Depression. This sounds, in a word, depressing. But common as it may sound, do we really know what depression is? Are we willing to plumb the depths of depression to seek its roots?
Anxiety? Again, this sounds anxious. Again, as common as it may sound, do we really know what anxiety is? Are we game enough to soar the heights of anxiety to pluck its source?
Both depression and anxiety have been medicalized, pigeon-holed into diagnostic categories, bombarded with a plethora of drugs, and swamped with a cacophony of psychotherapeutic treatments. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against these ‘scientific advancements’ per se. But at the end of the day, are we really better positioned to know and understand what depression and anxiety really are? Or have we lulled ourselves into an attitude of presumptuous ignorance pretending to know what we really do not know? By all means, seek professional consultation, get the best psychiatric and psychotherapeutic treatment, but let us remain open to investigating depression and anxiety more profoundly.
Research has shown protective benefits of religion for mental health. Mostly, we take a naturalistic approach and try to explain naturalistically the mechanisms of religious belief for promoting good mental health and preventing mental illness. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, as whatever the supernatural aspects of healing are, they do not necessarily preclude natural biological and psychological mechanisms of positive change for mental health. Neural and chemical processes, cognitive-emotional dynamics including mindfulness and acceptance processes, can all be useful indications of how our treatments work to promote healthy minds and prevent mental illness.
DepressionHere, I would like to delve into the roots of depression and anxiety in a non-medical and non-psychological but theological and philosophical way. First, depression. We get depressed mainly in relation to the past, though it is not entirely absent in relation to the future. A toxic combination of thoughts and emotions tied to past events often cloud our consciousness to create an atmosphere of heaviness, dullness, even oppressive desensitization of the heart. We fall into depression. Lethargy and inertia gain a foothold, if not the whole castle.
Now, these thoughts can be in the form of mental images and/or verbal commentary, usually in one’s own voice but also in the voices of authority figures or bullies in our lives. Thoughts, through seemingly random but actually associative and contiguous orchestration of images and commentary, overwhelm our sense of being as we fuse with them and identify with and as them. In psychology, this is called cognitive fusion. We delimit and locate our sense of self in and with the chaotic flow of images and commentary (what can be called psychobabble) glued by emotional reactions stemming from this chaotic cognitive cocktail. We can get depressed by thoughts and feelings related to our past. But we can also get depressed by thoughts and feelings related to our imagined future. In any case, these thoughts and feelings occur right now, in the present. In fact, through mindfulness, we can see that moment by moment, thoughts and feelings are arising and dissolving in diverse patterns, at times random and disorganized or at times connected and associative, even logical and organized.
But what principle directs the elicitation of depressive thoughts and feelings? Looking directly into how the mind works, we can see that when we fail to get what we want or desire; or when we get what we do not want or desire, our minds react in certain ways. Emotional reactivity of aversion and hostility arises. Such emotional reactivity is predicated upon a cognitive image of a desired outcome or an undesired scenario. When there is a discrepancy between reality as presently experienced with the mental image of what is desired and undesired, an affective reaction of aversion or hostility is triggered. Micro-aggression towards the situation ensues. Micro-aggression towards the cause of that situation—a person or group or thing—can soon follow.
Micro-aggression towards oneself is not far behind. Aversion or hostility directed towards oneself can come from a variety of angles. It might result from an exhaustion of blame projection towards others or external causes of our deprivation. At the end of that tether, we end up internalizing that micro-aggressive energy into our own psyche and feel rotten within. It might also stem from internalizing negative messages from authority figures or strangers in society (especially salient now in an age of relentless frenzied social media) that lays the blame for our lack of success in acquiring what we want on ourselves. Either way, we suffer from an inner accumulation of hostile/aggressive/aversion energy that over time becomes a chronic ball of what we might call depression. The heart constricts and emotional energy gets blocked.
Beyond this, there is a deeper dimension to depression. We need to get beyond shallow understandings to get at the existential and spiritual roots of the issue. At its core, depression is not an anomaly of our human condition but an inescapable reality of human nature. We might no like to admit it but the whole of humanity cannot escape from primordial depression. Those who suffer from clinical depression are merely the tip of the iceberg, persons who have experienced intense personal circumstances of varying kinds producing manifest symptoms of depression requiring treatment. We are simultaneously fearful of manifest depression and feeling compassionate for the person who is depressed. We fear because we know inchoately that we ourselves are not exempt from depression, that we are at our core broken human beings and subject to primordial depression. Wherefore this primordial depression? I submit to you that it is none other than a key part of our total depravity as fallen human beings: cut off from God, from others, and from creation. Our Adamic nature of fallen sinful rebellion against and selfish resistance to God alienates us from the communion-union of love in our triune God; divorces us from other souls whom God has created; and separates us from the beauty and perfection of creation—both our natural and social worlds.
From this sinful rebellion and selfish resistance comes the pride of self-assertion. This pride of self-assertion as an autonomous agent capable of existing apart from God manifests in two intertwined ways: first, as misperceiving the self to exist inherently from its own side, as a reified entity or identity; and secondly, as misconceiving the self to exist likewise, constructing views and theories about such a reified self. Habituation to these modes of misperception and misconception leaves imprints of self-grasping ignorance in consciousness (spirit) that makes us prone to experience ourselves and the world through the distorted prism of inherency of self and things. While some might think that the root of our cyclic repetitive suffering (samsara), which includes the suffering of depression, is this self-grasping ignorance, little do we realize that beyond self-grasping ignorance is sinful rebellion and selfish resistance to God.
Thus, eradicating self-grasping ignorance through meditative enlightenment (nibbana) may terminate depression in its superficial form (one that we are familiar with), it will not purge us of the subtlest depression of sinful rebellion and selfish resistance to God. This hidden and subtlest depression is the primordial ontological sense of the great divorce and divide from the absolute ground of our triune God who is Father, Son, and Spirit dancing in true ceaseless love. Without acknowledging this truth and surrendering ourselves to God in Christ, there is no final solution to ontological depression.
AnxietySecondly, anxiety. We get anxious mainly in relation to the future, though we can be anxious in the present too. Even then, our present anxiety is inevitably linked to our interpretations and thoughts about an imaginary future that may or may not actuate in the next moment, rather than about what is immediately happening right now. Like depression, anxiety involves a constellation of thoughts and feelings that sculpt our mental atmosphere, but this time thoughts around what might or might not happen. As in depression, our thoughts are in the form of mental images and/or verbal commentary with which we cognitively fuse, forming a delimited concrete sense of self marked by the contours of these thoughts. Anxiety results in a mind racing in uncontrollable thoughts often catastrophic in style and a heart of flighty fearful emotions pulsing like butterflies on steroids. There is lack of stability and peace, but a constant or intermittent flurry of unsettledness that is not pleasant.
Like depression, anxiety foments on the soil of unaware thoughts and feelings caught in a repetitive and reiterative cycle of story-making and self-making. In the case of anxiety, fearful aversion or what might be called a micro-phobic reaction is generated in relation to an event, whether real or imagined but mostly imagined. An incessant flow of micro-phobia directed at an imagined scenario or image of reality (but not reality) creates over time a tidal wave of fearful unsettling pulses that one might call anxiety. An anxious mental atmosphere attracts cascades of associative thoughts—in the form of both mental images and verbal commentary—that selectively add as fuel to the fire of anxiety. Cognitive fusion with the concocted storyline and identity results in a concrete sense of an anxious self who is afflicted with the subjective malady of anxiety. Thus, the aggregation of micro-phobia moments weave themselves into a maelstrom of full-blown anxiety suffered by a reified anxious person entrapped in a narrative of fear.
Whether anxiety is generated in relation to the future or the present, the fact remains: the dynamic constellation of thoughts and feelings constructing anxiety occurs in the present moment, that is, now. When one is able to step back and outside this concocted maelstrom of anxious thoughts and feelings, through an act of cognitive defusion, one is able to relax into the context of experience rather than be lost in its content. This is an insight from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a third-wave cognitive behavioural therapy based on mindfulness and acceptance. This approach has resonance with the ancient Buddhist practice of vipassana or special insight with its grounding in mindfulness.
Going deeper than ACT, vipassana enables one to develop a potent synthesis of calm stability, conscious malleability, and clear penetrative seeing that can deconstruct the very structure of anxiety formation. Both the narrative anxious self and the ball of constructed anxiety can be systematically disassembled and neutralized. Beyond that, further penetrative insight into the very fabric of consciousness that reveals its emptiness of inherency in a vast unbounded expanse of nondual transparency takes us into a realm transcending anxiety as we normally know it. There comes a sense of great relief and liberation.
But like depression, this is not the end of anxiety unfortunately. Superficial everyday anxiety may be afflictive and debilitating but is only a surface manifestation of a deeper existential condition. Ontological anxiety is far deeper, far more hidden, and far less acknowledged than it should be. At its root, anxiety is ontologically entwined with our fallen Adamic nature constituted by sinful rebellion against and selfish resistance to God. As a result of our great divorce from God, our creator and ground and goal of existence, we are trapped in a perpetual spiral of alienation from God.
This perpetual spiral of alienation is shot through with primordial fear, a traumatic sense of separation anxiety and phobia of forsakenness, of not belonging. It is akin to a disorientating whirlwind of exile and homelessness where insecurity and worry completely suffuse our existential moments. This is anxiety at its primordial core. We are hardly aware of it, given our layers of defensive armouring and the unbearability of such deep original fear and forsakenness. Like ontological depression, ontological anxiety is not glibly cured by thought replacement or medication or even prolonged psychotherapy. Its cure lies in the transcendental and the absolute.
Trinitarian CureUltimately, we can only deal with ontological depression and anxiety in and through faith in the One who came to redeem, rescue, regenerate, save, and deliver us, by the sole power of grace to the glory of God alone. When, by common grace, we come to the edge of salvation; and when, by special grace, we are regenerated in spirit, given a new birth, and placed in Christ, we finally have a chance of truly breaking free from ontological depression and anxiety. Of course, medication and therapy are not useless or unnecessary—they can be beneficial adjuncts for healing and is to be encouraged. But we place our final hope in Christ alone.
A profound ineffable healing of the ontological rupture between humanity and God is effected the moment we are justified in Christ as we believe in and into our Saviour. While the full restoration of ontological union and communion is not actualized until Christ comes again to make all things new, we who believe are even now transported from great divorce, separation, alienation, homelessness, exile, forsakenness, and non-belongingness into an exultantly joyous new life of union-communion with our triune God: into Father, through Son, in Spirit; and joining into that divine dance of love, we are spiritually illumined and transformed into beloved children reconciled to God and belonging to God. We cease to be orphans forsaken and alone, depressed and anxious in ontological angst. We can finally come home to love.
This is the trinitarian cure. This cure may not be total in this life but we can witness beautiful and encouraging fruits even here and now, as we allow our hearts to open to Jesus and decisively entrust our lives to Christ. In the end, there is no other Cure than this.
Caveat: The information in this essay is NOT medical or clinical advice.