Can “shafts of joy” pierce depression’s darkness?

“Leonard Cohen” by Adrian Thomson, © Attribution
“Leonard Cohen” by Adrian Thomson, © Attribution

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s latest UK tour is in full swing and getting rave reviews.

His personable presence and his poetic and melodic songs are bringing joy to many.

Yet along with his now iconic status as one of the great veterans of the live circuit he brings with him an open secret – for decades he suffered from ‘acute clinical depression’.

To alleviate the suffering Cohen took all kinds of prescription drugs but ‘none of them worked’ and all ‘were disagreeable, in subtly different ways’ he told journalist, Mireille Silcott.

‘I was told they all give you a ‘bottom’, a floor beneath which you are not expected to plunge.’

‘And?’ – the reporter asked.

‘I plunged.’

Cohen is not alone in failing to find a value in antidepressants. The tide of medical research has begun to turn against the flood of pharmaceuticals, especially for mild and moderate forms of the disease. A recent JAMA study of antidepressant medications concluded that ‘there is little evidence’ they are more effective than placebos ‘for patients with less severe depression’.

As a result of such findings the government has set aside £400 million from 2011 to 2015 for the greater availability of psychological therapies, increasing access to treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy. The NHS can also prescribe self-help books and exercise instead of the pills.

Even when antidepressants are beneficial they can give with one hand and take with the other. Novelist and “profound depression’ sufferer Amanda Craig recently confided to fellow author Alex Preston that Prozac (now in its 25th year) enabled her to function. Yet she also said ‘it dulled everything’ including what she described as ‘the shafts of joy that gradually pierce depression’.

That imagery of something as meek as joy-beams inexorably breaking through something seemingly so dense brings to mind saplings quietly pushing against concrete until it cracks and breaks apart.

It was in that deeper direction Leonard Cohen turned when drugs failed to make a dent in the darkness.

‘What happened was that somewhere along the line I understood this question had to be addressed at the fundamental level of consciousness’, he told an LA broadcaster.

Finally, 14 years ago, after five decades of suffering, his depression lifted in a sweet moment of unfamiliar normality. Despite spending years as a Zen Buddhist monk and retaining a love of the Jewish faith he was born into Cohen doesn’t offer a definitive take on what finally brought about the change. But his words point in a direction many have found pivotal to both mental and physical healing – he broke free from self-preoccupation.

‘When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you. It happened to me by imperceptible degrees’, he concluded.

It’s encouraging to know such a mental shift can occur, and it can take place in different ways. Something many have found to be a powerful aid is gaining a different mental focus, a more spiritual outlook.

That was the way a friend of mine found release from a clinical depression that had endured with suicidal tendencies for eight years despite receiving top medical care and taking almost 10,000 drugs. In his case an idea from the Bible triggered an unexpected recognition that he was divinely loved. That conviction gained ground in his thought over several months until first the drugs and then the depression itself gave place to a secure, spiritual sense of self-worth. That opened the way for him to have a normal family life and a successful business career.

Maybe it’s a similar process of letting a more spiritual sense of oneself emerge that Cohen poetically describes in ‘Come Healing’ on his latest album, Old Ideas. He sings of a ‘troubledness’ that’s concealing an ‘undivided love’ – a love which ‘the heart beneath is teaching to the broken heart above’.

Perhaps that ‘heart beneath’ is what Mary Baker Eddy’s poetry calls the ‘gentle beam of living Love’ that is the Christ, the compassionate awareness of the divine presence by which Jesus healed.

A love whose ‘shafts of joy’ not only pierce, but at times can even disperse, the darkest of depressions.

Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song ‘Come Healing’, graced by the angelic voices of The Webb Sisters, which includes the verse: ‘O, troubledness concealing / An undivided love  / The heart beneath is teaching / To the broken heart above’:

This is a video account of my friend’s healing of depression:

5 thoughts

  1. This is a very powerful article for people looking for hope that they will find their way out of depression – especially when antidepressants have failed or in some cases even increased thoughts of suicide or worsened the patient’s depression.

    As a person who worked in the medical field I have found this to be true.

    Prayer is an unobstructed path to Hope and Hope is the major weapon against suicide.

    Being of service to others is an excellent way to take the focus of oneself. Volunteer work is an example.

    Gratitude is also an important part of the healing process. But you have to write it down every day as then you begin to look for the goodness not only in your own life but in the world.

    Thank you for this article. I know there are many out there who could benefit from it and I plan on sharing it.

    p.s. Thank you for taking on the tough articles rather than the typical back ache.

    Why aren’t more people promoting faith and spirituality in their practice??? Becasue it is not expensive and billions of dollars are at stake to get people to take a pill.

    The Chair of the Department of Psychiatry once told me: “we don’t have a pill for Hope”.

    Faith and Spirituality is Hope that is alive and healing and Hope is the major weapon against suicide. Let me say that again. Hope is the major weapon against suicide.

    Truth, Wisdom, Love and Sincerity, to ALL mankind.

    Rob Scott
    Chicago, IL


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