The Interconnected Self Part 2: Depression and the Atomization of the Individual
Depression isn’t an individual defect or disorder as the cultural understanding would have you believe. It’s a product of both our web of relations to the world and our lack of connections within this web—the result of the increasing atomization of culture. The concepts shared here resonate with my own experience of depression and in the potential healing benefits of psychedelics, though they are no miracle cure, they do offer relief and have helped my embodied understanding of connection that I’ll share more on here.
Recently Joshua Schrei released an episode of his excellent podcast The Emerald entitled “The Revolution Will Not Be Psychologized” and it makes a few interesting points that should be mentioned here.
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In this podcast episode he sets out to look at some of the problems of modern psychological discourse—the main problem being its emphasis on the self and only the self. One of the pathological problems is that psychology (and medicine more broadly) views pathology as an isolated set of symptoms to be treated within the confines of the individual. This is a relatively recent approach to healing and doesn’t actually solve the underlying causes of problems. While acute injuries may have single causes, such as a fall leading to a broken arm, chronic injuries or illnesses tend to arise from a web of problems. Psychological problems are no different and instead of being treated as isolated acute injuries, they should be viewed relationally within the web of an individual’s life.
Joshua mentions that when we suggest someone should go to therapy to fix a problem they are having, it essentially places the entire burden of the “problem” on the individual and subsequently implies that it is entirely up to the individual to “fix” themselves. If they don’t come out of therapy or treatment better it is sometimes, while unspoken, perceived as a failure on the part of the individual (or maybe a failure on the part of the individual therapist to help the individual patient).
The goal is to neatly place the person within a box (themselves) and carve out a clearly defined smaller box within that individual of “depression” that is to be exorcized. Easy come, easy go. Unfortunately it isn’t that simple.
The problem is we aren’t just processing *my* stressors, *my* traumas, *my* patterns, because we are relational, remember? *My* problems have an etiology.
Or do they?
Is there a specific point in my life where I can go back and point to this individual event and say “that is where the depression comes from”? Or even a series of events and point to the event that broke the camel’s back? (The poor camel…) No! Nor can we say that for any individual that same series of events would result in the specific outcome of depression. Instead, it entirely depends on the web of relations one has to the world.
Perhaps depression is the right response to the web of relations I find myself in. Perhaps if my web of relations was different my experience would be different.
Having to single-handedly process *my* shit puts way too much pressure on the individual. As Joshua notes it places the individual in the place of God, they are the creator and architect of their own universe and they can change absolutely anything at will. Which is absolutely absurd. Equally absurd is that expecting individuals to process their own issues places the entire burden on themselves to fix anything that is “wrong” with them. It means that they, and only they, are responsible for what has happened to them and how they respond to it. But as I pointed out in my last post we are created by the environments around us. We are never only processing our shit. We are processing the culmination of all of the shit around us and its impact on us too. We are processing what happened to our parents, our siblings, our aunts and uncles, the weather patterns, the cities around us, we are even processing what has happened to the soil we live on!
There is no “I” to do the processing. People say “I am depressed” (or there’s the group of people who will say you aren’t depressed you have depression) But this also focuses too much on the individual.
There is only the “we”. We are processing our depression. The entire web of relations around you is involved in the processing. Every relationship shifts as a result of a shift in a node within the web of relations.
Is it any wonder then that rates of depression as a human collective have skyrocketed? If every node affects each other, then it would only make sense that there would be a shift in the collective consciousness. That shift comes as a result of species–wide effects.
One aspect of the depressed experience, relating to connectedness ought to be connected here.
The Interpersonal Nature of Depression
One thinker who has greatly influenced how I view depression is the philosopher Matthew Ratcliffe who works in the realm of phenomenological accounts of mental illnesses.
Ratcliffe notes that when practitioners (and the public more broadly) diagnose depression, there is a tendency to view depression as a disorder of the individual. However, if we look at first-person accounts of people with depression we can see the centrality of the interpersonal experience. In nearly every first-person account there is a lack of connection, an inability to be with people in a certain way. This is a symptom of the larger issue at play in depression, a shift in possibility.
Ratcliffe follows the existentialist/phenomenologist tradition that says we are already in the world and anything we do/think/say starts from our lived experience in that world—the precise situation we find ourselves in. While a depressed person's physical world might be the same as a non-depressed person, the world that they inhabit, their felt world, or the way they experience that world is changed. Fundamentally Ratcliffe argues that the human experience has a pre-reflective or unconscious sense of belonging to a shared world. We feel like we inhabit the same physical and mental space as other people. This sense is altered in depression. This is one of the reasons that depression is so hard to describe (something that is found in numerous first-person accounts of depression). This is because it involves an aspect of experience (the shared world) that isn't normally something we reflect on or discuss, and because of that it is hard to describe.
We are so enmeshed in our shared world that the isolation is something we cannot conceptually wrap our minds around the utter inability of engaging with the world. The Danish philosopher, Knud Logstrup makes the point that we greatly influence each other’s world:
By our very attitude to one another we help to shape one another’s world. By our attitude to the other person we help to determine the scope and hue of his or her world; we make it large or small, bright or drab, rich or dull, threatening or secure. We help to shape his or her world not by theories and views but by our very attitude toward him or her.
Interpersonal processes alter possibilities offered by our surroundings. Depression is a shift in the possibility of engaging in this shared world. It is not merely a felt lack of connection to other people or other things that is the problem within depression according to Ratcliffe’s account, instead it is the fact there is no possibility of connecting with another being authentically. It’s not a one time thing. It’s a permanent feature of the world they inhabit. In other words, the hope of ever connecting again has been lost.
This is in part a function of the extreme atomization of our society today. We are so far removed from experiencing any kind of connection to any aspect of our surroundings that the very possibility of making an authentic connection is gone. And while this is generally oriented towards connecting to other humans, the fact that we don’t even regularly consider connecting to the soil we live on, the plants that surround us, the birds that live nearby, the spirit of the city, or anything else shuts down the large portion of the world from connection, leaving only humans as an option—humans that have been trained to think in terms of “I” and not “we” and who don’t even recognize their blindness to each other or the world around them. Is it any wonder then that so many are depressed?
Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of the beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, laments that most people don’t know the names of the plants around them and hardly ever see them. Names, she explains, “are the way we humans build relationship, not only with each other but with the living world.” She continues, “Philosophers call this state of isolation and disconnection “species loneliness”—a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.”
When we can no longer name the connections we have to other beings, let alone imagine the possibility of connecting with them, life becomes devastatingly meaningless. This is exactly what is happening to a large portion of human beings across the globe. Because our culture only teaches that we can connect to humans (and occasionally pets), effectively 95% of the possible relations and connections any given person might have are jettisoned into the void.
When so many relations and connections are off the table, one’s own web of connection to the world around them is thin and tenuous. This means that when a stabilizing strand of the web of one’s connection breaks the entire web may falter and break in the wind. The loss of one’s job or a friend may throw someone’s entire life and worth into question because there are so few anchors in the web that hold them and their place in this world together.
It’s no wonder so many people are miserable and feel alone.
Yet it appears a “miracle” drug has come forward: psychedelics.
To be honest, I hate that psychedelics are touted as a miracle cure. They are so much more and less than that. They don’t heal everyone. They can be used for harm. But somehow, they also appear to provide the cure for someone who’s surroundings have been killed and mechanized. They bring the world alive again. They remove the blinders from our eyes. They provide a glimpse into what could be. Sometimes.
Ketamine saved my life. Literally. I’ve been depressed and anxious for as long as I can remember. It got to the point in my early 20s that no medication was helping and I’d been through the entire concourse of antidepressants. Luckily I was seeing a psychiatrist who did ketamine-assisted psychotherapy who introduced me to the world of psychedelics. A day or so after my third session, I was walking through a garden near my home admiring the beauty of the plants. While walking, I began to feel what seemed to be voices echoing all around me. Some were delightful. Some were painful. Frankly, I was extremely confused and was wondering if I’d lost my mind until the noetic moment came and I realized I was hearing the plants around me—speaking. Plants. I could tell which ones were sick and which ones were healthy (which I confirmed what I heard with the gardeners by the way). I felt their connections to each other. I somehow was able to understand their mode of being for a few hours.
I went home that evening completely confused but thoroughly curious. And while the ease of which I heard the voices faded, the imprint it left on me did not. There were other beings out there who felt pain, delight, and could communicate (which science is finally realizing). This expanded the world. There now were other things to connect to, to understand, and to befriend. There was hope of connection again.
My experience is not unique among psychedelic users. In fact, the experience of interconnection seems to be a definite feature of many people’s experiences. There are different forms of interconnection felt within the experience, just as there are different types of ego-dissolution, but that is a topic for another post. Here are a few examples of the interconnection people have felt here:
At one point [during the trip], our cat came and curled up next to me. The essence of my husband and cat blended in with me and we all became one. I could then sense my cat taking over and he was ‘showing’ me, through feelings, what he had experienced before my husband and I rescued him (he had been an abandoned cat). He showed me the torture some boys had put him through and I could sense his love and gratefulness for us having saved him and loved him.1
I felt as though I was inextricably a part of everything that has been, is, and ever will be. I felt my existence as though it was a thread being woven into an enormous tapestry of space-time that was infinite in all regards. I lost my sense of singularity and instead experienced a profound sense of interconnectedness. I came to understand that all separation, all beginnings and endings are nothing more than illusions created by a binary mind struggling to cope with the complexities of survival. I realized that I was no different that the many things that created the bed I was lying on. Everything time, blankets, people, rocks, stars, and lamps were all different states and patterns of the same essential substance.2
That is when “I” disappeared. I felt this wave of energy flowing through me, it was the eternal life force that is all consciousness. There was an immediate connection to all beings, “I” was now simply a letter to identify my body. It had no connection to my true self.3
Each of these accounts emphasize the role of a sense of connection to something else or everything else.
Psychedelics open the world up to connection. They can remove the veil of atomization that culture has placed over our eyes and allow us to see the world for what it is—the Net of Indra. Recent scientific studies have caught on to this and have posited that the sense of connection to others and to nature are key to the health benefits of psychedelics. (Here and Here)
This sense of connection invokes a sense of awe and wonder. In many ways it returns us to the childlike wonder we once had for the world—before it was obliterated by well-meaning adults. In many it invokes a sense of awe and reverence for the universe, sometimes resembling the spiritual impulse.
For me it does just that. I talk to the birds around me and they listen. I speak to my garden, thanking all the plants for growing so well, telling them how beautiful they are, asking how they are doing today, and acknowledge that they will soon become a part of me as I already am a part of them. I whisper hello to the trees along my street as I pass. I am who I am because of those around me. And so, even when my friends and family are far apart, I still have loved ones I can connect to—loved ones who have all the time in the world for me.
While psychedelics may help reanimate the world and the sense of possibility of connections, it is an intentional practice that must be cultivated. Because connections to the world around us runs contrary to the dominant cultural ethos it requires a consistent effort of reframing one’s own perspective until a sense of connection becomes the default mode of being. It requires unlearning the atomized mindset and recognizing one’s place in the web of beings around them. Admittedly I still struggle with maintaining this mindset. The culture makes it hard. But the one thing that persists, that gives me hope, is that the possibility of connecting with other creatures remains.
Cornczech. “We All Became One: An Experience with MDMA (Ecstasy) & Ketamine (exp12384)”. Erowid.org. Jun 14, 2007. erowid.org/exp/12384
maya. “Spirituality and Psilocybin: An Experience with Mushrooms (exp88484)”. Erowid.org. May 4, 2015. erowid.org/exp/88484
Quoiyaien. “I Am It, It Is I: An Experience with LSD & Cannabis (exp53392)”. Erowid.org. Oct 14, 2008. erowid.org/exp/53392