Have you ever felt like you’ve fallen into a black pit of despair or depression? You’re down in there and it’s dark. You’re alone. There’s no ladder and the sides are too steep to climb. You’re trapped! Sometimes you stay down in that pit for days. People can spend months, even years in dark holes of depression. It’s horrible!
It doesn’t matter if you are dumb or smart, young or old, secular or religious, materialistic or spiritual; it can happen to anyone. The result is no energy, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and victimization. Relationships, work, and self-esteem all suffer. Days go by when you know you could do more, be more, but you just can’t. What to do?
Probably the most common remedy people use when they fall into a black pit of depression is to keep busy with normal routines, knowing that at some point, sooner or later, they will pull out of it. But what can also happen is that you get used to staying depressed while living your everyday life. You can get so good at it you don’t seem depressed to others. You have successfully adapted to living you life inside a hole; many people spend their entire lives that way. What a waste!
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could shorten the time you spent in those holes? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could feel yourself going there and be able to do something to stop the slide?
Integral Deep Listening asks you to assume that your depression, your black pit of despair, is a wake-up call. If you listen to it, it may tell you why it’s there and possibly even what you need to do to get out. That is the case for Anna, a very talented university-educated artist with an IQ that is in the upper five percent. Now forty-eight, Anna has suffered from bouts of depression as long as she can remember, describing herself as bipolar, with periods of manic, intense creativity and activity, but also periods of dark, deep black pits of depression. At those times she mostly stays at home, surfs the internet, sleeps, watches TV, procrastinates, and avoids people. At first it can feel good, but after a while her self-esteem suffers because she has no motivation to work toward her life goals. She knows she is more, that she can do much more, that she could feel much better, but she just can’t.
In Integral Deep Listening you imaginatively pretend you are a character from a dream or nightmare or the personification of some waking life issue. Some of these life issues, like the anxiety of post-traumatic stress syndrome or the hopelessness and helplessness of depression, can become waking nightmares. Anna described her depression as a black pit of despair, providing her own visual metaphor for the waking nightmare of her cyclic depression. Here is a summary of her interview. The interview itself follows this summary.
Why is Anna afraid of her depression? She says, “I’m scared of how I feel and the paralysis. It’s sadness and fear. There’s a lack of balance. I am either in manic action or paralyzed. I beat myself up when I withdraw.”
When we asked Anna to pretend she is her big black pit and to respond from its perspective, at first she didn’t want to, because it was so horrible and she was so afraid of it. She was so locked into being “Anna” and taking her usual perspective in relationship to her depression that it took some persistence before she allowed herself to shift and look at her life from the perspective of her dark pit of despair. We began by asking the big black pit, “would you please tell us about yourself and what you are doing?”
It said, “Anna spends her time trying to avoid me. I just growl and bear my teeth, (scaring her). She falls in me. I kill her. I feel satisfied. I’m out to get her. If she dies I’m still here. She’s stuck. Then I wait for the next person to come along. I’m big and strong and powerful. I’m black and hard to get out of. I have contempt for Anna. She falls back in me very easily. She hasn’t learned to avoid me.”
From the very beginning we learn from interviewing Anna’s pit of despair some very interesting things about what creates depression, its nature, and how it is maintained. Like fear, depression is strengthened by avoiding it. The implication is that your depression is a wake-up call, and that when you ignore it the pit gets deeper and steeper. It becomes easier to fall into it and once you have, to stay trapped. So the very first thing that we learn from Anna’s depression is:
Don’t avoid or ignore your depression; treat it like a wake-up call; listen to it!
The “growling and bearing my teeth” is an indication of how easily it is to let your depression intimidate you. It’s big, strong, powerful, and hard to get out of. So the tendency is to feel like your depression is a persecutor and you are a poor, helpless, powerless victim. When you frame your depression in such a fashion you are likely to look for something or someone to rescue you – a therapist, pill, magical cure, or just an avoidance strategy like sleep or diversion. But the problem is that you become easily dependent on your rescuers, even if they are of no help whatsoever, thereby deepening your confusion and turning your rescuers into yet another source of persecution. At this point you are not only in a big black pit; you are deeply lost inside the Drama Triangle. Notice that Anna puts her Big Black Pit into the role of persecutor by experiencing it as having contempt for her because she is weak and falls back into it very easily.
Next we asked the big black pit, “What do you like most about yourself? What are your strengths? It said, “That I’m strong and powerful. I don’t have to be anything; I don’t have to chase after her. She falls back into me. I win! Mission accomplished! I get my job done. Anna also puts her big black Pit into the role of persecutor by experiencing her depression in a win-lose relationship. If she avoids depression, she wins. If she falls into depression, she loses.
The Pit said, “When she falls back into me she’s separated from the world; she can’t figure out how to get out; she gets paralyzed and shut down. It’s a feeling of helplessness. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t scare myself. I get satisfaction when she gets stuck. It’s not that it’s my job. She can get out; I don’t know why she doesn’t climb out. She’ll be in me and then she will eventually take some action. She can magically dematerialize herself out of me and then she gets on with her life.”
While Anna finds her depression scary, the black hole itself does not. The pit doesn’t scare itself. It is not itself scared. It is not stuck; Anna is. It also doesn’t view Anna as powerless as Anna herself does. It says, “She can get out; I don’t know why she doesn’t climb out.“ It also explains how she generally recovers from her depressions: “She’ll be in me and then she will eventually take some action. She can magically dematerialize herself out of me and then she gets on with her life.” Notice that the implication is that Anna doesn’t understand how she gets out of her pits, other than to eventually take some action that changes things for the better in ways that she does not understand.
When Anna becomes her depression and views her life from its perspective, she develops an objectivity that has the potential to get her out of both the depression and seeing it in terms of the Drama Triangle.
How do we know that we are listening to Anna’s depression when we interview the big black pit? We ask it. Black Pit, what aspect of Anna, do you represent or most closely personify? “Her despair. That’s how she feels relative to me. She despairs that she will ever be able to stop falling into me or having to deal with me. I don’t know; it’s up to her.” The depression/pit claims that it is a part of her and self-created. It is not a possessing demon or a genetic flaw or bad parenting. Perhaps some of those factors precipitated her history of depression, but from the point of view of interviewed Pit, her depression is not predestined fate or karma. It’s a choice. “It’s up to her.” What this implies is that the Pit does not share Anna’s sense of powerlessness, nor is it helpless, because it is aware of alternatives that may make the situation better. Anna can learn not to fall into it. She can learn how to avoid it and how to climb out when she wants.
If that is the case, why hasn’t Anna had more success in avoiding the Pit during her life? The answer the Pit gives for this is insightful, helpful, and useful. It says that Anna is experiencing some secondary gains from getting depressed and staying that way. A “secondary gain” is a benefit you get from staying sick, injured, in pain, stupid, powerless, or abused. Secondary gains are extremely common. If you look at almost any situation in your life that you hate, you will probably find some benefits to you that come from staying stuck. For example, people often stay in abusive relationships for financial or emotional security or to have someone to blame for their own failure to take responsibility in their lives. People with chronic back pain may be encouraged to stay in pain to avoid having their disability payments cut off. How do we know something like this is going on with Anna? The Pit says so. It says, “There’s a part of being in me she actually likes. I’m dark and safe; she can curl up in the fetal position. I have a protective function.” Later on in the interview it says, “She hides out inside me. I give her a place to withdraw to…”
The implication is that withdrawal is not intrinsically problematic, from the perspective of the Pit. It is giving Anna permission to withdraw when she wants to. In this sense it is telling her that she has the ability to re-frame her withdrawal as something other than depression. Therefore, from the Pit’s perspective, the depression is not inevitable. It says, “… she doesn’t have to be scared of the world. …she gets miserable being inside me. She gets paralyzed; life happens outside me.”
Sometimes when you want to transform, you fail. How come? Does the change reflect your internal interests? Do they reflect the agenda of your inner compass? How do you know if you haven’t asked? When you assume you know what is best for you yet are out of touch with your inner self you can put yourself in conflict with what is trying to be born within you. In Integral Deep Listening this very common problem is addressed by asking the interviewed character, called an “emerging potential,” if it would like to change. If so, how? When you ask other invested perspectives if they would like to change you are gaining objectivity onto a possible way forward, a path that may not have occurred to you but which makes sense to a big part of your stuckness. What happened when Anna’s Pit was asked this question? It said that it did want to change, into a big black, green, or blue lake at night, when there’s no sun. Unlike the big black hole, this lake is full of life and surrounded by the life of nature. So what we have is a transformation from emptiness to a context for aliveness that feels supportive, alive, and nurturing to Anna.
The significance of this change is not to be underestimated. All of Anna’s life she has felt trapped and limited by this big black pit. Now it is saying that it doesn’t want to stay a pit; it wants to change. What does it want to change into? It wants to be a context for aliveness that is solid and helpful. Water in a lake is a very good metaphor for this, in that water will fill a hole or physical depression and provide a context for all sorts of expressions of helpful aliveness, just by being what it is. Things can live in the water and be nourished by it.
But is this realistic? How can Anna use this new framing of her depression in a way that is useful? Again, Anna first asks the character itself; later on, after the interview she can ask others, and she can decide how much of the interview is useful and worth putting into practice.
This lake metaphor provides fascinating new ways to look at and deal with depression. It says, “If Anna is in me she can come to the surface of me and swim out.” Think about that. What is it saying? Once Anna reframes her depression as a hole that is full of the potential for aliveness she has a means to feel supported within her depression. The pit is still there, but now it’s supportive instead of trapping. She still has to do the work – swim out – but that’s easy, once she allows herself to feel supported by her “depression.”
Again, is this realistic? Aren’t we asking Anna to engage in self-deception, in playing a cruel trick on herself by denying the true nature of her misery? No. Let me repeat that. No. Why not? Because neither Anna nor some helpful friend or therapist came up with the lake. No one told the Pit it had to change into a lake. It could have stayed a Pit. In fact, during the interview I had the lake change back into the Pit several times, just so it knew that there was no pressure or expectation on either it or Anna that she should or ought to remain the lake. It says, “I can be both the black hole and the lake.” Anna has the choice of going back into the Pit if she wants. This in itself is freeing, because before it was seen as an experience she was powerless over. Now Anna is telling herself that she has a choice. She can use the pit as a space of creative withdrawal.
Is this lake really a helpful or useful way for Anna to reframe her depression? The lake thinks so. It says, “I want to stay a lake. I like it better. It’s very lively. It feels like I have a good function.” Not only is this transformed Pit not a persecutor, it actually wants to help Anna. How do we know? Listen to what it says: “It’s no fun having Anna stay miserable. It’s not my job to scare or control her. It’s what she lets happen. She gives up her power when she falls into me. It’s up to her if she wants to fall back inside the black hole. She floats in my water; she can swim out of me when she wants.” “Once I become a lake I’m not empty space. My water is nurturing.”
So the hole is not only not a persecutor, it is telling Anna that its nature is actually supportive and nurturing! This is a very difficult reframing for most people who are depressed because it is so far removed from their reality. But Anna did not do this interview when she was happy and feeling good. She had felt depressed for days and was still crying at the time of this interview.
Notice the emphasis on choice here. The Pit is actually saying that it is not scary or controlling. “She gives up her power when she falls into me.” When the Pit is reframed as the lake Anna can see how she has the ability to feel supported by the “holes” in her life.
How does this depression get generated in the first place? Anna says, “I beat myself up when I withdraw.” In other words, Anna has never learned to give herself permission to simply be; she is required to do if she wants to be acknowledged and feel significant. The hole puts it like this: “Anna thinks she has to stay busy.” Such a resistance to withdrawal can make withdrawal, when it finally comes, feel punative, undeserved, and undesirable.
The lake has a further explanation. “(Anna) has this whole script around her failing! She feels like she’s not good enough and no matter what she does it won’t be good enough.” Such a way of looking at life is not only more likely to cause one to fall into a hole but to believe that there is no use climbing out, because they will either fail or just fall back in again. This is an example of a fundamental script framing that creates a perceptual context which predicts defeat and uses whatever life circumstances arise to validate itself. As long as you operate within the context of such a perceptual framing, you’re going to be depressed.
The way Integral Deep Listening addresses this problem is to give you experiences in which you learn, again and again, that your perceptual framing is arbitrary. It’s a choice. You can change it. You can give yourself permission to learn about the assumptions that create your reality, question them, and then sort through a number of alternative perceptual contexts until you arrive at those that are authentic and work best for you in different situations. It is not about finding one right context.There is none. There are many different perceptual contexts available to you right now, and each one opens up different possibilities while making others less likely. If you do not know this, do not learn about those alternatives, and do not learn how to experiment with taking on new ones, you are choosing to stay directed by largely unconscious perceptual framings and cognitive contexts. The result is misperception, delusion, and suffering.
Anna doesn’t have to be the Lake to deal with her depression. It represents a very helpful, always available alternative, but she has an even simpler alternative. If she only allows herself to simply be, as does the black hole, “she would have more energy. She wouldn’t be putting her energy into getting stuck and staying stuck.” Anna can learn to feel good about withdrawing and welcome it. This is an audacious claim. Why should Anna believe it? IDL does not ask Anna to believe it. Instead, it asks her to suspend her disbelief and to follow the recommendation, as long as it is not harmful, and judge the results for herself. In this case the recommendation is to stop putting her energy into getting stuck and staying stuck by giving herself permission to withdraw into being, without the necessity to define her self-worth in terms of doing.
When asked to score itself zero to ten in confidence, compassion, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing, the hole is largely neutral. This is because it is a space of beingness; it does not have either strong positive or strong negative preferences. Notice how different this is from how Anna has always viewed both herself and her depression. She has had strong likes and dislikes. She has viewed her depression as something negative, controlling, and bad. The big black hole says, “She walks around scared most of the time. She doesn’t have to do that. She sees me as being really scary, but intrinsically there’s nothing scary about me. I’m just a big black hole. I could be a retreat for her. She can come into me and hang out. It’s served her to feel powerless and paralyzed. I see what she does. I have some contempt for it. She has a choice.”
In addition to being supported in a nurturing, alive, natural way by the hole transformed into a lake, Anna has the ability to simply reframe the hole itself. She doesn’t have to embrace something that she prefers, like the lake, although she can when she wants. Instead, she can begin to see the intrinsic positive characteristics within a state that she had always experienced as negative. She can outgrow her secondary gains. She no longer needs to feel powerless and paralyzed.
We have seen that basic to being in the victim role of the Drama Triangle is to feel powerless and helpless. But both the hole and the lake tell Anna that she has choices, that she is not powerless and helpless. Does Anna believe what she is telling herself? The hole continues to redefine its nature even more positively for Anna: “I can be the empty space for her creativity! If she can act however she wants, she can choose to sit inside me with a notebook and do some work. She would have a real quiet space and get some work done.”
Instead of feeling overwhelmed and helpless by her depression, Anna can experience it the way she experiences the long pause at the bottom of each breath: as a space of clarity, potential, spontaneity, and creativity. She can marry being and doing by moving deeply into beingness itself as the wellspring of creativity.
Both the lake and hole tell Anna that if she will take either perspective she will move out of the Drama Triangle, because neither one experience themselves as Victim, Persecutor, or Rescuer. The lake is about positive, natural life force; the hole is about the power of presence, of beingness.
In IDL, interviewed emerging potentials are challenged to justify their usefulness. The question is, “(Hole, Lake), you are imaginary. Why should your human pay attention to anything you say?” The lake says, “I offer a beautiful, positive, energetic, constructive, nurturing world other than staying stuck in the drama of her fear and her negative emotions.” The hole says, “I am the neutral one; she’s the one having the problems. If she learns how to engage with me it doesn’t have to be such a negative experience.”
What did Anna get out of this interview? She became much clearer about the secondary gains that she has gotten from being depressed off and on all these years. “All the fear of inadequacy, not being good enough, not being able to succeed gets (me) stuck in this place. I get something out of going back into this drama and paralysis. It does keep me safe. I don’t have to try; I don’t have to fail.”
Secondly, she understands now that she can give herself permission to see her “depression” as a chance to withdraw and to just be. This can be a creative, productive space. This is a radically different message than the one she internalized from her childhood. Anna has to decide if it is an accurate and reasonable window onto her life-long suffering, and if so, helpful. If it is, then it is again her choice as to whether to simply think about what all this means or to put it to work in her life.
One way that she can begin to do so is to get in the habit of becoming the hole when she feels pushed into action. The hole is not averse to action; rather it is the context in which meaningful action can occur. The nature of the lake makes this abundantly clear. The lake is a good place to go when she wants to feel supported, alive, and one with nature. In either case, Anna has given herself powerful alternatives to chronic, deep depression. Will they help? We don’t know. It’s up to Anna. Will an interview help you get out of your own deep pits? We don’t know, but we encourage you to assume that your depression is a wake-up call and take a few minutes to listen to what it is telling you.
The sooner the better. There is no reason why Anna couldn’t have done this interview when she was six, eight, ten, or fifteen. Would it have made a difference? Probably. Would it have saved her years of unnecessary suffering? Possibly. This is why I am asking you to learn to interview yourself and follow those recommendations that make sense. One interview is not enough to wake you up out of the life-long perceptual frameworks in which you are stuck. Interview yourself regularly and interview others, because when you do you are interviewing the part of yourself that the other person represents. Their interview is waking you up! Share IDL with the children in your world. One could be a lot like Anna. One could be a lot like you were when you were a child. You can give them a gift in self-awareness that can change the arc of their life in a way that will ripple outward and bring many blessings to others.
Big black pit, would you please tell me about yourself and what you are doing?
Big Black Pit: Anna spends her time trying to avoid me. I just growl and bear my teeth. I kill her. She falls in me. I feel satisfied. My job is that I’m out to get her. If she dies I’m still here. She’s stuck. Then I wait for the next person to come along. I’m big and strong and powerful. I’m black and hard to get out of. I have contempt for Anna. She falls back in ne very easily. She hasn’t learned to avoid me.
What do you like most about yourself? What are your strengths?
That I’m strong and powerful. I don’t have to be anything; I don’t have to chase after her. She falls back into me. I win! Mission accomplished; I get my job done. When she falls back into me she’s separated from the world; she can’t figure out how to get out; she gets paralyzed and shut down. It’s a feeling of helplessness. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t scare myself. I get satisfaction when she gets stuck. It’s not that it’s my job. She can get out; I don’t know why she doesn’t climb out. She’ll be in me and then she will eventually take some action. She can magically dematerialize herself out of me and then she gets on with her life.
What do you dislike most about yourself? Do you have weaknesses? What are they?
She finds me scary but I’m just a big black hole.
What aspect of Anna, do you represent or most closely personify?
Her despair. That’s how she feels relative to me. She despairs that she will ever be able to stop falling into me or having to deal with me. I don’t know; it’s up to her.
There’s a part of being in me she actually likes. I’m dark and safe; she can curl up in the fetal position. But she doesn’t have to be scared of the world. I have a protective function, but she gets miserable being inside me. She gets paralyzed; life happens outside me.
Big black hole, if you could be anywhere you wanted to be and take any form you desired, would you change? If so, how?
It might be kind of nice to be a big black lake at night time, when there’s no sun. A big green or blue lake, full of aliveness. As a big black hole I’m empty. As a lake I can be full of things surrounded by trees. At night time I will look black. It’s peaceful. You can hear birds, insects, winds, and there’s stars twinkling. I have an alive kind of function. I have life; I’m still really solid. I help things.
I want to stay a lake. If Anna is in me she can come to the surface of me and swim out. I like it better. It’s very lively. It feels like I have a good function. She could swim out when she wants.
Black hole: It’s no fun having Anna stay miserable. It’s not my job to scare, control her. It’s what she lets happen. She gives up her power when she falls into me. Once I become a lake I’m not empty space. My water is nurturing. It’s up to her if she wants to fall back inside the black hole. She floats in my water; she can swim out of me when she wants.
I can be both the black hole and the lake.
Anna: When I’m in the black hole; I feel really trapped, helpless, can’t get out. I’m stuck. There’s no easy way out.
I’m in this lake: I’m swimming. Peaceful, space, animals, trees, temperature is good. Animals. Whenever I’m ready to get out I can get out.
The black hole is a part of me. If Anna’s in the water and floating she’s on the surface; she doesn’t sink. She’s in motion. When she’s inside me as a black hole she’s inert and stuck.
My function is not to hold an empty space any more. If she could be in me without being depressed and get out whenever she wants…She gets herself out of me in a dream-like way. When she gets focused on doing stuff; when she gets back in motion, in action.
It’s kind of nice to have company when she’s here. I like having the company. I’m OK having a friend. She doesn’t have to crawl into me. She could dangle her legs over the edge or sit on a rock. I don’t have to be scary; I can just be a empty black hole. She hides out inside me. I give her a place to withdraw to…
Anna, why are you scared of the black hole?
I’m scared of how I feel and the paralysis. It’s sadness and fear. There’s a lack of balance: manic action or paralyzed. I beat myself up when I withdraw.
Hole: I don’t have to do anything; Anna thinks she has to stay busy.
Lake: I don’t think Anna is having a lot of fun. Everything is so desperate and miserable! She has this whole script around her failing! She feels like she’s not good enough and no matter what she does it won’t be good enough.
If she felt like me, the black hole, she would have more energy. She wouldn’t be putting her energy into getting stuck and staying stuck.
(Character), how would you score yourself 0-10, in each of the following six qualities: confidence, compassion, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing? Why?
Confidence: 8 I juts exist; there’s no positivity, negativity; I just am.
8 I’m nurturing; I know it’s my role and place in the world. I feel good about what I do in the world.
Compassion: Neutral. Sometimes the animals eat each other. I don’t feel one way or the other.
Neutral (black hole)
Wisdom: My job isn’t about wisdom; it’s about existing and being.
8 Lake: I feel wise.
Acceptance: 9 I’m a big, open, nurturing water space with many creatures living around me and taking part in me.
Big black hole: neutral
Inner Peace: 7 I just am; I exist
5 Some things around me are and are not peaceful. Anna floating on me is peaceful. My nature is pretty peaceful.
Witnessing: 9 There’s lots of activity and I just exist, watching it all happen.
Black hole: I’m more neutral.
If you could live _____’s life for him/her, how would you live it differently?
Black hole: She walks around scared most of the time. She doesn’t have to do that. She sees me as being really scary, but intrinsically there’s nothing scary about me. I’m just a big black hole. I could be a retreat for her. She can come into me and hang out. It’s served her to feel powerless and paralyzed. I see what she does. I have some contempt for it. She has a choice.
Lake: She is all miserable! She needs to be free! When she sits in her house by herself she is in her black hole. She could be out in the world!
In what life situations would it be most beneficial for Anna to imagine that she is you and act as you would?
I can be the empty space for her creativity! If she can act however she wants she can choose to sit inside me with a notebook and do some work. She would have a real quiet space and get some work done.
Lake: When she wants to be in touch with her vitality and life!
Character, do you do drama? If not, why not?
What is your secret for staying out of drama?
Lake: Focusing on positive energy. Being in communion with the sun, moon, wind, magnetic energy of the earth, embracing all the life around me in whatever form it takes.
Black hole: I don’t have to do anything! There’s no part of me that creates or engages in drama. My role is one of being. I’m peaceful with that.
______, you are imaginary. Why should your human pay attention to anything you say?
Lake: I offer a beautiful, positive, energetic, constructive, nurturing world other than staying stuck in the drama of her fear and her negative emotions.
Hole: I am the neutral one; she’s the one having the problems. If she learns how to engage with me it doesn’t have to be such a negative experience.
How is Anna most likely to ignore what you are saying to her?
To stay stuck in drama. It’s up to her whether she does or not.
Lake: I hope she doesn’t blow me off.
Thank you, (Character!) And now a couple questions for your human:
If this experience were a wake-up call from your inner compass, what do you think it would be saying to you?
It’s up to her! All the fear of inadequacy, not being good enough, not being able to succeed gets her stuck in this place.
I don’t want to feel that way. I get something out of going back into this drama and paralysis. It does keep me safe. I don’t have to try; I don’t have to fail. The hole is the empty space. The bottom of breath. It’s not realistic to not make space for myself to withdraw.