Reader Q&A: How to Live and Love After Losing Your Sense of Self

Have you seen through the illusion of self? How is that going for you? 

In this Reader Q&A we look at the struggle to find joy and engagement in daily life without a sense of self, without purpose or meaning… 

And how all this is made more challenging and confusing for those who live with depression. A reader shares a very moving and candid account of living with depression, states of seemingly awakened clarity, and the fear that living without the illusions of self, meaning and purpose might mean a life without joy and love. 

READER Question

Is there something I can do to feel more love and less fear, without a sense of self?

I’m not awakened. I’ve had spiritual experiences (if transcendence and a sense of complete freedom qualify as such), mainly in dreams, out of body experiences and through art.

My issue is with depression and in particular the ability to love. When I become depressed it is also because I experience transcendence of the self and a sense of freedom, but not as something positive, but rather horrifyingly scary and disheartening, soul-crushing, and which takes away my ability to love.

My dad died and I had a baby soon after. I was depressed before (the existentialist, “there is no point to anything”, “self is an illusion” kind.) But in face of those two experiences (being with my dad during his process included), life took over and I became alive, as if functioning over a buffer of love.

Then isolation and sleep deprivation ensued, and I became depressed again. It is like waking up one day to a clarity that terrifies me. Here is where your writing resonates with me. And my question revolves around how, or rather if, being aware of the illusion of self and purpose can be reconciled with a love for what you call the “micro”. Your experience with that.

Because I can no longer fool myself with any sense of purpose, meaning or identity, but I want to go back to feeling love for what you call the “micro” (my daughter, characters in plays, my work, my partner, my mornings). Meds have massively helped with the desperation, deep despair, extreme anxiety. But the memories of such a bleak state still haunt me, and I’m left wondering how to live and love, even though there, really, is no point.

In music, in art, in people, I have found love in the past. To me, listening to certain music or playing a part in a play feels like awakening to something. Loving can feel like that too. So why when it feels like I am most awakened, or aware of reality (when depressed), is there such an annihilation of love?

I am still terrified. Is there something I can do to feel more love and less fear, without a sense of self? Should I go back to building up my sense of self? I have no problem with being a sleepwalker who finds joy in doing ballet, raising a child and playing characters, I just don’t know if it is within my reach anymore.

STRAND Answer

It’s often hard for people who suffer from mental illness to distinguish between medical symptoms and adjustment phases brought on by spiritual epiphanies or evolution.

This confusion is in part because the language is so similar. When a person living with depression reads or hears accounts of what people experience as they navigate through spiritual awakening, awakening from the illusion of self, there is much there that feels recognizable. When people suffering from depression read my work, they resonate with how I describe my experiences and feel we are in some way having a similar experience.

However, it’s not so the other way around. When I hear people suffering from depression describe transcendence and freedom from the illusion of self, I don’t recognize it or resonate with it at all. It sounds like we are using the same terminology to describe two totally different experiences and states of being. 

What I hear is someone who is depressed using spiritual terminology to describe their depression. I hear someone who is struggling with depression using a spiritual framework to describe that struggle. 

In my opinion, you are depressed and the difficulties you describe result from that depression. Obviously I have no medical expertise at all, so on what do I base this opinion? Two things:

  1. You are using spiritual terms (even some terms very specific to my own writing) to describe experiences that absolutely do not resonate with my own. Not only are my own experiences vastly different from what you describe…there is no frequency match.
  2. There is no frequency match. Even when people describe spiritual experiences different from my own, and reactions to those experiences that are different to my own, if we have gazed upon and ingested the same truths, I can still recognize it instantly. Because of the frequency match. Frequency is primary, words are secondary. 

When we’re talking about a medical condition, it’s important that you understand how my non-expert opinion is formed. It’s pure Ultra Sensory, it’s reading the feeling tone and the frequency of your words. Your frequency rings 100% of a beautiful, sensitive person who struggles with depression.

Why is this distinction so important?  

You can’t fix a problem if you aren’t clear what the problem is. 

Mislabeling the problem, to the point where you’re even looking in the wrong category entirely, is going to make it that much harder to fix. You might find solutions that sound applicable, and make a lot of effort to apply them, but how effective can they be? 

It’s a lot of going around in circles. It’s frustrating. And it just leads to more confusion. 

You don’t have to believe me, but just as a thought experiment, take all the issues and experiences you described in your question and reframe them. Take the spiritual aspect out entirely. Take away the framework and the scaffolding of spirituality that you’ve used to give shape and understanding to your feelings. You can have it all back later, so there is nothing to lose in going all in on this experiment for a day.

Remove the framework of “illusion of self.” What is your experience like when you can’t explain it using this device? What invisible baggage did this spiritual concept bring along with it?

Because there is a lot. If you accept that your fear and inability to love are brought on by the experience of seeing through the illusion of self (in a spiritual sense) then all these other beliefs automatically come along with it and simply click into place in the framework you are creating. Labelling your experience as “seeing through the illusion of self” is like propping open a mental door that lets all kinds of other beliefs slip in, unexamined. 

How about other spiritual aspects of this narrative? Take it apart. See what sneaks in with the beliefs (if you can, they are super sneaky). Remove them all and just sit with your core, naked experience — without the spiritual labels. What does it feel like? How is it different? What are you left with? 

Are you seeing causes and relationships clearly? 

You know you suffer from depression and are being treated for this condition. You are taking the right steps to care for yourself. You have a high level of self awareness and presence. This is a very strong foundation.

Where you start to lose your balance is when you play the “this happens and causes that” game. It’s a world building game that we all play, because we naturally want to build a story to help us understand our experiences and world. Only, we often don’t realize it’s a game and that the equations and relationships we create aren’t necessarily real. They are models. 

But what if we’ve picked up the wrong framework? Things get wonky.

Let’s look at one potentially faulty mental bridge you’ve built:

“When I become depressed it is also because I experience transcendence of the self and a sense of freedom, but not as something positive, but rather horrifyingly scary and disheartening, soul-crushing, and which takes away my ability to love.”

In this model, you’ve built a causal bridge between two things: the spiritual concept of transcending the self, or the illusion of self and a depressive episode.

Soften your beliefs around this and look at it fresh, as though you don’t already know the answer.

The experience you’ve labelled self transcendence or transcending the illusion of self: could it actually be something else?

There is a difference between seeing beyond the illusion of self and experiencing an existential crisis, or mental fixation. 

You assume one thing is caused by the other. What if that’s not true? What if they are both symptoms of depression?

Episodes of mental illness feature a variety of symptoms, and when they show up you know you are episodic. But there is an impressively varied list of prodromal symptoms that start happening in the lead up to the full blown episode.

Would you be surprised to learn that seemingly spiritual experiences, epiphanies, a remarkable feeling of clarity and freedom are common prodromal symptoms?

I’ve personally known three people, all very close to me, who often had these experiences leading up to an episode. They were always followed by an insatiable black hole, a kind of existential void or emptiness. These loved ones were bipolar, so perhaps not the same as you, but I suspect if you took the spiritual framework away and just described these experiences to your psychiatrist, they would probably sound familiar.

If you believe your spiritual experiences of transcendence are causing the depression and emotional dislocation that follows, it’s natural that you would look for a solution in spirituality. If your spiritual experiences are in fact prodromal symptoms, then you need to look to a solution in therapy and medicine.

You can waste so much time, create so much confusion and frustration and not alleviate your suffering…all by misidentifying the cause.

Loving the Micro. 

“Why when it feels like I am most awakened, or aware of reality (when depressed), is there such an annihilation of love?”

If the state you describe as spiritual awakening and seeing reality clearly is actually a prodromal symptom in the lead up to a depressive episode, then this makes sense. Or maybe it’s not prodromal, maybe these two symptoms overlap and happen concurrently. But in this model, they are both symptoms of depression. 

First your mind fixates on how your identity and sense of self are unreal, and how nothing has meaning or purpose. You call this clarity and awakening, but for the sake of this thought experiment, let’s say it’s a symptom. 

Then the more recognizable symptoms of depression sweep in and blunt your ability to find meaning and purpose and engagement and delight — and annihilates your ability to feel love.

You reference my micro/macro terminology (used to explain two states of consciousness in other posts) — but they don’t really apply. I know my writing about engaging with and loving the micro (after being catapulted to the more expansive macro state of consciousness) feels familiar and feels a little like what you’re going through, but it’s not. 

In macro, personal love is overtaken by cosmic Love. Waves and waves, Love that doesn’t measure or differentiate. It’s impersonal. It never stops flowing, even when no one is around. It doesn’t require an object. 

Squeezing your consciousness back down into the micro can be a real challenge, and performing personal love from that state of consciousness can feel very alien until you become skilled at shifting your consciousness between these two states.

What I really hear you saying is that your mind gets fixated on the illusion of self and pointlessness and meaninglessness, and you mistakenly believe you are seeing them clearly and experiencing an awakened state.  And then the typical depression symptoms set in and you think this is a spiritual issue of finding your way back to the “micro” and finding a way to recapture love and delight and joy in your daily life — when perhaps all of this is about depression. All of it. 

“I want to go back to feeling love for what you call the “micro” (my daughter, characters in plays, my work, my partner, my mornings).”

What’s stopping you? You think it is because you’ve seen beyond purpose, meaning and identity. Have you? Is this why you cannot feel pleasure and love and delight? 

What is stopping you from waking in the morning and looking around and exclaiming, “Magnificent!” (I’m a morning person, so not finding delight in mornings would be a terrible thing to endure!)

Not because there is some meaning, purpose or your own precious identity involved. Just because it is pretty neat. Mornings are awesome. No purpose necessary. No illusion of self is necessary. But if you’re depressed, that feeling can’t quite take root.

How about your little sweetie? God, they are a hideous lot of work, but still. When you look at her, doesn’t she fill your whole world, right then and there? Magnificent! Is there really a purpose or meaning required to feel that essential delight? Do we need a story? Because that’s all meaning and purpose are, plot devices. But if you’re depressed, it’s hard for that feeling to gain momentum. 

What use is it to describe in detail how to get from macro consciousness to micro, when this is not your problem? Your starting point is depression, not the expanded macro state of awareness. Your question is: How do I regain my ability to feel love, delight, joy and engagement in life when I’m depressed?

You want a map to get from here to there, but you mistakenly believe your starting point is an awakened state of seeing through the illusion of self. This is the biggest obstacle to achieving your stated goal, to getting to where you want to be: not understanding where you are to begin with. 

So I just play with it. 

I have been cast as a character in this show. Some days I read the script, and think, “really?”, and roll my eyes. Sometimes the story has me laughing so hard my sides ache. I know I’m not this character. Do I throw up my hands and refuse my part? Do I walk off the set because it’s not real? 

“How, or rather if, being aware of the illusion of self and purpose can be reconciled with a love for what you call the ‘micro’.”

This is your mind, leading you into a maze that goes round and round with no exit. Demanding you reconcile two things that aren’t at odds. If you setup a faulty equation, you can’t possibly come out with an answer. So you keep chewing on it and looking in different places for clues. You think if you could reconcile these two things, a door would open and you’d see a way out. 

You are still asserting that being aware of the illusion of self is what is causing your inability to feel, engage and love. Now you’ve added the idea of the macro/micro. That just complicates things and serves to flesh out the narrative that this has a spiritual cause.

Really you just mean that when you’re not depressed you are able to love the simple, everyday aspects of your life. You’re able to feel and engage with them, and when you’re depressed, you can’t. You miss it and you wish you could find your way back to it. Depression does that to a person. 

It’s hard or perhaps impossible to go lightly and play when you are depressed. You know this. 

I’m having three conversations here. 

“Is there something I can do to feel more love and less fear, without a sense of self?”

This is the crux of it. You want to be able to feel love for your life again, but depression makes that hard. Your fear isn’t about living without a sense of self. You’ve experienced very bleak, horrible depressive episodes and you fear being plunged back in.

“Should I go back to building up my sense of self? I have no problem with being a sleepwalker who finds joy in doing ballet, raising a child and playing characters, I just don’t know if it is within my reach anymore.”

You have two unrelated narratives that weave through your story and your question and what you conceive to be your problem. Like two unrelated audio tracks playing over each other. And then there is a third track that describes something you want to be able to do, but can’t.

One is about mental illness and bouts of serious depression. How that has played out. What you’ve done about it. How it has effected you. How you fear the depths of it. This track includes very vivid feeling words like terrified, bleak, soul crushing, losing love, losing joy. Annihilation.

This track feels tangible, immediate and real. The best way to describe this track is hot and alive, kind of like touching a too hot pan for just a second before instinctively pulling away. Or like the energy of a frightened bird trying to get out of the house it accidentally flew into.

The other is about seeing through the illusion of self. This includes concepts: transcending the illusion of self, not having a sense of self, not being able to “fool” yourself, not able to find meaning or purpose in anything. This feels very weighty and dead. There is no life here and no energy. It’s mind stuff. It’s untethered to anything real. It feels like very dry cardboard that makes an uncomfortable scratchy sound when you touch it.

These are the two unrelated tracks that are playing over each other. You’ve decided they are inextricably related. And maybe you’re right, but not in the way you think. Maybe they are both symptoms of depression. 

The third is an account of how you can’t feel love and engage deeply with things or people in your life the way you used to. How you’re trying to find your way back, to feel alive and at home again in your own life. This has a lost, tired and confused quality to it. Vulnerable. The feeling tone of a child.

Keep them separate, and then feel into them. Let yourself feel into each of these narratives separately, without making one the cause of the other, without weaving them together. Take your time. Find out what each is feeling separately. Listen for what each is trying to communicate separately.

Please don’t skip this part, write it off or breeze through it. There are three energies or engines or characters here. They each have something to say and they each have an affect on your life. Take the time to find out. 

Take it all apart, and don’t assume. 

You are a beautiful, sensitive and creative soul. There is such a richness about you. And I hear how you want to BE. Yes. The undercurrent of all this is you want to BE. Alive. Full. 

Then this terrifying monster comes in and pulls you down into a dark abyss. This is Depression. 

These are the two opposing forces that are struggling to take up space in your single existence. This is the epic struggle. Both sides are very strong, well matched. The more you know about this Monster’s ways, its habits and triggers and warning signs, the better you’ll be able to limit its destruction. 

Then there is this confusing bit of fluff blowing around, like some kind of insulation material left over from a house remodel. It’s blowing around and keeps getting caught on things, snagged in the middle of things. This is mind stuff taking the form of concepts: no self, no purpose, no meaning, micro, macro, I need to reconcile these two, if such and such is so, then is X even possible?… and so on. It’s been blown into and tangled up in the middle of things and so one might assume it’s an important part, but is it? 

If you change your narrative so that the initial feelings of clarity, seeing reality as it is, seeing beyond the illusion of self, purpose and meaning are actually mental fixations and a symptom of depression and not the cause of the depressive episode, how does that change the nature of how you see your problem? How does it change how and where you look for a solution? 

Are you willing to consider this? 

Common Sense
I have no expertise whatsoever in medicine or psychiatry. I’m sharing my non-expert impressions in this post. When it comes to medical matters and mental health, you should talk to a qualified specialist. 

This is a Sponsored Post. To learn how you can ask a question and have it answered in a post, go here.

Epilogue

The reader took time to sit with the material and responded:

Your post had a profound impact on me. My first reaction to it was feeling pain and fear (don’t worry, those are extremely easy to be sparked in me these days).

Which of course meant there was assuredly something there.

As you advised, I took my time with it. Particularly with this bit:

Keep them separate, and then feel into them. Let yourself feel into each of these narratives separately, without making one the cause of the other.

And so I did just that. And yeah, my problem is depression, a sick mind.

It is one thing to know this on some level, even when it’s the level that allows you to ask for help and take medication, and quite a different one to really, uncompromisingly accept it and everything that it implies. It’s terrifying.

That’s why the bits where I spoke about my fears and the depression-monster felt alive. Because it’s true there’s a monster and it’s true that I’m scared. The rest was me trying to do something about it other than being ok with it. Which I don’t think I can.

I talked to my psychiatrist and he told me to up the dosage, which I did.

Over the last few weeks, I must admit there have been occasions where I have felt love and joy again. I continued to recover more and more. The more I recovered, the more love I felt. But then I contracted coronavirus and had a weird neurological after-effect and that has had an impact on my recovery. Now I’m kind of losing control again. It’s unpredictable, I feel so vulnerable.

So I have turned to spiritual practices again in hope they will help to accept the uncertainty, pain and fear. And I’ve also taken to [anti anxiety medication] again, it is what it is.

Since I started meditating and doing yoga and thinking about spirituality and all that, I have experienced weird synchronicities and a few other funny experiences (I’m not new to these, but I had never paid excessive attention to them before).

I feel so lost. I know I have a mundane problem. I feel at risk (because I am). I want to heal. I deeply miss my mornings (old me loved mornings as much as you!), my aliveness and first and foremost my love. Nobody knows what the future has in store for me, but it’s not looking good, objectively.

I will continue to seek medical help. But then there are also these spiritual practices I have been entertaining…

I know what freedom and oneness feel like, sort of. I know there can be sadness to it, but it’s something that feels… healthy? While performing art there are fleeting moments where something true and whole lives through you, pours into you, whatever you want to call it. Maybe getting a taste of that through meditation will help me a bit. I don’t know.

Your blog is a treasure. There is so much truth in it. Too much of it? I sometimes feel like I have to take breaks from reading it.

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