Marianne Williamson is a bestselling author, world-renowned teacher, and one of the most important spiritual voices of our time. In her latest book From Tears to Triumph she argues that our desire to avoid pain is actually detrimental to our lives, disconnecting us from our deepest emotions and preventing true healing and spiritual transcendence.
Here she talks to Cissi Williams about how depression, anxiety and emotional pain can be spiritual tools for awakening, when we allow ourselves to embrace our pain and listen to what it wants us to understand.
I think the only chance we have of reaching someone in a deep place is if we are speaking from a deep place ourselves, and I had just gone through a dark night of the soul myself. I have also seen so much medication of what is our bouts of normal human suffering going on in our society over the last few years, where we have begun to medicalise human despair, when in fact human despair has been around for a very long time. All the great spiritual traditions speak about it.
Buddha said life is suffering, God sent Moses to deliver the Israelites from their suffering as slaves under the Pharaohs, and of course Jesus suffered on the cross.
So in my own times of despair, I have found that dealing with the root causes of my suffering, owning whatever mistakes I have made, forgiving other people for theirs, and learning to grieve the normal losses of life have hopefully expanded me as a human being and taught me things that I had needed to know in order to live a more functional adulthood.
Learning to navigate life’s most turbulent waters is part of learning how to be a conscious human being.
So I find it very disturbing that so many people who are going through normal dark nights of the soul – such as a bitter divorce, a painful break-up, an experience of professional failure or financial hardship – are being treated as if they have a mental illness. Of course these events are painful, but they are part of human life.
I don’t want to minimise serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, which are often treated very well by psychotherapeutic drugs, but, at least in America, very heavy duty psychotherapeutic drugs are being prescribed for people who are not diagnosed with serious mental illness. And I personally feel that this is a very dysfunctional reaction to human despair.
I don’t know how it is in Britain, but in the United States it wasn’t until the 1980s that pharmaceutical companies could advertise on television; previously it wasn’t allowed. Today people can see an ad for a medicine and then go tell their doctor that they want it. While this kind of behaviour is making billions of dollars for the pharmaceutical companies, it’s perpetuating a dangerous myth among the population that if you are very, very sad, there is something wrong with you. It is not just a deep sadness – instead it is something wrong, like your brain chemistry – but the truth of the matter is there’s no blood test for depression. Instead it is diagnosed by a questionnaire.
From a spiritual perspective, dark nights of the soul are not a physical problem, they’re a spiritual problem. What I talk about in the book is how three of the great spiritual traditions speak of human suffering. Buddha’s realisation about human suffering was the beginning of his path to enlightenment, which culminated in his state of nirvana under the Bodhi tree. The deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt was the beginning of their forty years in the desert, which culminated in their entrance into the Promised Land. Jesus suffered on the cross but this was followed by his resurrection.
The trials of Buddha, those forty years, and the hours on the cross are symbols for these periods that we go through in our lives where we are feeling the pain of living in a world that repudiates the love in our hearts. And when we are thinking with love, that’s the only way to be comfortable in our own skin. If I’m withholding love, I cannot be happy. If I’m withholding forgiveness, I cannot be happy. If I see myself as a victim, I cannot be happy. If I am grasping for things outside of myself to make me happy, I cannot be happy, because that will only work temporarily. If I’m focusing on the past or the future rather than the present, I cannot be happy. So just treating the inevitable depression that arises when I’m misusing my own mind is not the answer. The answer is to learn to think in a way that is true to our hearts – but that is not the mindset that dominates the world.
That’s why a spiritual path is the unlearning of the mindset that dominates the world. We need to proactively create health, we cannot just treat sickness. The greatest preventative measure we have against illness is to proactively cultivate health, and the greatest preventative measure we have against depression is to proactively cultivate happiness. Depression is the absence of happiness, but happiness is not the absence of depression. And a spiritual journey is the journey out of suffering into happiness, but you cannot undertake that when denying the suffering.
There are two things about what you just said. First of all, your spiritual journey began with that big dark place, and it wasn’t that you were depressed because you had a disease. Instead it was the start of a sacred journey that often begins in the depths of our despair and it should be honoured as such. That’s not to glamorise suffering, but to recognise what you just said – that it is in the darkness of the night that you see the stars in the sky.
The other important thing highlighted by what you said is that spiritual exercise is akin to physical exercise – it works if you work it.
You are training your attitudinal muscles, just like you train your physical muscles with physical exercise.
If you don’t do the work, then the work does not get done, but if you do do the work, it works. Sometimes people will say ‘I tried meditation.’ Yeah, they tried meditation, they stared into a candle for two weeks and then they said, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’
That was exactly my experience as well, and the experience of so many of us. It is so good for us to have this conversation because that’s not the dominant story being told today.
Absolutely, and then you will not learn some of the very important lessons. Sometimes a lot of the pain is in facing our own mistakes: how could I have been so stupid, why did I do it, why didn’t I do that? That’s what’s painful, but you don’t get the gain unless you go through that pain because it moves you into a deeper dedication to being different. That’s what moves you into a realisation of where you need to work on things in your life. Even the pain of losing a loved one. I’ve lost my parents, I’ve lost my sister, I’ve lost my best friend, but let me tell you what it’s given me. It’s given me a realisation on a visceral level that this physical incarnation will not last forever. I learned to love the people that I know, and to suck the juice out of this experience called life – I learned that from looking back at all the relationships that are now gone, at least for this lifetime. What were the conversations I wish I’d had? What were the hours I wish I had spent? What is the love I wish I had shared?
I think the first thing is just as you mentioned – stop blaming other people and other circumstances. You can’t think of yourself as a victim and be happy. You can’t withhold forgiveness of other people and be happy. You can’t fail to atone for your own mistakes and be happy. You can’t fail to make amends where necessary and be happy. You can’t fail to work on becoming a better person now and be happy.
A Course In Miracles says: ‘Only what you are not giving can be lacking in any situation.’
I was in a break-up where, for the first four months, all I could think about was what he had done wrong. It wasn’t until the fifth month that my mind was willing to allow itself to look seriously at where my lack of compassion, my lack of forgiveness, my controlling nature and my demands had been part of this story where we had betrayed each other. But the mind is very much marshalled against taking personal responsibility and it was painful to realise this, but in doing so I think I broke through to something that definitely served me in my path afterwards.
You absolutely surrender it to God. That’s why meditation and prayer are so important. I don’t know of any serious spiritual path that does not talk about prayer or meditation, because prayer and meditation are the ways we realign the mind with the truth of who we are. The mindset of the world constantly repudiates the truth of who we are. The truth of who we are is love and the only way to be comfortable in our skin on this planet is to use the mind in a way that shares the truth of who we are. When I’m thinking with love, I’m being myself, and when I feel like I am myself, I can be comfortable in my skin. Any thought of lovelessness is actually psychically an act of self-annihilation. When I think without love, I’m repudiating the truth of who I am and so I can’t be happy.
I notice how people will go to therapy because they’re working on a relationship, and the question they are often asked is, ‘Is this relationship really giving you everything you need?’ Well, the question we should all be asked is, ‘Are you really giving everything you have?’ There are so many cultural messages that bolster our narcissism, that bolster our sense of isolation, that bolster our idolatry; this sense that if I get this or make that happen, then I’ll be happy. Yet, as Buddha said, the things of this world only provide temporary happiness, so half our time is spent grasping and struggling for those things we think will make us happy and the other half is spent in despair over the fact that even though we got them, the fairy dust has begun to rub off and we’ve realised that the things we thought would make us happy, and we struggled to get, didn’t ultimately make us happy.
That’s based on the principles of ‘A Course In Miracles’. The ego mind says that the perfect relationship for me is when someone acts the way I want them to act, whilst the holiness of a relationship is that it gives us opportunities to heal, where the relationship is the laboratory of the Holy Spirit. If I break my leg and go to the doctor, I will be asked to show the doctor my wound, as it has to be exposed in order to be healed. This is because we heal through a kind of detox, and as the ‘Course In Miracles’ says, ‘You can’t put light onto the darkness, you must bring the darkness to the light.’
In intimate relationships we often end up showing our worst – although we want to be our best, our wounds and unhealed places are brought to the surface. When you see that in another person, your ego says ‘I’ve got to leave’ and the other person sees your unhealed places and says ‘I’ve got to leave.’ But if you contextualise the relationship in a holy way and you realise it was bound to happen, that all this unhealed stuff would come up, then you know this is not the time to walk away. This is the time instead to practise mercy, to practise compassion, to hear the other person who’s saying ‘This does not work for me,’ and be really willing to change where we need to change and to forgive what we need to forgive.
Sometimes the lesson in a relationship is to stay in it and work it out. Sometimes the lesson is to know when it’s time to leave. There is no external guidepost. This is why, once again, ‘A Course In Miracles’ says, ‘You think you have many different problems, but you really only have one and that is your separation from God.’ We can choose to view every situation as one in which to seek God’s vision and guidance; sometimes the vision will be to stay and sometimes the vision and guidance of our heart will be to leave.
Yes, and sometimes the path of love is to go. But no matter whether we stay with a person physically or not, the spiritual healing is in the mind. ‘A Course In Miracles’ says that the relationship lasts forever because it’s in the mind. So if I leave you, but I don’t forgive you, then I didn’t learn the lesson just because I left. I might have learned something behaviourally, which is better than hanging on in a crazy place, but if I have not learned the internal lesson – which is more than just to leave, it’s to work out whatever it was that led to the situation to begin with – then I will just manifest that same problem with another person.
We live in a very ‘how to fix it’ culture, and the Western mind is brilliant at finding out what to do, but when it is not partnered with what a situation is calling us to understand, then it becomes unbalanced. Some things can’t be understood by going out and doing something.
The meaning is going to be found by sitting and thinking about the situation, burning through the pain, and meditating and addressing the issues that are so difficult to face. That is how we become wise.
The search for wisdom is trivialised in our modern civilisation because it’s not functional. We don’t see where the productivity is in that, but that’s the imbalance of the Western mind.
That’s right. ‘The Course In Miracles’ says it is not up to you what you learn but merely whether you learn through joy or through pain. If I refuse to learn a lesson through joy, the lesson will keep coming back and it will get harder and harder. But the universe is intentional. The universe is invested in us becoming self-actualised, enlightened, whatever word you want to use, and it is the accumulation of experience that takes us there.
In ‘A Course In Miracles’ there’s a lesson, ‘Heaven is a decision I must make.’ Most people, when they wake up in the morning, they go to the computer, they go to the TV, the radio, Internet or mobile phone and allow themselves to take in this barrage of meaningless, loveless stimuli. If instead you say, ‘First I will go to God, first I will meditate, first I will read my inspirational literature, first I will pray,’ and then you think about everybody that you know you’re going to meet that day and all the people you don’t even know you’re going to meet during your day and you send them your love – then you are casting your love before you. You blast your home, your workplace, your classroom, with love. I often ask people, ‘For those of you who are married, did you pray for your husband’s happiness today? Did you pray for your wife’s happiness?’ We don’t normally ask ourselves, ‘How might I be an instrument of love today?’
That is how we proactively make the decision and cultivate the mindset that does produce happiness. You wake up in the morning, you take a bath, you take a shower, because you don’t want to take yesterday’s dirt into the day with you. But if you don’t pray or meditate, you’re not taking the dirt of yesterday, but you’re taking the stress of yesterday and then everybody’s mystified as to why they are depressed by noon. And then drug companies are saying ‘there’s a pill for that!’
By making the decision to choose happiness, first thing in the morning, you set the tone for your day. This is how happiness becomes your choice.