Dreams of death and darkness often correspond to a period of depression. Working with such dreams may serve only to push us down deeper. This descent typically goes against the ego’s quest for light and joy. Yet if we remain with the downward passage we may be well rewarded. This article looks at the obscured divinity of the underworld.
The purpose and passage of depression
Depression is by no means a pleasant experience, rather it is associated with stagnation, rotting, suicidal-wishes and morbidity. Understandably we act to avoid depression. We fear it’s impact not only upon our being but also on our social life, our relationships, career, families and finances. A state of depression is a demanding experience, one that we typically feel we cannot afford especially amidst the fast pace of our modern day world.
When we are in a state of depression we are often faced with friendly cheer and advice designed to pull us out of the rut which depression can be. Rarely are we encouraged to face, embrace and suffer a state of depression. Instead our culture offers a number of anti-depressants ranging from Prozac to television soapies. Such antidepressants often succeed in their objective and do help us to escape a state of depression – yet they also rob of us of the richly rewarding experience that a state of depression can be. Through avoiding the winter we deny ourselves the new spring.
The Divinity of the Underworld
Popular sentiment advises that we do not enter the realm of the underworld. ‘Down’ has never been a popular domain within our western culture. It is the upward dimension which has received all the glory. To move up in the world is better one’s station in life. When things are ‘looking up’ the situation is said to be improving. In the Christian tradition (to which most of us owe our heritage) the spiritual direction of up is favored over down. Church steeples pierce the sky, the cross is held high and the practicing Christian’s focus is fixed upon heaven – a place of light and the abode of the benign father god. In a similar fashion most of the New Age spiritual disciplines and philosophies point toward this same upper realm. A journey to this upper realm is a positive experience. One returns with joy and fresh inspiration.
The upper world is associated with light, freedom and inspiration, the underworld is dark and heavy place. The two realms are vastly different, they’re opposites even. Both are important – one is often ignored and misunderstood.
So what about down? What does a downward journey have to offer? Of the modern New Age teachings the downward dimension of one’s being is generally unexplored and undocumented. If we listen to the Christian teachings then down is a hellish realm – a place of torment and suffering. Even the non-believer will echo this same cosmology, they may refer to themselves as being ‘down’ when they are depressed or when life is not going to their liking .
Whilst the underworld is typically depicted as a place of eternal damnation and suffering, it was also considered a place of transformation and regeneration. The Christian Hell gained its name from Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld. Hel’s womb was a dark, awesome and mysterious place but not the vast torture chamber which it came to be known as.
In general the ruling deity of the underworld served not only as lord and judge of the dead but also as the god of new life and renewal. The Greek underworld god, Hades, housed all souls who waited for new life. The Egyptian Osiris was at once the god of death and fertility – new life, whilst Pluto, the Roman underworld god, presided also over hidden wealth and power. All are described not only in terms of their darkness but also by their primal strength.
Whilst the underworld was considered a place of death and suffering it was also seen as a place of transformation and source of new life. Psychologically speaking the underworld is the rich depths of our interior being.
Depression is best viewed as a passage. As a state which we must enter into and pass through. Mythologically speaking it is an underworld journey.
When we suffer depression our attention is pulled out of life and away from the world. As we withdraw our energy our life takes on the silent tone of a stark winter landscape.
This withdrawal of energy may also be viewed as a retreat. In many ways a depression is an unconscious demand for retreat. If we fight this need for retreat the unconscious only doubles its efforts. The shame, shyness, apathy or sadness that is experienced during a depression are all cues to pull back from life. Interestingly these psychological symptoms ease off as soon as we consciously acknowledge and honour the need for retreat.
The pain and torment of this initial stage of depression is directly proportional to our attachment to life. Embracing a depression is essentially an act of ‘letting go’. This shedding may be the release of certain dreams, aspirations, ambitions, relationships, skills, attitudes or anything else that might keep hold our attention in an out or upward direction. This is the death that depression calls for.
The Jungian analyst, Robert Johnson, once explained to me that the urge to suicide is often the correct psychological attitude – only that one should do no physical harm to one’s body. The descent into the underworld requires a psychological or ego-death.
After death comes limbo – a seemingly eternal state where all is still. Limbo stands between life and death. It is the drawn out winter initiated by the autumn fall.
The limbo phase of a depression is a notoriously slow passage. Limbo lasts forever. Time freezes and we are left abandoned in the dark with no sense of purpose or direction. Whilst we grope in the dark we are given no indication of whether we are moving forward or back. In real terms limbo may last many years or many days.
Yet it is in limbo that the true work begins. The old has fallen away and cleared a passage for the new. In limbo we piece ourselves and our lives back together. Without really knowing we prepare ourselves for new life.
Depression and the getting of Wisdom
It is the time in the mines that deepens the soul. The dirt is gold dust and the rocks are diamonds. When your down don’t forget to pick something up. Upon reflection a depression is often viewed as one of the most enriching periods on one’s life.
Most of the creative, wise and soulful people I have met in my life have, at some stage, passed through a period of depression. And it was often in this depressive state that they found either themselves, a new direction, a solidity and integrity or a previously untapped creative capacity. In the getting of wisdom a bout of depression seems to be common place. For amidst the depths of depression a greater relationship with one’s Self is forged.
Indigenous cultures describe the initiation of the shaman or spirit-doctor as a descent into the underworld of the dark spirits where a death and dismemberment experience takes place. After this dismemberment the helpful spirits arrive to help patch the initiate’s body together again. Next is a journey to the sun or upper world where a vision is received before returning to the earthly realm to fulfills one’s responsibilities.
This shamanic rite of passage mirrors the process of depression. As we go down into a depression we are torn apart, slowly we regather ourselves before we rise from out of the depression with a whole new perspective on life. After depression we are often elevated into a state of realisation, of vision and inspiration.
I remember a dream during my own experience of depression where a giant Dr Jung picked me up by my head with his thumb and forefinger and then dipped me in a vat of acid. When he pulled me out of the acid all that was left was my skeleton and the flesh of my hands. In the dream I asked Dr Jung why he had left me my hands. His reply was ‘I left you your hands so that you can still do things’. At the time I could do little more than dig trenches as a plumber’s laborer. Only later did I realise the value and purpose of this passage in my life.
In alchemy the process must pass through the Nigredo or Mortifico (the blackening and death phase) before the Albedo (the whitening). After the Albedo comes the Rheubedo (the reddening and return to life). Viewed from this perspective depression is really the gateway to a deeper and fuller relationship with one’s Self. As Dante illustrated in his The Divine Comedy the passage through hell and purgatory leads directly onto heaven.