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.
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
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:
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.
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.
‘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 https://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.