There’s nothing bad about depression. There’s nothing wrong with being depressed. Actually, depression is beautiful and being depressed is a great opportunity.
Depression is not a disease and contrary to cultural myths, it is not painful. What hurts when we are depressed is that we resist it. We do everything we can to ‘cure’ depression and recover our ‘normal’ emotional outlook. When that fails, we may take extreme measures, such as emotionally deadening psych drugs or even attempting suicide.
Depression is a distress signal from our hearts to our minds: “Hey, what you’re doing is not working. Stop!” It’s a cease-and-desist warning from our conscience that we have wandered far from the Path. The appropriate response is to simply sit down, reflect and contemplate until we realize the source of the problem.
But of course, this is totally against our cultural conditioning—from family, school and friends through our career and business values. We are so overcommitted to others’ expectations that it is simply impossible for us to slow down. If we refuse to change course, the tension between the lies in our minds and the truths in our hearts builds until it becomes unbearable and we can no longer function.
This is depression. It takes the wind from our sails until we come about and face the truth. In most cases, it occurs because we have accepted values and expectations from others that conflict with our own authentic nature and values.
The suffering comes from trying to fake it, refusing to stop and sort things out. Our hearts are saying, “No this is wrong,” but our minds keep urging us ahead anyway. Naturally, this leads to foundering on the rocks of self-conflict.
In the teaching of the Buddha, loss of interest in efforts for material progress and detachment from their fruitive rewards is called dispassion (virāga). Dispassion is considered a positive sign of advancing on the Path.
Unfortunately, there is a massive organization in society, from motivational conditioning to advertising to simple greed, that tries to discourage the development of dispassion by any means. Most forms of ‘treatment’ for depression simply try to get us back to work as soon as possible—never mind the damage to our psyche or the cost to our integrity. That totally misses the point.
Depression is an opportunity to get our house in order. It’s a wake-up call: our conscience’s equivalent of “Houston, we have a problem.” There is something seriously wrong with our life; we need to set about fixing it. A healing insight is trying to surface in our mind. We need to allow the (often considerable) time and space for that to happen.
In mature civilizations where the needs of the spirit are taken seriously, the cure for depression is well-known: to enter a monastery or other form of religious life. Depression is taken as a sign that one has seen through at least some of the illusions of being, doing and having; that the possibility of enlightenment is opening.
When depression knocks on our door, instead of trying uselessly to chase it away we should invite it in and listen carefully to what it has to tell us. Depression is an emptiness, a lack of enthusiasm, a deadness toward something that previously excited and attracted us. Trying to defeat an emptiness is like boxing with a shadow. But if we embrace it, depression or dispassion is beautiful. It can lead to profound insights, even enlightenment itself.