Depression is quite often a response to our present conflict between material pressures and spiritual aspirations. used wisely, it can be a springboard to spiritual awakening and wisdom says Suma Varughese
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.
“Depression is going up horribly,” says psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani. “Today there is a 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.”
The truth is modern living is just not good for mental health. Says Psychotherapist Uma Ranganathan, “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, 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. 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.
A lady called Barbara Eppshares shares 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.
• 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.
Such a state of mind is pretty much par for the course. William Styron, the well-known author of Sophie’s Choice, went through a couple of agonising depression episodes, which he later wrote about. He writes, “Every day I would wake, after usually a very troubled sleep with a sense of despair. It resolved itself into this unfocused pain, which I found almost unbearable…I thought I might sit in the car and inhale carbon monoxide…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 is usually the result of a pro-longed 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.
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, 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.
Opportunity for waking up
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.
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 through the prevailing darkness, is that this too shall pass. 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. 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, and therapists 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.
Minnu Bhonsle says, “I start by telling my patients that what they have is not depression, but spiritual discontent, which itself is healing for them to know. Then I take the minto 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.”
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 does not undo and destroy?” he wondered. The thought plunged him into a deep depression. 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.
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 everyday responsibilities.
She 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.
The bottomline 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 diffcult terrain of spiritual seeking, there is a meaning in the process that leads us to actively embrace the pain and hardship.
From this perspective, we look back at the bogeyman of depression with gratitude in our hearts. 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.”
Here 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 core.
• Accept: Unless you accept that you are depressed, there is nothing you are going to do to make yourself feel better. The main characteristic of depression is resistance, so the more you accept, the better you will feel. It’s okay to accept that you can’t accept. Even that is a step forward.
• Company matters: Try not to spend too much time with people who are miserable or pessimistic. It will exacerbate your depression. Instead, seek the company of those who are cheerful and optimistic.
• Laugh away the blues: “Fake it till you make it.” Laugh even though it’s the last thing you feel like doing. Read some great jokes, meet people with a good sense of humour. The cheer will rub itself on you.
• Take action: Since depression is characterised by inaction, the antidote to it is action. Force yourself to do your duties whatever they might be. Take up some regular exercise every day. Yoga is particularly beneficial.
• Soul-itude: A holiday just with yourself in a picturesque place, could work wonders. It gives you time off to have coffee and conversation, on a cool morning in a beautiful valley, with none other than your soul.
• Try therapy: Today, it is increasingly recognised that seeking professional help for your blues is part of caring for yourself, and taking responsibility for your health. It is to be applauded, not derided.
• Nothing like a walk: A regular dose of exercise in fresh air can help tremendously. Although exercise isn’t a cure for depression, its psychological and physical benefits can improve your symptoms.
• Try bodywork: Bodywork therapists are experts in helping you to work through the tensions that depression stores in your body, and can therefore make you more grounded, and peaceful. Even an ordinary massage will help.
• Eat your way out: Some foods actually fight depression. Try foods with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids: These include walnuts, fatty fish (like salmon, tuna) and flaxseed oil. Fish oil supplements are also useful. Brown rice: Contains lots of B Vitamins, and is low-glycemic. Whole grain oats: Again, loaded with B Vitamins, and soothing to the digestive tract. Cabbage. Foods to avoid: Anything with caffeine, high-sugar, high-fat as research indicates that these interfere with our brain chemistry, and can exacerbate depression.
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