Hinduism and Depression

It is popular in hippie circles to say that we choose our emotions. We might not choose the circumstances of our life (but maybe on some level we do because of karma), but we can definitely control how we respond to those circumstances.

“No one can make you unhappy without your permission.”

You can choose to be happy. Just choose it. Just decide to be happy and do it.

I heard that a lot growing up.

Sometimes I can see how this is true. I can feel the fork in the road as I can choose to take something badly or take it well. Sometimes, though, I can’t choose to be happy. Sometimes there is a pressure within my brain that seems to turn everything gray.

I’ve struggled off and on with depression for the last few years. I can remember when I was a kid thinking depression was so stupid. Why not just be happy? There’s so many wonderful things about life. What do you have to be sad about?

Except I really didn’t understand what depression was like back then. It doesn’t really have to do with sadness. It has more to do with a loss of meaning. Nothing feels important anymore and so nothing feels worth doing.

I fight hard against that by pursuing enlightenment (somewhat of a contradiction, to be honest, as enlightenment is not really something you pursue and grab hold of). The purpose of life is to find my way back to unity with the Self, I remind my brain.

It doesn’t always work.

I look around my life and it is wonderful. I am so blessed and so lucky. Why can’t I feel it? Many times I can, but when depression takes hold, I’m not able to process all the good around me. I can’t seem to see through the fog.

There’s not much support in Hinduism for dealing with something like this because it is “in the mind” and our minds are what we are supposed to be learning to control. Meditation is meant to train our brains so that we are in control of them.

What does that mean for someone who tries really hard to feel joy and gratitude, but instead feels dull nothingness?

Am I not trying hard enough? Or is it something in my brain that is just turning the circuitry wonky and beyond my control?

I have a desire to bootstrap my way out of depression, but I don’t even know if that’s possible. I suspect that if I could get better at meditation, it would be easier for me to refocus my mind when it starts in a downward spiral.

One thing I’ve learned for certain is not to trust my brain. It has its biases and it can mess with me. It isn’t a solid source of concrete information.

  • I have major memory problems, so I know that my brain isn’t giving me all the information that I ask it for. That’s just one proof that it can’t be fully trusted.
  • I experience massive mood swings during PMS. The moods are not real, as they change on a dime without any outside circumstance changing. So I often don’t trust my moods.
  • If I start thinking darkly about life, I remember that it’s my brain’s interpretation, but not objective reality.

For me controlling my emotions and “choosing happiness” has come down to choosing not to always believe what my mind tells me. It may be depressed, but I am the observer and I can take a step back and watch the play of the depressed thoughts without it becoming me.

Sometimes.

Other times it is just too strong for me and I spend days or weeks barely able to get out of bed, unable to enjoy anything, and desperately searching for some shred of purpose for my life.

***

What do other Hindus have to say about depression?

The “best answer” on Yahoo Answers claims that depression happens because we have a huge attachment to something we are not getting or achieving. He advises practicing non-attachment. I’m not sure if that’s true of clinical depression, which doesn’t seem to stem from anything actually going on in one’s life. Another answer advises to practice focusing on the joy of small things like children’s smiles and sunshine.

 This article sums up really well the conclusions given by a few gurus. One suggestion includes doing more service, trying to focus on helping others so that you’re not in mired in your own problems. I like this idea and I have some great new opportunities for service open to me now that I joined the Sathya Sai Baba group. Meditation is also suggested and particular mantras for healing are given.

  1. Refine your consciousness and build self-control through education and cultured activities.
  2. Clear the subconscious of negative memories, reactions and grudges through affirmation, self-reflection and sadhana.
  3. Fill yourself with gratitude for life and for all that you have.
  4. Know that happiness and unhappiness are states of mind. They are not the real you. You are the pure awareness that experiences a state of mind; you are not the state of mind itself.
  5. Learn to change your state of mind in meditation, turning awareness within to your spiritual nature, the radiance within you. Direct awareness through controlled breathing.
  6. Tune into your innate happiness through religious devotion.
  7. Become fulfilled and uplifted by doing things for others.

 Many of the posts I found in my research refer to an article called  “Hinduism and Depression” by Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, but I’ve been unable to locate the source of that article. If anyone knows where to find it, I’d love to read it.

***

I wanted to write about this because I was so impressed with the way the writer of Hyperbole and a Half has described her battle with depression. I think she sums it up and explains it so well, but maybe it’s just others who have felt the “I kind of want to not exist, but I don’t plan to actually kill myself” who powerfully recognize what she has to say. I know it really speaks to me.

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • http://twitter.com/ArtistMBond Artist: Michael Bond

    depression is definitely not about being happy or unhappy, and even sad doesn’t really describe it. i totally relate to your description of it being like a fog as that is exactly how it feels for me – a fog that permeates every aspect of my being. thankfully it would clear itself after 3 or 4 days – this is someting i’ve struggled with for decades. I have only found relief through my practice of vipassana meditation – 30 minutes everyday first thing in the morning, and often 30-45 minutes in the evening. its the only thing that clears my mind as my depression seemed to stem from an accumulation of “mind-stuff”. Since I went to a daily practice i have not had an episode of depression for the past 9 months. I have felt depression coming on but awareness and mindfulness has allowed me to not attach to the fog but rather pass through it quickly.

    • Ambaa

      Thank you for sharing your experience! That is really helpful. Looks like meditation is definitely the way to go. It’s encouraging to hear that you can see it coming on, but pass through it without it attaching itself to you.

  • HARRY

    I’ve been through this jungle. My own doctor told me to go on medicine but I declined and struggled along. I think my Mrs was a great person to stand by me on how I felt and helped me heal quicker, otherwise I don’t know what would I have done if she wasn’t there. I don’t have cure to offer you but I do know how you feel because I’ve been there.

    One thing I can say is you are on right path for healing.
    You see that you have this problem and you have come to accept it.
    You have looked in to the problem for to heal your self.
    You are willing to do anything to overcome this, which i think is a great attitude in seeking help for this problem.

    All I can say is take each day, day by day, and accept what fate brings you and that’s all you can do, and seek help from people you know who loves you, because you will need them more then you know.

    And I hope and pray that you heal soon from this plight.

    • Ambaa

      Thank you :)

  • Lauren Maurer

    Hi Ambaa,

    I just wanted to say that i’ve struggled with depression too, and know how hard it is to deal with that when saying to yourself “It’s all in the mind” just doesn’t help.

    If you don’t mind my making a suggestion from my own experience, when i was going through treatment for anxiety and depression (i ended up seeing a therapist for a few months), i refused meds and instead chose to do something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I found it very helpful because it’s specifically about taking a step back and examining the goings-on of the mind, which to me is very in line with Hinduism (and Buddhism as well), so it was a tool i found useful and in keeping with my worldview.

    • Ambaa

      That’s a great suggestion. Brad wants me to return to therapy, but I just am not sure that the talking about it therapy I was doing is getting me anywhere. I can look for a therapist based on this Cognitive Behavioral Therapy thing!

    • Ambaa

      I thought that I replied to you, but I don’t see the comment here now! May have disappeared in switching our comment system over.

      I really appreciate your suggestion! I don’t know Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but I did feel like just plain talk therapy wasn’t helping enough!

  • AlgorithmicAnalyst

    Low thyroid is a possibility (perhaps iodine drops would help).

    • Ambaa

      Hmmm. Interesting. There are so many potential causes! I will look into that. Thank you.

  • Pingback: Hinduism and Depression - Patheos

  • Y. A. Warren

    I found the root of so much of my anxiety and shame that accompany my depression came from my religion. I reject the notion of both bad karma and original sin being paths in which we are born to be scorned. I do believe that depression is anger turned in on ourselves.

    I blog regularly OneFamilyManyFaiths,blogspot.com and http://worldpulse.com/user/13827 to help others express their own anger in productive ways. There are many things to which we should be attached, our children and social justice to name a couple. i have come to accept as my mission moving these efforts forward just a bit in my lifetime and trusting the universe to go forward using the good energy I leave behind in many other endeavors toward the end of eternal harmony.

    • Ambaa

      I have a lot of issues with the way many people think about karma too. I don’t believe in the concept of punishment for one’s actions. I believe that karma is always a learning experience and it behaves in a system devoid of judgement. Action has consequence and neither one needs to be labeled as “good” or “bad.”

      • mroge

        Karma is just another chance to get things right, since we all make mistakes there is no punishment involved. That view has actually become a comfort for me because I realize if I miss one opportunity then the Universe will send me another one soon! I don’t necessarily mean in another life because I think Karma acts in this life also. I think it is no more than The Law of Attraction at work.

        • Ambaa

          Exactly! I also take great comfort in seeing life’s challenges as another chance to learn and grow :)

    • Pratheesh

      Karma means your actions.going with your comment it is same.your actions had made you angry and later turned you in.

      • Y. A. Warren

        I believe there is anger that is right and must be channeled outside of ourselves in order to be turned into productive energy for change instead of turning in on us and eating our Scared Spirits.

    • mroge

      I like that you doing such important work, but I am not sure you quite understand what the concept of non-attachment is. I don’t see it as not caring about people or certain issues. Attachment I think refers to addictive type behaviors and addiction always causes suffering. Since the Buddha also taught lovingkindness and compassion for others I think my interpretation makes sense. Also when he referred to attachment he meant attachment to a specific result. This can cause problems because unfortunately, no matter how we try, we can’t be in control of everything. I myself have had a very hard time trying to change other peoples’ ideas on social justice and getting myself all angry about it. But now I am trying to simply state my truth and then back off from the endless fighting that I have engaged in in the past. This is brand new behavior for me so I haven’t always been successful at doing this but when I do I feel a lot lighter and at peace.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Thank you for sharing your journey’s challenge.

        I, too, am attempting to state my space on an issue and let it go. Those who have definite ideas about paths to enlightenment and salvation are very uncomfortable with my peace. The challenge I face is in their fears. They want me to join them in in their fears in order to be a member of their defined “tribes.”

        My children are now keeping their children from me because they feel I have no boundaries with which they are comfortable. The sadness is immense, not because of my attachment, but because others in my world feel rejected by my loving detachment.

        I know I can do nothing other than to keep my arms and heart open. Still I feel so much sadness for them.

  • mroge

    Hon, I feel for you. I have bipolar disorder but mostly I suffer with depression. I have been looking at Buddhist thinking as I think the concept of non-attachment makes a lot of sense. I haven’t mastered meditation yet though, but it is a start. I am also on meds as well and attend support groups. Helping others is a great way to feel better, unfortunately though I have become physically disabled so it makes it a bit hard. I do exactly what you do is simply tell myself that my brain is lying to me. That helps, but to be honest I don’t think I will ever be able to go off of my meds, although I would like to reduce them. For me depression has landed me into the hospital many times with suicide attempts. It sounds like you have a serious problem, however you don’t sound like you have gone quite as down as I have. What I am saying though is don’t totally discount the idea of medication if you get in really bad shape. For a lot of people it feels “unspiritual” to take meds. But there should be no shame at all. A therapist told me one time that there was no shame in using a crutch if your leg is broken! Think of it that way.It isn’t a failure on your part. It is just somethng you need help with.

    I am going to look at that link you provided. Sounds interesting!

    I have started my own blog exploring spirituality and mental health issues if you want to stop by!
    http://www.bipolarlessons.com

    Good luck in finding what works for you!

    • Ambaa

      Thank you!

      It is really hard to accept taking meds. I’ve always had a kind of fear of any kind of medication. But it’s not reasonable of me!

      I’m looking forward to reading your blog. I have known people with bipolar disorder and I know how rough it can be.

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience.

      • mroge

        You are very welcome!

        I am interested in Hinduism so I look forward to reading more on your site. Quick question though. I seem to not be able to subscribe to your blog. Feedburner tells me that my e-mail is not authorized, whatever that means. Can you tell me what I am doing wrong?

        Once again thanks for that link. There is a lot of good information there!

        • Ambaa

          Oh dear, I don’t know about that! I’ll have to ask the tech people if they can help!

  • Terrance

    Hi Ambaa, thanks for the post. I suffer from chronic depression, the only thing that helps is medication and even then it’s not 100% It’s so hard to focus on anything else that it ends up pushing my faith and my family to the back burning, the only thing going on is my own experience of my depression. And it feels impossible to overcome. it’s been like this for years and years. It’s hard, as someone who believes in the Hindu philosophies, not to feel guilty for being depressed as if it’s my fault in some way, my due karma to feel like this, and then I feel even worse when I cannot “overcome it” to focus on the greater things. It’s hard to have the right perspective when depressed but… we have to try, right?

    • Ambaa

      Thank you for commenting. I think you are doing the karmic work just by trying! The key to me is to remember that you are not your brain. Your brain is fighting you and challenging you, but it is like a wayward child who needs your gentle love and guidance. Don’t be too hard on yourself ever. Remember that the depression is not you.

      For people who have never experienced chemical depression, it is terribly difficult to understand what it is and what it feels like.

      This is not your fault. This is something that is helping to challenge and mature your soul and every day that you are alive, you’re fighting that fight.

  • Terrance

    Oh I meant to say – in your article people say how depression is because of attachment. But that’s very hard for me to accept in my own situation because it’s chemical. Whether I’m on the right medication or not can affect me a great deal both negatively and positively. It’s hard to put the medical in context with the spiritual. Is cancer because of attachment? No, then I don’t know that this is, either.

    • Ambaa

      I totally agree! The “because of attachment” answer doesn’t make sense to me!


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