Saturday, May 7, 2011


The word 'depression' seems to be so ubiquitous in our culture nowadays.  I was curious to read 'A Subtle Thing', a fictional novel on depression written by a PhD in psychology, mainly because I was intrigued at how a character suffering from depression might survive the episode and how the character's psyche might unfold as the story develops. I read it and I found it didn't really satisfy my craving for knowledge on the subject.  Maybe one day I'll find a better fictional book on the topic of depression. Meanwhile, I think I'll settle for this nonfictional philosophical book I found at the same time I was reading 'A Subtle Thing.'

When you look at the psychological perspective you find the approach in dealing with depression to be a little superficial.  A psychologist will tell you to come in and start pouring your heart out to them about what's causing all of the pain and suffering.  They'll tell you to record and track your feelings and behavior: How long have you been feeling consistently angry, sad, or numb?; Increased or decreased appetite?; Energy level?; Thoughts of suicide or self-harm?; Lack of interest in activities?; Reduced functioning?.....etc.  They'll give you a CD with mindfulness and relaxation exerices.  They'll explain to you that your thoughts are normal, and that the problem lies not in the fact that they exist to begin with, but it's what you think and how you interpret the thoughts that matters. They tell you to practice self-care: good sleep habits, good diet, medication, regular exercise, social activities.  They tell you to work on self-confidence and awareness for what you have to offer people and the world around you.  They tell you to work on your ability to maintain lasting and close relationships with people. The list goes on.  This is at least some of the things I learned about when I was reading 'A Subtle Thing.'  Philosophy on the other hand has a more simple, yet a more depthful approach. With psychology you're constantly 'digging at the root of the plant as a result the plant won't thrive regardless of how much good soil you add to it.' Sometimes the past is best left undisturbed, and it's best to work from 'now'.  Philosophy works with the present moment and works forward.  "Part of knowing yourself is psychological, of course, as well as physical. But ultimately, discovering the deepest essence of yourself is a philosophical task."  The ultimate point is that psychology and philosophy work best together, and shouldn't be as bifurcated as they are in our culture today.

Aside from the subject of depression, there a lot of other great reasons why this book made an impact on me. For a culture who is somewhat removed from the great thinkers of all time, and who have only practiced philosophy when they had to take a college course to fulfill their undergraduate requirements, philosophy seems like an estranged concept and also an institutionalized concept.  But philosophy used to be a way of life, and it was so for many reasons.  The great philosophers of all time - the list is so great world-wide - paved the way to centuries and centuries of insights and wisdom of life. "When Socrates declared that the unexamined life is not worth living, he was arguing for constant personal evaluation and striving for self-improvement as the highest calling."   I think we've dismissed philosophy because we have forgotten it's practical applications.

 The author states that a change is occurring; that we're coming back to philosophy as a way of life.  I find that to be questionable, maybe the changes are subtle, because I don't see too many changes with the young psyche towards enlightenment and wisdom.  I hope that we are undergoing a transformation.  I find myself undergoing a transformation, and I know I must not be alone. Maybe there is a great change or transformation happening, but there are other minor but more frequent changes that impede our momentum for transformation, surely.  Aside from depression, there is the state of our children and their appetite for knowledge and learning.  Our parenting skills and methods.  Our disconnected nature from one another because we're in such a highly technological age.  The pervasive nature of the ego in our culture.  The greatest of all constants - change - in all areas of our busy lifestyles.  Our confused notion about what our purpose is in this lifetime.  Our relationships to other people.  Whether the work we're doing has any meaning to us, or whether we can actually do our work.  The fact that we seem to think we're invincible, that we can do anything because our life expectancy is so high now to live long enough to achieve our dreams.  We've lost touch with the fact that life is frail and we aren't prepared to deal with death or loss because we're so hyped on living.  We haven't humbled ourselves to know that at one unexpected point life can be over for us.  Our ethics and morals have dwindled; some people might even have a hard time defining these concepts. We are in an era of a great form of globalization and we're still living in prejudices and ethnocentrism instead of learning about other ways of living and other cultural spiritualistic ways.  We've lost touch with mother earth, we live around sky-high buildings and spend most of our time inside because there are no more parks to go to unless you're willing to drive miles and miles out of a city. And once we start loosing touch with mother Earth and every 'sentient being' on this planet, then we start loosing ourselves. The author challenges us to consider philosphy as a way of life.  Philosophy has all kinds of ways to save us from the world we live in.

I found this book to be an introduction to philosophy and how it applies to life, for anyone who might not be so philosophy savvy.  But it can be even much more if you dig deeper at its layers.  I enjoyed it very much.  I will most likely go back and re-read some parts to dig at it on a deeper level.  Overall, a decent and enlightening book.

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