Depression and Spirituality

From existential emptiness to liberating vacuity

In this chapter we will attempt to compare and contrast the painful existential emptiness of the depressive, and the luminous, liberating vacuity of the mystic. Both are a matter of living experience rather than being mere philosophical constructs. Is there a connecting passage, a foot-bridge between the two, which helps to give certain depressions the dimension of an initiation, an entry onto the spiritual path?

Roughly speaking, it can be said that the field of psychology concerns different types of depression and their treatment in the acute stages. Spirituality, on the other hand, seems to me to be more efficacious when it deals with prevention of the dis-equilibrium in life leading to depression, or when it tries to accompany the depressive over a long period. It has not always been possible for me to say for whom my reflections will prove the most useful: the patient, the therapist or the ordinary reader. They are addressed to whoever is open to hearing them, whether those who seek to understand depression for themselves, or those who wish to understand it for themselves or for their patients. I particularly hope that they inspire those who have the difficult but beautiful task of accompanying the dying.

The psychological descriptions of depression and their limitations

The are two major types of depression : psychogenic depression, purely psychic in origin, and endogenic depression which has a constitutional basis which is quite often hereditary. This latter is the disease of manic depression, in which alternating excitation and depression are found. It seems to be due to an enzyme deficiency hampering the exchanges of sodium through the wall of the nervous cell. In theory, there is no way out for the patients afflicted with this disease, except to take lithium and to accept their destiny. In practice, however, as these attacks have some psychological elements, a treatment of the mind cannot be ruled out. I personally know of a case of manic-depressive psychosis, which clearly improved with meditation : through the process of meditation, the person seeks to go systematically beyond the opposing pairs (pain-pleasure, exhaustion-excitation etc.) and thus reduces the variations of mood.

Among psychogenic depressions, two main types can be distinguished : the anaclitic depression of the young subject, typified by the young girl who has broken off with her boyfriend and who attempts suicide but doesnât succeed, and on the other hand the existential depression of the older subject, who, if he happens to attempt suicide, generally succeeds. One also speaks of the depression of exhaustion due to an accumulation of unresolved stress. It seems to me that fundamentally, all kinds of depression are of exhaustion : even if the stress is not apparent, it is present in the form of intrapsychic conflicts which represent a continuous loss of energy.

A good criterion of psychic health is the adaptability to change. The growth of the individual can be envisaged, as Erik Erickson has done, as a succession of crises. If one succeeds in passing through them, one develops an appropriate quality corresponding to each stage the basic trust for the baby who accepts his weaning well, autonomy for the small child, the desire to learn for the older child, identity for the adoloscent, intimacy for the young adult, and integrity for the mature adult. It is interesting to note that Erickson does not mention the elderly. The existential questions which the latter group faces when confronted with death, doubtless go beyond his psychological conceptions. Through spiritual practice one reevaluates the ãsmallä crises mentioned above in the context of two main crises - birth and death. This gives amplitude and depth to psyche, and allows the crises, which I have termed ãsmallä but which doubtless seem enormous to those undergoing them, to be viewed in relative terms.

The so-called ãpragmaticä psychotherapies apparently respond to the average demand of patients, but they have a very poor model of the human being : they consider him as a kind of machine which must function without the slightest impediment from birth to death, according to the criteria established by the co-ordinator of the Institute of Socio-psychological Statistics... That is all very well, but it is a very dull, flat vision of human potential : it is easy to say that the patient does not demand more than what he is given, but what if he did ? Would the therapist have the answer; and would the answer be based on actual experience rather than being merely intellectual?

It could be considered that helping an individual psychologically means helping him to accept, to ãmetabolizeä the frustrations and the little or great sorrows with which existence is fraught. When faced with frustration or sorrow in the larger sense of the term, three kinds of transformation are possible : a descending transformation, in which one plunges into a depression and protracted mourning; a circular transformation in which one seeks a new object to replace the old, a new pair of crutches to replace the ones lost, which is what most people tend to do spontaneously, and what most psychologists advise; this reaction is certainly better than sheer depression. The third kind of evolution is an ascending evolution, in which one accepts the sorrow as such, and one regards the vacuum it has created as a window opening towards the absolute. One does not seek a ãstop-gapä any more, and one transforms the dark, yawning chasm of depression into the luminous vacuity of liberation. By liberation I mean freedom from dependence, no matter how small. In this sense, the best stimulus for finding happiness within oneself is the feeling of frustration, it is the obstacle which spurs one to keep evolving.

If the psychologist has a purely pragmatic view of things, that is, if he is content with replacing descending transformation by circular transformation, he denies spiritual need. This spiritual need re-surfaces at a another time, perhaps in a bewildering or mediocre form, i.e. joining a sect with bizarre beliefs, or having a passionate interest in cheap occultism. The prevalence of this kind of occultism in the former Soviet Union can be an illustration of the disorderly return of the spiritual which had been denied during half a century of dull, flat psychology. The guru cannot resolve the existential questions of his disciples any more than the therapist can. He can, however, indicate to them the methods of inner work, for a disciple who is having a difficult time, he also represents a light at the end of the tunnel. Rather than speaking of the ãwork of mourningä, I prefer to speak of letting go of oneâs hold, of oneâs tension; I prefer to speak of liberation. Once an attachment has been carried away by the tide of life or of death, it should be considered like a sack of stones which one had been carrying, and which has fallen off on its own. It is a relief. I prefer to speak of the ãdeviation of the impulse of lifeä rather than of the impulse of deathä. Establishing this duality of ãimpulse of lifeä vs. ãimpulse of deathä, has in fact, always been tempting : it appeared in the first centuries of our era with Manes and certain kinds of gnosticism; it re-appeared in our century with Freud. The spiritual traditions as a whole, however, avoid falling into this easy duality; although it appears to correspond to a possible view of reality, it actually represents an obstacle to inner evolution. It is not necessary to be trapped by these categories, conceived by the mind of an aging Freud, perhaps depressed after his operation for cancer at the end of the 1920âs.

The current psychological vocabulary is full of negative suggestions (so much so that some therapists eventually cease to notice it and therein lies the problem). Even when the therapist is aware not to speak too much of psychopathology to the patient, he cannot help but tend to understand the patient in pathological terms, because he has been trained to do so; this, in itself, is a choice which influences the client. On the other hand, it is only the very good therapists or the sages who succeed in extracting some positive elements from a disastrous psychic condition and in emphasising them in order to encourage the patient. In this vague, malleable domain of the psyche, a glass half-empty is actually the opposite of a glass half-full. The therapists should watch their language, including the one in which they think to themselves about their patients. Otherwise, in spite of all their good intentions, there is a risk that they will harm their patients by assigning even the ãlightä cases to predetermined pathological categories.

The Sufis have a story which shows how it may be useful to bury oneâs own problems, contrary to the usual methods of psychotherapy : ÎA rich old man married a beautiful young woman. After some years of happily married life, one day the old manâs servant came to him and said, ãI donât know why, but your wife has refused to give me the keys to the big chest kept in the corner of the bedroom whenever I have gone there to tidy up. I am not insinuating anything, I just wanted to inform youä. The old man went to see his wife; instead of replying normally to his questions, she burst into tears and said, ãDo you believe the insinuations of the servant? You dare to think that I have hidden a lover in that chest? If you donâs trust me, go and look for yourself!ä Thus saying, she handed him the keys to the chest. After some thought, the old man buried the chest at the bottom of the garden with the help of his servants. Since then he was always on the best of terms with his wife, and they never mentioned the incident again (As told in the Dervish Tales by Idries Shah).

If Western psychology has its limitations when faced with depression, can philosophy like existentialism, for example, help to overcome these limitations? Briefly speaking, I do not think so : the general ambiance of existentialism is itself too depressing to be of real help to a depressive : he will, of course, be able to feel some relief by feeling less alone in his dereliction. The advantage is that he will feel more comfortable in his depression, but the disadvantage is, that being comfortable, he will have no desire to come out of it. One must not forget that Sartre published ãBeing and Nothingnessä in 1943, in a period when the materialistic mind had good reason to be pessimistic: indeed the reassuring belief in the continuous progress of humanity was rudely shaken by the events of the time. Merely undoing the functioning of the ego leads to nihilism, if it is not accompanied by an acute sense of the underlying Absolute. Perhaps the existentialist philosopher and the Buddha found themselves confronted with the same void but the former suffered from nausea because of it, while the latter smiled : there lies the difference, does it not?

Depression : a hidden spiritual awakening?

ãBlessed is he who knows tribulation, for he has entered life,ä said Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (Logion 58). What is the significance of the symptoms of depression? Are they not an unskilled attempt to recover oneâs balance? Taken in the right perspective, can they not lead to the improvement of the patient by setting him on a spiritual path of which, perhaps, he had no idea before? In this sense, each symptom has potentialities of its own. Let us take the example of morning insomnia, which is a classic symptom among depressive patients particularly in melancholics. For a long time, efforts were made to get rid of this symptom through sleeping pills. Then some people got the idea to let the depressive do as he wished, that is, going to bed early and getting up early. This was sufficient to greatly relieve the trouble.

Let us now take psychomotor inhibition : there is general agreement that this is the most significant symptom of depression; the fact that the patient does not move an inch corresponds to a healthy defensive reflex of a body undergoing the continuous stress of blind consumerism. In the activist society of the West, this need to do nothing is scarcely recognized as possibly healthy. If one does not busy himself with hobbies like fishing or going to the beach, or even if one is no longer interested in it, he is considered depressive. The disadvantage is, that even if he gains some social recognition from it, he nevertheless feels guilty. He wishes to punish himself for his laziness and uselessness; this need for punishment is really pathological and antispiritual : the ego will not be dominated by auti-flagellation; it will only be reinforced. Just as the sleeping and waking, so too does psyche have its rhythm it alternates between phases of internalisation and externalisation. In the case of depression due to intrapsychic conflicts it can be considered that the patient goes inside, but either in the wrong direction or insufficiently. He cannot reach the profound zones of his being by descending below the storms on the surface. In fact, he is not even sure that these zones exist: this is his disease and sometimes even that of his therapist ..... Society and quite often family, demands that the individual functions constantly in the external reality; however, as Bachelard said, ãA being deprived of the function of the unreal (or internal reality) is as neurotic as a being deprived of the function of the real.ä1

The melancholicâs pre-occupation with himself is in some respects similar to that of the sageâs, while actually being completely different from it: the extremes meet. It could be that the melancholic, having been prey to great anxicty at the beginning of his crisis, has discovered that being completely immobile helps him to gain some peace of mind, and to control his enormous autoaggression. The melancholic is anxious not because of, but inspite of his immobility; he undertakes this work of inner pacification too late, and in too superficial a manner.

We now come to the idea of the void, which is the central thread running through this chapter. The seriously depressed individual feels that his body is empty, that the external world is devoid of any significance, and that he behaves automatically. To him the void seems to be a nothingness. To the mediator, vacuity is not a nothingness. It is a reservoir of potentialities and is very close to plenitude or the absolute. The vacuity is an absence of form: from the physical point of view this corresponds to a relaxation into immobility. Due to his anxiety, the depressed person has a body which is agitated and full of blockages. By concentrating on this idea of an immobile void, he reduces these blockages; but because he does this automatically, without understanding the mechanism involved, the void which he reaches if still full of a sense of guilt and anxiety. Besides, being pre-occupied with his inner work, he lets the external world drop, which in turn reinforces his guilt. The meditator, on the other hand, can enter and leave the void at will. The sage can see the void even when he is active A fundamental idea of Mahayana Buddhism is ãto see the voidä. In establishing oneself, in a limitless state of mind (Îanantaâ) one experiences a happiness which is not concentrated on any object ( ananda). The similarity of the two Sanskrit words corresponds to the similarity of the two realities for which they stand.

Sometimes, the nightmare of falling into a void can be instantly transformed into a more agreeable dream of a gliding descent. One then tends to fall indefinitely, without ever hurting oneself. This little trick of active imagination can be proposed to the patient. When he realizes that he can change the direction of his mental images, he will feel greatly encouraged. ãFalling to the bottom of the pitä gives a sense of depth, which is fine if one can come out of the ordeal. When one is at the bottom of a well, all he can see is a patch of sky, and in the tribulation is concealed a divine spark. Did the Psalmist not say, ãFrom the depths, I cried to Thee Lordä?

The depressed individual, like the meditator, sees the void of forms. The former stops at that, however, while the latter looks towards the absolute which he calls the void of the void, and which he regards in its luminous and blissful aspect. The void of the meditator is born of an effort to understand the functioning of the mind; it has not happened automatically as in the case of the depressive. Shantideva, a Buddhist Master has said, ãIf one cannot apprehend the phenomenon constructed by the mind, its non-existence cannot be established.â2 The error of the depressive lies not in seeking rest in the void, but in seeking it to the exclusion of everything else. It lies in believing that he has found rest, while his mind is still prone to attacks of morbid brooding. He loses sight of the conventional reality of the world, and therein lies the cause of his suffering. Nagarjuna said, ãThe dharma taught by all the Buddhas is founded on two realities: the conventional reality of the world, and the Supreme and ultimate Reality.ä3

As far as possible, the depressive shoudl seek to get accustomed to his feeling of emptiness and to avoid a sense of guilt about it: after all, there can be a joyous assertion of independence in rejecting everything to ge more space to move, just as a baby sometimes throws away all his toys, and feels very happy. The therapist and sometimes even the patient, can benefit from a contemplation of the symbol of zero; it represents the cosmic egg from which the world is born; in alchemy it is included in the symbols of almost all the elements, it forms their common denominator.4 From the mystical point of view, the void is the space of consciousness. Jacob Boehme, known as the ãFather of the Church of the Mindä, expressed it thus, ãThe Eternal Void is the eye of Eternal Vision.ä

The idea of death, which is destructive for the depressive, is liberating for the philosopher or the mystic. ãTo philosophize is to learn how to dieä, said Socrates. Zen recommends ãviewing life from the bottom of ones coffin.ä When Nisargadatta Maharaj was asked about his death some months before the actual event, he replied, ãI would not be speaking to you like this, if I were not already dead.ä This death of the ego is what is frightening. On another occasion, when Maharaj had evoked the idea of liberation from this life, a visitor exclaimed, ãBut is is like death !ä ãIs is deathä, answered Maharaj. When one is really free from the anguish. When there is nothing more to lose, one can only be a winner.

Meditation represents a prevention, a prophylaxis for depression: returning each day to the source of happiness that lies within, one avoids that accumulation of inner frusrtration which leads to bitterness and depression, even in those people who have everything they materially need for their happiness. The child has strong and rapid variations of emotion. Internally we remain childlike, although we have covered this ãinfantile cyclothymyä with a veneer of dullness, which enables us to function in society to some extent. We have already seen that meditation enables the recognition of the rapid variations (desire-distaste, pleasure-pain etc.) and helps us to go beyond these pairs of opposites (ãdvandvatitamä). In the Bible, God is sometimes clearly presented as being beyond contradictions: ãThere is no one but me.... I create the light and the darkness, I make happiness and unhappiness, it is I, Jehovah, who create all this.ä (Isaie 45, 6-7). (The literal translation from Hebrew is,ä ãI make peace and evilä).

Meditation is liberating in that it involves a letting go of oneâs hold. It prevents one from becoming like the monkey in this tale from the East: ãOne day, a monkey found an apparently empty coconut-shell. On shaking it, he heard a sound. He could just pass his hand through the narrow opening of the shell to take what was inside. His hand closed around a lump of sugar, but when he wanted to take it out, his first got stuck in the coconut. The monkey-catcher, who had laid the trap approached slowly; the monkey tried to escape, but he would not free his paw from the coconut-shell. When he felt himself being seized by the scruff of the neck, he said to himself,ä ãI have lost my freedom, but at least I have the sugar!ä At that moment, the monkey-catcher aimed a blow at the nerve of the monkeyâs elbow; in pain, the monkey dropped the sugar. He had now lost both his freedom and the sugar.â

Depression and Liberation in the course of spiritual evolution

Spiritual evolution leads to inner joy, but it does carry the risk of depressive reaction. This risk is found in psychotherapy as well, when patients are driven to the point of suicide, because they cannot bear to face certain within themselves, and because they are nevertheless pushed toward it by an over-zealous and rigid therapist.

If spiritual practice has its dangers, they should not be overstimated. To me, they certainly seem less serious than the danger of taking the wheel of a car in a drunken state to come back home after a ãgoodä party.

In Christianity, a distinction is made between authentic depression (Îacediaâ), and phases of aridity (Îariditasâ), the latter arising in the course of healthy spiritual evolution. The Îacediaâ appears mainly in middle aged monks or nuns. It is an aversion towards everything that concerns the spiritual path. Perhaps it is linked to a reduction in the sexual energy of those who follow the path of devotion and of sublimation of emotions towards the divine; there is less to sublimate, therefore there are fewer inner experiences. The Îariditasâ or spiritual aridity, on the contrary, corresponds to what Saint John of the Cross calls ãthe night of the senses.ä There is no distaste for the spiritual only an aspiration towards God who cannot be Îseenâ by the aspirant. It is a sort of unsatisfied amorous desire, a giving up of everything that is not Him, without neither succeeding in reaching Him5. To use the description of Saint Teresa of Avila, it can be said that the mind, on entering into its cocoon like the silk-worm, dies in it, and can be re-borm as a butterfly.â6

After the night of the senses, follows the night of the mind, which can correspond to a difficult phase: the aspirant realizes the ultimate unreality of the divinity whom he had adored and from whom he had received visions, messages and consolation. After some time, however, this form dissolves, and a new energy appears from behind it. Making use of paradoxes, Hadewich dâAnvers said, ãKnowledge is freely renewed in the bright shadow of the presence of the absence.ä7 For Ruysbroeck, the serenity appears to those who go beyond the essence itself: ãThey will rest with serenity in their over-essenceä.8

The Christians lay greater stress on the suffering due to mystical evolution than do the Hindus. The basis of Hindu mysticism, whether following the path of devotion or of knowledge, is happiness (Îanandaâ); the destruction of the mind, (Îmanonashaâ) is not overlooked, however; it is indispensable for establishing stable happiness. Why this difference? Christians already have a fixation on the Passion of Christ, which in certain cases, borders upon what would be termed, ãbirth traumaä in psychology. However, it seems to me, that there is another factor which can explain the frequency of spiritual aridity among Christian mystics, a factor which ecclesiastical authors dare not touch upon: it concerns the rigidity of the rules and institutions which prevents the mystic from evolving at his own pace and rhythm, and which hinders a relationship of complete trust in the spiritual teacher. If a monk has only hierachical superiors and has no spiritual teacher on whom to transfer his deep affectivity, it is not surprising that he is prone to frequent bouts of spiritual aridity, and that he suffers, quite simply, from solitude;

Some Western authors think that the renunciation in India is an equivalent to depression. It could certainly happen that a person has the desire for renunciation following deep sorrow or a love disappointment, but this kind of decision does not last long. This is what is called in India the "cremation ground renunciation". The second part of the name of the renunciation (sannyasi) in India, is ãanandaä, or happiness, as in Vivekananda, Shivananda, etc. Thus renunciation and happiness are closely associated in the names themselves. Renunciation is born, not of a forced choice, but of true comprehension. For a Hindu it does not signify dissolution as much as Îindividualisationâ. His individuality, having been diluted -till then by family and clan (Îgotraâ)- asserts itself through the choice of renunciation. Spiritual practice leads to a cure of the ãdepressive positionä, it concerns an oft-found trait of the human psyche, which stems from the very first year, when the child reacted strongly on seeing his mother move away, however slightly. This spiritual cure could be expressed in psychological terms as ãintrojection of the good objectä, which is no longer the physical mother, but in India, the guru or the Divine Mother. When one is able to ãhallucinate the Motherä, one has in hand the best possible weapon for overcoming the depressive position.

MÐ Ìnandamayi often made the distinction between Îshunyaâ and ÎmahÐshunyaâ (the void and the great void). She perhaps wanted to prevent people taking the phases of torpor during the Îsadhanaâ for the realisation of the Absolute. This kind of distinction appears throughout the various schools of spiritual thought, under different terminologies. Kashmir Shaivism differentiates between ten kinds of vacuity. Tibetan Buddhism, between eighteen kinds. This insistence on vacuity is not nihilism; the Buddhists believe in the absolute, which they sometimnes call Îtathagatagarbhaâ, or womb (Îgarbhaâ) of someone who has been (Îgataâ) thus (Îtathaâ) in other words, Îthe mother of Buddhaâ. This image of the womb confirms the concept of vacuity already mentioned above: a reservoir of potentialities. It is a medicine which can cure oneâs disturbances at their very roots : for example, someone who knows how to meditate can fully nullify a parasitic emotion, by considering it as void right from the beginning. He is no longer trapped by phenomena to which he gives a relative but non-inherent reality, he is thus able to follow the middle-path (ÎMadhyamikaâ). Nagarjuna said, ãVacuity was taught as a remedy which would enable one to be rid of all philosophical points of view, but of indicating that the Absolute can only be evoked and cannot be reached by words of reason. In this, then Nagarjunaâs school of Îmadhyamikaâ is sister to Vedanta, and is the mother of Châan and of Zen.

In our times, this evolutionary dynamism of thought, aided by meditation or vacuity should encourage psychologists to question the fixed theories in which they have imprisoned themselves. Perhaps they do not dare, for fear of falling into nihilism,10 but they should know, at least intellectually, that a ãmiddle-pathä is possible. I hope that these few reflections will help to clarify the similarities and differences that are between the existential void, and liberating vacuity. I hope, above all, that they will shed light on the narrow passageway leading from the void of depression to the vacuity of the mystic, on that suspension bridge which stretches from the void to the Void.