By Suma Varughese
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
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 ou
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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. A majority of the world faces depression, so don’t kick yourself for it. 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: The mantra that Art Of Living, the spiritual organisation headed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, propagates is, “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, and will give great benefits.
• Soul-itude: If you have a mild attack of the blues, a holiday just with your self in a picturesque place, could work wonders. It gives you time oft to have coffee and conversation, on a cool morning in a beautiful valley, with none other than your soul.
• Try therapy: Gone are the days when there was a stigma attached to meeting a psychotherapist. 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: Luckily, some of the best things in life are still free. 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. “It’s not a magic bullet, but increasing physical activity is a positive and active strategy to help manage depression,” says Kristin Vickers-Douglas, Ph.D., a psychologist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester.
• 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: The choices we make in the foods we eat, sets the basis for physical, mental and spiritual health. Some foods actually fight depression. A few good examples are: 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, meaning it allows sugars to be absorbed slowly, providing energy for the long-term. Just avoid the “instant” rice packages. Whole grain oats: Again, loaded with B vitamins, and soothing to the digestive tract. Cabbage: It does a lot to give a salad a nice crunch and your mood an uplift. Foods to avoid: Anything with caffeine, high-sugar, high-fat as research indicates that these interfere with our brain chemistry, and therefore can be a factor in contributing to exacerbating depression.
• Sunny side up: Your mood is influenced by a complex web of relationships between sunlight, melatonin (the sleep hormone), and serotonin (the hormone associated with wakefulness and elevated mood). As darkness falls, your melatonin levels naturally increase. And as the morning light emerges, melatonin levels decrease. Serotonin levels increase when you’re exposed to bright light – a major reason why moods tend to be more elevated during the summer. This hormone is the basis of today’s most popular and successful antidepressant drugs, called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
• Spiritual emergence: Sometimes what may seem like paranoia or psychosis may actually be a spiritual awakening. This might take the form of sudden energies moving within you, or seeing visions, or hearing voices. You can distinguish this from a genuine psychotic experience, by checking your feelings. Is there a greater sense of love, compassion, connection to the universe? Psychosis, on the other hand, would create fear and alienation. Even through this, you might need support. Find a therapist who is open to the spiritual dimension. Better still, try and meet a spiritual master. Spend some time on your own, to get peace and rest. Turn to God, and start a dialogue with Him, or say a prayer. Remember that you will be taken care of.
• The Joy Equation: www.thejoyequation.com gives an interesting four-step solution to depression: They are:
Information… knowledge of what it is you’re facing
Action… Simple, easy-to-follow instructions for combatting your depression.
Inspiration… Stories of people just like you who have successfully banished depression from their lives the natural way.
And support… Having people in your corner who care about you and your progress and who are willing to invest time helping you out.
- Megha Bajaj
You are in Good Company
Everyone 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 their lives: Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolfe, Sylvia Plath, Princess Diana, King Solomon, Ernest Hemingway, Baudelaire, Edvard Munch, John Keats, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Leo Tolstoy, Beethoven, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, S.T. Coleridge.
The learning from their experience is that no one is spared periods of darkness, as life knows that some of the most profound lessons are learnt through it. Hear it from some of these seasoned players of life:
“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would be not one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell. I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better it appears to me.” – Abraham Lincoln
Postscript: He was treated for his depression. He became the 16th President of America soon after. Some of his greatest achievements came after the depression as it made him more self-aware and empathetic.
Her name has become a synonym for holiness and faith, but it turns out that even Mother Teresa experienced the dark night of the soul. Between September 1946 and October 1947, she experienced visions of Jesus instructing her to found the Sisters of Charity, and she sank into spiritual depression when they stopped. “My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains,” she wrote in 1958. “[People] think that my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing, and that my intimacy with God and union with His will fill my heart. If only they knew.” Later, she went into more detail: “The damned of hell suffer eternal punishment because they experiment with the loss of God. In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God, and that God does not exist.”
Postscript: Nothing stopped Mother from doing her work and today she has become a blazing symbol of love and faith for the world. Her last few words, as reported by Sister Nirmala Joshi were, “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love you”
- Megha Bajaj
Religion Offers Relief
Since 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 guru, going on a pilgrimage, seeing an astrologer, and the like. These options are worth exploring for they can cure us. Moreover, the spiritual truths enshrined in all religions can be of profound comfort and inspiration. Religions tell us how to live life by revealing the spiritual laws that govern it. We can find our way back by using their powerful resources.
Cause: Depressive disease figured prominently in the sacred writings of India, including the twin epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s dismay on the eve of battle is well-known. He says, “My mind is very restless, forceful and strong, O Krishna, it is more difficult to control the mind than the wind.” The Hindu view is that depression is caused by ignorance; we do not recognise that we are part of God, because maya blinds our eyes and distorts our vision.
Cure: The Bhagavad Gita states, “Let a man raise himself by his own self, let him not debase himself. For he is himself his friend, himself his foe.” One’s own mind has a preventive and a curative function. Healthy habits of attitude, thoughts, dispositions and feeling can offer equilibrium. It brings out the fact that enormous resources are available within for healing. Since thoughts create reality, Krishna offers loving refuge: “Focus your mind on Me alone and let you intellect dwell upon Me through meditation and contemplation. Thereafter you shall certainly come to Me.”
Cause: The Buddhist perspective is that an underlying selfishness/egotism is often the basic cause of feeling depressed. This does not mean that the suffering person should be ‘blamed’ for the condition, but rather opens up a very different approach to the problem.
Cure: Openness is a key factor. Miracles do happen when we stop resisting them. The mind is shaping and changing continuously. One of the ways by which the Buddhists say we can mould the mind the way we want is through meditation. Sincerely trying to help others is another cure when we are stuck in our own misery.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: “There was an empirical study that found that people who have the tendency to use more self-referential terms (I, me, myself) tend to have more health problems and earlier deaths. Being self-absorbed has an immediate effect of narrowing one’s focus and blurring one’s vision. It is like being pressed down by a heavy load. If, on the other hand, you think more about others’ well-being, it immediately makes you feel more expansive, liberated and free.”
Cause: Whenever an individual falls out of a life described by spiritual principles, such as austerity, kindness, and truthfulness, they find themselves in the abyss of depression.
Cure: The first step towards emerging out of a depression is to take responsibility. It is not possible for a practising Jain to shrug his shoulders at his own fate and say “God wanted me to be depressed”; nor to shirk spiritual practice and say “Let God bring me out”. Devout Jains will feel obliged to make tremendous effort at self-improvement for their own well-being: nobody else will do it for them. Through severe austerity and daily meditation, relief can be found.
Cause: When one’s actions go against one’s beliefs, depression is brought on. Depression is usually spiritually induced. A sense of having failed to live out the will of God can give rise to it.
Cure: Within the pages of the Bible are the answers to man’s most pressing needs. The Bible urges us to take refuge in God and surrender all worries, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
It also tells us that we were created in the very image or likeness of God, and therefore our lives have tremendous meaning. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
Cause: According to the Quran, the main reason why man collapses before life’s stresses and gets depressed is because he does not find a safe haven in True Faith.
Cure: God is the Lord of all the worlds, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. These are among the attributes and most beautiful names of God which a Muslim believes in, and repeats in his prayer, and acts of worship, and uses as guides throughout his life. These attributes fill a believer’s heart with the love of his Lord who looks after him, bestows his blessings on him, and extends his mercy to him. If a believer does what is good, God will be more benevolent towards him, and if he does wrong, God will open wide the door for him to enjoy his forgiveness and enable him to repent, correct his behavior and return to his Lord. “O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of God: for God forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful”. (Surat al Zumar 39, verse 53)
- Megha Bajaj