Depression – Q.330

Depression – Q. 330

 Q: For years now I’ve been severely depressed and it doesn’t seem to be changing. What led me to Advaita, I think, was the intense desire to know what I guess I can only meaningly refer to as God.

I read a lot about how we are not our bodies and how if we can be aware of something, then that ‘something’ cannot be us. I understand all this. There is a formless awareness that appears to be prior to everything, prior to my body, my mind and the suffering of depression, I can see that.

One book I’ve read, not specifically about depression, advises that we remain with that awareness, as that awareness that is prior to both body and mind. However, I find this difficult. The body and mind come out of the Self and thus must be the Self. Beyond this the reasoning and experience of it gets quite subtle, but I’ll give it my best shot. Yes, there is an awareness that is before the mind and body, something that you might call the Ultimate subject, but It is only apparent because of the body and mind – without the body and mind, the Self wouldn’t know itself.

When a person first starts to study Advaita, they are constantly told that they are not their body and mind, but I believe that this is only to get them to see that the body and mind is temporary and thus to ‘disconnect’ from it. However, I’m struggling a bit because, the way I see it, the body and mind *is* the Self, since they come out of the Self although, it would seem, they are an apparently transient expression.

So when it appears that teachers are trying to get you to abide in this awareness, I get confused, because I don’t see how you can abide anywhere but the body and mind, for without them, this awareness would not know of itself. The only thing I can see that one could do, is simply keep in mind that *this is not me* and nothing else, although Buddhists would say to even abandon that. So it therefore seems that there probably is no difference between a so called ‘enlightened’ person and an ‘unenlightened’ person, other than that the former knows a particular something, if you see what I mean.

Is my understanding askew? Or is it really possible to abide in this awareness?

 A (Ramesam): I understand that your question was asked quite some time ago. If it has not been resolved by now, hope the answer here will be found to be of some use.

Though the question is about the basic principles of Advaita, one can see that it carries with it the clouds of the chronic depression you made a mention of. So I would like to respond at two levels.

1.  Depression:

First and foremost to be appreciated is the fact that Advaita is a philosophy based on serious inquiry. A healthy body and a fit mind are sine qua non for conducting a rigorous inquiry.

Because you talked about severe depression for years, one has to first rule out any underlying pathological reasons of the chronic problem. We do not know if you are taking any medication and whether there is any hidden bodily ill health you are suffering from. Trust you are under competent medical care.

Sometimes one may experience bouts of depression for long periods in spite of having no health problems due to unbalanced food, absence of open air, a lack of exposure to sunlight (low vitamin D) etc.  Strangely, one can feel the blues not withstanding all the comforts and secure environment one lives because our body, yes, you are reading it right, is quite comfortable! Our body in its biological evolution had acquired the habit of feeling ‘rewarded’ with pleasure for the effort it makes to earn its living. If there is no reason for the body to feel pleased with the struggle it puts in to earn its brownies, it feels discontented and unhappy.

 Depression can also be a signal given out by your body that it is being overstrained by you and it would like to go slow. It is warning you to laze around and rest a bit, so that the body can relax and recover.  

 For a general informative article on some of these points, please see: “Happy End to Dukhi’s Sorrowful Saga” at:  http://beyond-advaita.blogspot.com/2009/08/happy-end-to-dukhis-sorrowful-saga.html

 2.  Advaita:

 Having ruled out medical causes for depression, we shall now discuss the philosophy.

 It is quite normal for someone at the verge of a philosophical turning point in life to experience, yes, depression. It could be severe and debilitating. Such a depression is a welcome ‘milestone’ in one’s life. As Chandogya Upanishad tells us, Sage Narada was depressed in spite of all his knowledge and sought philosophical teaching from Sanatkumara. Arjuna’s depression right in the midst of Mahabharata war led to the sermon by Krishna.

 Many of the contemporary teachers too went through severe depressive phases before they could attain a full understanding of Advaita. Examples are Karen, Jeff Foster, Rupert in the West and many in the East. Jeff even re-interprets ‘depression’ through a phonetic twist as ‘deep rest.’ It’s an opportunity, he says, in opening the vast gates to True Knowledge through Self-inquiry.

 You have already read about Advaita and parts of what you expressed as your understanding are okay at a purely superficial and verbal level. Parts of the understanding are askew, as you seem to be aware. And you need to be congratulated for being able to detect it by yourself. “There is something wrong here” signal has been raised by your inner Consciousness which is the True Teacher. It may be advisable for you to take up the study of Advaita all over again following any one authentic text.

There are several excellent resources in the form of online audio-visual, multimedia and printed books that teach Advaita in simple and clear manner.

 One can recommend more specifically a particular text only if we know your preferences in terms of Eastern or Western teachers, your taste for ancient scriptures or modern writers etc. This site ably maintains and graciously makes available without ‘charges’, thanks to Dennis, many articles on Advaita from introductory to advanced levels and also provides links to external resources.

 For refreshing what you have read and to quickly cross check your understanding of Advaita, you may please go through the seven part “Advaita simplified” series of articles starting with Part I at: 

http://www.advaita-academy.org/blogs/ramesam/ADVAITA-SIMPLIFIED—Part-I-You-are-the-Sensor.ashx

 A (Sitara): Just a few thoughts…

 The awareness you refer to is who you are, so you are right that it is not possible to abide in or with awareness. You can only abide AS awareness.

 The mistake that modern spiritual teachers often make, is that they say things like ‘abide as Self’ to seekers who have no idea yet that they are the Self. Or rather they have nothing but ideas, lots of concepts, in their minds about them being the Self without truly knowing this as fact. You may be right that ‘this is only to get them to see that the body and mind is temporary and thus to ‘disconnect’ from it’’.  But this usually does not work. Someone who is asked to abide as or in the Self without authentic knowledge of being the Self is bound to either imagine things or react with confusion. In fact I think that the latter is much better because it keeps one searching for clarity.

  ‘Abiding as Self’ in Advaita Vedanta is called ‘nididhyasana’. I call it “meditation without an object”. As long as you do not have authentic knowledge of yourself as Self, there is no way for you to ‘do’ nididhyasana. You will necessarily objectify the Self.

See: http://advaita-academy.org/blogs/Sitara/The-Tendency-to-objectify—-in-Western-and-traditional-Advaita.ashx and http://www.advaita-vision.org/meditation/

 You say ‘I read a lot about how we are not our bodies and how if we can be aware of something, then that ‘something’ cannot be us. I understand all this. There is a formless awareness that appears to be prior to everything, prior to my body, my mind and the suffering of depression, I can see that.’

 So your mind can see an awareness, even a formless one that is prior to all form. If the mind really understood this, by that very understanding any identification with form would be swallowed. Formlessness and eternity swallow anything appearing in space and time. So the understanding is not complete. It is complete only when you recognize that you in fact ARE this awareness. Only with this recognition, identification with body/mind stops.

 Saying ‘how you can abide anywhere but the body and mind’ shows that you identify yourself with body/mind. In fact you, the Self, can always only abide as yourself, as pure subjectivity, consciousness, awareness, never in or as body/mind.

 You argue:

‘there is an awareness that is before the mind and body, something that you might call the Ultimate subject but It is only apparent because of the body and mind – without the body and mind, the Self wouldn’t know itself’.

The Self is apparent to body/mind because of body/mind, yes. Body/mind therefore feels dependent on body/mind to recognize the Self. But the Self does not depend on them. How can it be there before the body/mind and yet depend on them?

 Also, it is not correct to say that ‘without the body and mind, the Self wouldn’t know itself’. Of course the Self does not know itself as an object. But as the Self is pure knowledge (= consciousness), how can it NOT know itself? Body/mind on the other hand is ignorance. Only from the point of view of ignorance, body/mind is needed in order to go beyond ignorance.

 You say that ‘The body and mind come out of the Self and thus must be the Self.’ And ‘the way I see it, the body and mind *is* the Self, since they come out of the Self although, it would seem, they are an apparently transient expression.’

 Now, body/mind does not come out of the Self in the sense that first there was Self and that Self kind of gives birth to body/mind. No, this would mean that Self exists in time and this again would mean that time is before the Self.

 But maybe this is not what you meant. Maybe you referred to the Self as satya being the ultimate ‘substance’ to any (mithya) object. If that’s what you meant, yes, this is true. (If it is not what you meant please look into the many blogs on mithya by different bloggers for example this http://www.advaita-vision.org/mithya-for-beginners-is-the-world-illusory).

 Without satya there would be no (mithya) world, no (mithya) minds/bodies. So satya, or Self, or consciousness, or awareness, or Brahman or sat-chit-ananda, is the very ground for any kind of an object. Objects again are what you call ‘transient expressions’, I add: of Self. But you are not asked to abide in these transient expressions. This would not make any sense because that’s what unenlightened beings do all the time anyway. You are asked to abide as Self. So you are asked to cognitively separate the world of transient objects from Self that is at the very core of them and abide in Self alone.

 Maybe some of this helps…

A (Dennis): Sorry to hear about the depression. Have you taken or are you taking prescription medicines? These only relate to the body/mind after all so there is no ‘stigma’ in any sense. Certainly a pre-occupied mind will not be so amenable to taking on board the truths revealed by Advaita – this is the reason for sAdhana chatuShTaya sampatti.

What you say is all effectively true; your understanding is correct. It is, of course, even more amazing than that – it is not simply that your mind and body are the Self; the whole universe is only a manifestation of your Self; you are everything. The teaching initially tells you to ‘disconnect’ to remove the mental identification and the final truth comes as a later revelation.

But knowing this truth intellectually does not necessarily bring about the peace and bliss that you might have thought came with it. If you read the material, and other questions, on the site relating to jIvanmukta, you will see what I mean. What I would prescribe for you actually, is serious and dedicated meditation. You need to meditate twice per day, for 30 minutes at a time. And it will be some months before you get into the swing of this. But eventually, you will start to experience true peace and stillness during these periods and this will ultimately carry you through the rest of the day. People without any spiritual understanding attest to this but, with your understanding in the background, everything should start to come together. Regarding type of meditation, I am only familiar with mantra-based, similar to that disseminated by TM, but others presumably work as well. Ideally, you would learn with some suitable organization so that your progress might be monitored and any concerns be quickly resolved. As I say, the entire exercise requires real commitment  – but it does work. If you have access to proper, traditional meditation, such as that guided by an Arsha Vidya organization or by the Advaita Meditation Center, then definitely go for that.

Meditation, incidentally,  only begins as duality. The mantra (or whatever is objectively meditated upon) disappears in the latter stages of meditation and you are left with simple, silent awareness – a tremendously powerful and healing state. It is certainly not ‘intellectual’ in any sense.

4 thoughts on “Depression – Q.330

  1. Medication as a treatment for depression only masks the symptoms and usually fails to solve the underlying cause. The cause of depression is the wrong use of the emotional centre. The emotions should feel for others, but in the case of depression the emotions are only feeling for oneself, eg: feeling sorry for oneself, feeling sorry for one’s predicament in the world, feeling sad that one is not magnificent and spiritual or divine and one is having to suffer living the life of a limited jiva (a nature, a person) etc. Therefore the emotions are facing in the wrong direction. The word ’emotion’ consists of two parts: ‘e’ meaning outwards and ‘motion’ meaning movement (in this case: detectable movement in the feeling or emotional centre). Therefore true emotion is the emotional centre directed outwards to other people and other beings. The solution to depression is to turn your emotions in the opposite direction, and to feel for other people and other things, quietly feel for all and everything, except yourself. All and everything is truly yourself, so curiously you will still be feeling for yourself, but now in the right direction. Whenever you observe yourself turning within, focusing on your unhappiness and suffering, on your sadness and unfulfilment… then as soon as you catch this happening… turn the attention outwards and quietly feel for whatever is there. Because the depression has gone on for a long time it has almost certainly become a habit, and habits repeat and repeat and repeat…, so you will frequently relapse and turn inwards and indulge in depression, but whenever you catch sight of that happening… simply turn the attention outwards. This purification of consciousness is a sadhana. Some advaitins believe the correct cultivation of Consciousness leads all the way.

    Some people actually enjoy their depression, it makes them feel they are something rather than nothing. We are truly nothing, but few are able to accept this. Being nothing is the truth, being something is the illusion. Everything is the play of the three gunas in combination with the five subtle elements, and the feeling of elation and its opposite, the feeling of depression, are no different… the gunas are at work in the emotional centre, as they are at work in the whole manifestation of the universe. Rajas is the positive gunas, tamas the negative guna and sattva is the neutralizing guna. Depression is when tamas is at work negatively influencing the emotions. Depression is a negative emotion. Elation, its opposite, is an extreme form of positive emotion. Whenever you observe the opposites at play then suspect the presence and influence of the gunas. One minute we feel elated, the next moment we feel depressed… it is all the meaningless play of the gunas, manipulating us.

    The three gunas are opposed to each other, wrestling with each other for domination. All three gunas are present in every action, but one generally predominates. In depression tamas predominates over rajas and sattva. The intentional cultivation of rajas, by means of an appropriate sadhana, to counter the domination of tamas may be beneficial initially, but ultimately you will need to cultivate sattva to completely neutralize the depression which is actually caused by excess tamas in yourself. Dennis Waite is right to recommend meditation, because meditation cultivates sattva. The emotions of the jnani are predominantly sattvic… perfectly balanced and neutral, but nevertheless loving, sensing and meeting the need of others in the moment. The three gunas constitute Prakriti, unmanifest mechanical Nature, in its manifested state, but we are neither Prakriti nor any of the three gunas, which are constantly acting and reacting between themselves. We are the witness of the gunas, known in Samkhya and Advaita as Purusha, looking down upon the world as an arena in which the three gunas struggle with each other for domination. Purusha is not entangled in the gunas. Therefore, cultivate being the unentangled witness of everything that happens to you. Then you may realize that the you to whom everything is happening… is not actually you. It is not you who is suffering from depression.

    Unmanifest Prakriti manifests as the three gunas, at the causal, subtle and gross material levels, and together with the five subtle elements (of space, air, fire, water and earth) produces the universe allegedly in order to help the Atman to free itself from identification with what it is not. The Atman (pure awesome consciousness looking outwards) has identified with something in the manifestation of Prakriti which it is not. The Atman has identified with the jiva (an individual nature or character or person) and become the jivatman, which is subject to tansmigratory existence with all its characteristic suffering, including occasional depression. To state this in clear Western language: your pure consciousness has become identified with a person, it has become one with the characteristic nature you believe you are, but are not. The jiva is actually nothing more than an illusory projection of the buddhi (the higher intellect) in the manner of an actor projecting his part in a drama. The buddhi itself is a subtle mechanism, associated with Isvara’s light, which is activated by the touch of ahamkara (the I-maker). Ahamkara is an emissary of Shakti in combination with Maya. Thus… you can trace the cause of of your identification with the person, the jiva, who you have become as far back as Shakti-Maya and Isvara who act like two magicians, one black, one white, creating a spell over your genuine Self. The jiva who you have identified with is a strange form, and it appears to have been created to make the Atman feel very uncomfortable. The jiva can’t stand being itself. It can’t tolerate being so limited. The jiva longs to be spiritual and magnificent, to be a Mahat. The Atman is not limited, so the situation of sharing an identity with the jiva is unbearable for the Atman, and he seeks release from the strong bond he finds himself in, eternally fused to the jiva. This dissatisfaction with being a limited jiva is the fundamental cause of your depression. The depression has been intentionally, although mechanically and unconsciously, created to encourage you to free yourself from identification with the jiva. Until you find yourself released from the jiva you will always experience suffering. Suffering makes you seek release, Moksha. It is all a trick.

    To the formless awareness that you are… this universe and yourself, the I-am Atman, identified with a jiva in it… does not exist. It is all an illusion. I-am is the primary cause of the identification. We say… I am depressed. But this ‘I’ is not the genuine Self. ‘I’ means separation from the world, but Self and the world are not separate in truth. ‘Am’ is the first person present tense of the verb to be. But jnanis state you are beyond both being and non-being, therefore you cannot use the verb ‘to be’ as a description of your state of self. When we say ‘I am’ casually we little realize that we invite the profound misidentification of the Self, which is the very centre of the problem. It is recommended that you avoid saying ‘I am depressed’, or ‘I am’ anything. The Self is nothing. No thing. Not even consciousness, not even awareness, not even awareness of awareness. No thing. Pure awesome Consciousness is the Atman; pure Awareness is Saguna Brahman; Awareness of awareness is Nirguna Brahman; but… ??? is the Parabrahman. You are the Parabrahman. There is no ‘I am’ in the Parabrahman.

    • Dear Yehan Romane,

      In my response to the question I avoided addressing the issue of depression because it is quite a complex issue and I don’t think that this site is the right place to go into details about it. After your response though, I feel that I need to say something to balance your statements.

      I ask myself whether you actually have successfully worked with clinically depressed people along the lines you wrote. The claim that depression is basically a narcissistic phenomenon may have some merit but the measurements that you recommend as antidotes seem impracticable. I have worked with some depressives and I cannot envisage even one of them successfully following the advice: ‘Whenever you observe yourself turning within, focusing on your unhappiness and suffering, on your sadness and unfulfillment… then as soon as you catch this happening… turn the attention outwards and quietly feel for whatever is there.’

      Clinical depression is not just feeling unhappy with life, it is a disease. As much as I would not tell a patient with acute tuberculosis to go hiking because lots of fresh air is needed by the diseased lungs, I would also not tell a depressed person to muster compassion for others. It simply will not work and is likely to make the person feel more desperate – this being just one more thing that does not work.

      Also you say ‘Some people actually enjoy their depression, it makes them feel they are something rather than nothing. We are truly nothing, but few are able to accept this.’ The concept of being nothing in itself seems to be a ‘depressant’, as far as I am concerned. The good news is that there is absolutely no need to accept that we are nothing because Vedanta tells us that in truth we are (in and through and beyond) all.

      Even Dennis’ recommendation (of meditation) will only work with non-severe cases of clinical depression. I am not an expert on depressive disorders but the cases I have come to know were due to lack of serotonin. If you supply the body with enough serotonin so as to enable the brain to function in a way that normal brains function, he/she will be able to walk the spiritual path, meditate, study, enquire – just as other people can do.

  2. Following on the last post, it has been said, with good sense, one would think, that when there is a psychological ailment or disorder, it is better for it to be corrected, as possible, by some type of therapy as advised by a professional before embarking on spiritual work or practice. On the other hand, there are sub-clinical cases of mild neurotic depression and/or self-obsession which, in the case of an intelligent person, spiritual search and practice may be appropriate (nay, finally the only cure).
    In even milder, non pathological cases (the “worried well”), the best advice may well be that of the famous cardiologist Dr. Paul Dudley White: “A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world”.

  3. I am a bit surprised to see that the nature and antidote to depression consumes so much of the answers to this topic when the real question seems to be put very clearly: how does one ‘abide in awareness’? And the questioner’s problem with the instruction to ‘abide in the awareness’ argued cogently.

    Here’s my two-penny worth…

    To address the topic of depression briefly, the questioner needs to realise the implication of the opening statement – ‘For years now I’ve been severely depressed…’: it implies identification with the mind. The statement, ‘For years now Existence-Consciousness, the Reality of all, my own true Self, has been severely depressed…’ is obviously not true: depression is not a state of the Self, it is a state of mind (and may well have, as Sitara points out, a chemical dimension related to the body).

    The above is acceptable only if one takes on board the teaching of Advaita Vedānta, namely that the apparent individual is none other than the Supreme Reality. So in every statement we make about ourselves if we replace the word ‘I’ by ‘God’ or ‘Awareness’ or ‘Consciousness’ or ‘The Absolute’, we can check out if that statement still hold true. Gradually we begin to see how we sentence ourselves by the sentences we utter. The less we repeat these untrue sentences, the less we reinforce their grip over us and we become more open to the advaita vision.

    I, the untouched, unchanging, unpollutable Self, take the form of everything in this universe, including a mind prone to depression. Just as light is not polluted by the filth it illumines, I am untouched by anything I bring to light.

    So much for laying the basis for proceeding to the ‘technical’ part of the question: how can there be abidance in awareness without the body-mind-sense complex? Simple: the mistake in the logic is to assume that the two are mutually exclusive: either one abides in body-mind or one abides in awareness.

    Consider this: a wave is nothing but water. When asked to touch the water one touches the wave. When asked to touch the wave one touches the water. So, even whilst the wave exists, one can just focus on its reality, water. When asked to abide in the awareness one uses the mind: mind is a manifest form of awareness just as wave is a manifest form of water.

    It is impossible for the ‘I’ to ‘abide in awareness’ as though the two are distinct, because awareness is the ‘I’. That’s the problem with self-study from books. You cannot ask for clarification to clear vagueness. Of the answers above, Sitara comes closest in pointing out that what one is being advised to do is return the mind repeatedly to the truth of itself: I am the Awareness, the Whole. Over and over again this needs to be meditated upon. We no longer meditate on the attributes of the Lord: we know them to be our own attributes. This is the only counterbalance to false statements like ‘I am severely depressed’, which arise out of habit (which is not to deny that the depression will need tackling, despite not being the ultimate truth of who you are. One takes the appropriate actions to mitigate against the destructive power of a tsunami and saying ‘it’s only water’ will not prevent its devastating effect.)

    Note, however, that before arriving at this the ability to meditate on the truth of oneself, one needs to know what that Truth is without doubt, i.e. to know what is really indicated by the scriptures. Be on your guard for well-intentioned writers of self-help books. Their uses are limited. Go for the real thing with a real guide. Using the vision of Vedānta merely as an antidote to depression is short-changing yourself and not understanding the true potential of this teaching. So pray that you find a teacher.

    That brings me to the final thing worth mentioning: the efficacy of prayer. As prayer is a big topic, it’s suffice to only say here that prayer, being an action, is bound to produce a result. Pray fervently and meaningfully for the knowledge of your true self, which is the end to all suffering. Pray to find a proper teacher and pray for the strength to persevere with the journey. Pray for a healthy mind and body that will not distract from your single-minded aim. Try prayer if you haven’t and be open to what unfolds

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