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Sustaining vitality and hope in the face of illness, loss, and change can be greatly supported by a daily practice that engenders peace of mind.
Jane Moffett is a doctorate-level clinical social worker with advanced certifications in trauma. She works in New York City as a psychotherapist and Area Director for the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute, as well as Clinical Director for the Integrative Trauma Clinic at the National Institute of Psychotherapy. She has long had an interest in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality and in mind-body practices. We are calling on her 28 years’ experience as a psychotherapist to speak to women in the second half of life who hope to find meaning in adversity and to develop practices for serenity.
The young woman in my office was looking down at the couch, running her finger absentmindedly along the leather seam. She had come to me for a depression that had deepened into fears of harming herself. She was lost in her own ruminations and most likely feeling very alone. I didn’t want her to linger there long without help, but she needed time to formulate something that she clearly felt difficult to say. Hearing me make a slight shift of weight in my chair, she looked up at me and said: “I wouldn’t be here if I had real faith. I pray, but I just don’t feel better.”
Now it was my turn to collect myself before responding. Where could I start? Depression is not caused by a lack of faith, nor is it caused by a lack of self-discipline, a lack of will power, or a lack of moral courage. I’ve lost count of the times patients have come to me not only suffering acutely from depression but further burdened by the shame of somehow failing to rally by not “manning up” to the challenge of overcoming their depression. Quite the contrary: It takes enormous courage to overcome the numbing feelings of self-recrimination and hopelessness inherent in depression and to ask for help. Further, it takes humility to be receptive to help.
Most of us are uncomfortable with criticism, but in depression our own self-critic joins with the remembered, real, or imagined critics in our lives to create a deadening inertia. Many of the simple tools of therapy help the sufferer out of this rut. Medication, we now know, both restores healthy brain function and helps to undo some of the corrosive effects of depression chemistry. Psychotherapy addresses core conflicts and traumas, big or small, which perpetuate suffering. Further, a good therapy challenges self-perceptions that are limiting and helps to solidify core abilities and strengths.
The ruminating inherent in depression can draw the sufferer inward to enervating cycles of shaming and self-doubt. This process forecloses a sense of possibility and can dampen hope. For this reason it is as important to develop self-understanding as it is to look without to the resources that can be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle, such as those found in the arts, nature, mindfulness, spirituality, or faith practices. Transformation happens through reflection as well as through inspiration. Remission from depression and the sustaining of vitality and hope in the face of illness, loss, and change can be greatly supported by a daily practice that engenders peace of mind.
An old friend facing the challenges of a chronic endocrine condition does life-size portraits of herself. Deep hues of blue and black tell her story of daily physical challenges and pain. She explains that she feels more able to live fully as each painting further defines the narrative of her life. She works at a painting studio which emphasizes process over outcome, thus supporting her involvement in what is generative and enlivening.
Another friend is now working in her garden. Her hands deep in the soil, she is in touch with something much larger than herself as she clears weeds and plants beautiful varieties of flowers and grasses. This annual spring planting brings her into the cycle of life and an organic sense of possibility and renewal. She gets equal pleasure making delicious meals that are as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. In both her gardening and her cooking, she is drawn out of the fast pace of her urban life into the timeless world of texture, color, and aroma offered by the foods and plants.
Spirituality in the form of mindfulness could come from the tranquility derived from a quiet afternoon by the ocean, in the mountains, in a museum, reading poetry, or engaged in mindfulness practices such as meditation, centering prayer, Qigong, or tai chi. One need not limit the definition of meditation to a particular discipline. A former trauma patient spends her late Sunday afternoons at the Bach Vespers services offered by Trinity Lutheran Church on New York’s Central Park West from late October through mid-June. Her Sunday evenings have taken on a warm, intimate feeling generated by the uplifting music as well as the friends she has made at the concerts.
There are so many other ways we can take just an hour or half hour out of our day for mental health. Finding a daily practice that supports physical and emotional well-being sends a “live” message to the psyche and body. A close friend working through the loss of her husband attends the late Tuesday afternoon yoga classes given in New York’s St. Bartholomew’s [Episcopal] Church. She is soothed by the organizing movement sequences and calmed by the serenity of her surroundings. Another resource for daily practice can be found in the online meditation course of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Or you might consider tai chi or Quigong, both respected practices for grounding and centering the body and mind. The senior minister of New York’s All Souls [Unitarian] Church in Manhattan, Reverend Galen Guengerich, offers a morning meditation by email as well as instructions on how to approach it in your day-to-day life. You can sign up to receive the meditation at http://www.allsoulsnyc.org, under “Worship and Music.”
I once bought a book entitled Women Who Do Too Much. The title irritated me. Granted, relationships and work do take time and energy, but are they are often so rewarding. What I have come to believe is that we don’t necessarily do too much, but that we don’t allow spaces for quiet and renewal. Whether recovering from depression, coping with the challenges of aging, managing stress, or caretaking someone with special needs, we as women long to take better care of ourselves. Too often, though, we approach this as an all-or-nothing prospect. Start your daily oasis with five minutes, or use it just during your train or bus ride rather then setting too high a goal. Self-care takes planning and then practice, but if you can find something pleasurable with an eye toward serenity, your practice will draw you into it.
There is no quick fix for depression. We must choose to engage in life or retreat into the unhelpful behavior patterns confronting us. Recovery takes time and effort, and professional help is often needed for stabilization and moving forward. But once we’re back in life, making time for emotional, spiritual, and physical health is important.