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Feb 10, 2014

Re-Writing Ourselves

Ancient wisdom tells us that there is value in embracing change and uncertainty. “The Guest House,” a poem by Persian poet Rumi, which touches on this theme, is a good reminder of that perennial wisdom, and I have used it to very good effect in my therapeutic work. Often, people come to my practice wanting to be liberated from the oppressive grip of depression. I have found Poetry Therapy to be an important tool in discerning a viable way to come out of depression. In Poetry Therapy, a literary piece, a song, a piece of art serves as the point of entry to self-exploration. The writing my clients produce after discussing the piece tends to be expansive in nature, in the sense that it invites them to juxtapose their emotional condition with the import of the poem and to write from the perspective of the one who takes a stand on the matter. In other words, the person is moved to action against the paralyzing effect of depression. 

Rumi’s poem is as much about accepting change as it is about learning to live with the discomfort that comes with it. Through the metaphor of the house, the poet invites us to be open and ready for the ever-changing nature of life. I use the poem as an expression of how it feels when depression enters our life, bringing unwanted feelings and the sensation of us being expelled from our own house by its imposing presence. The tendency is to want to drive out the guest, rush the feelings out so we can regain control. However no sooner do we do this than we are rudely surprised by a parade of other guests who keep the door and our mood swinging. “The Guest House” reminds us of the importance of entertaining the guests long enough for us to know for certain the nature of the gift they may be bearing. 

Depression, whether we like it or not, will knock at our door at any given moment. Most likely, she will let herself in surreptitiously and sit uninvited as our guest. She often makes her presence felt after a traumatic, life-altering event or, during drastic changes in one’s life. Her appearance is mostly related to the permeability of our emotional/psychological fabric during times of extreme stress. Regardless of our level of preparedness, she will come; everyone will experience her at one time or another in one’s life. “The Guest House” is a lucid illustration of this point.

When depression trudges in, we can turn our back, shrug her off, and pretend she is not there. We might even giggle our way through her visit while crumbling inside. But when she settles in, unattended, she tends to grow roots, reaching down into our very cells. Attempting to ignore her we might distract ourselves with speed dating, relentless sex, or compulsive drinking. We might give in to destructive drug use. We might try to mask our pain in every conceivable way possible, including emotional starving, in the worst case, making ourselves unappealing to others. Despite our efforts to ward her off, she will make herself at home; she will gorge on the main dish of our self-esteem until we are thoroughly depleted. 

By depression, I mean a persistent, at times recurrent, sense of sadness and emptiness. The kind of sadness that goes straight to the marrow of our being; the kind that could agitate us into waves of irritability that compel us to vacate the self and push others to walk on egg shells around us—if not shun us altogether. Yes, depression is that force that voids us and scalds others, because its energy can grievously wound our psyche as well as our ability to connect with others. More specifically, depression is a state marked by a persistent, sad, anxious, or “empty” mood, feelings of hopelessness and pessimism, and other symptoms that interfere with our ability to function and enjoy life. She can cause insomnia and impede concentration as well. She induces us to not trust ourselves. She is persistent, seductive at times, with her insidious voice that whispers to us that we are doomed.  Depression descends on us with a veil that clouds our past, present and future. 

Most of my clients willingly ask for guidance in making changes that will help them with their pain. After discussing some important points on the etiology of their depression, we move to planning small shifts in life style that can facilitate change, such as increased social involvement, increased self-care, looking at dietary plans, understanding the imprints of cognitive functioning that either decrease or eliminate symptoms. Much of this amounts to changing negative thinking and self-deprecating language. Mostly I ask them to keep a close eye on their self-esteem, and I encourage them to use writing to this end.

As mentioned above, a poem I frequently use is Rumi’s “The Guest House.” It delineates the steps for facilitating the psychological change needed to transform the destructive fire of depression into a warm, inviting energy that allows authentic connection with our self and with others. Through this poem, I invite them to engage in the process of re-authoring their lives so they turn into lives worth living.  In order to change something, we must know that something. Writing about depression is a way of witnessing her, a way of acknowledging that she has snaked her way into our lives.  

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. 

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in. 

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~ Rumi ~

(The Essential Rumi, version by Coleman Barks)

I might, for instance, ask a person to draw his guest house. I might encourage him to note down all the emotions and how they take up residency in his heart. Furthermore, I might ask:  Is depression a guest? Then, where does she reside in your house? Is it in the attic, basement, or living room? What kind of furniture is in the room? What are the colors, sights, sounds, smells? 

My hope is to get him to come to the door with an open heart to acknowledge depression so they can negotiate their coexisting.  When we are under her spell and she has managed to take away our authority and our very sense of self, we tend to question if there is indeed a lotus there in the muck of our daily lives. Writing our way out of depression means that we accept our agency as a craft-person, mythmaker, wordsmith with the skill and ability to string together metaphors, symbols, images, and stories to free the cognitive limitations of ordinary speech. I do it for myself when traversing dark moments, and I do it with others, because I know there is value in symbolic expression and its interpretation. 

Rumi’s poem is particularly important in this context because it is an open invitation to come back to the vacated house of the self.

Rumi also offers this variation on the same theme:

Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror
Up to where you're bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
Here's the joyful face you've been wanting to see.

If ignored, depression will reproduce herself into crippling shapes. If addressed, she will morph into enticing possibilities of recovering our ability to re-author authentic versions of ourselves.  
Marianela Medrano is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Stamford, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry. 

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