2.6: Transformational Listening Pt. 2 - Holding a Sacred & Healing Space - re depression- an Example

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

What sort of listening/presence is most likely to touch folks in emotional distress, depression, and even considering suicide?


Parker Palmer the author of "The Courage to Teach", "Let Your Life Speak", and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal speaks of his bouts with severe depression and what helped him.


Notice how his friend was comfortable with silence - only spoken from guidance/intuition that came to him - made simple reports of what we has picking up - found a way that was safe and respectful to touch him.


Parker Palmer on Depression - 15 mins.

Highlights of Parker's part of an On Being podcast "The Soul in Depression":


Krista Tippett: ...In the midst of depression, very little if anything is possible in the way of reflection. If you know someone who is depressed now, or if you yourself are in that state, go gently, seek help...


Parker Palmer: People walk around saying, "I don't understand why so-and-so committed suicide." Well, I understand perfectly why people take their lives. They need the rest. Depression is absolutely exhausting. It's why day-by-day. for months at a time, I wanted to take my life.


Tippett: When Parker Palmer experienced his depressions, he was the revered leader of a Quaker spiritual community. At first, because of this, he felt ashamed, but ultimately, he says, depression forced him to reconsider the core of his understanding of spiritual life itself.


Palmer: Going into my experience of depression, I thought of the spiritual life as sort of climbing a mountain until you got to this high, elevated point where you could touch the hand of God or see a vision of wholeness and beauty. The spiritual life, at that time, had nothing to do, as far as I was concerned, with going into the valley of the shadow of death. Even thought that phrase is right there at the heart of my own spiritual tradition; that wasn't what it was about, for me.


So on one level you think, "This is the least spiritual thing I've ever done.", and the soul is absent, God is absent, faith is absent - all of the faculties that I depend on before I went into depression were now utterly useless.


And yet, as I worked my way though that darkness, I sometimes became aware that way back there in the woods, somewhere, was this sort of primitive piece of animal life, just some kind of existential reality, some kind of core of being, of my own being; I don't know, maybe of the life force generally, and that was somehow holding out the hope of life to me. And so I now see the soul as that wild creature way back there in the woods that knows how to survive in very hard places; knows how to survive in places where the intellect doesn't, where the feelings don't, and where the will cannot...


... I believe that the God who gave me life want me to live life fully and well. Now, is that going to take me to places where I suffer because I am standing for something or I am committed to something or I am passionate about something that get resisted and rejected by the society? Absolutely. But anyone who's ever suffered that way knows that it's a life-giving way to suffer; that if it's your truth, you cannot do it, and that knowledge carries you through.


But there's another kind of suffering that is simply and purely death. It;s death in life. That is a darkness to be worked through, to find the life on the other side....


Tippett: ... When you were talking about how Quaker tradition -- just that people know how to be silent, I was recalling that passage in what you've written about your depression, about the friend who helped you the most, who would just come be with you.


Palmer: I'll just tell that story quickly because it's such a great image for me.


[Advice and affirmation from well-meaning people that made things worse…]


I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful, and sadly, many of them weren’t.


These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.”


And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know, intellectually, that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day.


And then other people would come and say something along the lines of, “Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You’re such a good person. You’ve helped so many people, you’ve written …”


Tippett: “You’re so successful.”


Palmer: “You’re so successful, and you’ve written so well.” And that would leave me feeling more depressed, because I would feel, “I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.”


[The listening/presence that helped in his darkest depression…]


There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about 4 o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks, and massaged my feet.


He hardly ever said anything; he was a Quaker elder. And yet, out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, “I can feel your struggle today,” or, farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.”


But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report, from time to time, what he was intuiting about my condition.


Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just — in a way that I really don’t have words for — kept me connected with the human race.


What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way.


And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference.


That became, for me, a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering, but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.


- end of interview -


For the 54 min unedited interview go here.

When you get there go to the drop-down box on lower right. Click on “Play Unedited Parker Palmer”.

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