates today is forged out of the same modern mentality as feeds widespread depression. My impression is that it is focused on numerical growth, which is not the same as being born again; and care for others, which, though good, is not the same as seeing the Kingdom.
Maybe no one should be surprised. It is hard to take Jesus seriously and take up your cross. Then again, maybe this is part of the message of contemporary depression. As Green writes: “Depression is the inarticulate desire for change.” Individuals seek change. Our society needs it. There is desperate suffering involved, but that can also be a path to life in all its fullness.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His new book, A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the last Inkling and the evolution of consciousness (Books, 20 December 2019) is published by John Hunt Publishing.
Giving Up Without Giving Up: Meditation and depressions
Church Times Bookshop £11.70