“I find depression is a common experience for many on the path. It certainly has been for me. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the relationship between enlightenment and depression? Is there one?”
This is a great question. But first, we need to ensure we are using the word enlightenment in the same sense. Enlightenment, the way I use it, doesn’t point to some pinnacle state of human consciousness as it is put forth by various spiritual teachings. Instead, it is a PROCESS of evolving consciousness that every sentient being is on. And the process is continuous and limitless.
What is happening in this process exactly? Awareness is being made conscious. Awareness itself has no need to evolve. Awareness is simply aware of “what is”. Awareness never changes. However, every sentient being has a “mind”. And the mind essentially works to channel awareness into one of three buckets: the unconscious, the subconscious and the conscious.
In animals, the unconscious and the subconscious buckets are the primary sectors in which awareness resides. What is “conscious” forms a narrow spectrum of experience. And so the evolution of consciousness within animals is extremely slow. It happens over millennia in a slow trickle.
In humans, however, the process is highly accelerated. The slow trickle is superseded by this tool of SELF-AWARENESS we possess. Self-awareness acts as a cup that allows us to scoop greater quantities of awareness out of the “subconscious or unconscious bucket” and into the “conscious bucket” at a time. Thus, we gradually become more conscious. Awareness is made conscious IN the mind.
This is essentially what enlightenment is.
WHAT CAUSES DEPRESSION
What does depression have to do with any of this?
What we call depression is really a pressure buildup in the subconscious or unconscious buckets. Although, depression often can feel like an external unseen weight crushing down on us, it is really the opposite. An internal pressure pushing outwards from the inside.
One of the fundamental features of depression is that it almost invariably feels uncaused. Most depressives couldn’t tell you exactly why they feel this way, they just do. Some may be able to try and rationalize it by tying it to seeming causes but those often don’t capture the whole of it. Depression can sometimes result after a specific event happens, such as birth, death, retirement and so on yet often the event isn’t the real cause but only a catalyst. The cause is something deeper and hidden that can only be released if uncovered. Until then the internal pressure remains.
What most people, including the medical community, seem to misunderstand is that depression isn’t an illness. It is the system seeking to find a new normal.
It’s like if there were a build up of water pressure in a dam after the winter thaw. And if the buildup is reaching critical levels threatening to burst the walls of the dam, this doesn’t imply that there is anything wrong with the dam. Nor is there anything wrong with the river. These are simply the natural physics of the situation. The solution then is not to reinforce the dam to contain the pressure nor find ways to deviate the river. The solution is to release the pressure.
In treating depression as an illness, whether psychological or neurological (by calling it the result of a chemical imbalance) we are essentially saying that the solution is to reinforce the dam.
Personally, I’m not against the use of anti-depressants but I consider them a stop-gap solution rather than a long term cure. If the engineers are trying to figure out how to release the water pressure then it makes sense that they try and reinforce the dam temporarily to buy themselves a bit more time. Yet, eventually, releasing the water pressure is the only and obvious option to maintaining not only the integrity of the dam but also the normal flow of the river.
From a spiritual point of view, depression is an inner push to “level up” in one’s conscious awareness. The pressure in the subconscious or unconscious buckets have reached a critical level and the spill over is imminent. Whether you like it or not, you are being forced into becoming conscious of a whole lot of things you were not conscious of before. You might try and hold that pressure at bay by reinforcing the barriers in your mind either by self-help techniques or by medication. But eventually, that spill over will happen.
In that sense, not only is depression related to enlightenment, it is a critical aspect of enlightenment. It is an indication that nothing can stop the flow of the enlightenment process. The moment mental barriers are erected, the pressure build up begins immediately.
Then, either there is going to be a massive blowout of the very structure of the dam, sometimes leading to irrevocable changes. This we call an “awakening” because it feels like a drastic shift in the contents of our conscious minds. Or there is going to be some release valve that opens up and allows the steady flow of awareness to filter into the conscious mind thereby regaining equilibrium. This results in the same effect without there being any structural damage to the mind and its self-concept called the ego.
The latter option is always the more desirable one even if less sensational from a seeker’s point of view, because contrary to what we believe, the ego is not the enemy. It is a useful construct that facilitates social interaction. And so having an intact ego as opposed to a disabled one is important. A broken dam may allow the flow of water without resistance but it’s also a useless dam. A functional dam with all release valves smoothly functioning can equally allow the flow of water, yet it can satisfy its functioning as a dam.
REPRESSION OF THE SUBCONSCIOUS
What we call the ego is an internalization of the cultural and social environment we exist in. A feral child raised by wolves has an underdeveloped ego that responds to the rudimentary social dynamics of the pack. A civilized child, however, has an incredibly complex ego that mirrors every rule of engagement, code of ethics and cultural expectation that exists around it. And it is through THAT lens that the child learns to perceive itself.
However, just as society is filled with contradictions: with some rules of engagement negating other rules of engagement, some ethical codes contradicting other ethical codes, that inherent conflict is also internalized within the ego. The conflicts and contradictions translate into self-conflict and self-contradiction. And these self-conflicts act as “blockages” in the system. And wherever there is a blockage there will be a buildup of pressure.
So, lets for example say, I am a Catholic but I am also gay. My identity as a Catholic and sense of camaraderie with other members of my tribe may stand in conflict with my sexual identity and sense of shared experience with other people who identify as gay. This conflict within me is further exacerbated by some members of my catholic tribe, whom I love and identify with, who dismiss gays as heathens and sinners. On the flip side, some of my gay friends scoff at those of those of the catholic faith as brainwashed perverts. On the inside, my catholic self is at war with my homosexual self. And this has caused an impasse.
Now this in itself may not cause me to become depressed. But let’s say that, in an attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance, I repress my sexual identity. And over years and decades, my life on the outside seems fairly normal – I have a family, a church, a community, yet there is this unseen burden that weighs down on me at all times. And that burden increases to the point that I feel debilitated. I might not even ascribe this depression to my repressed sexuality that I feel I’d dealt with years ago.
Eventually, something will have to give. And when it does, it will lead to a sexual awakening. I will have to acknowledge my sexuality and accept its coexistence with my religious beliefs. And in the process I will have become more enlightened about who I am. I will realize that I am neither defined by my sexuality nor my religion and therefore am free to express both even if they do contradict each other.
Yet, I may go even a step further. Since, every identity I possess is intricately linked to some social or cultural more, this sexual awakening will further reveal to me how the rules of engagement are messed up and are set up to cause suffering. I may be motivated to spread an awareness of how this happens and, in doing so, I may allow others who are experiencing similar self-conflict to resolve it within themselves in a less harmful manner.
This is how the process of enlightenment works. It’s always inner revelation to outer revelation which causes inner revelation in others and so on back and forth. This is why human beings need each other. All our egos are derived from the same superstructure that we call human civilization and it’s only by resolving the conflicts we have within that we can understand the conflicts that exist outside.
REPRESSION OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
Repressing a sense of identity and relegating it to the subconscious in an attempt to regain psychological homeostasis is one kind of repression. It’s the repression we are all the most familiar with. We have all done it. Everyone has faced childhood trauma in one form or another and has had to bifurcate themselves in an attempt to deal with it.
So, that is repression of the “subconscious” kind. Subconscious meaning, just beneath the surface. And through psychotherapy, it is possible to access these kinds of repressed experiences and bring them to the forefront.
However, there is also that bucket of the “unconscious” we talked about. And the phenomenon of repression happens here as well. In fact, unconscious repression is a universal phenomenon. It happens to everyone. This kind of repression is not easily accessed or even understood by psychotherapy. All psychotherapy can deal with is the repression of subconscious identities.
But there is a self that is much more fundamental than the identities we build upon it. And that self is tuned into the essence of reality.
There are those who suffer from an unexplainable existential angst that has little to do with repressed identities or memories. For them it is far more fundamental than that. I was one of those people. There is a sense of alienation that is almost unbearable yet this is not an alienation of the social kind. It is not closeness with other humans we crave but it is a closeness with creation.
This ennui goes beyond just our human identities, it is a spiritual ennui. The sense of feeling separate from life itself creates an existential pressure that can be utterly debilitating. And the depression that ensues is deep, dark and not easily understood. Here anti-depressants can often be completely ineffective and therapy may provide only temporary relief. It is this kind of depression that drives one to truly introspect into the very fundamentals of oneself and one’s experience.
And when what was unconscious becomes conscious this is a spiritual awakening. It is not a revelation of some aspect of our identity, as in the example of the sexual awakening I gave above. It is a revelation of our very self.
ENLIGHTENMENT IS ENDLESS
The process of making the subconscious conscious and the unconscious conscious are two independent if similar processes.
Which is why someone who has done therapy and delved into their subconscious and learned to release a lot of their past traumas may present as a very balanced individual yet may possess very little spiritual insight.
On the other hand, someone who has had a great spiritual awakening and may have incredible spiritual insight may still continue to act out their subconscious and repressed traumas.
That is why psychotherapists often seem far more knowledgeable about the human subconscious and often ignorant about the unconscious. Whereas gurus and mystics seem knowledgeable about the unconscious but oblivious about the subconscious. This is also why psychotherapists, in general, are a much more socially adapted lot than gurus are.
Rare is the individual who has both psychological and spiritual insight. Carl Jung is one of the handful of such names that comes to mind.
Thus, even the spiritually insightful individual has much left to learn and the same is true for the psychologically gifted individual. That is why enlightenment never ends. There is an endless movement of awareness to become conscious.
That is also why depression is a necessary feature of the process. Because as long as the contradictions exist, impasses will be created. The impasses over time will lead to a buildup of the flow of awareness. And the buildup will lead to an existential pressure that will feel like depression.
When you understand the dynamics of it, nothing is out of place.