What Is Depression And
How To Heal It?
By Kim Katami
Open Heart, www.en.openheart.fi
This short article views depression and ways of healing it from yogic or meditational, as well as existential perspective.
What Is Depression?
Depression, like all other forms of mental illness, is a vicious impediment and many in the modern societies suffer from it. Western psychology and modern medicine offers aids in the healing of it as do various methods of yogic meditation.
Depression is a state of mind that causes partial or complete paralysis of one's mental and emotional functions. Severe depression makes one unable to exercise one's own will power. In cases of lesser depression, one is still capable of momentary exercise of will which makes the healing of the illness quicker.
To someone depressed, distraction due to great volume of thoughts or out of proportion emotions are not a problem. In fact, a depressed person has few thoughts and emotions. Depressed person is not restless.
According to yogic psychology, depression is caused by something called substrate consciousness or simply, subconscious mind. Typical for this aspect of the human mind is emotional flatness and dullness from lesser to greater degree. Normal functions of thinking, feeling, enthusiasm and happiness are clouded by grey veils of the subconscious mind. These mind-fogs put the concerned person into a state of paralysis and meaninglessness.
The psychological anatomy of man can be categorized in the following way(*):
1. Subject-self. Me, I.
2. Object-selves. Thoughts and emotions.
3. Substrate consciousness. The basis of all phenomena.
4. Awareness. Buddha-nature.
Before discussing ways of healing depression, I'd like to consider the cause of depression from the existential perspective.
Why Am I Here? Life Without Deeper Meaning
Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist and author, from Advice for People With Depression,
”People who don't have enough order in their life tend to get overwhelmed. If someone comes to see me and says they're depressed, I always ask them a standard set of questions. Do you have a job? If you don't have a job you are really in trouble in our society. First of all, your biological rhythms tend to go off the rail because there is no reason to go to bed at any particular time and there is no reason to get up... They also don't have a purpose. People aren't good without a purpose... We absolutely understand the circuitry that underlies positive emotion, we know how it works. Almost all the positive emotions that any of you are likely to experience in your life will not be a consequence of attaining things. It will be a consequence to see that things are working, as you proceed towards a goal you value. That's completely different and you need to know this because people are often stunned... So if you don't have a job, you don't have structure. That's not good, plus you tend not to have a point, so you are overwhelmed by chaotic lack of structure and you don't have any positive emotion... Sometimes you see people who are depressed who have no job, no friends, no intimate relationships, they have an additional health problem and they have an alcohol-drug problem. My experience has been that if you have three of those problems, it's almost impossible to help you. You're so deeply mired in chaos that you can't get out... One of the things I tell people who are depressed is to get a job. You need a job, find some friends, get out in the dating circuit, see if you can establish an intimate relationship. Put together some foundational pillars that your life rests on. That's the practical thing to do.”
Dr. Peterson also mentions the helpfulness of anti-depressants for those severely depressed.
What I would like to add to this rather typical, and I am sure often helpful set of practical advice, is to consider whether the depressed person is miserable due to existential reasons.
Personally, I suffered from depression for many years in my youth. It wasn't diagnosed, and therefore not correctly understood by people around me, which is why I often got the same advice as Dr. Peterson offers above: just get a job, get friends, just do this, just do that and if you can't do that, start taking drugs and then do it. By this statement I do not mean to misinterpret Dr. Peterson who I greatly admire. I am simply formulating the way depression is typically viewed.
Problem with this advice is this.
What if the person in question finds no value in getting up in the morning to get to a meaningless job? What if she or he finds no value in pursuing the common options of education, career or intimate relationships, that others do? What if these things mean nothing to her? What if her problem is more foundational than that?
Having been a professional meditation teacher for over 10 years, I have met hundreds of people who, like me, suffered of depression, had no meaning in life and were existentially lost. If this is the cause of depression, then the only way to become healed of it, is to recognise oneself not as the human storyline with its successes and failures, but as boundless freedom, devoid of the sense of me-ness. It is deeply unfulfilling and unsatisfactory to only know oneself as an entity tied into one's physical body and whatever culture and people we are surrounded with. This existential crisis cannot be fixed with common worldly solutions, for the only way to solve it is to go beyond time, place and the personal storyline, and access the ground of being that is nameless, ageless, timeless and groundless, ever fresh, brimming with liveliness and common to all living beings. Different main streams or vehicles (skt. yana) of buddhism look at this task from their own perspectives but common to all of them is to offer ways to quench this fundamental existential hunger. This is what dharma is for, to give experiential answers to existential questions.
How To Heal Depression?
Substrate consciousness, that part of the human psychology that causes depression, is not at all foreign to yogis, professionals and masters of meditation. It has been discussed by adepts and practitioners for many hundreds of years and therefore yogic traditions have ways of dealing with it, in other words, they have ways of dealing with the part of mind that causes depression.
Here, I would like to present one and very effective way for healing depression by recognition of the natural state, one's natural innate stress-free condition. It is called Dynamic Concentration, which is an uncommon form of concentration practice.
Concentration practices are commonly taught with low intensity. For example, when mindfulness of the movement of the breath (p. anapanasati, skt. prana apana smriti) is taught, the student is instructed to keep his attention gently on the breath and return the attention back to the object when distracted. In a similar way, when mantras are recited, they are always recited with gentle concentration, never with high intensity, with stronger or even explosive focus.
This light or gentle focus can be compared to a volume knob of a stereo system. In this example light focus is analoguous to low level which produces low but still audible volume of music. This would equal perhaps 5-10% of the total volume output. However, the volume knob can be turned higher. It goes up to 30%, 60%, 90% and with each level we hear a corresponding change in the volume. Turning the volume high has an immediate effect. In this analogy, zero would equal not having concentration at all, yet not being distracted either, i.e. the natural state. 90% would already be very loud and not very enjoyable for an extended period of time. However we all have times in our lives when for a moment we want to turn up the music. And how wonderful it is! The neighbours maybe don't like it but it is fun nevertheless.
Regardless whether we follow the breath or chant mantras, the same can be done in yogic practice. Dynamic focus greatly changes the effect of the concentration practice. With light focus, as in commonly known shamatha, with constant distractions it takes time to calm the monkey mind. Whether an exercise of light focus ever cuts through the layers of the subconscious and substrate minds is rightly questionable. It takes years of long hours of daily training to build the muscle of concentration to get the benefits of shamatha meditation (tib. shine). This approach is followed by a large number of Buddhist methods. I think that there are better and more effective ways of doing the training, especially for householders whose daily time for practice is limited.
Concentration can be momentarily heigthened, like turning the volume knob high suddenly to create a short (0.3-2 seconds) explosion-like, momentary peak. This creates a quick punch of sorts, like an explosion that can be controlled. This punch hits through all of samsaric mind and reveals the natural state in a very short period of time. We are discussing an exercise that indirectly has been used in Buddhism and many other yoga and dharma teachings for centuries through meditation, recitation, religious art and yogic exercise and yet very few schools have realised the immense value of dynamic concentration to give it a central place in their teachings...
Dynamic concentration can be adapted to fit the view and practices of any yogic approach... It is very easy for anyone to test whether dynamic concentration really works. All you need is a few minutes of time and a comfortable place to try it(*).
The Effect of Dynamic Concentration In Pictures
From these pictures you can observe what Dynamic Concentration, sharp use of focus, actually does in one's mind and how the explosive power disperses the greyness and foggyness of mind that the substrate produces, to reveal the natural clarity of the normal state.
|Bird seen naturally, without depression or other forms of distraction.|
|From left to right: 1. Bird seen naturally. 2. Bird seen during mild depression. 3. Bird seen during strong depression. 4. Bird seen during very strong depression.|
I guess all humans question their existence at some degree in some stage of their lives. For some, it passes quickly and doesn't grow to become a great issue or even the most important issue in one's whole life, while it does for some. Whether one considers her- or himself to be on the spiritual path or not, one can have illnesses and ailments, both physical and psychological, according to one's karma and genetics.
In this short article I have tried to convey the basic understanding of depression and the structure of the human mind, and described a simple exercise how depression or many other types of mental obscurations can be dealt with.
Thank you for reading,
-Kim Katami, 27.6.2019
Open Heart Sangha,
Read more about Dynamic Concentration from What's Next? On Post-Awakening Practice and watch video examples of this exercise on this playlist at YouTube.