Sometime in the mid 90s, I moved into an old hotel in downtown Colorado Springs that had been converted into tiny apartments. The rents at the Albany were expensive — about twice what you would pay for the same space elsewhere — but the hotel accepted tenants with poor credit, and my credit was shot for a while after I had gone bankrupt when my business failed.
Since the Albany neither cared about your credit rating, nor your job, nor your character, nor how long you planned to stay, it attracted people who had difficulty finding any other place to live — the newly released from prison, the working poor, the ill, and so forth.
Earlier on the same day I moved into the Albany, an unfortunate man had become enraged, entered the lobby, and chased several of the tenants with a machete. He had not managed to harm anyone, and the police had taken him away by the time I showed up to rent a room. I nevertheless heard about the incident from one of the tenants — a somewhat disheveled man who seemed excited to warn me about the kind of environment I was getting myself into. However, my mental and emotional state in those days was so dominated by both apathy and a peculiar sense of fate that I didn’t much care whether people ran around the place with machetes. I figured if the situation came up, I’d either handle it or not; and if not, then so be it.
During the two or three months prior to my moving into the Albany I had lived up in the mountains, in the National Forest that begins a 30 minute drive from Colorado Springs. I would get up each morning with the dawn, bathe in a gallon or two of water poured from jugs I carried in my car, and then drive into the Springs for breakfast at a restaurant, before going on to my job. That uncomplicated lifestyle suited me at the time, but I knew winter was coming, and I recognized I lacked the know-how to spend it in the mountains.
On my last night in the forest, I stood outside my tent for sometime, watching the moon and, for no reason I can recall, chanting poetry to myself. I didn’t know back then that I was afflicted with major depression. Instead, I knew so little about mental and emotional illness that I thought I was only having something along the lines of a very protracted “religious” experience.
For instance, it seemed to me that my anhedonism — which is quite often a symptom of depression — only meant I was becoming more spiritual. Again, I mistook the increasing poignancy of my depressed thoughts for increasing emotional profundity. And I was unobservant of the way the range of my emotions was narrowing down to just three or four feelings. That night when I sang poems to myself in the mountains, I felt frustrated the beauty of the moon made no emotional impact on me — but rather than blame the fact on depression, I blamed it on my failure to be enlightened. Depression can be very confusing at times.
Almost every popular guide to religious or spiritual matters I’ve managed to read has neglected to mention the risks that come with pursuing spiritual practices. Instead, those guides focus on the benefits alone, which I think is very much like discussing the health benefits of jogging without at all mentioning that joggers run an increased risk of damaged knees and arches.
Nevertheless, it’s the case that spiritual pursuits are just as likely to be accompanied by their own set of “occupational hazards” as most everything else in this world. Indeed, if you are not incurring an increased risk of fallen arches, then most likely you are not jogging very far. And if you are not running an increased risk of developing depression — and perhaps other mental and emotional illnesses — then whatever it is you are doing is most likely removed from any serious spiritual pursuit or practice.
I don’t know for certain why it seems to be the case that pursuing a special kind of awareness — or at least a special set of insights into living — increases someone’s chances of developing depression and other mental and emotional illnesses. I’m not sure anyone else does either. But the fact that it does increase someone’s odds of becoming ill has been observed by many people. Even the good things in life come with risks — anyone who tells you differently is either selling you something or thinks you’re a child.
The day I moved into the Albany, I was utterly naive about mental and emotional illnesses. For instance, I could not have accurately recognized even common illnesses such as bipolar mood disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or major depression. Again, I had no idea of what was involved in managing or curing such illnesses. And, at the time, I was intensely interested in developing a more spiritual awareness of life, so my ignorance should have concerned me — assuming I’d known enough to be concerned.
Somehow, though, I had managed to come to the right place to learn. About 70 people lived in the Albany. Probably over half of them were afflicted with at least one mental and emotional illness. I stayed in the Albany for several years — much longer than I at first anticipated staying. In those years, I gradually began to recognize when someone was ill and — often enough — the specific illness that afflicted them. It helps in learning how to recognize an illness that you know a few people who have it.
Eventually, I came to the realization that I was afflicted with some kind of depression, and by then I knew enough to seek professional help in dealing with it. So, nowadays, I’m pretty much of the opinion that anyone engaged in a serious spiritual practice owes it to themselves to get a psychiatric check up once a year. That’s a good idea for anyone, actually, but I think it is an especially good idea for anyone engaged in a spiritual practice.
One of the most rewarding and fulfilling jobs I’ve held in my life was that of a fire fighter. Naturally, it came with some risks. At the time, I judged those risks warranted. But that certainly didn’t mean I ever tried to make fire fighting riskier than it had to be. These days, I’ve taken the same attitude towards spiritual practices. Even though spiritual practices come with risks, I believe those risks warranted. But I refuse to make things riskier than they need to be — so, I think it’s worth my while to invest some care into my mental and emotional heath.