Let Not Depression Depress You
A depression is always unreasonable as it leads nowhere.
THE MOTHER (on 31 May 1955, CWM 14:264)
There is hardly anyone in the world who has never been depressed. If you have never been, perhaps you have forgotten, or have not yet lived long enough. A person gets depressed when he perceives his life to be not only miserable, but also beyond repair. A severely depressed person resigns himself to his fate, refuses to even try improving his life, and just withdraws from life. He sits glum in a corner; avoids talking, eating or working; finds it difficult to go to sleep; and cries frequently. Depression is emotional paralysis, a sort of exhaustion of the mind. Physical exhaustion may also make a person feel depressed, but that is easily cured. If the person takes enough rest, the tiredness is gone, and the person is back to normal. But if a person feels mentally drained, loses the capacity to be happy, and becomes unable and unwilling to think or learn, the person is truly depressed.
Mental stress and depression
According to the American psychologist, Richard Carlson, stress results from the gap between the way things are and the way we would like them to be. For example, if I have less money than I want, I am under stress due to the gap between what I want and what I have. Or, if I want my husband or wife to behave in a certain way, but my partner insists on behaving in a way that is just the opposite, again I am under stress because of the gap between what I want and what actually exists. But in many stressful situations, I have the hope that things can and will change for the better. And I also think that I can do something to change the situation to bring it closer to what I want. For example, I may decide to work harder to earn more, and hope that my poverty will one day go. Or, I may file a petition for divorce, and hope that one day my partner will no longer be a part of my life. In short, these are stressful situations, but at the same time, there is hope of coming out of them, and there is also the joy of struggle, pursuit and activity. It is the hope of better times, and the joy of doing something about the situation, that keep a person going. But there are some situations which are irreversible, or almost so. For example, a person may lose a limb in a road accident; or a person’s near and dear one may commit suicide; or in case of marital disharmony, for some reasons (e.g. children), divorce may not be a viable option. In such situations, the person may get depressed because not only is the situation markedly different from what he would like, there is no hope of the situation ever changing, and the person finds himself completely helpless – he cannot do anything to change the situation. In short, if to a stressful situation are added hopelessness and helplessness, a person may go into a depression. Depression is more likely if a person has to face more than his share of traumatic events in life, which are severe, frequent and prolonged, and if there is also a hereditary tendency for getting depressed.
Anger and depression
Anger and depression are two sides of the same coin. If a person is under stress, and at the same time feels hopeless, helpless and victimized, he may respond by getting angry, or by going into a depression – it could also be an alternation of both. Generally speaking, under similar situations, men tend to get angry, whereas women are more likely to get depressed. This seems to be largely because of men having more avenues for anger open to them. The target of the anger may not be the same as the source of the stress. For example, a man may feel that he is miserable because of his boss. He can neither change the boss, nor find a new job. He can also not afford to get angry with the boss. But instead of getting depressed, he may start getting angry at his wife, his children, or his subordinates at the workplace. Since women have generally fewer soft targets available for getting angry, they are more likely to go into a depression.
Origin of depression
The origin of depression is in the emotional part of the being, or what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother call ‘the vital’. But ‘the mental’ part of the being, or the intellect, might reinforce the depression by setting up a chain of recurrent thoughts of helplessness, hopelessness, and regret. The most depressing are the ‘if only…’ thoughts. For example, “If only he would have listened to me, and not gone out of the house today, he would be living today … I had an intuition that something will go wrong today … If only I had been more emphatic in stopping him from stepping out of the house today, he would not have died in this road accident”, or “If only I had bought a piece of land 40 years ago when it was available for Rs 40 a square metre, I would not be without a house today”, or “If only I had married X instead of Y, I would have been so happy today”, and so on. Such thoughts tend to become recurrent, lead nowhere, and miss the point that nobody can change the past. The person may finally conclude, “I am stupid … I am good for nothing … I am a gone case … Nothing can help me … Nobody likes me … Nobody will help me”. In short, the person develops an inferiority complex, and goes into the mode of pathological humility. But behind this façade of humility is an intense concern that the person has for himself. He has put himself at the centre of the universe, has become completely oblivious of the concerns and problems of those around him, and come to the conclusion that he is the most miserable person in the world, and is destined to remain so. That is why, the Mother has said that “Depression is always the sign of an acute egoism”. It is tamasic ego, but it is ego all the same that is playing havoc with the person. For the same reason, the person may cling to the depression, because it earns him some sympathy from others, and he enjoys the attention he gets.
Just as it is the person himself who adopts an attitude that drives him towards depression, it is only the person himself who can bring himself out of depression. Acting fast is important, because the longer the depression lasts, the more difficult it becomes to shed it. The Mother’s advice is to reject the depression and behave as if it is not there, because depression is always unreasonable.
The general principle that one may use in the treatment of depression is that since all parts of the being are manifestations of the same Consciousness, the defect in any part of the being may be corrected by working on not only the defective part but also on other parts of the being. Thus, although depression originates in the emotional part of the being, it may benefit also by working on the body and the intellect, and of course, by making a conscious contact with the soul.
It is common knowledge that bodily activity reduces depression. A vigorous walk, jogging, or a few rounds of surya namaskar can help contain depression.
The vital, or the emotional part of the being, is where depression originates. The work on the vital that helps counteract depression consists of engaging with things that stir positive emotions. It may be reading an inspirational book, listening to a motivational talk, listening to upbeat music, and visiting places and people who send positive vibrations. Work that one enjoys doing is one of the best ways of beating depression – the work may be professional, a hobby, or social service – just about anything that is feasible, and that the person enjoys. Letting more sunlight and fresh air into the house, having a few indoor plants, and if possible, seeing greenery through an open window, all lift up the spirits. Good company, including that of a pet, prayer and meditation are other effective mood elevators.
At the level of the intellect, the first thing to do is to resolve sincerely that the depression has to go, and to have the confidence that it will go. The next step is to reflect. Some of the reflections that could be helpful are:
Depression will not lead anywhere.
Depression is always unreasonable.
Time is a great healer.
I am not the centre of the universe.
People are not against me. They are not thinking of me or talking about me all the time. They have better things to do.
God is not against me. He loves me. That is why I have received from Him so many blessings in life.
There is perhaps a silver lining to the present situation, which I cannot see. I surrender to God’s Will as well as Wisdom.
Every situation in life can be an opportunity for spiritual growth. Let me see how this situation can help me grow.
While to me it seems difficult to come out of the present situation, it is very easy for God. God’s love and blessings will bring me out of the situation in His way and in His time. Total trust in the Divine has been expressed beautifully in the following lines:
If this is all, then all is surely well;
If there is more, then all can still be well.
SRI AUROBINDO (Savitri, Book 6, Canto 1, p. 424)
Neither is the Divine ever depressed, nor is our divine essence. Therefore, if we make a conscious contact with our divine essence, the psychic being, we realize how foolish and futile the depression we have driven ourselves to is. When in contact with the Highest, all ordinary stuff looks too small and silly to sweat about. Hence, contacting our soul makes depression vanish in thin air.
Depression on the spiritual path
Being on the spiritual path does not guarantee that a person will not be depressed. The spiritual journey is long; and the gains are slow to come by and intangible. Hence the seeker may get impatient, give up in despair, and go into a depression. Further, till quite late on the path, there is a tendency to slide down to the ordinary mental consciousness. That might trigger evaluation of progress in terms of mental criteria, or a comparison with other fellow seekers or with contemporaries leading an ordinary worldly life. These mental exercises can lead to regrets, and eventually depression. A seeker once wrote to Sri Aurobindo that he thought that he was depressed because his thirst for the Divine had not yet been quenched. Sri Aurobindo wrote to him that the response to the thirst not having been quenched should be further intensification of the thirst, not depression. “Depression is a clouded grey state… That depression obstructs the inner light is a matter of general experience”, wrote Sri Aurobindo. One important factor causing depression on the spiritual path is the disharmony between the emotional and the intellectual parts of the being. A person might know all the right things to do, but may not be emotionally ready for them. For example, he may know that he should not be attached to food and keep away from sex, but his desire for food and sex may still be strong. Sri Aurobindo makes an interesting point that the recoil produced by desires – both unsatisfied and satisfied – may lead to depression. That the failure to satisfy a strong desire may lead to depression is easy to understand. Let us see how even a satisfied desire may do so. Suppose a person still has a strong desire for tasty food, but generally keeps away from it because he thinks it is wrong, or lives in an Ashram where only simple food is served. One day he might get an opportunity to have tasty food. He may relish the food, and eat out of greed as much as he can. Later on, he may start thinking that he knew that it is wrong to base one’s happiness on the taste of food, and it is wrong to be greedy, and still he enjoyed the food, and was greedy. He may conclude, “I am too weak to be on the spiritual path. I will never be able to go far on this path. I am beyond redemption”. These thoughts, which may lead to depression, are due to the recoil produced by a satisfied desire. In short, depression on the spiritual path is primarily due to two factors. One of these is impatience – the seeker is very eager to see some quick and spectacular results. The second is desires – both unsatisfied and satisfied. Since both impatience and desires originate in the emotional part of the being (the vital), one might say that the roots of depression even on the spiritual path are in the vital.
Treatment of depression on the spiritual path
Depression is a common phenomenon among spiritual seekers because the progress is not only slow, but also not steady. There may be brief periods of very rapid progress followed by long periods of stagnation. These have been called, respectively, the days and nights of yoga. As the contact with the deepest Self becomes more secure, the nights become shorter and less frequent, thereby reducing the chances of going into a depression. As discussed above, depression on the spiritual path may also be handled by working on all parts of the being.
Physical activity helps the seeker as much as anyone else overcome depression. Dynamic yogic practices such as Surya Namaskar, asanas done briskly and repeatedly, breathing practices such as tiger breathing, and vigorous pranayamas like bhastrika and kapalabhati help overcome depression.
Vital and Mental
The flame of aspiration should be intensified, and so should the flame of self-purification. Instead of looking at how little progress has been made, one should remember to be grateful for being on the path. To be on the path is itself an expression of Divine Grace. “Heaven’s call is rare, rarer the heart that heeds”, as says Sri Aurobindo in Savitri, and “He who has chosen the Infinite has been chosen by the Infinite” elsewhere. Gratitude breeds patience. If so much has been done for me, more will also be done in His way and in His time. With that trust, it is possible to stay calm. Till then, one should experience the joy of working for the Divine. “Thy servitudes on earth are greater, King, Than all the glorious liberties of heaven”, says Sri Aurobindo in Savitri. One who has experienced the joy of serving the Divine is in no hurry for enlightenment. Waiting for a thousand lives is to him no big deal. And, he will go on serving the Divine even after enlightenment. If the depression is due to a lapse, it is good to remember that every fall can also be a trigger for a greater rise. Instead of giving up due to a lapse, one should use it to strengthen the will. The lapse should prompt us to repose trust in the Divine for the strength and courage required to overcome temptation.
Repeated conscious contact with the psychic being through prayer and meditation, and organizing one’s daily life in light of the psychic being, drive depression away. There is no depression at the level of the psychic being. Depression always implies lack of contact with the psychic being.
To understand depression is important because nobody is completely immune to it. Depression should be taken seriously, because the longer it lasts, the more difficult it is to eradicate. Depression is unacceptable, because it leads nowhere. If a person decides not to remain depressed, nothing can depress him. Therefore, more than anything else, depression needs the resolution that “The depression has to go. I shall send it packing. I am a child of the Divine, and therefore cannot fail. The depression will go”.
Sri Aurobindo. The Integral Yoga. Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice. Selected Letters of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1993, pp. 273-275.
The Mother. Collected Works of The Mother. Vol. 14. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1980, pp. 263-266.