“Within days of chanting the mantra regularly on beads, I felt a lifting of my depressed feelings. Light entered the darkness I was so accustomed to living in.”
IN THE EVENING of November 14, 1975, I received a phone call in my dorm room at college. Absorbed in studying for exams, I answered nonchalantly, expecting it to be my boyfriend, who would normally call me around that time. Instead, I heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end, and a young man identified himself as one of my brother’s new housemates.
I thought, “What has Philip done this time?” For the past six years, Philip had suffered from a bipolar disorder, then known as manic depressive disorder. Several times he had stopped taking his medications and lapsed into a psychotic manic state. The last time that had happened, he was found lying in the middle of the road, trying to see if the cars would stop. He rationalized his behavior as a test to see if man was inherently good or evil. Luckily he was arrested before any harm came to him, and he was again admitted to a psychiatric hospital to become stabilized on medication.
The night I received the phone call, I’d just seen my brother the previous day. He’d been in a subdued, thoughtful mood. Although attending classes at the university and doing well, he said that he didn’t see any hope for his future. Everything seemed futile. I gave him one of my standard pep talks, reminding him that things would get better and he just had to ride out the storm. But since I shared his views about the futility of life, I wondered how convincing I’d been.
I too struggled with depressed moods. I’d just started my own spiritual search, but I didn’t yet have compelling answers to his desperate question of why to go on in life. Still, he had assured me he’d be all right and thanked me for our talk. After a long pause on the telephone, his housemate blurted out that Philip had hanged himself in the basement. His body had just been found. The caller offered condolences and hurriedly excused himself from the conversation. I hung up the phone, stupefied and numb.
My brother’s tragic death intensified my spiritual search. I looked for answers in religious books and scriptures. I fervently prayed for guidance. I soon had the good fortune to meet devotees of Krishna. They too shared my views about the futility of living a life just to grow old and die. But unlike me, they were radiant and happy. That apparent contradiction increased my curiosity to understand more about their beliefs. I learned that the devotees were accessing another dimension of reality. They taught me that beyond this temporary world of birth and death is an eternal world, where a person’s happiness is ever increasing in relationship with the Supreme Person, Krishna.
I was familiar with the concept of an afterworld through the teachings of Christianity: Live a good life, and you’ll be assured a place in that world at the end. But what attracted me to the Krishna conscious presentation of an eternal world was that I didn’t have to wait until I died to be transported somewhere; I could achieve spiritual consciousness in this life. This did two important things for me. First, it gave me a goal worth living for. Second, I could perceive the progress I was making each day, and that would help give me the impetus to keep working toward the ultimate goal of realizing my spiritual identity in relationship to Krishna.
The devotees showed me the basic ingredients for spiritual progress. Foremost was the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, the sound incarnation of the Lord. Krishna has empowered the mantra to purify our hearts of all unwanted feelings, such as jealousy, greed, and hate. The mantra helps us uncover our real spiritual consciousness, now shrouded in countless desires that separate us from the Lord. Within days of chanting the mantra regularly on beads, I felt a lifting of my depressed feelings. Light entered the darkness I was so accustomed to living in.
The sound of the mantra released me from a vision of the world as vacant and without purpose. I quickly became devoted to chanting the maha-mantra more than seventeen hundred times a day (sixteen “rounds” on beads), a practice I’ve continued for the past twenty-five years. The chanting has had many positive effects. One of the most dramatic changes for me has been a freedom from the depression I lived with for so many years before being introduced to Krishna consciousness.
Clinical, Occational, or Spiritual Depression
Most people have depressed moods from time to time, often pointing to a need for change, either internal or external. We might have to alter our perception or understanding of something, or find a different kind of job or a new place to live. Feeling low now and then is not the same as clinical depression. To be diagnosed as a clinical depression, a severe depression in an adult must be present every day for at least two weeks, and a less severe depression must be present most days for at least two years.
In the deepest sense, depression or despondency is the soul’s yearning to be with Krishna. Ultimately, our desires can never be satisfied by the things of this world. In the West, one of the most vivid examples of this dissatisfaction is the Christmas morning ritual. How many Christmas mornings did we race to the tree, bursting with anticipation? How many Christmas mornings did we rip through wrapping paper, hoping to find the gift we’d asked for all year? Then, in the wake of torn paper, tangled ribbon, mangled bows, and strewn boxes, how often did we feel morose and unfulfilled? The magic of anticipation disappeared. Yet, amazingly, the next year we’d again be tricked into believing we can find happiness under the glittering Christmas tree.
Covered by the Lord’s illusory potency, we think we can be happy in this world even though we’ve been disappointed time and time again. To teach us the error of this kind of thinking, Krishna sometimes covers His own liberated servants with illusion so they can act like one of us. One such devotee is Arjuna. Faced with the prospect of having to fight against relatives, teachers, and friends, he is briefly overcome by depression and loses sight of his spiritual identity.
Thrust into the illusion of bodily identification, he wants to run away to the forest, neglecting his duty as a warrior. In that bewildered and painful emotional state, Arjuna tells Krishna he can’t find any way to drive away his grief, which is drying up his senses. At that point he realizes that no material solution will bring him relief. He turns to the Lord for shelter. To help Arjuna out of his depression and back to spiritual consciousness, Krishna then speaks the timeless wisdom of the Bhagavad-gita. These transcendental talks with Krishna cure Arjuna of his desperate anguish and allow him to act according to the Lord’s directions.
Depression and Spiritualists
We might doubt that a serious spiritualist could develop an emotional or mental ailment. But just as the Lord can use physical sickness to bring a devotee closer to Him, He can use mental distress as well. That was shown in Krishna’s dealings with Arjuna. We have access to the same source of solace Arjuna had. The Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, is seated within our hearts. He wants to give us good counsel and direct us out of our unhappy state of being. And He directs us to a bona fide spiritual teacher who will also help us on our journey in this temporary world. The material world is not our actual home, and the body we see in the mirror is not our real self.
The Shrimad-Bhagavatam says that we can’t be happy in this world unless we’re a fool or a pure devotee. A fool can ignore reality and live as if he’ll never die. But a pure devotee, having realized his spiritual identity, is no longer affected by the impermanent material body. Pure devotees are with Krishna in the spiritual world, even though their physical bodies are here on earth. Since most people fall somewhere between the fool and the pure devotee, no wonder most people feel depressed moods off and on and an estimated twenty-five percent of the population of the United States develops a clinical depression sometime in life.
Depression can be useful if it leads us in a spiritual direction as we seek answers to our unhappiness. The Lord in the heart will coax us toward Him. If we choose to ignore Him by turning our attention to the ephemeral, external world for comfort, by drowning our emotions and insecurities in intoxication or other mind-altering activities, we’ll perpetuate our miserable feelings. We’ll destroy our sensitivity to hearing the internal voice of reason and wisdom. While spiritual practices are the ultimate cure for all depression, the very nature of depression sometimes prevents spiritual seekers from doing the very things that could help them out of the quagmire.
For a jaundiced person, candy, the cure for the disease, tastes bitter. But if the patient keeps eating the candy, the jaundice is cured and the candy tastes sweet again. In our diseased material consciousness, chanting Hare Krishna—the cure—may often seem difficult, but as we advance in our spiritual consciousness, the chanting becomes sweeter and more and more enjoyable. So while we should encourage others to take to the spiritual remedy of chanting, we may need to encourage them to get medical help as well. We should never ignore the symptoms of clinical depression in ourselves or in our family or friends.
Symptoms of Depression and my Regret and Hope for my Brother
The symptoms include some or all of the following: low self-esteem, irritable moods, lack of energy, thoughts of worthlessness, poor appetite or over-eating, sleeping too much or too little, thoughts of suicide or murder, lack of desire to do things once found pleasurable, and feeling little hope that things will get better. Although depression is a state of mind, science has found that a chemical imbalance in the brain accompanies clinical depression. Often, depression can be treated without drugs. That is to say, if we change our emotional state, such as through spiritual practices, we can change our brain chemistry. In more severe cases, though, we need medication to restore a healthy chemical balance.
Untreated or poorly treated depression can have tragic outcomes, as was the case with my brother. I wish that when my brother had come to see me the night before he ended his life I could have given him the holy name instead of just sympathy. I wish I’d known about the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita and could have given him knowledge of the eternal self. I wish I’d known that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and that He is our dearmost friend and ever well-wisher. I wish I could have consoled him with this spiritual knowledge. He still would have needed his medicine and therapy. But I think Krishna consciousness would have given him a reason to go on. I pray that wherever he is he will come in contact with Krishna consciousness and be able to progress toward his ultimate spiritual goal.
Reprinted from Back to Godhead Magazine Volume 36, Number 04, 2002 © BBT International; all rights reserved.