Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Naming My Demon

This is really part one of a two-part blog to be continued next week. I’m telling you this because the experience I am about to describe was not pleasant, and I will write more about how I came out of it next week.

I had all kinds of ideas about how a three year sabbatical would go. Think about it: three years of stillness, no deadlines, enough money saved to pay the bills, each day a welcoming spaciousness. After book tours and conferences I was tired, peopled-out and feeling the effects of the Chronic Fatigue that had waxed and waned for over twenty years. Minimally, and not unreasonably, I expected to regain some physical vitality and balance.

But, that’s not what happened. For lots of reasons (which I won’t go into here except to say all were exacerbated by the hormonal shift of menopause) I became increasingly ill. A whole new level of skull-cracking headaches arrived and seemed impervious to previously helpful medication. I was exhausted, aching, sometimes feverish, and generally wiped out.

In between moments of bewilderment and frustration, I surrendered to what was. I cancelled plans, lay in bed and followed my breath. And I got worse. Somewhere in the endless days of what the medical profession calls non-restorative rest, as I stared at the ceiling, I thought, “Maybe I’m just done.” I was too ill to read or write. And I didn’t care. Food, plans, people and even the stillness that in the past had brought peace and pleasure were flat, unappealing. It was as if the colour had been leached out of my life. I was not upset, worried or afraid. I was “done.” At one point I described it to Jeff as being on a hill-side cable car that is slowly but relentlessly going down. I couldn’t stop the descent. And, increasingly, I didn’t care.

I sought help- inner and outer- and nothing changed. One doctor said I was depressed. I wasn’t particularly resistant to this diagnosis but after years of working with those who struggle with depression, something about it didn’t quite fit. Still, I started to do the things I know can help with depression.

Then I heard the CBC radio show, Tapestry. Mary Hynes was interviewing Kathleen Norris about her book, Acedia and Me. Acedia is what the desert monastics called the “noonday demon” (noon being a particularly challenging time on the desert.) It is described as a state of not caring, of refusing the gift of the day. Things feel pointless, flat. . . .done. Those who do solitary work that requires focused attention- like contemplative monks, artists and writers- are particularly susceptible to it. It was considered one of the eight bad thought patterns, precursors to the seven deadly sins. Later it got lumped in with sloth- but that implies a kind of laziness that doesn’t really apply. Today, depression is probably the closest psychological concept to acedia, but again, it doesn`t quite fit. Depression can be horrible and debilitating but, with guidance, it can be a fruitful journey into the darkness of our unknown self, a mining of the gold we may have left behind. Acedia yields no such gold. Acedia, if given free reign, only leads to suicide.

As I listened to the broadcast I thought, “That’s it. It’s acedia!” and I suddenly felt something I had not felt in a long time- hope. The fairy tales were right: naming the demon gives us some power over it. The monks who had been beset by acedia were directed to pray, read the psalms aloud and go about the mundane tasks of the day – cleaning, cooking etc.- mindfully, whether they felt like doing them or not. If they found themselves avoiding company, they were directed to work with others. If they were avoiding being alone, they were directed to persist in solitary meditation.

In a world with so much frenetic doing, it’s easy to romanticize stillness. There is a time for and a gift in stillness that is much needed in our lives and our world. But so too, there are times for movement, times when failing to move can prove life-diminishing in a very real way. Suddenly everything in me- including the dreams from the Grandmothers- said very clearly, “Move!”

So, following the advice of those who’d guided the new monks, I read aloud (usually poetry, the “scripture” of my heart), did my prayers, cleaned my house and took myself out of isolation. I sought the guidance of a gifted Jungian analyst and went into Toronto a few days a week to see friends, meet with health care practitioners and connect with community. The acedia grew smaller and receded. One day, about a month after making these changes, I was walking down a Toronto street when the thought came- “I feel like myself again.” It was only then that I realized how far I had travelled away from feeling like myself.

Sometimes, to wake up, you have to sit very still. Sometimes, you have to move. And sometimes it's difficult to discern which is needed, particularly for ourselves. Going it alone can be dangerous and painful. Turning to community, trusted friends and experienced guides can ease unnecessary suffering and open the door to new life, and for this I am deeply grateful.


  1. Oriah, it sounds like you are talking about balance...the kind we need, not the kind we THINK we need. I am mutually challenged in discerning the difference. I know it sounds like an oxymoron but I am unfortunately "blessed" with stillness-too much stillness. And sometimes it feels like it paralyzes my mind which I suppose could be likened to your "depression" -though only because there is no more appropriate word. Your insight about how integrating yourself back into the lives around you reinforces my desire to do the same! I suppose that would be a large gesture of self-love...allowing others to love you.

  2. Robin, funny I was just thinking about whether or not it is "balance." I think it may be in the really BIG picture but the trouble with using that word on a daily basis is that we could become mechanistic about it- trying to "balance" all the pieces/ways of being. Sometimes we may need and find fruitful long periods of solitude and other times deep external involvment in community makes sense- and either of these may not look very "balanced" from the outside. And of course it is hard to recognize that movement is not the same as driveness just as stillness is not the same as paralysis. More next week on how to start moving. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Sabbatical does not always have to follow an expertly prescribed fashion. My uneducated opinion would say to follow the heart, because it is your beacon of Truth.


  4. Connie, well I am pretty sure I didn't have a prescription for the sabbatical, but on the other hand I didn't expect to become increasingly ill as I took care of myself. Listening to the heart as you put it is always a good idea- the trouble is other things- physical pain and illness, normal neuroses, and in this case acedia- sometimes make it difficult to hear the heart at all. Thanks for responding.

  5. Oriah--
    I'm afraid my comment does not fit the scope of your recent musing, however I felt compelled to stop by and leave a musing of my own once I found out your had your own blog.
    I first read The Invitation in 2000 when I was going through a very rough time in my life. I had tried many things to 'fix' the things that were going wrong around me but it took a poem, that I happened to find in a little book in an out of the way bookstore in the bad part of town, to bring me out of my funk and onto the doorstep of understanding.
    I wanted to drop a line to thank you explicitly for The Invitation, as without it I am certain I would not be here to write this, but also to thank you for all of your wonderful meditations. I now have a library full of your books and love them all from start to finish.
    So, thank you again for all you do. You kept me reaching for the stars in some of the darkest times of my life.

  6. Janine, thank you. So glad the words helped.

  7. I look forward to next week. I felt myself wanting to move, after a long period of grief. A shift in community for me recently, leaving or moving away from one community and into another where I feel I am in a more positive "like minded" group of folks on a path similar to mine. I have been trying to let go of labels that have separted me from others for many years, not easy, but possible.
    Thanks for your blog !!

  8. Emerald, so important and sometimes not an easy thing- to find community. Even when we manage to not separate ourselves with labels (not easy!) it does not mean we "click" in an intimate way., All the best with the shift!

  9. Oriah,
    I have just discovered your blog after having an urge to re-read your poem "The Invitation" and knowing it was on your web site. I seldom comment on things I read, and I never "gush." But I must tell you that your thoughts are incredibly meaningful to me. Your insight is very powerful and has been (and I think will continue to be) instrumental in helping me where I need discernment and the knowledge that we are not as alone in what we experience as we think we are. Thank you for nourishing your own faith and keeping on, even when you feel without hope or answers. Your honesty moves me profoundly.

  10. Dear Oriah,

    I am finally happy that I have found your blog because I have read all your books. One day my best friend was depressed and sure how to feel better and I read her your poem "The Invitation." That seemed to help her a lot. Your poem sparked a flame in me to write my own poem for her and finally helped pull her out of a long term depression. Your books have been an inspiration to me for several years now and I must thank you for everything that you write. Your authenticity in your writing is refreshing and is very hard to find in writers. So thank you for your revelations and your writings. It has helped me grow into the woman I am today.

    Another thing I wanted to comment on is I have heard of the term "noonday demon" however, I have never understood what exactly it was or what it meant. However, I think now that I have read your blog about it I think I understand what it means now. Thank you for your thoughts on this, now this gives me something to think about. :)


    Hollow Artist

  11. This particular blog was exactly what I needed to hear. Being subject to depressions throughout my life, it was a lesson I learned years ago but had forgotten. To me, it was my way of "not giving up". Depression (not due to chemical inbalance but life inbalance) is, to me, a close relative of the "noonday demon". I am new to THE INVITATION and your blog but am in love with both already.

  12. Yes, I do think acedia and depression are close cousins- and perhaps they overlap and can certainly occur at the same time. Hearing someone else describe and name my experience so clearly was very helpful to me.

  13. Strange how ironic it seems at first to do exactly that which you feel that you simply cannot. And in the end that is the purer life pouring out from your heart, unconstrained.

    I really look forward to reading your blog in future. You are an inspiring woman.

    Loria Hayes, South Africa

  14. Acedia – Hopelessness

    Hope, Love, Passion –
    They all provide a certain nourishment.

    Just as a light needs power,
    We need the vision provided by hope.

    An alive vision that arrives of its own volition,
    A vision with which we maintain a dialogue,
    But never a vision we have memorised,
    And never a vision we worship into stone,
    Nor a blind hope,
    Nor a hopeful illusion we create for ourselves.

  15. I am finally ready to move in the world again as well.

    So glad I found your blog.

  16. I am new to your site and am obviously looking over the past blogs - this one hits home. I am in the same situation as you describe - I am in paralysis and can't seem to "move". I have struggled with depression in the past but somehow managed to get "unstuck" and move on with my life. Or so I thought. I think in retrospect I have been sweeping things under the rug so to speak and thinking that I was dealing with things in my life. Not to be sweeping under the rug or stacking the books on the shelf is another term that I came up with - not dealing with what is right in front of you or within you. Every aspect of my life is a mess...my health, my marriage, my relationships with people and mostly the light - faith - it seems to be gone. I wonder everyday - what is the point? I find that I am no "further" then I was 10-12 yrs ago and am actually in a darker place. I have no one to turn to and live in a very isolated place in rural Nova Scotia. The healthcare here is frightening. My friends have all floated away as they have become weary of me.
    My daughters (who will be 21 soon) are doing there best to help and also trying to have their own lives - they should be out spreading their wings and flying. I have no energy - so to read your words that one day you all of a sudden came to the realization that - you should get out and.....well that is what I would like to do but can't seem to find the strength or help. I am not feeling sorry for myself...I am just trying to "feel"....having someone in your life can make all the difference. To be able to get out and "live a life"....right now my chronic pain is just keeping me paralyzed...I read your lines of how you spent 2 years in bed - this is me. I have so much to be thankful for and yet I just cannot feel - I cannot see a light at the end of the tunnel - only darkness and a crevice. Your weekly blogs always seem to hit home....I am continuing to read through your past blogs.....I hope someday to cross paths. Trying to keep the faith....Ingrid

    1. Ingrid, sadly I know all too well what you are going through- right down to the determination to carry on and the sense of not knowing how to do that or what it looks like given current limitations. I have recently been going through a time of acute pain (for about 4 weeks) and nothing shrinks my world more than physical agony. Here's what I know: I have to stay out of speculation and stay in the moment (because my mental what-if scenarios are not good in these times;) I have to value the contact I can manage (mostly on the phone) and not treat it as not-good-enough because it is in person; I have to keep things small. Making a sandwich becomes An Accomplishment to be celebrated and savoured. (I know this sounds crazy to those who have never been house bound or bed bound- that's okay.) And I pray. The March 26, 2014 blog- A Tough Teacher- talks alittle about these kinds of periods. They are hard. Sending prayers for continued courage and for an easing of the pain. Much love and many blessings, Oriah