Sunday, March 30, 2014

Barking up the wrong tree for depression

Old tree, taking a time-out, filling its soul
 Odiorne State Park: 3/29/14
CC Jean Stimmell
 We are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to understanding and treating depression according to a new book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic[1] by Jonathan Rottenberg. [2]

He convincingly documents how our mood system is a complex, multi-faceted, biological part of us, mostly beyond our conscious awareness, and it has significant evolutionary survival value.

Unfortunately, as modern humans, we have lost sight of positive attributes of depression because of the cultural constructs we have created through language. Using our ability to spew forth words, we have constructed stories depicting depression as an arch villain, a dreaded pathology that is unequivocally bad.

The trouble is, as Rottenberg notes, “the stories we tell ourselves about our moods often end up being just that. Stories.”

“One of the amazing things about the mood system is how much of it operates outside of conscious awareness. Moods, like most adaptations, developed in species that had neither language nor culture. Yet words are the first things that come to mind when most people think about moods. We are “mad,” we are “sad,” we are “glad.” So infatuated are we with language that both laypeople and scientists find it tempting to equate the language we use to describe mood with mood itself.
This is a big mistake. We need to shed this languagecentric view of mood, even if it threatens our pride to accept that we share a fundamental element of our mental toolkit with rabbits and roadrunners.”[3]

Rottenberg cites studies showing how subjects with depressed mood are more deliberate, skeptical, and careful in how they process information from their environment than subjects with elevated mood, concluding:

“Just as animals with no capacity for anxiety were gobbled up by predators long ago, without the capacity for sadness, we and other animals would probably commit rash acts and repeat costly mistakes.”[4]

So what is the bottom line.?

The bottom line that resonates with me is the poetic definition of depression that  Rottenberg cites by Lee Stranger, from his essay “Fading to Gray,”

Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.[5]

Coco barking up the wrong tree but not depressed

[1] I am indebted to Maria Popova for her review of Rottenberg at:
[2]  The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic by Jonathan Rottenberg
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Lee Stringer from his essay “Fading to Gray,” found in the altogether fantastic 2001 volume Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weaving our own Sacred Canopy

Sacred Canopy
CC Jean Stimmell: Fort Foster, Kittery ME:  March 2014
Watching the movie Melancholia forced me to look death straight in the eye. It explores the existential question of finding meaning in life, even in the face of imminent death.[1]

Justine, the heroine of the movie, who had been, up to this point, overwhelmed by the pressures of modern life, pulls herself together at the end as a rogue planet is about to obliterate earth. She takes charge of her family, showing them how to find meaning in their lives in the face of death by building a magic teepee – a sacred canopy – and seeking refuge inside.

Her brother-in-law, the rational, man-in-charge, placed his trust in science to save the day. When it finally sinks in for him that their situation is hopeless – that science has no answers – he commits suicide, leaving his family members to fend for themselves.

Isn’t this the story of our modern times?

We have been set adrift. When push comes to shove, we can no longer count on organized religion or science to protect us: to provide us with that magic teepee or sacred canopy that our human species has always depended upon when death comes knocking.

In the West, the fabric of the religious sacred canopy began to fray over 500 years ago when Galileo “discovered” that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, ushering in the age of science.  Since then, our society has become increasingly secularized as science emerged as our surrogate, defacto god, the new deity who has mesmerized us with an endless stream of magical inventions, fooling us into believing that with science on our side, we are invincible, able to control our destiny.

But now we are beginning to see through that illusion. Rather than floating effortlessly on the magic carpet of technology, we find ourselves more stressed, anxious, and impoverished than ever.  We are finding science has few real solutions to improve our human condition, just an endless arcade of new products and gizmos.

And most important, when our own death draws near – facing the end of existence as we know it – we are discovering just as Justine’s brother-in-law did in the movies, science is powerless to help.
Magic canopy: Province Town
CC Jean Stimmell

Perhaps that is because, in the cold world of empiricism, scientists can’t grasp that sacred canopies really exist because they can’t be measured or dissected like a laboratory rat. Rather, they agree with social scientists like Peter Berger who concludes in his book about religion entitled The Sacred Canopy, “Religion is to be understood as a human projection, grounded in specific infrastructures of human history.” [2]

However, whether science thinks sacred canopies are really real or not, in terms of mythological and psychological reality, they are an indispensible aspect of what it means to be human. Sacred canopies will vary depending on time and place and may involve symbolic self-transcendence or maybe not.  But the bottom line is, as our final moments approach, we need to be able to validate what is most meaningful in our lives, our human connection to one another. We do that by coming together and being there for each other, seeking refuge together under the symbolic sacred canopy of our choice.

For indigenous people, able to live mindfully in an animate world, their sacred canopy is not a human projection but a seamless part of everyday life, an ever-present reality woven out of their sustainable interdependent relationships with their tribe and the living, breathing earth.

For the rest of us, entangled as we are in the death throws of our materialist, out-of-control world, we must use the one tool we have left, our imagination, to try to recreate that indigenous experience where every moment is alive and sacred, secure in every fiber of our being that we are not alone but cradled in the arms of our living, breathing mother.


[2] The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger. Anchor Books Edition: 1969. Page 180

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The calendar says it’s Spring but the snow keeps falling

Snowing along the Merrimack: 3/23/14
CC Jean Stimmell

Along the Merrimack
trampled by unending Winter
disheveled grass in shambles
resemble my spirit

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Part II Climate Change: why Sisyphus’s plight is no myth

Mermaid radiating light and earthly allure
hiding behind Sisyphus's boulder
eager to hook up with him
before he starts his day *

In my last post, I explored the ramifications of the Japanese tsunami, looking at it as a harbinger of our future. Are extreme weather events our new normal, and, if so, how will we react when they strike. A Zen abbot at ground zero during the Japanese tsunami gives us one answer which, while it sounds superficial, is spiritually profound:

"Since the disaster, some older people have committed suicide. But there’s no reason to do that. We just start from where we are, from whatever the day brings to us.” [i]

That is indeed the Zen Buddhist way of mindfulness: something we must all learn to practice in this new age of cultural and climate disruption: “We just start from where we are, from whatever the day brings to us.” Staying present in the moment is the only way to happiness.

The existentialist Albert Camus wrote about this about Sisyphus’s fate:

“The struggle itself is…enough to fill man’s heart.
  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” [ii]

And, indeed, that has been the experience of survivors of the Japanese tsunami as interviewed by Elrlich in her article in Tricycle

“A farmer, he has a sun-roughened face and there’s dirt in the deep grooves of his palms. Before the earthquake hit, Kazuyoshi was planting his fields in rice and flowers. He smiles: “I lost everything. Now I feel better.”

 “Springtime, I used to get in a bad mood. No more. I don’t want to be a bother to anyone; I don’t want to be a big farmer. Just treat plants and flowers very nicely so my wife and I can survive. If others are happy eating what I grow, then I’m happy.

“The less I have, the happier I am.”

The Zen Way-of-Being personified by the Japanese farmer is radically opposed to the American consumer way of continually wanting to have more, isn’t it. I wonder which way of life has a more sustainable future?

[ii] Albert Camus, Myth of Sisyphus. 1942

* This image is a collage of my photographs. The photo of the sun rising over the Atlantic was taken today, 3/8/14

Friday, March 7, 2014

Climate Change soon coming to a store near you

Cherry Blossom Season in the New Normal
I've just read a heart wrenching article by Gretel Ehrlich in Tricycle Magazine about the catastrophic Japanese tsunami. I found this image online that conveys a sense of the unbelievable damage inflicted along 365 miles of Japanese coast; the image also illustrates the title of this blog: climate change soon coming to a store near you, as if it were a refrain from an ad about an earth-shaking new consumer product. 

Is this a taste of our future? Will devastating climate change be coming to a store near us, no matter where we live?  Is this our new normal?  How will we react when it happens to us? In the following quote a Zen abbot at ground zero gives us one humble but existentially profound answer:

"Since the disaster, some older people have committed suicide. But there’s no reason to do that. We just start from where we are, from whatever the day brings to us.” *

Check out the second part of this post by clicking here...

* quote from Spring 2014 Tricycle Magazine excerpted from Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Face of the Tsunami by Gretel Ehrlich.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Silvana Cenci’s Spring Tooth Harrow

Polarized image of Silvana Cenci's Spring Tooth Harrow
CC Jean Stimmell: 03/04/14
Silvana Cenci’s Spring Tooth Harrow *

Struggling in the midst of divorce
with no firewood cut for winter
I answered an ad: “wood for sale.”
That’s how I met a unique soul
known as “the dynamite lady”
who used high explosives
to blow up metal to create art
known around the world.
Silvana Cenci was her name.

When I came by to pick up my first load
She told me in her rich Italian accent
how her father was a famous anarchist
and so was she, living life
according to her own rules:
and “If people don’t like it,
they can fuck off and drop dead.”

She talked with her hands, gesturing
with her chain-smoked, unfiltered cigarettes
weaving a spell in words and smoke
enveloping me as I loaded my wood.

When she paused to offer me a cigarette
I carefully explained how I had quit
but promptly smoked one anyhow
inhaling the smoke felt illicit and intoxicating
like I had joined a revolutionary movement.

Each time I came by for wood
we talked and smoked
 and soon became friends.

She told me she had reached an age
where it was time to make a change.
She was selling off everything
to move to the Arizona desert
where she would support herself
selling hotdogs from a food cart
pulled by a camel.

Wanting to buy something else
to help her on her quest
I offered to buy
her ancient harrow
festooned with weeds,
thinking I could use it to till
my homestead garden.

But she said “absolutely not.”
This was not a farm implement
but a precious piece of art which
she’d always intended to mount on
the side of her studio.

I was finally able to make a deal
buying the harrow for fifteen dollars
only after I promised to cherish it
as a piece of art.

That winter I burned the wood
and had honorable intentions
to mount the old harrow
on the side of my barn.

But somehow now
30 years have passed
and my ancient harrow
still stands abandoned
in the dirty snow
at the edge of my field.

While composing this photograph
of Silvana's spring tooth harrow,
my memories came rushing back
of this remarkable person
 now departed to her home
to join the legendary ranks
of the mythic gods of Rome.


* A spring-tooth harrow is outdated piece of farm equipment that uses many flexible iron teeth mounted in rows to loosen the soil before planting.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Fairy tales: Alternative to environmental doom?

Late afternoon sun through the woods across from our house: 2/28/14
CC Jean Stimmell
Theodor Seifert, a Jungian analyst in Stuttgart Germany, believes that fairy tales tap into the vast richness of our collective unconscious, representing hard-won wisdom accumulated over time since the dawn of our species, working in concert with the more-than-human wisdom of the earth itself.

Seifert, like most Jungians, views the various characters in a fairy tale, not as different people but as different universal aspects of our individual psyche. Therefore, to him, a fairy tale is a metaphor for the drama that plays out between these various parts during the course of our life.

As such, fairy tales can teach us crucial, life-affirming lessons. For instance in his book about Snow White, Seifert shows us how this fairy tale is really about meeting ourselves in all our forms – “from self-reflection to self-criticism to self destruction” and then goes on to tell us why this is of the utmost importance to us today:

“Today we are in a position to annihilate ourselves completely, as global self-destruction is an acutely threatening possibility.  Will we escape it? I believe …fairy tales as embodied here in Snow White – can show us alternatives, alternatives that must be chosen by the individual.

With the individual begins the transformation that can progress from the one to the many. If we find and honor our own inner earth, the planet earth will also again become something like our mother, which in fact it always has been.”*

Snow White: Life Almost Lost by Theodor Seifert. Chiron Publications. 1986: page 118