The Dark Side of Existence: Phenomenology of Depression

Awareness is an organism’s attunement to external threats. Such awareness is generally observed in all varieties of life forms, demonstrated in varying degrees from single-celled organisms all the way to man. Consciousness is the uniquely human form of awareness. In human being, this consciousness is specifically manifested as self-consciousness.  Consciousness of the self, understood through a phenomenological approach, refers to the existing individual’s capacity to transcend the immediate and concrete; to understand one’s self as one’s potentialities…in short, to understand my experience of myself as a being with a world.

It is by virtue of his consciousness of himself as a self in the world, existing through his openness to his potentiality, that human being comes to understand itself in a constant state of becoming. The constant flux of becoming is an essential part of human being’s existential structure. Only the historical tradition grounded in metaphysics has forced the distinction between being and becoming. In this sense, man is never closed off, as if pinned down to a particular “this” or “that.” Rather, he is his open to his world and the spectrum of possibility. It is through his consciousness of his becoming that makes possible the agonizing burden of freedom.

Yet this freedom is both qualified and contingent. It is qualified in that we exercise little to no control over much of material existence. To the extent that man is nothing more than pure biological animal, he is entirely the product of thousands of years of evolutionary development, subject to the same drives and impulses, genetic determination, and so on, of any and all other organisms. It is contingent on the fact that we are thrown into a world. We had no choice as to which culture, historical epoch, or generation we were born into; we just were. Heidegger tells us that we can never get “behind” our thrownness (Geworfenheit). It is the facticity of the existing individual self that informs and is taken up in existence.

The sensation of this narrow freedom is always rooted in agony. At its most fundamental level, freedom entails an interior confrontation within the self.  Freedom t begins when the self is confronted with what Heidegger refers to as the “call of conscience;” this “calling” has no specific content or message; nevertheless, it is the call to the self to be its own self, to break free from Das man, and take up its being-in-the-world through concrete and active involvement. It is embodied in Nietzsche’s mandate “Become who you are.”  For Heidegger, as in Nietzsche, the “call of conscience” is an appeal to choose to understand oneself in one’s ownmost potentiality for Being. In turn, answering the “call” involves accepting as one’s own the responsibility for one’s being-in-the-world. Confronting the choice to become an authentic self involves all the corresponding risk that comes with such responsibility, including the dreadful isolation disclosed in anxiety.

Yet this confrontation of choice within the structure of the self brings forth yet another possibility on account of the existing individual’s freedom to choose. This “darker side” of consciousness is the fact that consciousness itself implies always the possibility of turning against itself. Thus, tragedy of existence is not the undeniable ubiquity of suffering, nor the absence of universal meaning and man’s groundlessness; it is the structural possibility, inherent within every existing individual self, that the self must necessarily confront the possibility and temptation at every instant of killing itself.

The agonizing crossroad between affirmation and denial represents the penultimate burden of existential freedom. This freedom is raised to the level of the understanding precipitating the choice by way of a particular mood.  Moods tell us about the state in which we find ourselves. Heidegger’’ word here is Befindlichkeit, which literally translates into “state-of-mind.” But this can be misleading…since moods really aren’t internal, nor external for that matter. One should be careful not to confuse “moods” for reflective conscious states.

“Having a mood is not related to the psychical in the first instance, and is not itself an inner condition which then reaches forth in an enigmatical way and puts its mark on things and persons.” (BT, 176).

Rather, moods arise solely on account of our already being-in-the-world. Hubert Dreyfus says that moods “assail us,” and disclose to us “how it’s going with being-in-the-world.”

“Moods are not side-effects, but are something which in advance determines our being with one another. It seems as though a mood is in each case already there, so to speak, like an atmosphere in which we first immerse ourselves in each case and which then attunes us through and through.”

The disclosiveness of moods is also evidenced in the way in which Dasein is “delivered over” to moods. Thus, “Dasein is its There in such a way that, whether explicitly or not, it is disposed in its thrownness. In disposedness Dasein is always brought before itself, and has always found itself, but in the sense of finding itself attuned.” (BT, 174).

The mood that discloses human being’s radical and terrifying freedom is anxiety. Heidegger and Kierkegaard both show us that, in anxiety, the self is directed to the uncertainty of its own finitude. Unlike fear, which always has some concrete object as its focal point (I am always afraid of something particular); anxiety is directed at the “unknown.” The corresponding phenomenon is that of a free-floating sense of the infinite possibility, both tempting and disquieting all at once.  When I’m delivered over into anxiety, I feel the intent expression of the amorphous freedom for nothing; I see no meaning; no significance around me. I have transcended the boundaries of everyday intelligibility and come face to face with ecstatic possibility. In this sense, I experience myself for the first time as the possibility of becoming myself, and for once see my future as open, and not by the crowd or given to me as understood in the “they-self.” In fact, the future presents itself in no particular series or arrangements of possibilities at all. Instead, I am presented with the impossibility of all possibilities; there are no limits, but yet I am paralyzed to choose my possibility.

In short, anxiety is the confrontation within the self as undifferentiated possibility. This, in turn, has the feeling of becoming de-situated in the world, and a movement towards innocence in the complete shattering of the framework of meaningful involvement that originally gave rise to my inauthentic mode of being in the world.  Only then am I able to redefine and essentially re-relate my being-in-the-world.

The above description corresponds to the choice of affirmation – in the self becoming its ownmost potentiality for Being. But as we noticed before, there is also always the possibility and temptation to go in an altogether different direction once delivered into anxiety. In this sense, we can find ourselves in an altogether different mood…depression.

Before we go any further, some clarity is needed with respect to the very term “depression.”  Generally, depression can be understood in two distinctive ways. First, there is “depression” in its positivistic, pathological-clinical sense. This understanding of depression is a mental illness or disorder; reducible to a chemical imbalance in the patient’s brain, and something that can and should be treated through psycho-pharmaceutical solutions. This, in turn, has the potential to objectify depression. No longer does the existing individual’s experience of depression matter; instead, symptoms are measured against a standard set of criteria, upon which a positive or negative diagnosis may be made. In other words, the positivist pathologizes depression, and thus separates out and discards the subjective experience in favor of objective criteria.

On the other hand, a phenomenological approach to depression studies the experience of the existing individual from within, rather than imposing objective criteria from without.

The phenomenological method attempts to get at the core of experience by stripping away all external attributions and impositions of the observer. The focus of any phenomenological inquiry is to bring oneself into the actual lived-experience being studied (the phenomena itself).  Examining depression through the phenomenological structures of spatiality and temporality offers an alternative route to understanding what one feels when one becomes depressed, in contrast to the positivistic account of depression as pathology to be treated through psychopharmacology. Rather than define through predetermined categories and qualities what depression is, a phenomenological understanding of depression aims to gather an understanding of what it is to live in depression, and thus derives at a more primordial understanding from the perspective of the depressed self.

A phenomenological account of becoming depressed starts with the concrete and given — an existing individual. From here, we can explore how the existing individual self perceives and relates to its world, particularly trough the structures of lived/existential space and time.

Whereas anxiety manifests itself as boundless openness to the impossibility of all possibility, depression is a closing off; a lurking sensation of sinking into darkness. Anxiety gives way to boundless projection of potentiality; depression is wholly inward, drawing away all meaning and significance – an emptying out; a living lifelessness.  It is a sense of the loneliness of being cut-off or isolated from the world; whereas anxiety opens up boundless, limitless possibilities, depression sets apart and encloses in complete darkness.  One is imprisoned in interior darkness – accompanied by an ever-increasing feeling that there’s no point or possibility of escape, and one senses an overwhelming and all-encompassing inability for action.

When one “falls” into a deep depression, one becomes aware of a perceptible change in one’s environment. Things begin to appear more distant; more remote. Spatial reality itself becomes detached, even hostile, and cloaked in a foreboding distance. In turn, this qualitative transition of one’s awareness of the external world brings forth a reinforcing state of the remoteness and isolation within. One finds oneself unable to reach out, as if every object has completely withdrawn, and one’s relation to the world comes to be understood as wholly separate. In this sense, the depressed individual is overtaken with the feeling of being separate from the world.

The phenomenon of becoming separate from the world is mirrored by a similar distancing of the self from its embodied engagement in the world. The DSM-IV states that individuals with depression often report a loss of interest or pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed. The language of this objective criteria conceals a subjective experience that takes the form of a complete breakdown in the subject’s ability to relate to its objects in the world. This finds its greatest expression in one’s inability to relate to the other. The inability to maintain and see oneself through the lived relations of being-in-the-world has the corresponding effect of cutting the self off completely, and thus further reinforcing the feeling of absolute isolation and loneliness commonly experienced during depression.

This loss of the ability to relate to one’s world signifies more than the mere loss of one’s fulfilling relationships with particular entities; but rather, a complete loss of the self. The slow erosion of the self is analogous to a slow descent into death: for nothing breaks through the solitude of depressed imprisonment, and so the experience takes shape in a completely non-relational form. The inability to relate to one’s world leaves one with a feeling of existential solipsism. The boundaries separating reality and unreality, life and death, being and not-being are no longer visible when one is encapsulated in the blackness of depression. Without the ability to relate, the self is rendered empty, unable to react to what is perceived in a “normal” functioning way. This in turn has the tendency once again to increase the inner remoteness and isolation, rendering the self not only incapable of relating to the other, but also to itself.

Depression also brings about a radical transformation in temporality. Time itself seems to slow to a grinding halt. Every minute seems like eternity. Each moment longer, more painful than the last; yet, at the same time each and every subsequent moment is accompanied by a greater anticipation for transfiguration and relief. One simply wants to escape the desolation of time, the excruciating loneliness of naked temporal existence. One’s being takes on a whole new character and dimension – that of a positive affliction. Death becomes the cure to the malady of life; offering tranquility and even levity in contrast to the insufferable ailment of life.

Depression is also constituted in a transformation of the self’s understanding of itself. As Heidegger tells us, Dasein understands itself in terms of possibilities. The possible constitutes an essential structure of Dasein’s Existenz. A fundamental feature of becoming depressed is a breakdown in confronting one’s own facticity through such understanding. In this sense, the self as understanding and relating to itself through possibility is answered with the hallow emptiness of the hopeless futility of all possibility.

By contrast with anxiety, which takes the form of the intentionality of no-thing, depression’s form is the unacceptability of self; manifested in the absence of grounding or center that otherwise provides us with the comforts of existing in the normal bounds of what it means to be anything (or anyone) at all. Just as anxiety individuates, so too does depression. As a boundary experience, depression has the capacity to deliver the self into the unknown of one’s own uniqueness – but nevertheless lacking the corresponding awareness of anxiety’s freedom of the capacity for choice. In depression then, the self experiences its individual uniqueness not as boundless possibility, but as terrifying isolation and remoteness.

Both anxiety and depression are primordial structures of human being, and in this sense they can never be “overcome,” but rather, projects by which the self is called to task to take up its own individuality through some form of concrete engagement with its own world, through the existentiell-ontic projection of the understanding of choice. In the midst of depression, the experience of one’s own Being is that of sheer pointlessness: nothing matters, a totalizing process of intentional leveling.

Accordingly, how one responds to depression can take the form of resignation (suicide) or Quixotic salvation. For the latter, it is the journey of making choices with response to one’s ownmost possibility of being-in-the-world, with the awareness that one’s choices are fundamentally worthless, that can have a therapeutic effect. The decision to make a choice, any choice, retains the possibility of embracing the uncertainty in order to become one’s own self. It is the task of choosing oneself that one can escape the paralyzing apathy of depression – even if the depression can be overcome only in the instant, and never for good.


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