“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask you one of four questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence? Where we stopped dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, or finding comfort in silence is where we have experienced the loss of soul. Dancing, singing, storytelling, and silence are the four universal healing salves.” ~ Angeles Arrien, Cultural Anthropologist
Anxiety and depression have been part of my life since adolescence. For me, they don’t take the form of staying in bed all day or binge-watching Downton Abbey. For me, depression feels like a cold, heaviness that folds itself around my chest and anxiety feels like a jittery monkey wrapped around my head. When depression and anxiety move in, things I usually do with ease take enormous energy. My negative inner dialog gets so deafening that I feel unworthy of any goodness. I am a bear to live with although I pretend I’m not. I feel utterly incompetent but I pretend I’m fine. This World Health Organization video captures the feeling of depression for me (anxiety, on the other hand, has a decidedly more electric vibration). I’ve never had it bad. I’ve never had a big black dog, but I’ve had a medium-sized black beagle. And that was enough.
When I struggled the most with anxiety and depression, I did ask for help (sometimes the most difficult part of healing). I’ve seen a psychiatrist and have taken a handful of medications. I’ve done talk therapy with a string of therapists on and off and on again for years. For me, the medicine and the talking helped but what really made a shift was when I began to explore what Angeles Arriens calls the “universal healing salves”: dancing, singing, storytelling, and silence.
Everybody feels “disheartened, dispirited, or depressed” sometimes. Everybody deserves healing. And everybody is different. Depending on your chemistry, constitution and circumstances, a variety of approaches can offer relief from the black dog or the monkey on your head. In my own journey with dog and monkey, I notice that our Western medical culture has a tendency to rush to medication and professional help when there may be other, simply human practices, the “universal healing salves” that can offer healing, too.
When did you stop dancing?
The human body is designed to move. Moving, particularly in mindful and expressive ways, can unleash all manner of healing energy. Choose movement that you love, in which you can breathe fully, and that gives you pleasure. Whatever it looks like for you, breathe deep and dance.
When did you stop singing?
The physical act of singing, making sound and letting the vibration move through the body heals from the inside out. Whether you sing in church or the shower, chant Sanskrit or cheers for your favorite team, open your mouth and sing.
When did you stop being enchanted by stories?
Some of my most profound healing has come in writing and telling my own stories. Journaling can be a powerful tool for making sense of feelings and life. But even if that doesn’t appeal to you, find stories that do: read a book that you love (either a new one or one from childhood), listen to other people tell their stories, or watch movies that tell stories that enchant you. Stories can bring us together with the wide human experience, so use them as the salves that they are.
When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?
Modern life is a cacophony of talking and television, Muzak and sirens — a constant stream of noise. Making the conscious choice for silence and stillness can calm even the most rattled nervous system and is a deep salve for the soul. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or special. Just sit quietly for a few minutes every day.
If you suffer from depression or anxiety or anything that is sucking the life out of you, know that you are not alone. There is no shame in your suffering. Please ask for help and seek out the care that is right for you. You deserve healing.
One reality of being human is that we are all always healing something. Regularly incorporating the four universal healing salves into our days is a skillful choice. May these and whatever other healing salves work for you ease the depression dog off your chest and the anxiety monkey’s fingers from your face.