"...a lot of people say fear of death is really at the root of a lot of problems, but my experience tells me that fear of life, fear of living, is at the root of our problems, because life is like this river of time and events that just pours through us all the time, and it’s always changing."
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Thomas Moore, former monk, university professor, and psychotherapist. His work focuses on developing a deepening spirituality, as well as the act of cultivating the soul in everyday life. Thomas is the author of Care of the Soul, and in 2004 released Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. Beginning October 28, 2010, Thomas will give a three-part online series at Sounds True called Gifts of a Dark Night: Dealing Effectively in Times of Loss and Trial, where he’ll discuss periods of loss or failure we all endure, while offering advice and guidance on how to navigate these difficult times. Here’s my conversation with Thomas Moore:
Tom, you’ve written widely and wildly on the life of the soul, and I want to talk with you about this idea of our dark passages in life. It seems an area of great confusion, people somehow feel they’re failing in their spiritual quest when they go through hard times.
TS: It does seem that there’s an idea that spiritual liberation will deliver us from our suffering, so when we suffer, we think, “Something’s gone wrong!”
TM: The spiritual life might bring us further into suffering, actually, because when we’re doing it well, we’re willing to be open to life, to let life happen. There’s a lot that goes on in the ordinary person’s life where they really don’t allow the possibilities of their lives to even take place. People say fear of death is really at the root of a lot of problems, but my experience tells me fear of life, fear of living, is at the root of our problems, because life is like this river of time and events just pour through us all the time, and it’s always changing. A change involves suffering. If someone is successful at a job, but something in them feels dissatisfied, that dissatisfaction may be a sign that life wants something more or something different. Eventually, that person may have to say, “Well, I’ve got to leave this job behind now and take a leap into the unknown, and see what’s going to happen next.” I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve gone through that experience.Even though it’s painful and there’s suffering, fear and anxiety around it, it means you’re willing to live, rather than defend yourself against life. I think that’s really a key ingredient to this whole thing: that those people who are willing to live, instead of just remain static, are going to maybe have more challenges and have to go through more pain than others.
TS: So when you’re referring to “fear of life,” you mean the fear that, if I really open up to the life that’s moving through me, that things are going to change. My job might change, my relationship might change, I might start acting in new ways.
TM: And I think the majority of people just say “no” to life. They say, “Well, everything’s in place. I’m making a good living, I’ve got health insurance . . .” all of these things keep us stuck. The result of not living and not facing the potential pain involved in changing is that we begin to feel lifeless, and there even maybe a certain kind of depression related to this. It’s not a deep, dark depression, but it’s a feeling that nothing is important, nothing gives you much pleasure, and that can lead easily to addiction or to hopelessness. I think it’s essential to be able to accept life as it presents itself, and the opportunities that presents themselves.
Tom, you’ve written widely and wildly on the life of the soul, and I want to talk with you about this idea of our dark passages in life. It seems an area of great confusion, people somehow feel they’re failing in their spiritual quest when they go through hard times.Thomas Moore: I think we tend to sentimentalize the spiritual life. We make it look wonderful, and therefore, when bad times come along, we think we’ve failed, that somehow we should be in a place where these things don’t happen, or we should be able to handle them easily. That’s not the way life works. It would help if people could think about it more realistically. If we could just accept that to begin with, I think we’d be way ahead of the game, so when bad things came along, we wouldn’t be shocked, and wouldn’t judge ourselves so much, and be more likely able to handle it.
TS: What was your inspiration for writing the book Dark Nights of the Soul?
TM: In recent years, I’ve been writing mainly, but there was a period when I was really doing therapy every day, and people were coming to me with different forms of depression, with a lot of challenges in life and a lot of suffering. I thought that one of the difficulties was that they were thinking of themselves in typical psychological terms, so “There must be something wrong. If only I can understand it, this will go away. I must find some way to live better.”
I didn’t think that was a very good approach. I wanted to move away from the idea of depression. I was reminded of John of the Cross, who was a mystic, who wrote a poem called “Dark Night of the Soul” and a commentary on this poem. He had difficulties in his life, himself. He was writing primarily to mystics, people who would take their spiritual life very seriously. He was trying to help them navigate a mystical life, but I thought what he said about that kind of life could apply to us ordinary folks trying to get through life. What I did was apply some of his insights to what I was seeing as a psychotherapist.
I guess a lot of this has to do with my own experience. My feeling is that I have come to accept life as being complicated and difficult, and having some suffering, some joy, and some very plain, ordinary days when things don’t seem to be either high or low. Living that way, I find to be ultimately more satisfying, because it allows me to be creative, which gives it its own rewards. I wanted to bring some of that attitude to the people I was working with. And I wanted to write about it, because most of the books I see either ignore the dark side of life or they look for quick and easy solutions to it.
TS: So, not polarizing into either happiness or sadness, but accepting and being with all of the terrain of life has allowed you to be creative.
TM: There’s a point I make in my book, that I think is key: You develop a philosophy of life. That is, you think things through, and you have a sense of values, and you have something of a plan to deal with life. If you include difficulties, and include that you expect life is going to have challenges in it and changes, and there will be frequent moments of confusion and pain, then I don’t think you go down into these deep places so much. So it’s possible to be creative when life is a mixture of things. But, most people have told me when they are feeling depressed, one of the characteristics of that place is that you just don’t have any energy to be creative, and you don’t have the will to do it. It’s a difficult thing to deal with.
I think that part of it has to do with the fact that we don’t look at life in its complexity. We expect happiness all the time, really. We think that’s the normal state to be in. I’m trying to suggest that happiness is not the normal state.
TS: But do you think that simply expecting and accepting that there will be these periods of loss and grief is enough to keep one out of these deep pitfalls of depression?
TM: It’s not enough, but it goes a long way. Many years ago, my friend James Hillman said he felt a lot of our depression comes from the fact that America has such a spirited society—we expect to be happy. We’re dedicated to the pursuit of happiness. We have all kinds of messages telling us we should be happy, and if we’re not, we’d better do something about it and get back on track quickly. That, he says, creates depression, itself, it makes it worse, because that’s our expectation, and that’s the environment we live in. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
I’m suggesting we could have a vision of life more true to its nature, that life is a complex mix of happiness, sadness and challenge--all of these things. Our philosophy of life, then, goes along with that. I think we would become more even-tempered as a result--not having these highs and lows quite as much. That’s a start. I’m not saying that’s going to solve the problem entirely, but I think that is a major part of the picture.
There are other parts, too. Some people will find benefits from finding the roots of their depression. A lot of them go back to earlier experiences, to the influence of other people, to childhood, and so it’s really worth looking at all of those things. What I do in my own practice: In order to find out what kind of darkness is in a person’s life, I look closely at their dream life. I find signs there of patterns that I think help shed light on the depression or the sadness, whatever it is; the conflict. So that canbe useful, and then you have something you can reconsider.
Just being able to reframe your story is also part of the healing, and a part of being able to live in a life that maybe has its challenges and difficulties, but you’re not undone by them. You can go ahead and live your life, even though these things are going to be there for you to deal with.
...end of exerpt.
TS: Thomas Moore has created several audio programs with Sounds True over the past two decades, including a six-part series on Soul Life, and a program on creativity, as well as a program on meaningful work. And coming up beginning October 28, Sounds True will be hosting a three-part online event series on the Gifts of a Dark Night, and that’s something I’m looking forward to and I think will be of great benefit for everyone who tunes in beginning on October 28. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.
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