Personal Growth - Music of the Night
Depression ManagementHere are a few tips that can help you manage your emotions, and ensure that you are able to hold on to the threads of life, even enjoy the few colourful ones, until awakening exhilirates your very
You are in Good CompanyEveryone has it sooner or later, so quit putting yourself down. In fact, the great seem particularly susceptible to it. Here is the roster of famous names who underwent depression at some point in
Religion Offers ReliefSince depression is in many ways a crisis of meaning, religion can restore our faith in life and ourselves. Here, in India, we have always handled our mental and psychological traumas by going to a
The bad news first. Depression is in the air. Prajakti Deshmukh, an attractive teacher of Art of Living (AOL), observes that the number of people with depression who come to do the initial AOl course is increasing. Dr P.V. Vaidyanathan, a Mumbai-based child specialist, and author of the newly released book, Make your Child Stress-free, writes in the introduction, “Today, many children who are bought to our clinics… have problems because of stress, anxiety, insecurity and mal-adaptation.”
“Depression is going up horribly,” says Psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani, gloomily.
No one’s surprised that this is so. Says Dayal Mirchandani, “Today there is great need to conform, and to be like the page three people. The second reason is that people do not sleep enough, thanks to computers, TV, an active night life, and so on. The junk food diet is also another cause. Earlier, people had healthy food like nuts, grain, vegetables and fish.”
1995 Time magazine cover story had observed, “Fifteen per cent of Americans have had a clinical anxiety disorder. And pathological, even murderous alienation is a hallmark of our times. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, is even more prescient. He writes, “For those born after 1955, the likelihood that they will suffer from a major depression at some point in life is, in many countries, three times greater than for their grandparents. He adds, “And for each generation, the onset of a person’s first episode of depression has tended to occur at an ever earlier age.”
The truth is modern living is just not good for mental health. If only we could get a written warning of this on our paychecks, credit cards, fast food, malls, multiplexes and so on. Says Psychotherapist Uma Ranganathan, “The way things are today, I feel how can anyone not be depressed? Structures like the joint family and job security are breaking down; at the same time, social pressures to earn well and look good have gone up.”
Consulting Psychotherapist and Counsellor Minnu Bhonsle, however, sees the silver lining at the edge of the cloud. “Today, the average person enjoys luxuries that kings of yore could not have dreamt of, such as mobiles and emails. This leaves you with big questions like what is the purpose of life?”
According to her, the very times are pushing us towards an existential crisis. Today, we stand in a cusp between the pull of materialism and that of spirituality. If the prevalent wisdom invites us to jump into the glittering heap of material pleasures, there is a parallel pull towards a search for deeper meaning. The zeitgeist is gradually awakening to the existence of spirit.
However, transition times are never easy and this particular flashpoint between matter and spirit is the most difficult of all. A new birthing is happening and the old is dying. Caught between the crossfire, many of us dive into the agony of depression.
So here is the good news: Depression can frequently be the tightrope between the old and the new. If we can brave the perilous journey, we can emerge into spirit. It is a question of going into hell in order to experience heaven.
Says Minnu Bhonsle, “There are some depressions that are caused by organic reasons beyond the client’s control for which medication is necessary, but chronic depression is usually spiritual discontentment. It is a search for meaning.”
Uma Ranganathan agrees, “Basically, any psychic trauma is a gateway to spiritual awakening. Losing someone, for instance, breaks something down in you.”
Dr Mirchandani is more cautious: “I don’t think all depression is spiritual emergence. It is more useful to see it as something that opens windows.”
Depression can be seen as a gradual shutting down of the life force. It is a state characterised by loss of energy, low interest in life or living, a disaffection with self, and the onrush of negative feelings such as fear, anxiety, panic, anger, hate, despair and so on. A lady called Barbara Epp shares in the Internet her own experience of depression:
• You feel desperate and that you are losing control of your life
• It is a space filled with darkness, fear, despair and panic
• Your thought world profoundly impacts your physical life
• You feel as if time is racing or you are moving in slow motion
• Your world and activities appear insurmountable and life can feel like a pit
• There are overwhelming feelings of isolation and you feel disconnected from others
• You feel trapped with no way to escape
• You hate yourself for feeling like this and feel tremendous shame and guilt
Graphic as her description is, all those who have undergone it will testify that it is an understatement. Writes Delhi-based Mala Ramdas, who has been drifting in and out of depression over the last 10 years: “I think that depression is one of the worst things in the world to go through – sheer hell in fact – and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
I myself have been through a depression that lasted 16 years. It began when I was around 16, having just left the cosy shelter of my home in a small factory township in Orissa for the intimidating environs of a women’s hostel in an upmarket South Mumbai college.
Mercifully, those days are a blur in my mind, but I vividly recall my total inability to feel joy, hope, gratitude, love, or any positive feeling. I felt nothing most of the time but a vast numbness. I would wonder with a sort of horror whether the day would come when I would pass by a dying man, and care too little to lend a helping hand.
I recall my mother’s anguish when my father, on a trip to Hyderabad, did not return on the appointed date, and there was no news of him. As she wept out her grief and anxiety, neighbours clustered around, offering womanly comfort and solace. As for me, I watched the whole scene numbly, wanting to reach out, but unable to break out of my muffled prison.
It was so hard to relate to people, as they laughed and talked, wept and raged, cared and shared, that I often wondered if I was an alien dropped into Planet Earth for God knows what reason. While travelling by local train, I would envy anyone who had the ability to smile, because I myself had lost it, as I had my ability to cry. My sense of self was so ephemeral and wispy, that I often felt that there was no one inside, no one to respond to another’s greeting, or to smile back at an acquaintance. I often glanced down into myself, so to speak, to find out if there was anyone at home. I was wooden, rigid, and distant, hiding behind a mask, unable to form intimate friendships.
Hopeless, I shuffled through my days, sure that I would die as I had lived, in quiet desperation.
Such a state of mind is pretty much par to the course. William Styron, the well-known author of Sophie’s Choice, went through a couple of agonizing depression episodes, which he later wrote about, thereby helping to bring the subject out of hiding and freeing it to some extent of its stigma.
He writes, “Every day I would wake, after usually a very troubled sleep with a sense of despair. It got worse and resolved itself into this unfocused pain, which I found almost unbearable… I thought of the garage as a place where I might sit in the car and inhale carbon monoxide. I’d look at the rafters in the attic and think of them as places where I might hang myself. I looked at sharp objects as being implements for my wrist.”
An Opportunity for Growth
Why does depression happen? Here we are not talking of depression that happens for organic reason or because of chemical imbalance (although it is a moot point whether the chemical imbalance creates unhealthy thoughts and attitudes or, in fact, is caused by them).
Depression can be seen as nature’s wake-up call. It is her bugle cry to arise, become aware, and change the direction of our thoughts and attitudes. Says Marita Nazareth, environmentalist and facilitator, whose account of her two-year depression in Life Positive drew many inquiries, “Depression is like being thrown off the first floor in your sleep, and being forced to wake up.”
In many cases, it is nature’s tough call to spiritual emergence. In my own case, I now recognise that it was a crisis of meaning. I could not find meaning in a life whose goals were money, fame or power, and therefore I let go of my grip on living.
Depression is usually the result of a prolonged indulgence in thoughts, words or actions that are life-negating. It is, therefore, a movement away from life, and towards death. In the Indian context, depression is solidified tamas, a state of stasis, inertia and darkness.
For all these reasons, depression also represents a great opportunity for growth. It makes us aware that things are not all right; that our choices and worldviews need urgent correction, and that we must change. Just like illness forces us to change our lifestyle and diet, depression forces us to change our prevailing beliefs and self-sabotaging habits. It compels us to move towards a healthier and more balanced state of mind. Above all, depression is the cue that life as we presently perceive it is flawed or not enough. Therefore it can often be the stepping board to a paradigm shift, to help penetrate the veil of maya, and enter the spiritual dimension.
Whether we emerge from it better adjusted, or spiritually transformed, the point to note is that depression can, and often does, change us for the better.
The other wonderfully empowering truth to hold on to as we negotiate our way through the prevailing darkness, is that this too will pass. The Buddhist credo applies as much to this sphere of existence as to any other. Most of us do heal from depression. I have. William Styron has. He writes, “But I recovered, and most people do recover from depression. When you are in this ghastly mood disorder, you don’t think you’re going to recover. The absence of hope is almost universal, which is why so many people end their lives in suicide. If suicide can be averted, as it can in most cases, you recover, almost always, and live to tell the tale. So this is by no means a fatal illness.”
The Healing Journey
However, there is tough work ahead of us. And the going is by no means easy. The first and most daunting problem is the paralysis that is the chief characteristic of depression. To help break the block, most therapists emphasise the importance of seeking timely help. Today, there is a plethora of therapies and medications to help us overcome mind-related malaises. On the whole, psychiatrists (doctors permitted to prescribe medications), and therapists (non medical healers who use verbal tools to help the patient work on herself) are more enlightened than they were previously. There is greater understanding that depression is a crisis of growth, and does not mean that there is anything wrong with us. Indeed, therapists will tell you that the individual who seeks help has a far deeper core of soundness than the millions who lead lives of normalcy with not the slightest awareness of their neuroses. There are also many (though not enough) mental health workers who are aware of the spiritual dimension, and can support your entry into it.
Minnu Bhonsle, who sees her mission in life as helping people find themselves again, goes through a complete process with her patients. She says, “I start by telling them that what they have is not depression, but spiritual discontent, which itself is healing for them to know. Then I take them into catharsis, where I work on making them accept themselves as they are here and now. I teach them to be real and authentic. Then we trace the root of their disorder to uncover when it is that they first bought the belief that they were not acceptable or inadequate.” She helps them not just to accept this but also to forgive the person who may have verbally or non-verbally communicated the message.
She adds, “I help them to modify their self-concept, after which I put them through a process of self-sustenance. They learn to nurture themselves, be their own parent. Once self-sustenance is complete, the healing is complete.” She estimates that the whole process takes them about two months, an astonishingly short period, but she says, “Most who come to me have usually cried out to Existence to get them out of this stage, so they go through the steps with great passion.”
Uma Ranganathan runs a weekly group therapy in her spacious seafront home in South Mumbai. There she facilitates people to work on their issues and move towards a higher level of functioning. She cites the case of one of her group members who plunged into a depression after his wife joined the group and began to flower out within six months, becoming emotionally strong and assertive. She says, “He became very jealous, and had a breakdown. He was on medication for a year, and then he came back to the group. Slowly, he came out of his depression. It was a beautiful experience. His relationship with his wife changed. He learnt to love and respect her strengths, and not be intimidated by them. He often expresses his gratitude for his depression experience because it made him a finer person.”
She offers one more example among her group members where depression was used as an instrument of growth. This involved a woman happily married for 20 years, who discovered that her husband was having an affair. The betrayal triggered off a depression, especially as her husband was adamant about continuing his relationship. Eventually, she reached a stage where she could accept the relationship. Her reasoning went thus, “What I see is that my husband really cares for me. Why should I care if he cares for another?” She recognised that the lady had certain strengths that she did not possess. She also recognised that the situation gave her freedom out of her narrow domestic role, and she began to take up other activities. The woman was able to rise above her ego, and look at the situation in a dispassionate manner, thereby arriving at an unconventional but satisfactory resolution of the situation.
Leo Tolstoy, the great writer and Russian nobleman, went through a crisis of meaning when he suddenly became aware of the fact of death. “Is there in life any purpose which the inevitable death which awaits me does not undo and destroy?” he wondered. The thought plunged him into a deep depression that alienated him from life. He writes that he actually had to hide his shotgun for fear that he would shoot himself. His way out of this morass of melancholy was through an elemental experience in the woods when he felt life in all its beauty and variety stirring around him, helping him experience the presence of God. He recognised then that it was knowing God that gave meaning to life. Subsequently, Tolstoy went through a complete transformation that led him to renounce his princely title, leave behind his life of luxury to retire into the country, and give away his landed property to the peasants that tilled the land.
In my own case too, my citizenship to the dark domain was abruptly cancelled when I had a spiritual awakening, triggered off by the breakdown of a relationship. Through the debris that piled around me, I walked into the astounding realisation that true happiness lies in the happiness of the other. That simple insight enabled me to leap out of my troubled and self-centred mind right into a state of peace, detachment, and an active focus on the other. No matter what I came up against – anger, insult, or indifference – I found that it did not have the capacity to disturb me. I was centred and joyful. The experience transformed me and my life. Growth and enlightenment became my highest priority, and nothing was allowed to stand in their way. I reforged my relationship with God, and recreated my worldview in the light of the new insights.
The Life of Spirit
Through depression, we can transit into the life of spirit, into a place of knowing, meaning, and wisdom. But the challenges do not end here. The spiritual dimension is not a placid pussycat, it is a roaring tiger, a heaving broncobuster. To deal with it we need to summon our deepest resources, and sometimes even that is not enough.
In her book, The Call of Spiritual Emergence, Emma Bragdon explains that a sudden explosion into spiritual awareness has its own challenges, and that the person undergoing it may feel deeply vulnerable, emotional, unable to lead a normal life or handle every day responsibilities. She cites the case of Jill, who had a sudden Kundalini awakening. “I had so much love in my heart, I didn’t know what to do with it. I was really very uncomfortable. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was anxious. I wasn’t interested in eating.” Therapy helped Jill, but she was still far from able to return to normal life. Bragdon writes, “She wasn’t ready to fully resume her responsibilities at home for several months. … She wanted to change the relationship with herself, her friends, and her family, and eventually figure out ways she could be of service to others. At some point she wanted to work out the longstanding problems she had with her parents. She wanted to be a better mother and wife.”
She also gives the example of Judith who fell into a deep depression that lasted several years when her baby son died unexpectedly one night. Judith says, “It threw me into a crisis of seeking. I wanted answers to profound questions. Why should a six-week-old die and others live to be ninety… I wanted to pierce through the normal way of living and preceiving life. I wanted to become enlightened.”
Moving away from her church, Judith eventually found her answers in a couple of spiritual groups, but since her husband did not join her search, the tension broke their marriage, and left her alone to bring up three children.
Bragdon makes the point that to move from depression to spiritual awakening is not the end of the journey. There are new challenges, new tasks to be completed such as the need to integrate the knowledge into all parts of our being, the courage to take the right decisions even if they create loss, and the urgent call to find one’s own centre, become one’s own person.
My own growth led me into several years of virtual stasis on the outside level, as I worked on deconditioning the apathy, indifference, carelessness and disorganisation that the depression years had scarred me with. At such times it may seem to the outside world that our lives have fallen apart, but in truth they are reforming into a more enduring and satisfying pattern.
The bottomline then is that life is growth. The imperative to grow is what often leads us into depression, and it is the willingness to take up the challenge that will determine our movement away from it. And even though our lives may continue to snake through the challenging and difficult terrain of spiritual seeking, there is a meaning in the process that leads us to actively embrace the pain and hardship.
From the perspective that distance lends, we look back at the bogeyman of depression with gratitude in our hearts. Mala Ramdas, though still chafing from her continued tango with melancholy, acknowledges grudgingly, “Depression has unlocked several doors and windows into other worlds or ways of thinking that I would never have been aware of. Personal growth, understanding my true nature, and discovering my true mission in life, compassion, acceptance, awareness, and a host of other phrases, no longer remain mere phrases but have become much, much more.”
Marita says, “I have always prayed for a grateful, open heart. I received it. All is a source of my gratitude – the birds, the flowers, my family, the moon, my breath, a smile, a word of encouragement – nothing is unimportant. Everything conveys that life is worth living.”
I myself have been shaped and moulded into the person I am today by the depression experience. It was an education on the nature of misery that gave me an indepth understanding into human nature. Becoming intimate with failure, self-doubt, self-rejection, and low self-esteem, has made me less inclined towards complacency, or judgement, and perhaps more compassionate. It made me value happiness so much that all the challenges on the path have failed to dent my commitment. I see too that the person I am today has always existed, even within my depressed self, only locked away. I am glad she is free today; as you can be too.
Contact: Dayal Mirchandani:firstname.lastname@example.org
Uma Ranganathan: email@example.com
Minnu Bhonsle: firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome your comments and suggestions on this article. Email us at email@example.com
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