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The Art of Seeing Depression

James Turrell is one of the most remarkable artists alive. He has an amazing understanding of light and perception. By using darkness and almost imperceptible light, his artwork totally changes the way we see the world. I think his work with light and darkness is a perfect metaphor for trying to see depression in a new light.

When you enter one of Jim’s installations, it is so dark that you cannot see anything, or at least not much. The amount of available light is simply too little for our eyes to use. His artwork is not a picture on the wall; it is the entire environment, in which both the perception of the audience and time act as critical components.

If you stay long enough, your eyes begin to adjust to the lack of light. You start to see things that were there all along, but your eyes were not yet ready to perceive.

When you go back out into the “real” world, you bring an entirely new perspective; you begin to see everything in a whole new light (pun intended). Jim’s work can truly be described as a discovery of the act of seeing.

My own art is similar to Jim’s in many ways. Like Jim, instead of using a brush to paint a picture, I choose to build an environment that blocks out light and helps me to perceive. Unlike Jim, my art is not in the physical world; it is in my interior world.

Instead of blocking out the physical light, I learn to block out the thoughts and feelings that distract me from seeing the more subtle light that shines within each of us. I then discover deeper truths hidden within my own consciousness. When I return to the external world, I begin to see the same subtle light in the eyes of everyone I meet.

My art is called meditation. I have been practicing it for over 45 years, sometimes as much as 8 hours a day. Meditation has given me the ability to “see” things in a much deeper way. It can be described as the discovery of the act of knowing.

I recently went through a fairly deep depression, and came out thinking a lot about James Turrell. I don’t know if he is bipolar or experiences depression, but if he does, I bet he sees it in the way I do.

When I went into depression the first time, all I saw was darkness and pain. At the time, I thought it was unbearable, but looking back and comparing it to some of the far deeper hells I have since experienced, it was really nothing.

As my perception has grown, I am beginning to “see” things I never knew were there: good insights, lessons, and personal growth. In “seeing” clearly, I notice that now depression doesn’t affect me so negatively. It now affects me much more, but in a positive way, at least according to the way I have learned to “see.”

On a scale from one to five, I used to think of a five as experiencing no depression at all, and a one as so deeply depressed that I would attempt suicide. I thought four was a little painful, three even more, and two almost unbearable. Since there was no “light,” and all I could “see” was pain, I judged my experiences solely on that basis.

As I spent more time trying to “see” in depression, I began to notice many things that were probably there all along, but I could not “look” through the pain to “see” them. As I started to discover the “act of seeing” in depression, I started to ponder the significance of my discoveries.

Each time I experienced depression, it became clearer to me. I began to redefine what depression was, based on the features that I could now “see” more clearly. My scale began to change, from a scale based on pain, to one based on a much richer perception of what was going on. I still define a five as “having no symptoms,” and a one as “so difficult that I try to kill myself,” but four, three, and two have become a rich and varied landscape.

I have also come to understand the significant difference between those who have “situational depression,” caused by outward circumstances, and those who have what I consider “true depression,” caused by mental illness. I have learned to articulate that clearly enough to make a difference in the lives of both those who are truly depressed and those who love and support them.

Everyone experiences some form of depression at least once in life. If it is really bad, it means extreme sadness, crying, inability to function fully, lethargy, dullness of thought, and more. For most, it is caused by some great loss like the death of a loved one, or some other great tragedy.

You wake up in the morning so sad, you think you cannot get through the day. It might even debilitate you for a day or so, but for the most part, you get up, grab a cup of coffee, go to work, and somehow make it through the day, even if seriously diminished in your ability to perform. If it is really bad, this depression lasts for weeks or months, as you slowly get on with life. That is a three in my book. It is also about as deep as anyone gets from “situational depression,” the kind that comes solely from outside circumstances and not from mental illness.

A two is not just the same thing with more intensity. It is fundamentally different than a three. In a two, the world becomes black and white. There is no color. There is an intense physical pain. Thoughts become confused. During such pain, I lose the ability to even remember a time when it was not like this. I can see no future when it might go away. (This is called “state specific memory” and is very common.) My mind keeps repeating “kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself,” and I keep seeing visions of car crashes and every method of suicide that you can imagine. All I can do is hang on. A two is the worst kind of hell. (At the time of writing this, I erroneously assumed that a one meant you killed yourself from the pain of the two state.)

Being able to explain depression better and help others is great, but there is so much more. Central to my belief, is that nothing is all good or all bad, but a combination of good and bad components. We “see” the good and bad according to our ability to perceive and the filters that we place on ourselves, based on how we assign value. In my struggles with depression, I have been frustrated with my inability to “see” any good in it. In my recent depression and thoughts about James Turrell, I have begun to “see” depression in a whole new light. I am not ready to choose depression, but next time it comes, I look forward to exploring a whole new landscape.

I have noticed that aspects of depression that I used to consider a two and almost unbearable, I am now denoting as a three. I have also begun to gain tremendous insight into many things, including my spiritual life. It is from a spiritual perspective that I have really begun to see that depression can be a great thing. In my readings of the lives of saints, pain and despair is often mentioned as a catalyst that helped them to become better persons and act in a manner that is called saintly. After always struggling with this concept, I am now beginning to understand.

It was the misery of depression that brought me to the realization that I am mentally ill. The unbearable pain is what helped me to recognize the torture I have done to others. Without the heartache, I would never have learned who I really am, and come to understand the power of acceptance. Without the despair, I would not have had the desire to become a better person.

The saints talk about having a despair so strong it becomes unbearable. The despair they feel is specific, it is the agony they feel from not having a direct experience of God. The despair becomes so strong, that they would rather die than go another minute without Him. They describe it as getting to a point that their own sense of self becomes the thing that separates them from God; they feel that they “die” into oneness with the divine. I believe that is what Saint Paul meant when he said “I die daily.”

In my depressions, I feel tremendous despair. My mind keeps repeating over and over “kill yourself, kill yourself.” What if my perception keeps becoming clearer and I start to notice that the despair truly is for God? What if the self that I am trying to kill, is the “little self” that is keeping me from realizing the true nature that I believe is in each of us. This is our divine self. Jesus said “The kingdom of God is within you.” It seems that for at least some of us, it is depression and despair that gives us the ability to “see” our divine self. That is why depression is the best thing that ever happened to me.

(This was originally written on March 16, 2006 and is included in The Depression Advantage book. I include it here as background info for future posts about depression and how my thinking has grown over time.)

The Art of Seeing Depression

Tom Wootton

Tom Wootton - see on YouTube, follow on Twitter, or Facebook - is CEO of Bipolar Advantage. Along with experts in complementary fields, including doctors teaching the next generation of therapists, their mission is to help people with mental conditions shift their thinking and behavior so that they can lead extraordinary lives. Tom is the author of three books: The Bipolar Advantage, The Depression Advantage, and Bipolar In Order: Looking At Depression, Mania, Hallucination, And Delusion From The Other Side.

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APA Reference
Wootton, T. (2010). The Art of Seeing Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Feb 2010
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