Suffering is a shared human experience that can be viewed integral part of life. Our suffering can range from mild to severe and can take the form of physical or mental and emotional pain.
Whatever the form of our discomfort, we can agree that “suffering of the mind” is one of the biggest concerns of our time. The severity of mental health issues is on the rise, particularly the number of individuals experiencing depression. According to the World Health Organization (2017) over 300 million people are estimated to suffer from depression, equivalent to 4.4% of the world’s population.
The Causes of Depression
The causes of depression can be wide-ranging; however, depression is commonly triggered by stressors at work or at home, unresolved grief or traumatic experiences. Sometimes the catalyst of depressive episodes are unclear, but there exists an underlying loss of meaning or purpose in one’s life.
Depression as an Illness
Depression is often diagnosed as an “illness” something to be treated through medication and “recover” from. As a result, we usually approach experiences of depression by trying to avoid or move away from the discomfort we are experiencing. This may be through the use of medication or distracting ourselves from our pain.
The harmful effects of some of these distractions are more obvious than others — such as addictions to drugs, alcohol and food. There are also more subtle types of distraction such as the tendency to over-work, spend too much time on the internet or watching TV. When we engage in any of these activities in excess, we are attempting to move away from a sense of loneliness, emptiness or the pain that coexists with experiences of depression.
The label of depression, the diagnosis and the over-identification with it as an illness may cause us to get stuck in a limited sense of self. Phrases like, “I am depressed”, “I suffer from” or “I am ill” can stop us from being able to step away from our diagnosis and perceive our experiences as having an alternative meaning or purpose.
Depression and Psychospiritual Growth
What if this mindset of needing to overcome the illness of depression, neglects one of the most fundamental parts of going through these experiences? This involves recognizing that episodes of depression have the potential to catalyst exponential growth and transformation in us, that is, if we perceives our difficult experiences as having this potential.
What is often not discussed as part of the mainstream approach to depression, is the relationship between experiences of depression and psycho-spiritual transformation. Psychospiritual transformation is the combination of psychological and spiritual growth. It involves a greater connection to the authentic or true Self and a movement away from the egoic or conditioned self.
Such psychospiritual growth can take place when we move away from the attempt to distract or our overidentify with our suffering. Growth and transformation take places when we can recognize what we are feeling and stay present with our experiences.
How to Stay Present with Our Suffering
It is necessary to get in touch with the body and to recognize that there is suffering present. When we connect with the felt sense of our pain, we can begin the process of resting in the space of it. A helpful tool is to use mindfulness of the breath. This practice enables us to bring ourselves back to the present without getting lost in the thoughts or becoming attached to the narratives of our egoic self — the stories of our depression or illness.
We also learn that we don’t need to turn away from our suffering. This practice of mindful breathing isn’t about switching off from our pain, nor is it about maintaining a constant state of relaxation and peace. Contradictory to this belief, it is often when we connect more deeply with ourselves that aloneness, sadness, or pain become more present. This is the reason why a mindful way of being in the world can often be so challenging.
Finding Meaning and Purpose
When we stay present with our suffering, not only is the intensity of it often reduced, but it enables us to investigate the purpose of our suffering. If we ask ourselves, “why am I suffering in this way?” or, “what is the cause of this suffering?” we begin to connect to our higher values and beliefs. We begin to question our conceptual understanding of the world, who we are and what’s truly important to us. When we reevaluate so much of our self and our relationship to the world, we can then choose to approach what has been presented to us from our authentic or true Self.
Our attitude or approach to our suffering is important because there are situations which may appear to be out of our control, such as sudden illnesses, loss of a loved one or various types of traumatic events. We may not be responsible for these events, but never the less they created turbulence or a loss of perceived meaning in our lives. It is often in the most difficult of life circumstances where we are forced to reevaluate our life, our values and way of being.
Depression often informs us that we are not living in alignment with our highest values or authentic Self. When we are not living with a sense of purpose or we are operating from our limiting beliefs, this inauthenticity places a heavy burden on us. This inevitably becomes too much and forces us to wake up and move towards our authentic purpose.
It is in these times of suffering that an urgency is experienced, for us to step onto the path of growth and transformation. The practice is to stay with the pain that has presented itself to us. When we move away either in the form distraction, or over-identification with our suffering, we are limiting the potential of our psycho-spiritual transformation. Each time we move away, we can use the breath to come back, to stay with what is present and connect with our authentic nature.