Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 4: Depression’s World

Heartbreak changes your entire experience. The world is literally different.

One of my favorite philosophers, Wittgenstein, said in his Tractatus (the following quote is my translation; I add the German original as a footnote to the post along with the original’s section number):

If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not that which can be expressed through language.
In short, the world must then through good or bad willing become an entirely different one. It must, so to speak, increase or decrease as a whole.
The world of the happy person is a different one than that of the unhappy person. [1]

Wittgenstein tells us here that the “world”–for him, the set of everything that is the case: the collection of all facts [2]–isn’t changed by a negative or positive perspective. Happiness doesn’t change the fact that 2+2=4, that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or that the shirt I’m wearing is blue. However, our experience of these facts as a whole, the world, changes in totality when we’re happy or sad–the limits of the world change. That same blue shirt is seen through two different sets of eyes, as it were.

This explication might beg the obvious question: “How could it be otherwise?” It may seem self-evident after the above discussion, but we regularly act as though those emotional states come from out there in the world rather than our own evaluation and reaction to it. We act as though emotions are just another fact amongst that totality of facts, not something that alters them as a particular perspective of the facts. Notice that I just pointed to the word “evaluation”. Wittgenstein would tell us that evaluation has nothing to do with the set of facts that is the world. Facts are facts. They can come in any order we want as the propositions that are the case. They don’t have any inherent value in themselves. There isn’t any inherent meaning or value to the fact that my shirt is blue. Evaluation stands outside the facts. [3]

This may seem an overly philosophical assertion for a post, so let’s put it differently with a quote from a Tibetan Buddhist:

The truth in this statement becomes clear when you pay attention to the inner processes that produce emotional states: you literally dream them up through a complex interaction of thoughts, images, bodily states, and sensations. Emotional reactivity does not originate “out there” in objects. It arises, is experienced, and ceases in you. [4]

This quote brings us back to a more grounded understanding of what has been said so far: the world out there is as it is, yet my reactions to it arise in myself–they are not part of the facts of all, no matter how much they feel to be, but they do change my experience of those facts. That blue shirt is neither hideous nor handsome in itself–those are evaluations, emotional reactions within me.

Now, to return to the emotion at hand: depression. Moods are the most pervasive of emotional filters which shape our experience of the world. They color not only one interaction or glance in the mirror of that blue shirt–they color everything. There’s wisdom to the saying: “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses”. This is what is really at stake with Wittgenstein’s final lines in the quote: The world of the happy person is different from that of an unhappy person. [5] Anyone who has undergone an experience of depression–and it is most definitely a going-under and something that is undergone without choice– will know that the world no longer is the same. Everything feels bereft of meaning, cold, foreign, lonely, empty, meaningless and/or pointless. In depression, all hopes have been dashed, and it appears both as though it was saccharine and naive to have ever hoped at all and that there is no reason to ever hope for anything again.


Perhaps some would disagree with my description anchoring depression on the loss of hope, but I would describe the terrain of depression as a kingdom full of castles made of crushed hopes and dreams built upon the ground of hopelessness with a substrate of meaninglessness. Such a description fits well with both Beck’s cognitive triad–the depressed person’s view of self, world, and future become completely negative and hopeless of change–as well as the lived experience of time in depression–one of events coming forward and washing over you rather than actively moving towards your own goals and meanings. These are theories learned from my days as a psychology student, but the description and theories go along with my own personal experiences of depression as well.

The hopelessness of depression has a particular flavor in heartbreak. Not only does the world seem bleak, but in addition, there are constant points of comparison with another person, a life once had, a particular set of hopes and ideas lost. These comparisons can haunt entire days and wake you from deep sleep. Normal routines suddenly take on a dark glaze of loss that defies any attempt to ignore it or get around it. You might try to deny it through intensive storytelling or a rebound relationship or to distract yourself with booze or other means, or maybe, you won’t be able to try such coping behaviors at all and will instead spend night after night bawling your eyes out while watching movies on the couch. However, extreme measures are required to deny or ignore the loss of a person, the loss of a life–the world of one who is heartbroken is different than the world of one who is happy.

The heartbroken world is a dark and hopeless one, indeed, but the loss of hope offers the opportunity to approach life differently altogether. Hope and fear (they’re opposites and come together–two sides of the same coin. In hoping for something, I also carry fears of what the world will be like without that hope coming true) keep life in a game of ups and downs of samsara–a game of suffering through the attachment of desire and aversion. A broken heart allows the opportunity to develop a tender connection of compassion for the world outside of your own story of your hope and your fear. Put hope and fear aside and open yourself to the world just as it is rather than your evaluation of it. It’s truly a golden opportunity to realize authentic happiness rather than continuing to live in a world based on grasping for hopes and running from fears. This is the first steps of working with depression in practice and in stepping beyond its emotional terrain.

The word in Tibetan for hope is rewa; the word for fear is dopa. More commonly, the word re-dok is used, which combines the two. Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. This re-dok is the root of our pain. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.

In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something: they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.

Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?

We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better “me” who one day will emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.

This is where renunciation enters the picture–renunciation of the hope that our experience could be different, renunciation of the hope that we could be better. [6]

May this help others find their own empowerment and open possibilities in the barren lands of depression.

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 3: Wounds
Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 5: Depression – Experience & Practice

1 §6.43 Wenn das gute oder böse Wollen die Welt ändert, so kann es nur die Grenzen der Welt ändern, nicht die Tatsachen; nicht das, was durch die Sprache ausgedrückt werden kann.
Kurz, die Welt muß dann dadurch überhaupt eine andere werden. Sie muß sozusagen als Ganzes abnehmen oder zunehmen.
Die Welt des Glücklichen ist eine andere als die des Unglücklichen.
2 Tractatus–§1 Die Welt ist alles was der Fall ist. §1.1 Die Welt ist die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen, nicht der Dinge. §1.11 Die Welt ist durch die Tatsachen bestimmt und dadurch, daß es alle Tatsachen sind. §1.12 Denn, die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen bestimmt, was der Fall ist und auch, was alles nicht der Fall ist. (My translation: §1The world is everything that is the case. §1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not the totality of things. §1.11 The world is made certain through the facts and due to them being all the facts. §1.12 Because: the entirety of facts makes certain what is the case and what is not the case.)
3 See §6.4 and §6.41 of the Tractatus. I feel they are a bit too heady to include here.
4 Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche & Mark Dahlby, The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, Kindle edition, loc. 1552.
5 For my fellow philosophers, compare all this with Heidegger’s discussions of Befindlichkeits–mood’s–impact on our understanding of the world in Being and Time.
6 Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, pp. 40-41.