The Dark Dog: What the Body Wants / by Melanie Ida Chopko

This is a part of an ongoing series I'm writing regarding my experience with bipolar depression, and practicing with a constellation of wellness. You can read more on two other elements here, vast nature and aikido. May it be of service.

Today I want to write about touch and connection, empty space and outbreath.

As I wrestled with the state of my mind and spirit this summer, trying to both honor grief and loss and also stay above water, I went back to re-read my own writings on my experience of depression and anxiety. I went searching for what levers I needed to pull to care for myself this time around. In my last serious depression three years ago, I remember my godfather Dennis Rivers sitting with me and suggesting I view it in an entirely different way. Since pain is a living system's way of communicating, what is this depression wanting to tell me? Even under the waves of anxiety and flatness, there is a center of light and wisdom that is truly me. Buddhists call this rigpa - the innermost essence [1].

So I centered myself one night, wrote a love note to my brain and body, the system that has carried my soul for 33 years, and asked. And it answered: I need more touch, more connection and empty space.

I think when I'm experiencing depression, my tendency can be to lean on one side of what I've learned to be three elements that create thriving mental health - wellness (read: diet and exercise), purpose and meaning, intimacy and personal relationships [2] It's pretty easy for me to be obsessive about the wellness side - that's the stuff I can most easily control. How many hours of Aikido am I doing? Am I eating enough of the foods I know are good for my airy/"vata" body type - heavy foods like meat, sweet potatoes, black beans, kale. Am I treating sugar like poison and staying away with a 10 foot pole?

But prioritizing touch, connection and friendship - these take vulnerability and empty space, slowness and emergence. Sometimes that is the absolute last thing my yacking brain thinks I need. I remember one colleague reflecting, "Geesh, Melanie, you're the most productive depressed person I've ever met." 

But that's just it. I've learned that busyness, flying from one place to another and overworking is a safety shape for my system - and in my opinion, for western culture as a whole. It's a desperate attempt to avoid pain by avoiding the empty, grief, the dark and the unknown. But these "yin" concepts are profoundly vital to every living system, and experiencing interconnection. And pushing past the inevitable need for empty and presence just dials up my panic. 

So I'm back to expanding my ecology of touch and deep respect for it, above and beyond sexuality. Babies that receive everything but touch DIE, and we adults are probably no different. In the absence of a partner, I'm back to gifting my body a short massage every week. I'm back to giving and vulnerably asking for long hugs and foot rubs. I'm back to prioritizing the fine art of hanging out with my kindred spirits, flopping around watching movies on the couch with them.

It's important to note - I'm not entirely sure this will work, and I'm not opposed to returning to the rocket blast method of anti-depressants that, for a short time, to make a bridge between one really hard patch of life and another, maybe supporting me to shift out of a season of grief. They've probably saved my life and the lives of other artists I love. And, it feels powerful to not to just ask - do I need to be on medication again - but also, what does my body need today? How can I give it the touch, connection, joy and empty space it's asking for?

And, on the more metta level, what happens when we as a culture make empty space together? What do we hear there about grief, anger and confusion as we see what is happening to our world? As eco-philosopher Joanna Macy suggests, that profoundly changes what choices we make, the very world we create, the Great Turning back to a life sustaining society.


[1] Rigpa and the Nature of Mind, excerpted from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sungyol Rinpoche.

[2] So You're Depressed, Now What? with Nurse Rona on KPFA

[3] Joanna Macy