21 May

The Mechanisms of Depression

As mental illnesses become prominent in today’s world, and science doesn’t believe in the existence of anything that cannot be sensually perceived, the cure of such illnesses suffers from a conceptual poverty inherited from the legacy of the physical sciences. While the understanding of the mind is receiving renewed focus owing to the growth in mental illnesses, the cures struggle to straddle the internal world of thoughts and emotions along with the external world of chemicals and empirical observation, although the mind-body duality remains till date an unsolved problem in science. This post discusses the conceptual framework drawn from Vedic philosophy, which can help us comprehend depression in a new way, relating it both to physical well-being and its spiritual undercurrents.

The Nine Divisions of Energy

Every living entity has an inner energy which is called its śakti, or the power by which the soul knows, acts, and enjoys. The soul is also a śakti, by which he knows himself, enjoys himself, and serves himself. The Śvetāśvatara Upanishad 6.8 describes this three-fold division of the soul’s energy.

parāsya śaktir vividhaiva śrūyate
svābhāvikī jñāna-bala-kriyā ca

The energy to know, act, and enjoy is also qualified in three different ways as internal, external, and marginal. The energy used to know, act, and enjoy with God is called internal; the energy used to know, act, and enjoy with oneself is called marginal; finally, the energy used to know, act, and enjoy with material things (different from God and the self) is called the external energy. With the combination of three types of energies (in relation to God, self, and matter) in three modes (knowing, acting, and enjoying), we find the nine divisions of the soul’s energy in various types of interactions.

The energy of the soul also varies in strength at different times. In the material world, for instance, the energy to know, act, and enjoy the material things is much stronger relative to the knowledge, activity, and enjoyment in relation to the self and God. As a person advances spiritually, their material power may or may not remain intact, but their energy in relation to self and God increases.

The Cause of Depression

As the power to know, act, and enjoy becomes prominent, we feel confident, comfortable, and capable, because by using that power we are able to control our lives as per our choices. As the power disappears, we feel unhappy and helpless because we are unable to control our lives. Depression is caused by the reduction in our power, resulting in the inability to control our lives.

Depression has a serious effect only when our energy in relation to self and God is also weak, which means a spiritually advanced person never becomes unhappy because of his relation to the self and God. The problem manifests when six out of the nine energies are already weak or non-existent, and the remaining three powers in relation to the material world are also weakened.

Furthermore, short term unhappiness arising from a bad situation or weakened power is typical to all living entities. It is only when the power is weakened for longer periods of time in the face of sustained difficulties, that the perception of our weakness, helplessness, and insecurity takes a stronger footing.  Depression is the outcome of this prolonged and sustained insecurity and helplessness.

Secondary Outcomes of Depression

When a person feels internally insecure, he or she seeks support from others. If this help is found, a person can overcome their sense of helplessness. But if this help is not found, depression is worsened because in addition to feeling helpless, the person also begins to feel lonely. Not only is a depressed person unable to change their life, but he is also unable to get anyone’s help to do it.

Both insecurity and loneliness lead to anxiety—the fear of the worst happening—and it triggers the fight or flight emotional centers in the body. The person now begins to act in a passive-aggressive manner: aggressive when the fight tendency dominates and passive when the flight tendency is prominent. Thus depression sometimes leads to excessive aggression, and sometimes to excessive withdrawal.

As the mind and body are overcome by anxiety—being in a fight-or-flight state continuously—a variety of pains and aches are created because the body and mind are constantly stressed. Anxiety leads to irritability whereby a small event triggers a much bigger reaction due to fear, and even if the person was previously getting support from others, the sustained unhappiness and irritability in the person causes others to abandon him or her. Abandonment causes even more loneliness, and the cycle of insecurity, anxiety, and loneliness perpetuates unless self-confidence is restored.

Understanding the Nature of Depression

We must realize that depression can affect anyone who is not spiritually advanced. If therefore you are inclined to blame a person for their suffering, then blame their lack of self and God realization. But apart from these mitigating conditions, the decline in a person’s powers to control and change the situation—relative to the hardships they are facing—is entirely under the control of material laws. The exception to this rule is that the soul is also śakti and interacts with the material śakti. Moreover, the soul is superior to matter and can alter the material śakti provided there is sufficient spiritual advancement to realize and use the soul’s powers. Not everyone has realization of this power and for them reduction in material power is reduction in all power.

Even our ability to accept suffering without losing our enthusiasm is a function of the enjoying energy being strong, even while the knowing and acting energies may have been weakened. Similarly, the enjoying energy can become weak even when the knowing and acting energies are strong. Thus, a person may be led to depression because of sustained hardships, or may simply lose the enjoying energy and feel listless and disinterested in everything despite having the power to know and act.

Since a person can maintain a positive attitude even in the face of hardships, ultimately, depression is the loss of the material enjoying energy—one of the nine that the soul is capable of using. The result of this loss is that a person loses the hope of good things happening in their life. He or she might become pessimistic, cynical, angry, frustrated, and mad at having no control over their destiny. When the positive effect of the enjoying energy declines, all the negative emotions are created in a person.

Depression and Spirituality

Even spiritually inclined people are prone to depression if their spiritual advancement (relation to self and God) doesn’t match their austerity and renunciation. A spiritually inclined person is naturally prone to weaken their enjoying energy by austerities because he or she believes that material enjoyment is very fleeting. By such renunciation he or she naturally dampens the enthusiasm for the material world. If concomitant spiritual enjoyment has not been strengthened, depression is very likely.

Such a person is likely to fall into depression as the material enjoyment has been renounced and the spiritual enjoyment is yet to be found. Premature renunciation and austerity—without the concomitant spiritual advancement—can have adverse effects, and the person may fall back into material enjoyment in order to remain happy. Such a person however is not truly considered fallen, even though he seems to indulge in material enjoyment because the likelihood of recovery over time is very high.

Teachers of the Vedic tradition therefore have a tolerant view of falldown wherein one is expected to balance the happiness obtained from material or spiritual practice, and premature renunciation (without proportionate spiritual advancement) is frowned upon. Also, one who renounces prematurely but falls down due to lack of spiritual advancement is not considered fallen. Bhagavad-Gita 2.40 notes in this regard:

In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.

PURPORT by Śrīla Prabhupāda (excerpt, emphasis mine)
Any work begun on the material plane has to be completed, otherwise the whole attempt becomes a failure. But any work begun in Kṛṣṇa consciousness has a permanent effect, even though not finished. The performer of such work is therefore not at a loss even if his work in Kṛṣṇa consciousness is incomplete. One percent done in Kṛṣṇa consciousness bears permanent results, so that the next beginning is from the point of two percent; whereas, in material activity, without a hundred percent success, there is no profit.

If the journey requires 100 steps, and the person renounces the path after taking the first step, the journey will resume (whenever the person resumes it) from the second step. It means that one has to find the enthusiasm—the energy for enjoyment—for spiritual life again.

Restoring the Enthusiasm in Life

To be happy in life, one needs the enjoyment energy. This called ‘emotional strength’ and ‘positive outlook’ in modern language, and bala or ‘strength’ in Sanskrit. One may know the truth, but one may not be able to act according to that truth if the emotional strength is missing. Owing to this fact, the Śvetāśvatara Upanishad notes the order among the energies as jñāna-bala-kriyā. Here, jñāna is knowing the truth, bala is the emotional strength, and kriya is the activity. To perform the appropriate activities commensurate with the knowledge of the truth, one needs the power of enthusiasm.

This enthusiasm appears as happiness in our life. In previous posts—here and here—I described how conviction arises from happiness (therefore we are convinced about something only when it makes us happy), and to find the happiness we have to begin in happiness (because otherwise a negative interpretation of reality only leads to unhappiness) which makes happiness the preferred attitude to view the world.

Nobody wants to see a sad face, because in sadness a person becomes preoccupied with themselves, and seeks the attention of others to recoup from suffering. Of course, an emotionally strong person will gladly offer their affection to help an unhappy person, and an emotionally weak person will demand only happy association. But speaking of sustainability, nobody can live with a perennially unhappy person who is always self-occupied, but everyone can live with an eternally happy person who (due to his or her emotional strength) offers support and strength to others. Thus, the choice of enthusiasm is the only permanent cure to a person’s depressive tendencies.

The Foundations of Enthusiasm

Many people struggle with the notion of happiness being a choice, as they seek reasons to feel positive—e.g. “Show me the reasons why I should feel good, constructive, optimistic, and enthusiastic, because everything I see only makes me feel cynical, depressed, pessimistic, and dejected”. On what basis could anyone become enthusiastic if the events of life only show otherwise?

There is simply no evidence that a cynical attitude toward life brings happiness. There may sometimes not be enough evidence that a constructive attitude brings happiness, but given that the opposite is certainly false, the real struggle in life is to maintain a positive and optimistic view in the face of hardships. To maintain this enthusiasm, we only need to realize that wallowing in negativity is not going to bring a positive change.

The definitive confirmation of positive change emerging from a positive attitude toward life needs the knowledge of why the world is a good place, and even the bad outcomes (if understood as consequences of previous bad actions, and hence dealt with in a constructive spirit) bring a positive change. This kind of knowledge depends on the eternity of the soul, the law of karma (action and reaction), and the ideology of transcendence from the cycle of action and reaction. Yes, only a spiritual understanding ultimately becomes the basis of enthusiasm for a person who is suffering relentlessly within this world.

Three Components of Positive Thinking

In the Nectar of Instruction, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, provides the following guidelines:

utsāhān niścayād dhairyāt
saṅga-tyāgāt sato vṛtteḥ
ṣaḍbhir bhaktiḥ prasidhyati

The first three words in this instruction are Utsāha (enthusiasm), Niścaya (determination), and Dhairya (patience), and they outline the positive outlook toward life. Enthusiasm means the belief that the world is a good place, so by engaging in good activities the outcomes will naturally be good. Determination pertains to the emotional strength to perform the good activities even under difficult conditions; it means that doing good is not necessarily going to be easy, and one needs to be determined to act positively. Finally, patience pertains to the fact that the results of these good activities might not arrive immediately, and our perseverance on the path over longer term is necessary.

These are three essential components of the positive outlook, because without the support of the others, each of these three can easily fail. For example, you can begin with enthusiasm about the goodness of the world but the moment you see tremendous hardship in doing the right thing, you give up easily due to lack of determination. Even if you were to perform the righteous activity, the results might not arrive quickly, and without patience your conviction will wane, which will then lead to loss in enthusiasm.

Depression is the decline in enthusiasm, determination, and patience. Everyone undergoes partial decline of these qualities at different points in time, for relatively short periods of time. Having all three decline at once, and/or for longer periods of time signals serious impending trouble for a person. Even if we sometimes find social support that restores these qualities, there will be a time when every person will have to deal with the motivational problem all by themselves, and find the strength within themselves.

Passing the Marshmallow Test

Psychologists have, over the decades, devised numerous tests in trying to predict the success of a person early in life based on a psychometric evaluation during childhood. Personality types, IQ, EQ, SQ, and many others have failed to be reliably predictive measures. But the Marshmallow Test is generally a very accurate predictor.

The test examines the role of delayed gratification in success in scenarios where a child is offered the choice between taking a single marshmallow now or delaying it for two marshmallows later on. The kids with a positive outlook are convinced about the promise of later gratification, and delay their gratification. The pessimistic kids believe that delaying the gratification may lead to both short and long-term loss and prefer to enjoy what they can get in the present, neglecting the future. As time passes, the determination and patience of many—even if it were great to begin with—declines rapidly.

The test administrators found that the children who are able to delay their gratification tend to be more successful in life as they overcome the external uncertainty with internal certainty. Their positive outlook toward life helped them cope with external negativities. On the other hand, the pessimistic children were prone to failure due to their inability to delay the gratification and the tendency to seek immediate satisfaction.

The three qualities of enthusiasm, determination, and patience, which characterize the positive attitude, are therefore the necessary ingredients to succeed in the Marshmallow Test. When success seems far or non-existent, a person has to be able to support themselves internally through the pleasure energy. If this energy weakens, enthusiasm, determination, and patience decline, and the person seeks quick reinforcement. Their ability to seek a better future at the cost of a hardship-ridden present vanishes. If the reinforcement in the form of pleasure is lacking, they quickly become anxious.

Planetary Influences on Depression

The moon controls the pleasure energy in the body, and its influence is experienced at the level of the ego, which represents motivation, goal orientation, and purpose in life. When the moon is afflicted due to other planets, or is placed poorly in the native’s astrological chart, demotivation and its various side-effects tend to ensue. Since a person’s happiness depends on motivation, the moon is the most important planet in a person’s chart, and Vedic astrology is based on the lunar system (rather than the solar system of the West). The good news is that unlike the effects on the body and the material situations, which cannot be controlled simply by our will power, motivation can be controlled.

This is not to say that motivation is easy; it is only to say that it is possible to create positivity in various ways. Happiness is the byproduct of a person’s guna, and while the guna automatically produce positive or negative feelings within us (due to the influence of time), the soul has the choice to accept and reject these automatically created feelings. As Libet’s experiments on free will have shown, free will is actually free won’t, which means that we cannot create positive or negative feelings by free will, but we can accept or reject the automatically created feelings—essentially rejecting the negative feelings.

The soul is also śakti and it controls the material śakti by accepting or rejecting the feelings being automatically created due to the influence of time. All of us have experience of the fact that we can draw our minds away from thoughts and feelings and with practice we can learn to focus only on chosen types of mental states. The thoughts and feelings that are rejected may return, so there is an important role for repetition and habit formation. Through habit formation, we alter even the future production of thoughts and feelings. The soul doesn’t directly control the production of thoughts and feelings; however, it changes these by permitting certain ideas and feelings and undercutting others.

Depression and the Three Modes of Nature

In Vedic philosophy, coming out of depression means removing the influence of tamo-guna or the mode of darkness. When tamo-guna dominates the mind, and rajo-guna is subordinated to it, then even the passionate tendencies of rajo-guna are converted into anxiety and fear of the material world. The mind when dominated by rajo-guna is passionately goal-oriented and seeks success in the world; there is anxiety and restlessness, but it is tempered by a positive outlook. Only under sattva-guna does a person obtain freedom from fear, anxiety, and restlessness, while enthusiasm, determination, and patience are restored. Therefore, rajo-guna is an improvement over tamo-guna and sattva-guna is an improvement over rajo-guna. The treatment of depression is best achieved by increasing sattva-guna.

The increase in sattva-guna is achieved by leading a regulated life because routine conquers the anxiety created by rajo-guna—there is predictability in life due to routine, and the mind is not left idle to ruminate on negative thoughts. Yoga and prānāyāma increase the sattva-guna, while other forms of exercises increase rajo-guna (which can have a negative effect by increasing anxiety levels). Mild, soothing, and easily digested fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk increase sattva-guna. Adequate sleep is also key to sattva-guna; sleeping too little increases rajo-guna and sleeping too much increases tamo-guna. Finally, understanding the soul and the nature of its entanglement in guna and karma, and engagement in spiritual activity, are antidotes to negative feelings.

As already noted, premature austerity and renunciation—without concomitant spiritual progress—can be a high road to depression. Therefore, one must carefully balance enjoyment and austerity even in spiritual life—not enduring too much hardship, nor succumbing to sloth and laziness. The modes of rajo-guna and tamo-guna are the opposite extremes, and sattva-guna is the unity that rejects both of these modes.

Like the coin has head and tail, rajo-guna and tamo-guna are the head and the tail, while sattva-guna is the coin. To see the coin, without the head and tail, is much harder. In this sense, sattva-guna is not the ‘balance’ between the opposites that people commonly talk about; factually we can never create a balance between the opposites, although we can have the opposites dominate at different times, oscillating from one extreme to another. Sattva-guna is rather the rejection of both the tendencies, and finding that unity that is free of these oppositions and doesn’t need to shift from one to the other in order to create the balance is much harder. However, balance is still a good start someone who is yet to see how enthusiasm is neither anxious hope nor hopeless resignation.